‘Frida Kahlo, Beyond Appearances’ exhibition at Palais Galliera in Paris (2022)

9 mins read

Frida Kahlo, Beyond Appearances

The Palais Galliera celebrates Frida Kahlo (6 July 1907-13 July 1954), one of the most widely recognised and influential artists of the 20th century.

Getting away from the clichés attached to her personality, the exhibition Frida Kahlo, au-delà des apparences [Frida Kahlo, Beyond Appearances] invites visitors to explore the private side of the artist’s life, and to understand how she constructed her identity through the way she presented and represented herself.

For the first time in France and in close collaboration with the Museo Frida Kahlo, the exhibition features more than 200 objects from the Casa Azul, the house where Frida was born and brought up, including garments, accessories, correspondence, cosmetics, medicines and orthopaedic aids. When the artist died in 1954, these personal effects were placed under seal by her husband, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, and were not discovered until fifty years later, in 2004.

frida kahlp beyond appearances
Frida Kahlo by Toni Frissell, US Vogue, 1937. © Toni Frissell, Vogue / Condé Nast (Via Palais Galliera)

This precious collection – which includes traditional Tehuana dresses, pre-Columbian necklaces that Frida used to collect, and hand-painted corsets and prosthetics – is presented, along with films and photographs of the artist, to form a visual narrative of her extraordinary life.

Frida Kahlo used her appearance as a means of expressing her doubts and feelings about herself and her politics: after a serious accident at the age of 18, Frida devoted herself to painting. She adopted traditional clothing, which was a statement of her Mexican identity, but also a way of coping more comfortably with her disability. The exhibition Frida Kahlo, Beyond Appearances traces how the artist cultivated her image. An image that amounted almost to a manifesto reflecting her cultural heritage, but also her experience of gender and of living with a disability.

In an exhibition that is both biographical and thematic, the Palais Galliera looks at the artist’s visit to Paris and her relationship with the Surrealist group.

The visit continues with a capsule exhibition from 15 September to 31 December 2022, which considers Frida Kahlo’s influence on contemporary fashion and how she has remained an icon and source of inspiration for designers such as Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld for CHANEL, Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy, Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior or Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons.


The Palais Galliera lends itself perfectly to an exhibition devoted to the amazing career of Frida Kahlo. The rooms, which are all different, reflect different facets of Frida: her personality, her tragedy, her iconic character and her style – a style that is inseparable from her life, her personality, her condition and her work.

On the exhibition trail, each of these facets is clearly identified and characterises a unique emotion. Each gallery is different and every section has its own identity. Although the clinical aspect is sometimes accentuated, there is an overall atmosphere of warmth created by the ambience of the Palais Galliera.

The scenography plays on a range of more or less warm blacks and whites. The reason for this sober choice of colours was to ensure that the works on display stand out and that the walls and vaulting of the garden-level galleries, which are naturally coloured by the brick, do not impede their legibility.

Sandra Courtine, scenographer of the exhibition

SECTION 1 : “Here I was born”

Garden Level, galerie courbe [curved gallery]

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón was born on 6 July 1907 in Coyoacán. Her mother, Matilde Calderón y González, was of mixed Spanish and indigenous descent from the Oaxaca region. She passed her taste for traditional clothing on to her daughter when she was very young.

"Frida Kahlo, Beyond Appearances"
“Frida Kahlo, Beyond Appearances” exhibition at Palais Galliera in Paris. (Via Palais Galliera)

Her father, Wilhelm (Guillermo) Kahlo, a German emigrant, arrived in Mexico in 1890. He became a leading government photographer, capturing Mexico’s architectural heritage and the country’s path to modernity. He also featured Frida in a quantity of portraits reflecting his affection for his daughter. It is reasonable to assume that, having learned to pose from her father at a very young age, photography was the first medium of artistic expression for Frida Kahlo. She went on to pose for many leading photographers, with whom she was able to express her identity, long before she became a painter.

Frida’s life was shaped by a number of events. First, at the age of six, she contracted poliomyelitis. To cope with the isolation forced on her by the illness, she invented an imaginary friend. This early experience gave rise to her double in painting, a recurring motif in Frida Kahlo’s work that art historians most often associate with one of her most important paintings, The Two Frida (1939).

