From a V&A exhibition to soupy aphorisms on Twitter, the artist seems to be everywhere. How did she become so marketable? And which version of Kahlo will you choose?by Miranda France / May 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
In 1938, Frida Kahlo was discovered by André Breton, proclaimed a surrealist and launched on to the international art scene. Breton had met Kahlo—then famous for being the wife of muralist Diego Rivera—in Mexico and been dazzled by the work and the woman, whom he approved of as being “endowed with all the gifts of seduction,” and “accustomed to the society of men of genius.” When Kahlo arrived in Paris, some of those lucky geniuses, including Picasso and Kandinsky, were similarly impressed by the work, or the woman, and perhaps both.
Kahlo didn’t return Breton’s compliment. She was no surrealist, she said, because her paintings depicted, not dreams, but real events in her life, including a disabling accident, troubled marriage and childlessness. Writing to a friend, Kahlo described the surrealists as self-satisfied and unhygienic, even worrying that she might have caught something nasty while staying in Breton’s flat.
“None of them work and they live as parasites of the bunch of rich bitches who admire their ‘genius,’” she said. Most of the group were “cockroaches” and “big cacas”—both items that would sit happily in a surrealist canvas. She also had harsh words for the continent from which they emerged. “I am nauseated by all these rotten people in Europe—and these fucking ‘democracies’ are not worth even a crumb.” Americans didn’t fare much better: she thought gringos looked “like unbaked rolls.”
Since Breton’s presumptuous appropriation, Kahlo has been claimed, adored and misrepresented by countless groups, artistic and otherwise. An artist who had barely been written about or exhibited during her lifetime is nowadays the subject of hundreds of studies and exhibitions, with major retrospectives all over the world. She has become much more famous than the very famous man she married. In June an exhibition at the V&A of Kahlo’s clothes and personal possessions—Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up—is set to be a summer blockbuster. The merchandise alone promises to be wonderful.
What makes Kahlo so marketable? Her art, characterised by gorgeous colours and enigmatic themes of injury, love, betrayal and thwarted motherhood, looks wonderful on the canvas—and transfers nicely to t-shirts. A quick internet search finds her gracing everything from trainers to sanitary towels. The famous face, gazing out of some 200 self-portraits, is both beautiful and unconventional, with thick eyebrows that join in…