From pain to profit

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Frida Kahlo has become one of the most recognisable faces of the 20th and 21st century, with her piercing gaze, striking monobrow and vibrant Mexican garb staring up at you from whatever product she’s been plastered onto, whether that be earrings on Amazon or even a dedicated fast fashion line: the Shein x Frida Kahlo collection.

Yet how many of us really know the meaning behind the flowers in her hair? The intentionality of her exaggerated brow? Or the fact that her art was her therapy, not a tool for profit? 

Indeed, consumerism has cherry-picked its preferred parts of Kahlo’s identity

Plenty of us know about the 1925 bus accident that changed the course of her life forever, when a bus railing pierced her abdomen, stabbing through to her uterus, leaving her spine fractured in six places, her leg shattered in eleven, a dislocated shoulder and a broken collarbone. Miraculously, she survived, but aged only 18 she was confined to a wheelchair under the prediction that she would never walk again and live the rest of her life in chronic pain. So, Kahlo had to give up on her ideas of finishing her Medicine degree and resigned herself to recovery in confinement. 

This initial confinement brought long bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts for Frida as she came to terms with her severe physical restrictions, often heavily drugged with pain medications. So, she began exclusively to paint self-portraits to understand her new disabled body, charting its transformation across 32 surgeries, until she died aged 47 in her home in Coyoacán in 1954.

Her main subject matter was her pain. But this pain is all but dismissed, if not consciously concealed, by the commercialisation Kahlo and her work has fallen victim to. Naturally, merchandising hasn’t chosen Kahlo’s most graphic works to decorate a mug with: Henry Ford Hospital (1933), painted after Kahlo’s first (of three) miscarriages would be an incredibly inappropriate subject matter to sip your morning brew from. Instead, consumerism has cherry picked its preferred parts of Kahlo’s identity.  

Many posters of Frida, whether graphic design or photographic, show the artist with more makeup than she ever depicted herself with. It is one thing to emphasise her red lips and flushed cheeks, but another to air brush and contour her features, belittling Frida Kahlo from being a world-renowned female artist, to a beauty filter. After all, her monobrow is striking enough, but the shadow of her moustache suggests a masculinity that rarely makes the cut for the final product. These features, symbolic of her pride in her indigenous Mexican heritage, draw too uncomfortable a parallel with the indigenous atrocities committed in the consumer’s colonial past. What is more, is the omission of her physical impediments in merchandise. Kahlo often had to walk with a crutch due to the pain caused by her accident and her childhood polio. Yet we always see her in her “most complete” form, despite artworks such as The Broken Column (1944) or A Few Small Nips (1935) exposing the extent of her physical and emotional suffering. It exemplifies how a woman cannot just be valued for her success in her field without conforming (or having her image conformed) to meet a consumer-friendly beauty standard.  

It is deeply ironic that Kahlo has become a product to the same system that her core beliefs and political ideology stand against

It makes sense then that Kahlo’s fervently communist politics are glazed over. Few know about her notorious affair with Leon Trotsky, her and her on-and-off husband’s (muralist Diego Rivera) lifelong devotion to the communist party, or how she was a proud supporter of Joseph Stalin. Indeed, on a visit to America with her husband, who had been (somewhat ironically) commissioned by the Rockerfeller family, she expressed a serious distaste for American society and its values, dubbing it ‘Gringolandia’. Her nickname exposes the general lack of respect for Hispanic culture that exists in America. Just like the irony of the Rockerfeller’s commission, it is deeply ironic that Kahlo has become a product to the same system that her core beliefs and political ideology stand against. 

Today when somebody says Frida Kahlo, we think of an “exotic beauty” surrounded by bright tropical flowers rather than hammers and sickles, or just as that Mexican artist that got hit by a bus. Her life-long emotional turmoil, the celebration of her ‘Mexicanidad’, her disabilities that make her art and Kahlo herself so powerful, are disrespectfully reduced to a marketable image that can be flogged on as many key chains and throw pillows as Etsy desires.  

Image Credit: Brett Sayles via Pexels

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