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The Branding of Frida Kahlo

Can the artist’s things tell us what drove her?

Nickolas Mury Photo Archives/Brooklyn Museum

Frida Kahlo loved hot pink lipstick, the color of crushed hibiscus blossoms, of flor de Jamaica, of bougainvillea vines crawling over stucco walls. Her chosen shade, at least later in her life, was Revlon’s “Everything’s Rosy,” which she purchased in golden bullet tubes in the 1940s, after Revlon opened a manufacturing plant in Mexico. Kahlo regularly matched her lips to her nails to the blooms in her hair: crimson, magenta, bubble gum. These kinds of details—the color of nail polish Kahlo liked to wear (Frosted Snow Pink) or her perfume (Guerlain’s Shalimar, Schiaparelli’s Shocking) or how she stayed moisturized (Pond’s lanolin Dry Skin Cream)—might distract from her work. But might they also offer a glimpse of an artist’s private rituals, a way of connecting to her daily practice?

Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving, a captivating new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of the artist’s personal items alongside her paintings and drawings, makes a strong case for the latter. It’s not the first show to emphasize a woman artist’s clothing, jewels, and other embellishments, pushing the argument that self-creation too, is a work worth admiring. In 2017, the museum had a hit with Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern, which displayed O’Keeffe’s pastel wrap dresses and Knize suits as well as her paintings of sand dunes and desiccated cow bones. It was an ingenious framing for O’Keeffe’s oeuvre, particularly because few were intimately familiar with her silk kimonos, her wide-brimmed hats, and heavy silver. It shaded in O’Keeffe’s broad outlines, and gave her work, which was so focused on grand, almost disembodied depictions of place, a flesh-and-blood component. Someone stood there, trying to paint the sky.

An exhibition focused on Frida Kahlo’s self-stylings feels thornier as a conceit. Because if the public knows one thing about Frida Kahlo, it’s what she looks like. Her image has become a commodity, adorning mugs and tote bags and posters, postcards, prayer candles, pillowcases. At the Manhattan bookstore the Strand, there is currently an entire collection of Kahlo merchandise: notebooks, fridge magnets, baseball caps. A Frida Kahlo Corporation exists to license her image for commercial use. In a 2015 New York Times article, one interviewee lamented that “there are a lot of people that have Frida refrigerator magnets that have never seen a Frida painting.”

This mass dissemination of—and, in cases, profiteering on—Kahlo’s image has been called Fridamania, or Fridolatry, or Kahloism. In their 2012 article “Made in Her Image: Frida Kahlo as Material Culture,” Kansas State University professors Lis Pankl and Kevin Blake write that “Kahlo now has a global pop culture status that challenges the likes of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe,” which makes the task of separating her biography from mythology extremely difficult. Her image now travels free of context. The result can be that the more we know about the artist, the less we understand about her art.

As the scholars note, Kahlo took part in the shaping of her own legend; she liked to say that she was born in Coyoacán in 1910, not 1907, so that her birthday would sync up with the Mexican Revolution. She sometimes played to the assumption that her father, the photographer Guillermo Kahlo, who immigrated to Mexico from Germany, was Jewish, though he came from a Lutheran family. Her story of Indigenous and Jewish ancestry helped create a stronger undergirding for her Communist political commitments and vehement anti-Nazi stance in the 1930s, so Kahlo often went along with it, and propagated the lore of herself.

Yet depictions of Kahlo have strayed further from the reality than she could have imagined. A major studio biopic starring Salma Hayek portrayed her (to Hayek’s dismay) as a tango-dancing flirt, who lusted for the photographer Tina Modotti. She made a cameo in Disney-Pixar’s Coco as a dotty performance artist who worked with oversize fruits. Mattel created a Frida Kahlo Barbie doll (a stunt that caused discord among some of her relatives). Kahlo’s niece launched a Frida Kahlo tequila, which many critics and curators deemed disrespectful, since Kahlo drank tequila to soothe the excruciating pains in her body: A childhood case of polio left her with a permanently injured leg, and, after a bus accident when she was 18, she struggled with torso pain for the rest of her life.

Kahlo’s face, with its trademark unibrow (usually exaggerated to the point of caricature), has taken on a symbolism of its own. Appearing on jacket pins and backpack patches, it serves as a visual shorthand, variously, for “badass” feminist artistic practice, for Latinx artists writ large, for the cultivation of ambition against the odds. At least since the early 1980s, when the art critic Hayden Herrera published her popular biography Frida, Kahlo has been an empowerment icon; a challenge to white, male hegemony; a woman artist who was heroic but glamorous, connected to her body but also able to float above it and see herself with arrows shot through her chest. Yet Kahlo’s obsession with painting her own image wasn’t to cast herself as a hero; it was an exploratory process, an experiment in fusing a life into art. The shelves and shelves of merchandise seem to fulfill a prophecy she never spoke.

