a bookbinder requires a vast array of different skills, some of which
can be utilised in ways other than making books! I worked at
the Victoria and Albert Museum for seven and a half years as a
mount-maker before leaving to become a full time bookbinder but still
keep in touch with my colleagues from the museum. An ex-colleague and
friend of mine, Rachael Lee, who still works at the museum as a Textile Conservation Display Specialist in the Textile Conservation Department has spent the
last year and a half, alongside many other people from the museum and abroad, working
towards the opening of the current Frida Kahlo exhibition entitled,
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up.
exhibition presents an extraordinary collection of personal
artifacts and outfits belonging to the iconic Mexican artist Frida
Kahlo. It explores how Kahlo used make-up, jewellery and in
particular indigenous Mexican clothing to create her identity. The
majority of objects, including medical corsets and Kahlo’s
prosthetic leg, are loans from the Museo Frida Kahlo in Mexico
City. The colourful collection of clothing and objects were hidden
away for 50 years in the museum, Frida’s former home, and found in
2004. The home was converted into a museum after her husband, Diego
Rivera’s death. The
objects have never left Mexico before so it’s very exciting that
the V&A is exhibiting them.
Rachael worked closely on the mannequin development with two different manufactures to create a new figure that evoked the feeling of Frida Kahlo. A 3D printed render of Kahlo’s head was created and turned into fibreglass, it was then seamlessly merged with the rest of the body to create a complete figure. The mannequins weren’t designed to be too realistic or an exact copy of Frida, but a likeness of her with recognisable features, such as her braided crown of plaits. This unique style of display figure couldn’t of been achieved using commercially available mannequins. A paper finish was chosen to cover the surface of the mannequins in order to slightly abstract the figures and give a neutral effect.
brief was to make individual head treatments, or headdresses, for three of the Frida
mannequins going into the exhibition and was initially sent images of these
to give me an idea of what the Senior Co-Curator, Claire Wilcox,
wanted to recreate. I was asked to make three dimensional
paper flowers to attach to the mannequin heads to resemble iconic images of Frida, however I was told that the headdresses didn’t need to be exact copies of these
reference images. Frida had many different flower adornments and
often wore fresh flowers in her hair so my initial brief was to
“create something beautiful but at the same time subtle. There are so many interpretations of Frida, we want ours to be respectful and
“The Resplandor” (Self-portrait as Tehuana)
The exact costume pictured below, still exists as part of Kahlo’s wardrobe and was to be mounted onto a mannequin as portrayed in this self-portrait. As only the face of the mannequin and the flowers on the head were going to be seen, I needed to make the same flowers and arrange them as seen in the portrait.
and 3. “The Seated Fridas”
The flowers for these two mannequins were to sit across the front of Frida’s head, with some also fitting neatly behind her big plait. The mannequins were to be displayed seated next to each other holding hands in the exhibition, so they were going to have the flowers in their hair displayed as mirror images of one another.
first task was to make some sample flowers to send over to the V&A
for the team to look at against the mannequin heads, at this point I had
only seen photos of the heads so it was important to do some trials.
All of the flowers were to be made from the same colour paper as the
mannequins to tie it all together visually and so not to distract
from the clothing.
started by making four trials pieces: one rose, one abstract
leaf, one daisy and one leaf.
FRONTS OF TRIALS:
BACKS OF TRIALS:
to the fact that the finish of the
heads was to be a distressed paper finish with an uneven texture,
it was decided that the trial flowers therefore looked a little too pristine
next to the head. When sending the trials off to the V&A I
explained that the edges could be made to look ‘more frilly’, by
altering the templates and tearing the paper petal edges and it was decided
that this would be a good alteration to make. The samples were also
too large against the head so they were all to be scaled down when
making the actual headdresses.
Below shows the trial flower on the left, and the modified flower on the right with the torn petal edges and it is smaller in scale.
this initial feedback I then received a parcel back from Rachael with one of the Frida mannequins heads in it, a pack of
papers, a pot of paint-wash and some sample card that had been used on the mannequin
heads, plus extra images and instructions to work from.
