Examining “Fridamania”

Coming off the successful run of their Marc Chagall exhibit, the Art Gallery of Ontario has recently announced an exhibition of another major 20th century artist, Frida Kahlo. Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Paintings will run from Oct. 20, 2012, through Jan. 20, 2013, and feature work by Kahlo and her husband, muralist Diego Rivera. As with any new exhibition of her work, the announcement has garnered much media attention and high attendance predictions.

Which begs the question, what makes Frida Kahlo so relevant?

Certainly her name carries a large amount of cachet outside the artistic community. Since her rediscovery by feminist art critics in the 1970’s, Kahlo has become a famous personality in pop-culture. Frequent biographies, cinematic depictions, and increasingly esoteric products adorned with her image ensure the continued interest in Kahlo’s paintings. Though these objects and discussions often involve motifs from her work, what truly drives the Kahlo industry is a great story.

The crippling injuries, the tumultuous marriage to Rivera, the bisexuality, the flamboyant style of dress, the communist ties, all of these factors often take the front seat to discussions of Kahlo’s actual work. This tendency is completely understandable, as Kahlo’s self-portraits were frequently embedded with symbols of her own personal history. It is this quality that guarantees Kahlo’s lasting popularity, as viewers are able to experience the drama of her life’s narrative in each piece. Few artists invoke such feelings of sympathy and understanding as does Kahlo. To look at her work is to decipher the feelings and experiences of another, all the while supervised beneath her dominating gaze. Kahlo’s work journeyed inward into the psyche, rather than outward into the surrounding world, and thus viewers walk away with the feeling of interacting with another individual, a relatively new phenomenon in mid -20th century art.

Detail from Delia Brown’s “La Sala de Estar,” 2010, graphite and gouache on paper

Despite a political dalliance with communism (as well as an infamous romantic dalliance with Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky), Kahlo’s art displays a strongly individualist aesthetic. Delia Brown, a New York-based artist renowned for self-portraits, is a fantastic example of this quality in Kahlo’s work, having appropriated Kahlo’s style of costume in her recent paintings. “In thinking about the historical persona of Frida Kahlo,” she says, “I came to realize that the main thing I envied was the late artist’s complete indulgence in her own narcissistic preoccupations, and her refusal to contain her ego.” Delia, who paints herself and her female friends as modern-day Fridas lounging in luxurious vacation homes, attempts to merge her own “narcissistic” self-exploration with that of Kahlo’s, therefore collecting some of the artist’s aura within her own work.

As Claudia Schaefer suggests, “’Frida’ is not the real Frida Kahlo but rather an image for public consumption.” When Delia Brown paints herself as Frida, it is a conscious invocation of the modern idea that a new personality is both attainable and consumable. After feeling that one has “befriended” Frida by viewing her paintings, the natural impulse is to purchase commodities that will reinforce this rather tenuous bond.

Various Kahlo merchandise, including finger puppets and tequila

Type Frida Kahlo into Amazon and you can find 3,569 products adorned with her image or discussing her life. The commodification of an artist is certainly nothing new, but what sets Kahlo apart from the equally tortured Van Gogh is the agency she employed in commodifying herself. This is not to say that her life and art were inauthentic, but rather, elements were certainly calculated for their greatest possible effect. Kahlo famously changed her birthdate from 1907 to 1910 coincide with the Mexican revolution, as she hoped to personally represent the birth of a new Mexico. The striking Tehuantepec dress she adopted was that of another Mexican culture, as Kahlo herself was the daughter of a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant in Coyoacán, near Mexico City. Kahlo did not make these changes blindly, rather they were to represent her ideal  Mexico on the global stage.

Maria Brito of Forbes recently made a rather alarming comparison about Kahlo and another modern-day pop culture icon: “I thought about two creative women who have inspired me by developing strong personal brands that are unique and identifiable everywhere in the world: Frida Kahlo and Lady Gaga.  A century separates them but their strategies are quite similar for purposes of creating brands with enormous traction and success. ”

The idea may be cringe-worthy, but there are indeed clear parallels between the two figures. Without any formal training, and with her entry into art arising out of a childhood bout with polio and an adolescent bus accident, Kahlo’s life story is a perfect fit within the quintessential American dream. She may have hated the country, but Frida’s affinity for self-creation and reinvention ties her to it as well as its major pop stars. Kahlo’s reputation is strong in Mexico, but in no means does it reach the mania of the USA, whose citizens love a good rags-to-riches story.

Artistic self-expression? Or a sly method of marketing?

Kahlo’s life and work ably represent the conflict in art between self-expression and self-creation, what is honest and what is marketable. Frida the painter has become Frida the brand, and the artist herself gave every indication of wanting this, as long as it furthered her own political goals. Claudia Schaefer may believe the “real” Frida Kahlo has been lost in all of the recent publicity, but expecting that the “real” Frida is somehow accessible at all is completely misguided. We can suppose that this real Frida of our imagination would balk at the line of Kahlo-inspired nail polishes, but who can say, really? Our desire for a more authentic portrayal of this women is still based on conjecture, what we imagine she stands for based on our own interpretation of her work. And Frida, with her eternally beguiling and assertive stare, allows for no such definitive claims upon herself.

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