Frida Kahlo has become an absolute pop culture icon. “Fridamania” has even been coined for this boom. Her striking features adorning everything from tote bags, pin badges, jumpers, cushions and notebooks. With the most recent addition being a Barbie ‘Frida Kahlo’, which caused considerable controversy after some of Kahlo’s features were contorted to a bodily image that is so far removed from the woman who lived her life largely disabled and in chronic pain. (This brilliant article by Aditi Natasha Kini discusses this problematic doll in much more detail.) With her ever increasing 'celebrity'-like status I wonder whether all of the commodification is a mindful or just vapid ‘aesthetic appreciation’, to add to the list of obsessions and brands that people can - literally - buy into?
On Instagram #fridakahlo returns a whopping 1,962,275 searches, in comparison to #georgiaokeeffe giving a mere 64,172. The disparity in these results show how staggering Kahlo’s presence is on social media in comparison to other comparable female artists, in terms of public recognition and ‘popularity’. Very few of the images under this hash tag are of her artworks; they instead include costume portraits, quotes, photographs and Frida inspired objects and merchandise. This translates into the myriad of products available to buy with her instantly recognisable floral motifs, mono-brow and bright colours. These have become her signifiers in a culture that seeks to quickly recognise and adopt personal brands.
Kahlo’s biography is incredibly well known and the personal struggles she endured throughout her life dominate her artistic work. Of course, the endorsement of her identity and values are positive in all that she stood for, but I can’t help but feel this recognition in a consumerist context devalues the challenges she endured throughout her life. Kahlo contracted polio as a child causing her spinal and pelvic deformities and then as a young adult was involved in an accident that caused her immense physical damage, meaning she spent the majority of her life in chronic pain. How many people blazoning her iconic, striking face across their chest, or on their couch know exactly the gravity of her life. The overwhelming merchandise on offer means the pure accessibility of these items to people who don’t necessary have a desire to learn about Kahlo is increased, in a pursuit to be involved in another millennial or Instagram ‘trend’.
The Victoria & Albert exhibition - Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up - open from 16th June - 4th November will be showing the very things that made her iconic imagery. The exhibition focuses on personal artefacts and clothing - from the cosmetics that gave her the bright lips and embroidered clothing that she is so famously known for. Giving people an intimate look at the things that made her, her. I wonder as well, if we’ll see more and more of these ‘personal’ exhibitions, showcasing items and objects as we strive to identify the brands of artists and creatives as a way of examining their work and life rather than the work itself.
Kahlo challenged mainstream notions of feminine beauty and gender identity in her time and celebrated her uniqueness, manifesting the trauma of her own reality in some of the most extraordinarily paintings. Her attitudes towards equality and gender were so progressive that perhaps this is why almost 60 years after her death, her values and imagery resonate with so many. She’s the kind of role model every person should have. So, I’m not saying don’t buy the Frida Kahlo enamel pin to adorn your distressed Levis denim jacket, but do so being mindful of the extraordinary life she led.