Queen of Kitsch

Frida Kahlo: Her brand has quickly spread from cult to cliché

Sacred Cows

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

When Frida Kahlo died in 1954 she was known as a successful artist with an operatically tragic personal history. Some aspects of her life were familiar, such as her two marriages to a more famous painter, the glamorous international bohemian circles in which she had moved, her leftist politics and her debilitating and long-term medical problems. She was a figure of interest but someone familiar in her native Mexico with limited resonance outside informed groups in the wider world. 

And there, for the best part of 20 years, her reputation remained. Until she was rediscovered by feminist art critics in the 1970s, she was a curiosity, a bit-part player, a figure of a discrete historical moment, and the creator of slightly odd folklorish paintings that had the artist herself at their centre.

Now, however, Kahlo is ubiquitous — hailed as both a great artist and, more importantly, as a great woman. It is worth noting just how quickly and how far her brand spread from cult to cliché. She has appeared on a US postage stamp, a Mexican banknote, and has been the subject of a ballet, two operas and several plays, while a biopic starring Salma Hayek earned six Oscar nominations (but won just the Best Makeup and Best Original Score categories). 

If you don’t fancy a Frida Barbie then you can strut in Frida sneakers, sip from Frida mugs and sit on Frida cushions

A jazz album was named for her and she has been the subject of innumerable books of non-fiction and three novels. Her house in Mexico City is now a museum that attracts 25,000 visitors monthly and a nearby park bears her name. A street in San Francisco was renamed Frida Kahlo Way and she has earned a plaque on the city’s Rainbow Honor Walk commemorating significant LGBQT figures.

Meanwhile, her distinctive look has proved irresistible to manufacturers of gewgaws: in 2018 the Mattel company produced a Kahlo Barbie doll to celebrate International Women’s Day. It caused a fuss because it showed her as unfeasibly slim and lacking her distinctive monobrow (which she realised was a sort of trademark and would touch up with French cosmetics) and it also became the subject of an injunction when her estate contested the manufacturer’s right to use her image. 

If you don’t fancy a Frida Barbie then you can strut in Frida sneakers, sip from Frida mugs and water bottles, sit on Frida cushions, wear her face on socks, protect your mobile phone with a Frida case, tote her on bags, display her on dresses, and even protect yourself against coronavirus with a Frida facemask.

It would be a form of heresy to suggest her artistic significance might not be as profound as that of Van Gogh

As for her art, in 1990 she became the first Latin American artist to fetch $1 million when Diego and I was auctioned for $1.43 milllion; a self-portrait, The Frame, became the first picture by a twentieth-century Mexican artist to be purchased by a major international gallery when it was acquired by the Louvre in 1939 (it is now in the Pompidou Centre); in 1984 Mexico prohibited the export of her works from the country; lakes of critical ink have been expended on her; contemporary artists including Cindy Sherman and Marina Abramovic cite her as an influence; while Madonna is both a collector and a self-avowed and dewy-eyed fangirl.

Kahlo’s nearest rival in terms of recognisability and legend is Van Gogh. It would, however, be a form of heresy to suggest that her artistic significance might not be as profound as his. But then the basis of her contemporary fame is not really her paintings at all but her life. And above all, it was the fact that much of that life was spent in pain — physical and emotional — that the current age finds so irresistible. 

As the critic John Berger wrote in an essay collection of 2001: “That she became a world legend is in part due to the fact that in these dark days of the new world order the sharing of pain is one of the essential preconditions for a refunding of dignity and hope.” 

It is perhaps worth remembering quite what a seductive package her biography presents, courtesy of its many points of confluence with today’s concerns. First she was born a mestiza, in 1907, to a German father and a mother of mixed indigenous-European heritage, and contracted polio as a child. She intended to study medicine, a theme ever apparent in her paintings and exacerbated by the crippling injuries she suffered at 18 when, in a bus crash, “the handrail pierced me as the sword pierces the bull”, puncturing her abdomen and uterus and fracturing her spine. 

Her injuries meant she spent most of her life in supportive corsets of steel or plaster, survived some 30 operations, had miscarriages and underwent the amputation of her right leg after contracting gangrene. A friend stated that she “lived dying”. 

Her last years were marked by pain and medical crises: she died at 47 with the rumour of suicide in the air

To pass the time during her post-accident recovery she took up painting, with herself as the main theme: “I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best.” An interest in pre-Colombian art and the influence of Mexicanidad, a form of nostalgic nationalism, inflected her own style. 

She married the muralist Diego Rivera for the first time in 1929 and, after a brief divorce, again in 1940. She had affairs with both women and men — including Leon Trotsky — was championed by the “Pope of Surrealism”, André Breton, travelled to America and Europe, joined the Mexican Communist Party, sold paintings to the tough-guy actor Edward G. Robinson, knew Marcel Duchamp and Picasso, inspired the dressmaker Elsa Schiaparelli, and made a name for herself both as a painter of hard-to-pigeonhole pictures and as a striking character. 

All along the way she insisted on her Mexicanness, her politics, her strength as a woman and her importance as a painter — telling one American interviewer of the much more famous Rivera: “Of course he does well for a little boy, but it is I who am the big artist.” Her last half-dozen years were marked by pain and medical crises: she died at 47 with the rumour of suicide in the air.

It is Kahlo’s supporters, trumpeting her as a martyr to everything from feminism to anti-colonialism, that do her a great disservice

This is, of course a tragic, terrible and triumphant story, but it is one that diverts attention from her paintings. And she was a significant artist: her work may be solipsistic (of her some 143 paintings, 55 are self-portraits) but understandably so; her depictions of pain are visceral and affecting; her faux-naïve style was novel; her revelations of the self were of a piece with the cultural avant-garde of her time. 

A counter argument would run that her pictures are too easily read as literal translations of her physical and mental state; that her painting showed little development in either theme or technique; that her political pictures such as Marxism Gives Health to the Sick and Self-Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States are jejune and clunky; that her chosen style precluded the possibility of nuance or surface delicacy and veered into kitsch. Nor is it easy to discern a Kahlo thread running through subsequent art. 

None of this is her fault. Her claims to eminence were those of someone who as a woman of her time, and disabled too, needed to find ways to make herself heard. It is Kahlo’s supporters, trumpeting her — rather than name-checking her — as a martyr or mater dolorosa to everything from feminism, racial and sexual fluidity to anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism, that do her a great disservice. 

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