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Living with symbols: Frida’s things against all things Fridamania

These days Frida Kahlo’s face is on many a “things.” Her stern mien is plastered on store windows, embroidered into colorful pillows, stamped on fridge magnets. Mexico City is the epicenter of “Fridamania” that invaded museum gift shops since the artist’s revival in the 80s. Resolved to squeeze the artist’s legacy to the last peso, Mexico’s tourist industry parades her on books, mugs, sneakers, and baby bottles. From luxury stores to street markets, one can buy Frida earrings to match Frida shirts and take pictures next to an amateur copy of a Frida self-portrait. In the city reputed to house more museums than any city in the world La Casa Azul (the Blue House), boasts the longest lines. The museum is the house where she was born and where she lived with her husband Diego Rivera until her death in 1954.

bc hayden herrera fridaEven though Kahlo’s paintings were well received during her lifetime, the most she charged for a painting was $4,000 pesos (about $1,000 USD) in 1947 for The Two Fridas, one of her masterpieces. Soon after her death, she was all but forgotten as the grief-stricken unibrowed wife of the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera until Hayden Herrera’s 1983 biography ushered her discovery. What started with a few retrospective shows in cultural centers in London and New York in the 80s resulted in the establishment of a cult around her image. Today, her work is bought and sold for millions.

The international hype over Frida’s mustache may be less intense than when Salma Hayek portrayed the artist’s eccentric life in a 2002 movie but it certainly hasn’t abated. I, too, am guilty of joining the herd of Fridamaniacs. For a 2010 Purim party in Israel I painted a mustache and a unibrow, stuck flowers in my braided hair, and wore a colorful dress. Needless to say I was not the only Frida waltzing about the streets of Tel Aviv.

Some Mexican are so irritated by seeing Frida’s distorted image printed in low quality designs that one clothing designer in San Miguel de Allende held an event called “Estoy Harta de Frida” while I was there in July: “I am sick of Frida.”

The woman behind the fashion event was also protesting Frida Kahlo Corporation’s branding of the artist’s name as an upscale label marketing everything from tequila to skin care products. Run by Kahlo’s niece, the corporation claims to preserve the legacy of the artist by controlling the sale of Frida paraphernalia.

Estoy Harta de Frida Atencion


Frida’s biography versus her art 

Much of the discourse over Kahlo’s work circles around her biography: the telenovela-like spectacular filled with affairs, accidents, and shenanigans. The cult personality that Frida has become is in part due to this colorful life-story, which not only contributed to her posthumous fame but also to the tasteless commercialization and misrepresentation of her art.

Kahlo herself who used her own image as the subject of her art. Thus, identifying her persona and illustrious biography with products that purport to disseminate her art was too easy for marketers. Perhaps Fridamania has endured for so long since the popularized image of Kahlo speaks to the generation of millennials so well — after all she is the “queen of the selfie.”

The focus on the self has become pervasive in contemporary life and it’s not just our so-called modern culture of selfies. The self as an object of meditation and as a path to redemption is exalted by New Age postmodernism. Fridamania posits Frida as a pioneer of the rise of the self in art as well as on keychains and beer bottles.

I highly doubt that a reputation as the founder of the selfie would be the top-choice of an avant-garde artist. Some suggest that one of Frida’s downfalls (or what eventually earned her brand-name lots of cash) is a plague suffered by many women artists. As an article in Washington Monthly wrote in 2002, “the female artist needs a compelling tragic biography to enter the male canon, yet her work is then trivialized because of that biography–something that rarely happens to men.”

For painting herself, she has been called a narcissist. For obsessively painting her pain—she was bed-ridden in a bodycast for a good amount of her life after surviving a near-fatal accident as a teenager—she is rendered a drama-queen. The accusation that her work receives preferential treatment due to her tragic biography and with the commercialization of her work through capitalist ventures (never mind that she was a staunch communist who had a love affair with Leon Trotsky) not only sideline her art but also misunderstand it.

Purim in Tel Aviv, 2010

Purim in Tel Aviv, 2010

Frida’s “things”: Metaphors for life and art 

Frida liked things. Unlike the tchotchkes bought and sold in her name, her possessions were collected not for their commercial or utilitarian value, but rather for a metaphorical meaning so intertwined with her art.

La Casa Azul unravels the significance Kahlo placed on things.  Objects displayed in Kahlo’s house which remains more or less the same since the 50s reveal the symbolic value objects held for her: her bedroom is filled with dolls and gifts, even from lovers other than Rivera. She furnished her kitchen with traditional Mexican culinary tools instead of modern equipment. Frida didn’t use a fridge or an oven. She cultivated a plants of the Mexican flora and displayed pre-Hispanic artifacts on a pyramid similar to those found in Teotihuacan. She lived among objects that served as a reminder of her Mexican cultural identity that she often depicted in her paintings.