The other major trauma occurred on 17 September 1925, when, at the age of eighteen, Frida Kahlo was involved in a serious accident that left her bedridden for months and meant she had to give up studying medicine. It was then that she began to paint.

Four years later, in 1929, she married the internationally renowned artist Diego Rivera. “I have had two serious accidents in my life. One was being hit by a tram. The other was Diego”, she later said. The couple divorced in 1939, but then remarried in San Francisco in 1940. Their relationship was always stormy, but Frida Kahlo remained committed to it throughout her life.

SECTION 2 : Casa Azul

Garden Level, galerie courbe [curved gallery]

Frida Kahlo was born in the Casa Azul; she lived there most of her life and died there in 1954. Her parents, who had built the house in 1904, decorated it in the European style that was in vogue at the time. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera refurbished it in the 1930s. They painted the grey walls bright blue and filled it with objects that reflected their attachment to all things Mexican, including folk art, pre-Columbian sculptures and votive paintings.

The Casa Azul became a cultural centre, attracting personalities from Mexico and beyond, including Leon Trotsky and André Breton, who arrived in the country in the late 1930s. Often confined to the house because of her health, Frida Kahlo transformed it into a microcosm of Mexico. Archaeological statues decorated the lush garden. Hairless Xoloitzcuintli dogs, parrots, ducks, monkeys and a deer roamed among the lemon trees and multicoloured flowers.

SECTION 3 : Gringolandia

Garden Level, galerie courbe [curved gallery]

The gringas [American women] love me, they notice all the dresses and rebozos [shawls] I’ve brought with me, they are in awe of my jade necklaces, and all the painters want me to pose for them.

Frida Kahlo left Mexico for the first time, shortly after her marriage, when she accompanied Diego Rivera to “Gringolandia”, as she called the United States. Rivera was a famous artist and had been commissioned to paint murals in San Francisco, New York and Detroit. At first, Frida Kahlo was referred to patronisingly as Rivera’s “exotic” third wife who “dabbled contentedly in art.

"Frida Kahlo, Beyond Appearances"
“Frida Kahlo, Beyond Appearances” exhibition at Palais Galliera in Paris. (Via Palais Galliera)

Her experiences in the United States (1930-1933) were both complex and pivotal. In San Francisco, where she was photographed by illustrious photographers, she developed her distinctive Tehuana style and also began to paint more seriously. Although she enjoyed exploring New York in all its magic, she was also critical of the wealth gap and the racism she witnessed. In Detroit, a traumatic miscarriage radically transformed her art, leading her to reinvent herself as a painter, and to shatter taboos.

In 1938, she made a triumphant return to New York as a fully fledged artist, and had her first solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery. André Breton, whom she had met earlier that year in Mexico, wrote an essay for the exhibition in which he compared Frida Kahlo’s work to “a ribbon around a bomb”.

SECTION 4 : Paris

Garden Level, galerie courbe [curved gallery]

After her debut in New York, Frida Kahlo was invited by André Breton to exhibit her work in Paris. However, she had nothing ready to exhibit when she arrived in January 1939. In the end, the Galerie Renou et Colle organised a group exhibition entitled Mexique, in which eighteen of her works were shown.

frida kahlo
‘The Frame’, Frida Kahlo, 1938 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM – CCI, Dist. RMN Grand Palais / Jean – Claude Planchet © Banco de México, D. Rivera F. Kahlo Museums Trust / ADAGP, Paris 2022

Frida Kahlo received a warm welcome from many of the famous artists present at the opening: “…many congratulations for the chicua, including a huge embrace from Joan Miró and great compliments for my work from Kandinsky, congratulations from Picasso, Tanguy, Paalen, and other leading lights of Surrealism”, she wrote. That same year, the French state acquired its first ever work by a Mexican artist: The Frame, a self-portrait by Frida Kahlo.

During her brief stay in the French capital, Frida Kahlo fell ill and was hospitalised. Marcel Duchamp and his partner Mary Reynolds, whom she adored, nursed her tenderly back to health.