Other similar papers were also supplied for me to use to help create subtle variations in the tone of the flowers. Below shows two roses, the left one has the outer petals made from paler paper that was subtly coloured in the same paint-wash as the mannequin heads.
was also decided that for The Resplandor the curator wanted to trial
a bit of gold leaf inside some of the flowers, so they would shimmer under the museum lighting. I stuck a small amount of gold and silver leaf on one of the paper leaves to give an indication of how this might look.
Once the trial pieces were analysed and the alternations noted it was time to commence with the making of the headdress components, described in stages as follows:
MAKING UP THE ROSES FOR THE TWO SEATED FRIDAS
I cut out the petals using a template. These were in four different sizes so I could make up different sizes of rose. The side edges were cut with scissors and the top edges torn into a curve.
The petals were kept in pairs and glued together slightly off-set with some PVA, as seen in the top-most group of petals in the below picture. Once dry they were then folded into a pleat at the base of the petals and glued again to create a more three-dimensional shape – see the bottom group of three petals.
Once formed they were then punched twice with a Japanese hole punch at the base of each of the petals.
For the two Seated Fridas, the mannequins were going to re-enact the scene from one of Frida’s most notable paintings, The Two Fridas; herself and her double, holding hands, with exposed hearts connected by a shared artery. Claire
Wilcox wanted one mannequin to look very Victorian and the other very
Mexican to enhance the outfits they were due to be dressed in.
I was therefore asked to try painting inside the paper roses, the Victorian flowers were to have a sepia tint
inside and the Mexican flowers to have a red/pink tint. The didn’t want a solid colour, just to have some colour inside the petals/leaves so that the flowers still looked like paper and match the mannequins. The first trial was discarded as the colour was too bold.
So a more subtle colour wash was chosen, using watered down acrylic paints building the colour up from the bottom of each petal in stages.
RED/PINK FOR THE VICTORIAN-LOOKING FRIDA:
SEPIA FOR THE MEXICAN-LOOKING FRIDA:
Once the petals were coloured and dry it was time to make up the roses. The centre of each rose was made by winding some wire around a small ball of newsprint. This was then wrapped in a square of the grey paper and wire was wound around it at the base to hold it together.
The petals were laid out in size order. For the largest of the flowers there were six small, five medium and six large petals making up each flower.
I tied some linen thread to the wire.
I then worked around the flower centre attaching each of the petals in place by threading a curved needle through the punched holes.
Each Seated Frida headdress had one large, three medium, two small and one petite rose, so the same process was repeated to make up each of these and again for the sepia flowers.
The exposed wire stem of the flowers was wound with masking tape in order to allow for it to then be covered in paper to match the flowers.
Paper leaves were also cut out and stuck to the back of each flower. Once glued they were curled using the edge of a pair of scissors to give them more shape.
The stems were all then wrapped in a coiled thin strip of paper and fixed with PVA glue.
PLACEMENT OF ROSES ON MANNEQUIN HEAD
Once all of the roses were made it was time to concentrate on their placement on the mannequin head.
Starting with the petite rose in the front centre, holes were drilled right through into the mannequin head for the flower stems to push in to.
Given I only had one head to work on I had to mark the positions of each flower so Rachael and her colleagues could repeat the placement (in reverse) on the other head. I also left it up to them to glue the flowers in position once the parcel got back to the V&A as it was safer to send the flowers and head back separately.
MAKING UP THE ELEMENTS FOR THE RESPLANDOR
Following the completion of the Seated Frida headdresses it was time to work on the more complex Resplandor head. The iconic image showed Frida with the following on her head: 1 x rose, 1 x daisy, 1 x large flower, 7 x bougainvillaea, 7 x large leaves and 9 x small leaves.
I started by working on the daisy, creating the centre first. I cut a series of thin lines using a scalpel across the centre of a strip of paper.
The two outer, uncut edges were then glued together and held with bulldog clips allowing the cut strips to curve in the centre. This strip was then coiled around a piece of wire to create the textured centre of the daisy.
A series of petals were cut from a template, these were then made more three dimensional by cutting and gluing the tips of the petals together.
Following the trial leaf I did at the start of the process with gold and silver leaf added on, the curator decided she wanted this on all of the Resplandor petals and leaves. I had to make sure that the gold and silver leaf was only going to be on the front face of each of the elements as it was important that no metal was going to be in contact with the object.