The Tehuana costume she wore may have been inspired from her mother’s native state Oaxaca—the “real” Mexico as I was told multiple times during my travels. Peter Wollen, who pioneered in extracting her work out of the abyss by curating the her retrospective exhibition outside Mexico in 1982, wrote that her fashion choices revealed multiple layers of symbolism and were directly linked to the themes in her work. IMG_4584

She embodied the ideas that drove her art by displaying them on her face, wearing them on her body, and exhibiting them through everything she owned. She seemed to be saying, not just with her brushstroke but also with her entire existence, that life is comprised of symbols and oppositeness.

Wollen points out that her long colorful skirts both hid and exhibited her fragile body. To the unobservant eye, one may think that Frida wore the long skirts to cover her injuries and distorted legs. Yet while hiding the imperfections, she also exhibited them by choosing flashy clothes that drew attention to her body.  She detailed on canvas her physical ailments in their total brutality.

The unibrow she extenuated with makeup challenged standards of feminine beauty all the while demonstrating her desire to be a “complete human being” who embraced both feminine and masculine attributes. This idea is also represented in her painting Wounded Deer, in which a deer with Frida’s head has both male and female parts.

Frida Kahlo, "The Wounded Deer," 1946. © This artwork is protected by copyright. It is posted here in accordance with fair use principles.

Frida Kahlo, The Wounded Deer, 1946. © This artwork is protected by copyright. It is posted here in accordance with fair use principles.


Is the The Two Fridas really about Diego?

Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas is one of the artist’s most revered paintings and depict the idea of duality of symbols with utmost ingenuity. It hangs in a small room in Mexico City’s Museum of Modern Art. I visited the museum on a quiet weekday. A few people were taking siestas in the gardens overlooking the Chapultepec Park, some tourists taking pictures by the stairwell under funky lamps. Besides the lady standing guard, I was alone with the two Fridas.

As the name of the painting suggests, it depicts two self-portraits. The women’s hearts are exposed, and they are holding hands, giving one another life. Their gaze disquieted me. They seemed alive, almost about to break out in conversation. The Fridas were telling me something and I knew I had to listen. I sat down on a chair, turned my phone off— not that anyone called me in Mexico—and listened.

Frida Kahlo, "The Two Fridas," 1939. © This artwork is protected by copyright. It is posted here in accordance with fair use principles.

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas, 1939. © This artwork is protected by copyright. It is posted here in accordance with fair use principles.

Wearing simple, traditional Mexican clothing, the Frida with the healthy heart looks exhausted, slouching in her chair. An exposed vein from her healthy heart encircles down her left arm and attaches to a tiny picture of Diego Rivera, her twice-husband, greatest love, and the man that broke her heart as painfully as the accident she suffered as a teenager broke her limbs. Paradoxically, the Frida with the dying heart looks healthier, her lips slightly curled in a mischievous smile as she sits with grace and strength. Her free hand holds the scissors that just cut the vein spilling blood onto her white, European-style dress.

The main interpretation of this painting revolves around Frida’s tumultuous relationship with Diego. It was painted around the time when they divorced due to Diego’s affair with Frida’s sister. At first glance the message seemed obvious: that Frida is dying without Diego, that she needs him if her heart is going to continue to pump blood through her veins. But was she really dying?

The duality of symbols in Frida’s work is perhaps best executed in this painting where nothing—even Frida herself—is only one thing. Diego is at once life and death, Frida is at once dead and alive. Spilt blood drains life but also allows it by cleansing the death seeping into her through Diego.

One of the reasons I reject the common interpretation of this painting is due to the size of Diego. He is so tiny that I had to walk up to the rather large painting and squint my eyes to figure out what Frida is holding in her hand. Could something or someone, literally so little, have the power to grant life or death? Diego’s miniscule depiction next to two giant Fridas is also a testament to the artist’s witty, vexing sense of humor—Frida was a tiny small woman half the size of the rather tall and heavy Diego.

Viewing the painting from this perspective, the work transcends an innovative representation of love, marriage, and heartbreak into a statement on self-reliance. It is Frida that keeps Frida alive, not Diego. It is Frida that kills Frida, not Diego. It is the self above all other outside influences that matter. It is the self that loves or self-destructs. It is the self that smiles despite dying and frowns despite living. It is the self that decides.

Frida symbolizes the self, Diego the external. But what’s even more amazing in this painting is the duality within these symbols. Even the self is not one but two, split between modernity and tradition, love and independence, the will to go on no matter what and utter desperation in the face of heartbreak, disillusionment, and anger.

It wasn’t just objects that Frida used for her art but also her own image. She said that she painted herself since her own face was the object she knew best. Frida was her own muse and once on the canvas she turned into a symbol of her painting. What’s unfortunate about the commercialization of her image is precisely due to the trivialization of the metaphor of her life. The face she etched on canvas was the image of the eternal self that embodies an endless number of dualities and contradictions.

My main problem with Fridamania is less in the popularization of a deserving artist. Stamping her image gets on products made in China, relegates the value of her work to the realm of kitsch. The symbols inherent in the products produced in her name do not represent the ingenious duality in her art. Her face has become literal and one-dimensional.

A woman who communicated through and with objects for their metaphorical value, Frida Kahlo is now literally on them. And that’s unfortunate.