Frida also enjoyed the company of Dora Maar, Jacqueline Lamba and Alice Rahon, and spent time exploring Paris, the flea markets and Paris fashion. In Elsa Schiaparelli’s boutique, she admired the surrealist creations of Salvador Dalí and Leonor Fini.

SECTION 5 : Disability and creativity

Garden Level, galerie d’honneur

The accident that had almost cost Frida Kahlo her life at the age of 18 put an abrupt end to her dream of becoming a doctor. During her convalescence, the bedridden young woman began to paint, using a folding easel and a mirror built into the canopy of her bed. “I paint myself because I am so often alone ”, she said, as self-portraiture became an essential aspect of her art.

"Frida Kahlo, Beyond Appearances"
“Frida Kahlo, Beyond Appearances” exhibition at Palais Galliera in Paris. (Via Palais Galliera)

Frida Kahlo underwent dozens of operations in the hope of alleviating her serious health problems and the pain that coursed through her right leg, spine and genital organs. She sometimes had to wear corsets and other medical devices, which she decorated and transformed into art works.

In crafting the image of her disabled body, Frida Kahlo was a pioneer. At a very young age, she began to develop a deep understanding of the power of clothes and accessories in constructing her identity. She maintained control over her image – in her life, in her photographs, and in her art – revealing and concealing both her exceptional abilities and her disabilities. She built a visual vocabularywith which to express physical and emotional suffering, while describing her own resilience and ability to create meaning, joy, beauty and art.

SECTION 6 : Art and Dress

Garden Level, Galerie Sud [South gallery]

Frida Kahlo’s powerful self-portraits, the photographs for which she posed, and her carefully composed outfits are all complementary modes of artistic self-creation. As a teenager, Frida dressed unconventionally to express her personality and to hide her leg, which had been afflicted with polio.

"Frida Kahlo, Beyond Appearances"
“Frida Kahlo, Beyond Appearances” exhibition at Palais Galliera in Paris. (Via Palais Galliera)

When she was about 20 years old, she adopted the traditional Mexican outfits that she was to wear for the rest of her life. Although she created a unique hybrid style, blending elements from different regions and periods, she particularly identifiedwith the women and the matriarchal culture of Tehuantepec. She adopted their embroidered blouses, long skirts, elaborate hairstyles and rebozos [woven shawls] in a fascinating personal interpretation of Mexicanidad [Mexicanness].

Through her choice of clothing and accessories adapted to her medical needs and physical characteristics, she became an agent in constructing a bold and original look. As the darns, cigarette burns, nicotine stains and paint marks on many of her clothes suggest, her outfits were an integral part of her life, her art and her identity.

SECTION 7 : Frida Kahlo, a contemporain look

Unique, transgressive and unforgettable, Frida Kahlo has become a world-renowned cultural icon. Her influence as a muse in fashion history has been continually re-appraised by contemporary designers who have used Frida Kahlo’s various identitying symbols as inspiration, thereby creating a visual repertoire that addresses such themes as trauma, disability, ethnicity, sexual identity and politics.

"Frida Kahlo, Beyond Appearances"
“Frida Kahlo, Beyond Appearances” exhibition at Palais Galliera in Paris. (Via Palais Galliera)

Accessories, jewellery and extensions of the body have been used as metaphors to conceal, to reveal and to interpret her multiple identities and her hybrid style.

Among the designers featured: Jean Paul Gaultier, Yohji Yamamoto, Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior, Alexander McQueen for Givenchy, Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons, Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy, Karl Lagerfeld for CHANEL.

Exhibition from 15 September to 31 December 2022 Ground floor, Salon d’honneur

Curatorial team

Circe Henestrosa, curator and designer of the exhibition, Head of the School of Fashion, LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore

Miren Arzalluz, director of the Palais Galliera, assisted by Alice Freudiger 

Gannit Ankori, curatorial advisor, PhD, Henry and Lois Foster Director and Chief Curator, Rose Art Museum, USA

(Via Palais Galliera)

Join Our Mailing List

[contact-form-7 id="9206" title="Sidebar Newsletter"]