The costume was going to be seen through the reflection of a mirror in the exhibition so the gold and silver leaf needed to be quite bright and bold to stand out.
I cut gold leaf into squares on my gold cushion and lifted it up using a piece of cotton wool that had some grease on it to attract the leaf. I applied a wash of PVA glue to each of the petals and then placed the gold leaf onto these in turn and waited for them to dry. Once dry I rubbed off the excess to give a more distressed look.
The same applied for the daisy flower centre, dabbing glue onto the paper and then pressing silver leaf squares down into the detail of the paper swirl.
I then attached the petals to the outside of the flower centre. It was decided that more gold and silver leaf was needed on the flower so I added more to the flower all over.
Next I made petals for the rose, a different style rose to that of the Seated Fridas. These had gold and silver leaf added and were then attached around a flower centre ball of paper.
The completed rose and daisy with their distressed mix of metal leaf on the front face:
Next I made up a series of leaves in two different sizes. These were constructed of two layers of paper stuck together with a piece if wire sandwiched in the middle to use as the stem of the leaves.
Again, squares of gold and silver leaf were stuck to one side and then rubbed down to give a more distressed look.
As well as the flat leaves, I also made up a number of bougainvillea-style elements, combining two or three curved leaves into bunches to build up the look.
Finally, there was one large flower to make. I used the same base centre and petals as the Seated Frida roses but added in extra long wires to the centre so they stuck out past the petals. The ends of these wires had small curved paper elements stuck to them.
For the outermost petals of this flower I first covered a piece of paper with a block of silver leaf. From this I then cut out individual long petals.
These were stuck to the outside of the centre flower and secured with a small piece of twisted wire. This wire was then concealed with some outer paper leaves.
The completed flower definitely shimmered with all of the detail and leaf on it!
Again, I had to work on the placement of the elements once the pieces were all made. Rachael and her team needed an accurate plan of where everything needed to be placed so I broke the elements down into four rows, marked each piece up and wrapped everything separately to try and make it as clear as possible.
Thanks to Rachael for the following photo showing the Resplandor head with all of the elements attached before it was then dressed with the object.
I am hoping to get access to some of the professional photos taken of the exhibition to better illustrate the final results of the headdresses but in the meantime all I have is the ones I took myself (you might spot me in the second of these two pictures!)
Frida ‘European’ (LEFT)
worn to a New York gallery opening
wore this dramatic outfit to an opening in New York in 1933. The
velvet evening cape has embroidered ribbon appliqué and two silk
bows attached to its long, pointed tails and is professionally made.
She paired it with a silk devoré
skirt with ruffled hem made from imported silk, which may have been
sewn by a local dressmaker. The origin of many of Kahlo’s
European-style clothes is uncertain.
1900s, possibly made in France (cape); fabric from France (skirt)
velvet, satin, lace trimming, synthetic lining (cape); Jacquard
de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust
Frida ‘Mexican’ (RIGHT)
and skirt Before
(blouse) and rabona
(gathered skirt) are from the town of Juchitán de Zaragoza on the
Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, in Southern Mexico. Tehuana dress was
regarded as one of the most beautiful forms of regional dress, and
was particularly admired by Rivera. Although not a Tehuana by birth,
Kahlo adopted the style of this region after her marriage and wore
variations upon it for most of her life.
de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust
headdress and skirt Before
1954, Juchitan, Oaxaca, Mexico
it has come to be known in recent years, after the radiating
headpieces of statues of the Virgin Mary, is a ceremonial headdress
worn by the women of Tehuantepecfor church, weddings and processions.
Its origins are unknown, as are the function of the two vestigial
‘sleeves’ that are glued fast by starch and never used. The garment
is worn in two ways by Tehuananas. During Mass, the headdress
resembles a cape, with one sleeve to the front and the second hanging
behind. On other ceremonial occasions, the wide frill fames the face.
lace, cotton and ribbon
de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust
I was invited to the private view of the exhibition on Wednesday 13th of June, the dress code being “inspired by Frida”. So, naturally I made some extra flowers to wear in my hair on such an occasion!
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up
On now until Sunday, 4 November 2018