November 1, 2021
Frida Kahlo became such a ‘thing’ in the past couple of decades that writing about the thing itself became a thing. I had my own go at it two years ago. There is even a Frida Kahlo Corporation that has the rights to her name, works and reputation, including control of emojis that use her appearance.
As a professed Stalinist, she would have been horrified. Or, maybe, amused.
The painter, who died at 47 in 1954, has been a feminist icon, a scorned woman, a martyr to living life in a female body, an excessively celebrated artist, and (sometimes) an excessively denigrated one. A woman painter I know in my community becomes angry at the mere mention of her name, and starts listing female Mexican artists she thinks are better. Yet whatever is done to her, she doesn’t go away.
Looking for something other than the Days of the Dead to write about, it occurred to me I’d never done a Frida knick-knacks piece. Even in Tepoztlan, a town that has no known connection to her (she might have visited here once), you can fill your heart, stomach and shopping bag with Frida-ry. A woman whose paintings feature much Mexican folklore imagery has become a touristic tchotchke herself.
I remember, some 16 years ago, being in Amsterdam on business, and visiting the house where Anne Frank had hidden with her family and friends until they were betrayed to the Nazis in 1944. Visitors could tour the offices of the small food products company her father Otto had founded, and the ‘Secret Annexe’ above, where they all hid out, then head to the bookstore and gift shop next door. My feelings then were somewhat similar to the way I look on Kahlo. I realised this martyred teenager had become a brand, a name at the centre of a marketing exercise that, I was assured, supports charitable activities and tries to combat antisemitism.
I couldn’t argue with the aim, and visiting the house was a moving experience, even if the gift shop was … not. It was all far more affecting than Kahlo’s output of 143 known paintings, 55 of which feature her in some form. Anne’s short life and miserable death in Auschwitz trump anything relating to Frida’s injuries or her life with the emotionally insensitive Diego Rivera. Frida had choices: Anne did not.
The drawback with fame lies in how it depersonalises the famous. Anne Frank is an icon who became an institution, and Frida Kahlo has become a tea towel:
Ah well. At least Kahlo helps provide income for the people in town who sell the souvenirs. I assume she would have at least supported the proletariat making a little cash out of her face. Especially if the Frida Kahlo Corporation doesn’t earn a peso.