The New York Botanical Garden has been transformed into a Mexican, Frida Kahlo-esque paradise. The Enid A Haupt conservatory, a huge Victorian greenhouse, is now full of cactuses, Frida’s great botanical love. The Casa Azul, the house in which Frida was born, and where she spent most of her adult life with her husband Diego Rivera, has been replicated within the conservatory. The strong blue colour that is so characteristic of the Casa Azul, and from which it derives its name, serves as a backdrop for the hundreds of prickly plants.
The garden is accompanied by a small collection of Kahlo’s paintings that exemplify her interest in and passion for plants and botanical drawings. The lifelike realism with which she rendered floral imagery in her paintings suggests that she was a keen and knowledgeable horticulturalist.
I studied Kahlo’s representation of dress in her paintings, and her own dress, extensively for my MA dissertation, so I was happy to make the trek out to New York’s Botanical Garden in the Bronx. The most interesting aspect of the exhibition was, in my opinion, Humberto Spindola’s lifesize recreation of the two figures in Kahlo’s famous painting The Two Fridas. The painting is a double self portrait; the two identical women sit side by side, holding hands. As in many of Kahlo’s self-portraits, dress is an important tool employed to depict a sense of strong Mexican national pride. The clothing worn by the figure on the right in The Two Fridas is very similar to other depictions of dress in her works, including My Dress Hangs There. The Mexican outfit, indigenous to the women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, comprised of woven huipil and floorlength skirt, was also worn by Kahlo herself in her day to day life. Frida adopted this style of dress during her early adult life, and continued to wear it until her death. To her, this style of clothing was deeply implicated in her socialist political views and a symbol of her strong feelings of national pride. Since her death, the Tehuantepec style of clothing has taken on connotations as a symbol of the artist herself, and is used by many, including Spindola, as a homage to Kahlo.
Spindola’s work, which stood alone in a rotunda, is a powerful example of how Kahlo’s dress has been transformed into a symbol of her identity. Although recognizable as the scene from The Two Fridas, his sculpture depicts only the figures’ clothing. Their bodies are simple reed canes, woven to create the three-dimensional figures. From a distance, the frames almost disappear into the background, creating the illusion of the dresses floating in space. The clothes, despite their realistic appearance, are made from amate paper using a traditional Aztec technique, posing an interesting question about the role of dress in art and art in dress. Many of the clothes Kahlo depicted in her paintings were real garments that she owned and wore on a regular basis. After her death, Rivera demanded that Kahlo’s bathroom and dressing room remain locked for a minimum period of fifty years, and, in 2004, when the rooms were finally opened by the conservators and curators at the Casa Azul, many of the clothes discovered inside were in perfect condition thanks to the dark, cool environment. Many were very similar, or indeed identical, to those Kahlo rendered in paint. For her, the garments she painted were very personal, real life objects. Often, as in My Dress Hangs There, clothing stands in for a human figure, acting as a form of self-portrait. However, for the millions of people who have looked at Kahlo’s paintings since her death, the dresses she depicted are nothing more than two-dimensional images. Spindola has played on this paradox between clothing that, to Frida, was very real and everyday, but to an audience was nothing more than a potent painted symbol. In creating these dresses in a lifesize, three-dimensional format, Spindola places them back in the ‘real’ world. But, not quite. Especially when approaching them from a flight of stairs, as the curators of the exhibition enforce, they seem almost like real women, a likelike incarnation of Frida herself. But upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that they are made of paper on a reed frame, and are therefore entirely unwearable. These dresses that have lived purely in the cultural memory of the post-Frida generations have been taken off the canvas and into the three-dimensional world by Spindola, yet remain just as fragile and unwearable.
Denise Rosenzweig and Magdelena Rosenzweig (eds), Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress: Frida’s Wardrobe, Fashion from the Museo Frida Kahlo, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2007)