Frida Kahlo’s bold portraits stare back at viewers from every surface: wallets, shoes, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and, of course, her actual paintings. She has been elevated to a pop culture icon akin to Dalí or Van Gogh and you would be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t at least recognize her name. However, despite the popularity of her image, many still do not know the actual person behind the portrait.
One of the defining moments of Frida Kahlo’s life was also her most tragic. As a teenager, the Mexican artist was severely injured in a bus accident that left her incapacitated for months. During the accident, a handrail impaled her hip and fractured her spine, resulting in lifelong health issues and chronic pain. It was during those long days lying in a hospital bed that she learned to paint, and it was this tragedy that inspired much of her work.
One of her pieces, Tree of Hope, Remain Strong, made many years after the crash is half self-portrait and half surrealist landscape depicting two Fridas: one lying broken on a hospital bed and the other dressed in traditional Mexican garb and holding the back brace that would confine Kahlo for years. Yet even with the dark imagery, the title of the piece speaks to Frida’s strength and resilience. From the very beginning of her career, her art was shaped by her woes and the brutally honest portraits she created unmask the pain and tragedy she suffered throughout her life. The surrealism of her portraits and the starkness of her body and face are common features of her artworks.
Tree of Hope, Remain Strong (1946)
Kahlo later went on to marry the famous Mexican muralist and political activist Diego Rivera—a relationship that would inspire even more turmoil to fuel her art. Despite cheating on each other, separating, and suffering miscarriages multiple times throughout their marriage, the two artists supported one another. Frida would travel with Diego for his portraits, including a trip to New York in which he was fired by Rockefeller for including Lenin in the painting he had been commissioned for.
Known during her lifetime mainly as Diego Rivera’s wife and with only moderate success as a painter, it is a wonder that her artwork has earned some much deserved international recognition in recent decades. Since she is most well known for her portraits, it makes sense that her face would be printed on merchandise years after her death in 1954, however, it would be doing her legacy a disservice to remember her only for her unibrow and sharp gaze. Frida Kahlo was a woman of strong convictions; she was a proud communist and a Mexican nationalist. She would even go as far as to claim her birthday was in 1910, the year the Mexican Revolution began, rather than the true date of 1907. These convictions are often overshadowed by her image being presented without the context of her character. That a fierce socialist would have her face printed and sold on products all across the world is more than a little ironic.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with all the merchandise featuring her art and image; it does, after all, keep her legacy as an incredible female artist alive. However, it is a shame that her life story and the ideas she campaigned for are lost in translation and reduced to just a woman known for her face and unusual portraits. It is easy to understand the desire to own a product with Frida Kahlo on it. She is one of the most prominent Mexican artists and has become a feminist icon in recent years, but I don’t believe that is the only reason people are obsessed with her image. Perhaps it is the openness of her face, the baring of her pain, or the unapologetic nature of her art that attracts people to her portraits. Whatever the reason may be, her distinctive image continues to inspire new artists and bring everyday people into the world of art history.
Thinking About Death (1943)
Border Line Between Mexico and the United States (1932)
Self-Portrait With Stalin (1954)
“Frida Kahlo Biography.” Frida Kahlo: Paintings, Biography, and Quotes, www.fridakahlo.org/.
Gomez, Isabella. “Frida Kahlo: Radical Artist, Political Activist, Icon.” Teen Vogue, www.teenvogue.com.