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How Frida Kahlo's signature style honored her heritage and queer identity


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Judy Woodruff: Mexican artist Frida Kahlo has become almost as famous for how she looked as how she painted.

As a new exhibition at Brandeis University's Rose Art Museum reveals, that look was entirely by her own design.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH Boston shares the story behind the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: It was a deep and years-long cultivation, this young girl casting the camera in her spell before growing into one of the most recognizable figures of the 20th century.

She is Frida Kahlo, whose dress, hair, and eyebrows were all methodically considered and constructed.

Gannit Ankori, Director, Rose Art Museum: She had so many mirrors around the house, indoors, outdoors, inside the canopy of her bed. They were a tool for her to pose. She was composing her identities.

Jared Bowen: Gannit Ankori is the director of the Rose Art Museum, now presenting Frida Kahlo: POSE, a show she co-curated, tracing the path to an icon.

How mindful was she that there was an audience for most, if not all of these photographs?

Gannit Ankori: Well, I think that she was very mindful. And she used to give her photographs, autograph them, and give them to people, and tell them: "Don't forget me. Never forget me."

Jared Bowen: The unforgettable face was first and often captured by Kahlo's father, Guillermo, an architectural photographer who charted his daughter's transition from a cheerful toddler to a young woman disabled after a bout with polio, then severe injuries resulting from a bus accident that left her literally at pains to emerge as someone new.

Gannit Ankori: What's special about her is that she took all of that and not only survived, but thrived, then created something that's so impactful.

Jared Bowen: In her early 20s, Kahlo adopted what became her signature style. While others were taking their fashion cues from Europe and Hollywood, she began wearing the dress of indigenous women throughout Mexico, a nod to her pride in her Mexican heritage.

Circe Henestrosa, Fashion Curator: She established a relationship between her wounded body and dress and dress from a very early age.

Jared Bowen: Longtime Kahlo scholar Circe Henestrosa says that, while Kahlo's dress was inspired by the powerful women traditionally wearing this style, it also disguised her disabilities.

Circe Henestrosa, Fashion Curator: This dress is composed by a headpiece and a shoulder reveal, and a long skirt. All the adornment of this dress is concentrated from the torso up, distracting the viewer from her wounded legs and her broken body.

Jared Bowen: The focus on her upper body also accentuated what would become Kahlo's hallmark monobrow and mustache.

Circe Henestrosa, Fashion Curator: It informs also her gender identity, because her choice of dress and her construction of identity is not only informed by her ethnicity and disability and political outlook, but also by her queer identity.

Jared Bowen: Among Kahlo's identities, a masculine one.

Gannit Ankori: She was posing as a man when she was 19. This is a time when gender fluidity, there was no name for that. But she was performing that in front of her father's camera.

Jared Bowen: Without inhibitions, as Kahlo would demonstrate in photographs that document the close and sometimes sexual relationships she had with women, in addition to men.

Gannit Ankori: She really teaches us a lot about ourselves. She was way ahead of her time in many ways that relate to identity, disability, ethnic identity, and being who you are.

Jared Bowen: Which was an artist who never received fame in her lifetime, not that it deterred Kahlo. The pose she maintained in pictures, often with a direct gaze toward the viewer and a slight turn of the head, was the same she carried into her paintings, which Ankori says were expansions of the photographs.

Gannit Ankori: Paintings allow her to add symbolism.

She shows herself to think about herself within the cosmos, within broader contexts. So, this is also, I think, a unique aspect of her contribution in art.

Jared Bowen: Kahlo was 47 when she died in 1954. Bedridden and with one leg amputated, she had become, as she described it, the disintegration, although neither her work nor her look wavered, even on her deathbed, where she painted this final self-portrait.

Gannit Ankori: She's almost disintegrating into becoming a flower. And she's still wearing a Tehuana dress. You can see the deterioration, both of her body and her capacity to hold the paintbrush.

This shows her resilience. Yes, it was the waning of her life, but she continued to paint, to insist on posing.

Jared Bowen: All to leave a legacy that now makes her a legend.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Judy Woodruff: A legend and so alive right now. Fascinating.

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