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The Day Frida Kahlo Went From A Communist Artist To A Multimillion Dollar Corporation

Por: Maria Suarez 11 de septiembre de 2017

You’ve probably seen the t-shirts, the travel mugs, the shoes, the sheet sets, or even the bottles of booze. Lately, it seems that everywhere you turn, you’re sure to find the image of famous painter Frida Kahlo staring back at you. Okay, maybe not lately, but in the last decade commercial interest in the artist has gone from slight amusement and curiosity to a global movement that nobody seems to understand. The woman who barely reached critical and public acclaim in her lifetime, and was overshadowed by her husband’s fame, is now an icon. Celebrities dress up as her, even painting thickened eyebrows on their faces. The most sought-after haute couture designers create runway designs inspired by her own personal style. Hundreds of thousands of visitors walk through the museum of her home in Mexico City each year. And yet, I can’t help but wonder if Frida would actually be okay with any of this.

Frida became the legend she is because she was so against the grain of how women were supposed to look, act, and behave. She transgressed against the established norms of her time. However, if we see her through the eyes of our twenty-first century reality, we’re only able to grasp her style as a statement outfit. We’re unable to perceive that for the artist to stay true to herself, as a bisexual androgynous woman, her only choice was to be an outcast.

Our current generation also loves to dwell on the fact that Frida was a hard drinker, but we conveniently forget that this was due to being in constant pain. The accident that changed her life forever has also been diminished because we cannot fathom the staggering amount of pain and discomfort she endured in her lifetime. We’ve also revised her history by talking about her multiple miscarriages rather than admitting that most likely these pregnancies were terminated, since she wouldn’t have survived carrying them to term.

So we’re left with a manicured version of the artist. An easy to swallow personality and story that doesn’t conflict with our vision of the world. This idealized Frida is also easier to market. You have a rebel without the parts that don’t match your world view. It’s like having the counterculture without having to actually make tough statements and choices. It’s a win-win situation, because you feel better about yourself not going the extra mile for your beliefs while still believing yourself to be a force for good.

Within this marketing scheme there is legal battle that’s been brewing since 2005 who is the actual heir to the Frida Kahlo empire. This began when two different groups arose claiming to be the rightful owners to the right to reproduce and commercialize the artist’s image. One is called the Frida Kahlo Corporation, which is based in the US. The other is Frikahlo de Mexico S.A. de C.V. (another corporation but based in Mexico). Both parties claim to be the closest remaining relatives of the painter, as well as they believe they should be the sole owners of the copyright of the artist’s image.

However, upon taking a closer look, you’ll find that, while both parties are actual distant relatives of the Mexican painter, they are not the rightful heirs to her art and image. In 1955 Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera, set up a trust with the Bank of Mexico so that Frida’s house, the copyright to the bodies of work of the both of them, the couple’s collection of pre-Columbian art, as well as the Anahuacalli Museum, would become heritage for the Mexican people. This was done with the intention that the art would be properly cared for and preserved.

But let’s focus on this point. The fact that this was done goes back to who Frida and Diego really were. Both artists were outspoken in their views against capitalism and traditional societal standards of the time. Frida herself was an outsider in Mexican society due to her nonconformist perspectives. She was a communist who would not have been okay with her face being used to sell alcohol, makeup, or even housewares.

It’s also very conveniently revisionist to use Frida as a symbol of individuality by people who would not have accepted her if they’d known her. Her brows were not a fashion statement. They were an anti-statement. Instead of accepting the European heteronormative feminine ideal, she wore traditional Oaxacan clothing when she wasn’t using more androgynous options. The style so many admire is actually a middle finger to the concepts of beauty. The fact that people are now trying to make a buck out of her counterculture nature is both hypocritical and condescending.

So, next time you see a product with Frida’s face or artwork on it, consider who you are actually helping. If you’re interested in supporting artists, see them for who they are, rather than who you’d like them to be. You don’t have to believe in the same things as they do to appreciate their work. You just need to respect them as people who have their own history and perceptions.

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