The Brooklyn Museum show tells a different story. The first thing you see on entering is a large screen, playing rare color footage of Kahlo circa 1941 at La Casa Azul, the family home where she spent much of her life. She is wearing a traditional Tehuana outfit: a boxy blouse embroidered with flowers, a scarlet broom skirt, substantial gold earrings. She is grinning, her hands clasped beatifically in front of her, and every now and then, she looks sardonically out of the corner of her eye. She seems young, and neither frail nor provocative. She is not dancing the tango. She’s just puttering about, sitting softly on the cement floor.

Kahlo was a person, after all, not just a transcendent image. She hoped to be remembered, as many artists do, but she ca⁄red most about being noticed and recognized by those closest to her. Most of the striking photographs of Kahlo in the exhibition were taken by her confidants and lovers. Appearances Can Be Deceiving charts out Kahlo’s life through these intense relationships, beginning with her devotion to her father, who took several striking gelatin portraits of her as a teenager, both before and after her accident. It then moves into Kahlo’s twenties and thirties, when she met not only the artist Diego Rivera (fully twice her age), but also a group of leftist friends and fellow artists (including Leon Trotsky and his wife, and the photographer Nickolas Muray) who supported her ambitions and filled her days with correspondence, inside jokes, and opportunities to play dress-up in front of a camera.

In a 1933 article from The Detroit News, reprinted on the wall of the exhibition, a photograph of Kahlo painting a self-​portrait appears under the headline: “wife of the master mural painter gleefully dabbles in works of art.” Obviously, there is much to mock here: There’s the use of “wife” (Kahlo was always proud of her association with Rivera, whom she married twice, but she balked at the infantilizing notion of being a Great Man’s partner); the use of “dabbles,” as if she merely painted as a hobby. Even in the 1930s, Kahlo refuted this kind of characterization. “Of course he does pretty well for a little boy,” she says of Rivera when interviewed for the same article. “But it is I who am the big artist.”

Over a hundred photographs in the show, some recovered recently from a locked room at La Casa Azul (this trove is the main argument for the show’s existence, archivally speaking), radiate this same confidence. There can be a tendency to view Kahlo as an isolated woman with a pained body, who depicted herself as a person split in half or as a wounded deer. But the exhibition clearly shows a rich social life. We see her at her home entertaining and in the market; we see her surrounded by friends like Miguel Covarrubias; we see her with comrades, artists, traveling companions.

Kahlo had a long-running affair with Muray, who shot some of the most recognizable images of her, including the photograph used to advertise the show in New York City subway stations (Kahlo sitting on a Manhattan rooftop, smoking a cigarette in traditional Oaxacan costume). A love note Muray wrote Kahlo in 1939 is a highlight, not because it is prurient but simply because it exists: “your adorable sweet letter,” he writes, “assured me of your rare intelligence.” And just like that, Kahlo again leaps out of the mythology and into reality. She had entanglements, she exchanged sappy notes, she deceived and was deceived.

The marquee room of the exhibition, the one that will draw crowds, is the final gallery, filled with Kahlo’s clothes and jewels, along with a compact recovered from her makeup table and perfume bottles (which, legend has it, she liked to fill with tequila when they were empty). There are rows of mannequins in huipils, the boxy tunics worn by Indigenous women throughout Central America, and which Kahlo wore almost every day, along with voluminous ruffle skirts. Kahlo was always proud of being Mexican, and she draped herself in traditional garments: rebozos, tomicotones, and maximalist Mazatec tunics. The room is an explosion of colors and textures and intricate embroidery.

But I spent the longest time in the small antechamber before this room, which featured the many back braces, plaster corsets, and prostheses Kahlo wore throughout her life. She decorated several of these items. The most dazzling example is a corset on which she painted undulating underwater imagery, with coral floating around her spine. There are corsets on which she depicted the hammer and sickle, and an elaborate leg prosthesis, which she fashioned with a red leather wedge boot and an appliqué of a Chinese dragon. Displayed behind plexiglass with pristine lighting, they are shown as works of art rather than therapeutic aids. Kahlo lived inside her body, this presentation seems to point out. She didn’t want to leap out of it or supersede it. She just wanted to wake up every morning and use it to create.

By the time you get to her lipsticks, you don’t just think of a woman in front of a mirror. You think of a woman going to a political meeting, or sitting for an interview, or sealing a love letter, or just taking pleasure in matching her lip color to the flowers on her head because it made her feel beautiful, and she liked feeling beautiful as she sat down to work. And in the end, it is the work, the dazzling colors and shapes, to which you return. All of this comes rushing through a single tube.