When Mexican artist Frida Kahlo passed away in 1954, her husband, fellow artist Diego Rivera, anguished by her death, sealed her clothes in the bathroom of their Mexico City home and ordered to keep them hidden away until 15 years after his death.
Rivera died only a few years after Kahlo, in 1957, and their house was converted to a museum in her honor. The room with Kahlo’s belongings, however, wasn’t unlocked until 2004 when the museum decided to catalog its content. It invited renowned Japanese photographer Ishiuchi Miyako to photograph the collection of more than 300 unseen relics.
Having photographed clothes worn in post-war Japan, Ishiuchi is best known for retrieving memories through subtle traces found in personal objects. However, she knew little about Kahlo when she arrived in Mexico, and it was through Kahlo’s abandoned belongings, from her signature Tehuana-style dresses, to a pair of cat-eye sunglasses and darning tights, that the iconic artist came to life for Ishiuchi.
Drawing inspiration from indigenous Mexican culture, Kahlo’s bold and expressive choice for clothing has inspired fashion designers such as Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen. But the revolutionary artist’s wardrobe was not merely a fashion statement but a camouflage for her physical wounds.
At age six, Kahlo contracted polio, which left her leg damaged, and she used the deep folds of her long dress to disguise it. After she survived a catastrophic road accident at age 18 and was forced to wear plaster corsets for the rest of her life, she decorated them with symbolic paintings. In 1953, a year before her death, Kahlo’s right leg was amputated. Even in the final moments of her life, she remained elaborate and designed her prosthetic leg with a red boot decorated with Chinese embroidery and a small bell.
Now, these most private processions, channeling the artist’s extraordinary passion and pain, are revealed in Ishiuchi’s photographs on view at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London from May 14 to July 12.