Misremembering Frida Kahlo

Words: Abigail Priestley

Frida Kahlo’s face is everywhere. Frida tote bags, t-shirts, tequila bottles, snapchat filters. Even Frida Barbie dolls. 

It’s hard to feel that the Frida these products represent is one her friends and family would have recognised. She was a queer radical feminist, a communist, with Indigenous heritage – but the imagery associated with her (unibrow, bright red lips and colourful dress) has become more famous than the art or the artist.

Kahlo was born in 1907 in Mexico City, shortly before the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, to a German father and Amerindian mother. It was this multiracial identity and a revolutionary ideology that would become the most prominent motifs in her artwork. Her mobility was limited after suffering from polio at the age of 6, and later by a bus accident at 18, in which her spine was broken in three places and her pelvic bone fractured. She often painted from her bed, and insisted on attending the opening of her first solo exhibition in Mexico when it seemed impossible, arriving in an ambulance and welcoming her attendees from a bed set up in the gallery. 

Kahlo was political both in her art and her life. In 1927, she joined the Communist Party of Mexico, through which she met muralist and husband-to-be, Diego Rivera. During her lifetime, she was known as his wife – he was the great artist, and in many ways she lived in his shadow. Their marriage was a turbulent one (married 1929, divorced 1939, remarried 1940), in which Rivera had numerous extramarital affairs, most notably with Kahlo’s sister, Cristina. She too had other lovers, though, including Leon Trotsky and Jacqueline Lamba.

Posthumously, Kahlo’s image has been sold in a form of commodity fetishism. She has been recuperated: a process through which radical ideas and images are twisted and neutralised by their absorption into the capitalist culture they once challenged. She has been stripped of her politics and her ideologies and sanitised in order to appeal to a mass market.

In recent years, there have been challenges over the ownership of the rights to Kahlo’s image, not least because it has become so lucrative. At the time of Kahlo’s death copyright protection in Mexico only lasted 25 years, so her niece and heir Isolda Pinedo Kahlo had the artist’s name and signature trademarked. 2004 saw the birth of the Frida Kahlo Corporation (FKC), who supposedly bought the rights to her image. But in 2018, Isolda’s daughter, Mara de Anda Romeo, claimed that she owned the rights to her great aunt’s image, on which basis the Mexican courts blocked the sale of the Frida Barbie doll (which only the FKC had consented to) within Mexico.

The dangers of a large-scale corporatisation of Kahlo are obvious. The FKC states that its aims are to preserve Kahlo’s legacy and represent ‘her unique and iconic personality and encourage the world to think and be different’, but commercial imperatives outweigh others. The Frida Barbie doll, launched as part of Mattel’s ‘inspiring women’ collection, has European features and no facial hair, and certainly doesn’t use a wheelchair or walking stick. 

This is not the way Kahlo represented herself in her art. As part of the post-revolutionary Indigenismo movement – a cultural movement that attempted to reclaim the rights of Mexico’s indigenous people – Kahlo’s self-portraits embraced her indigenous roots and her Mestiza (combined European and indigenous American) heritage. Likewise, her experience of living with a disability is a major theme in pieces of her work like The Broken Column (1944). 

Most ironic about the commodification of Kahlo is the fact that her artwork is consistently anti-materialist, anti-capitalist, and anti-American: see Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick (1954). At the 2018 Conservative Party conference, Theresa May wore a bracelet adorned with Frida Kahlo’s face – the face of a militant communist, who housed and became the lover of Trotsky when he was exiled to Mexico, and later supported Stalin. May’s choice demonstrated just how disconnected Kahlo’s politics have become from her identity.

Interestingly, the radicalism of Kahlo’s work has been diluted in popular representations in a way the work of her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, has not. Gender politics have played a role here. Kahlo has been allowed to remain an ‘inspiring woman’ only within a simplistic white-feminist discourse. She represents unconventional beauty and sexuality – the ability to ‘think and be different’ – within extremely narrow confines. In becoming the kind of woman Mattel might make a Barbie of, she has had to sacrifice any parts of her identity perceived too radical. The metaphor of a large real-life character being reduced down to a 5’9”-high doll feels obvious, but it’s there.

Some have wondered whether, as an artist who predominantly painted self-portraits and placed her image centre stage, Kahlo set herself up for her own commodification. Several thinkpieces articles have labelled her the original selfie queen, claiming that she made a fetish of her unusual features. But like her other work and her life, her self-portraits were nothing if not political. 

The inclusion of the self in her artwork was fundamental to the construction of a national identity in post-revolutionary Mexico. Self-portraits allowed her to portray herself as an icon, creating space for Mestizo/a and Indigenous communities – who had long suffered at the hands of colonial powers and the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz – within Mexican cultural history and an uncertain 20th century world. Her Tehuana dress was a symbol of pre-Colombian identity. 

So, what for an artist who overshadows her own art? A radical whose politics has been stolen away? Kahlo’s work is far from done: the degradation of the rights of Indigenous people, of women, of the working classes, of those with disabilities and of queer communities continues around the world today, and the severance of Kahlo’s self-controlled identity from her face is in many ways a prime example – and a form of violence. Acknowledging a more genuine version of Frida is part of the struggle, because that version still has the power to inspire, to discomfort, to make change. 

learn more:

  • BOOK: Frida Kahlo 1907-1954: Pain and Passion – Andrea Kettenmann 
  • BOOK: The Diary of Frida Kahlo 
  • COLLECTION: The Faces of Frida

Abigail Priestley is a History and Modern Languages student at Hatfield College, Durham.