THE APPROPRIATION OF FRIDA KAHLO: COMMUNIST OR CAPITALIST?
FIRSTLY, I’m gonna make things real clear: I love Frida Kahlo. She is my favourite artist and style icon. This piece is not a criticism of her, but of the capitalist art world that is usurping her image.
In July, I finally got to live my dream and go to La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s home in Mexico City, now a museum dedicated to her life and work. And… It. Was. So. Disappointing. Firstly, you had to pay 230-250 Mexican pesos entry – about a tenner, which is expensive for Mexico (Mexico has some amazing art and anthropological museums that are either free or about £3 equivalent). I have an issue with making people pay for art period, but this just didn’t sit right with me because (enter theme of the essay) FRIDA KAHLO WAS A COMMUNIST PEOPLE. I am disappointed again and again by the capitalization on Kahlo and her work because I think she would be disgusted by it. You see it time and time again, in the recent exhibition of her wardrobe at the V&A and in every fucking gallery gift shop. Disclaimer: I do own Kahlo memorabilia in the form of cushions (I’ll touch on the white-washing of her for profit in a sec) that were a gift and I also don’t wanna problematize every person who loves her work and wants to honour it/have access to it in their own home. What I wanna critique here is the broader culture because I think once we’re aware of it we can act more mindfully and respectfully.
The museum was absolutely packed. Like, I don’t think they should be letting that many people in but obviously the more people = the more money. It was like being on a tourist carousel where you couldn’t fully appreciate the artwork because of people in the way and physical pressure to move to the next piece. Like the V&A, they had on display her clothes, many from the infamous bathroom. This I agree with for sure – Kahlo used her image as an extension of her art and as a statement against the beauty prescriptions of Western culture by honoring indigenous dress. But that last part is rarely touched on in exhibitions of her clothes, and it wasn’t at La Casa Azul either. Instead, most of the emphasis seemed to be on the fact that Diego liked her in these outfits, completely glossing over her own strong anti-colonialist and anti-Western beliefs.
Another thing La Casa Azul has in common with the V&A: the displaying of her medicine. This I also don’t like one bit. To me it seems to be defining Kahlo by her disability – something that her clothes pointedly tried to make sure didn’t happen by concealing her back brace and amputated leg. I think the art that Kahlo made in relation to her disability and her body was her defiance at being defined by her disability. It shows her desire to be the author of her own life, and have control over how and when her disability is perceived. Showing the casts that she painted is different – she chose to make statements out of those. Her medicine, especially that was locked away, seems deeply personal and private.
But Kahlo has ceased to have the right to that distinction between private and public. She has been co-opted by the art and fashion world and her radical narrating of her own life taken up and used to promote the ‘self-love’ culture which is actually just a half-arsed attempt at making the commodification of the body seem feminist. Even as the communist symbol of a hammer and sickle on her cast is displayed, it is part of the wider appropriation of art for capital gain. As is the way her disability is displayed. My least favourite part of the exhibition? The designer dresses (including one by Jean Paul Gautier) claiming to be “inspired” by Kahlo by taking braces and disability and making it fashion. Because taking a back brace and putting it on a gown worn by an undoubtedly white, skinny, able-bodied model isn’t problematic at all. And I’m sure Kahlo would agree…
La Casa Azul – I didn’t get any pictures inside because (you guessed it!) you had to pay
There were parts of the house that it was truly wonderful to see – like footage of Kahlo and Diego in the courtyard, where Kahlo seems truly happy. Seeing the actual rooms she lived in preserved was major interior design inspo, but overall I left with a deep sense of sadness at the lack of engagement with Kahlo’s political beliefs. Exhibitions talk about Trotsky and Kahlo, but only really focus on their romance rather than Kahlo’s communism. Because why would they? That would completely undermine the selling of “Frida” that goes on in the art world and the profit that they are now making off of her. Kahlo has been white-washed and “beautified” by Western standards – often her skin is paler and her hair less pronounced in images of her reproduced on gift shop paraphernalia – to make her sellable and to erase her critique of capitalism and the West so that it cannot inspire people to act today.
But what do you think? Is it maybe fair of Mexico to be the one gaining tourism from their most famous artist? Would Kahlo have actually really enjoyed seeing her face reproduced everywhere? Is money not the measure of success, and is Kahlo not the most successful female artist, and so isn’t the “Frida obsession” a feminist victory? I invite you to the discussion. Submit your responses here.