Beyond the Artist: The Cult of Frida Kahlo

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-5-45-57-pmBy Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

Frida Kahlo never shied away from publicity. Well before her death at age 47 in 1954 she was well known in Mexico City for her flamboyant style of dress, her tumultuous marriages to Diego Rivera, and her open affairs with both women and men of note, including Leon Trotsky. However, she currently has an international iconic status that did not start to blossom until almost 30 years after she died.

In the 1980s, Kahlo’s life was publicized through several media. Her romanticized biography, written by Hayden Herrera and published in 1983, became a global sensation and launched the world-wide Frida cult. The Mexican film Frida, Naturaleza Vida (Frida, Still Life) released the same year, also achieved international recognition and helped make Frida a household name.

Since 1983, and continuing up to today, numerous other books, films, stage plays, and operas presented her tempestuous life and stimulated great interest in her paintings. Major exhibitions of her works, over 50 of which are self-portraits, have taken place in the best known museums in cities throughout the Americas and Europe. Thanks to online digital “tours” of some of these exhibitions, people can re-create the experience of attending, years after the exhibitions have closed. Frida’s face – as she portrayed herself – is instantly recognized by millions of people.

Casa Azul, the house where Frida was born, spent the last fourteen years of her life, and died is a pilgrimage destination for hundreds of thousands of Kahlo devotees and becomes a highlight of their trip to Mexico. Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera, donated the house to the government of Mexico in 1958 with the proviso that the homestead be maintained as it was when she died and used as a museum to display her art works. As the cult of Kahlo grew so did the number of visitors to the site in Coyoacán, a part of Mexico City. Today Casa Azul is one of the most visited tourist sites in Mexico City. Over 5000 TripAdvisor reviewers have ranked the museum as seventh in the list of best things to do in Mexico.

Frida’s posthumous fame has inspired a whole commercial industry devoted to capitalizing on her clothes and appearance. We ourselves bought into this cult by acquiring a shopping bag which has a huge picture of Frida’s face on the front. A guest gave us an orange lacquered box with Frida’s portrait that is being used to hold earrings. Other items that can be purchased with Frida portraits are virtually limitless and include purses, pins, earrings, fans, headbands, posters, magnets, pillows, stickers, and, of course, t-shirts.

In addition to articles with portraits of Frida, whole lines of clothing in the styles worn by and represented in her paintings are available to Kahlo fans. Black satin Tehuana dresses sell for over $1000 (US), although less expensive models are also available. And enough Frida-like earrings and necklaces have been produced to sink a battleship.

Almost every major exhibition of Kahlo’s paintings has been accompanied by sales of reproductions of her art. Millions of homes have posters, coasters, and other forms of her paintings. And although three decades have passed since the inception of the Kahlo cult, the exhibitions of her painting and shows featuring photos of Kahlo, and more recently photos of her clothes, are still very popular.

Who benefits from all these sales and shows? Well, definitely not the Kahlo family. They have expressed dismay at not benefitting from Frida’s fame. Taking a cue from so many others who have cashed in on the Frida cult, the family announced in 2005 that they were going to start a boutique tequila factory with bottles bearing the famous face priced at $90. Frida’s grandniece pointed out to a reporter from the LA Times that the business was appropriate since Frida was known to drink a lot of tequila. The factory appears to have become a going concern – but given the current strength of the dollar over the peso, a bottle can now be purchased for about $60 US.

The past decade has witnessed an ongoing interest in and reverence of Kahlo, along with sudden appearances of formerly undisclosed artifacts, including paintings. The art world has been rocked with battles over whether or not these new findings are treasures or forgeries. But whatever the answer, the publicity has helped assure that the cult of Frida Kahlo remains undiminished.

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