Nowadays when most people think of Frida Kahlo, there are clear associations that leap to the front of their mind – neo-Mexican artist, feminist and style icon are now attributes that are commonly associated with her and her work, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact this wasn’t the case at all until around 25 years after her death in 1954. Kahlo has been posthumously branded for a new generation of consumer, and many of the things that are now thought to be ‘typically Frida’ would have been considered completely atypical when taken in context with her life and work.
The first major achievement in the rebranding of Kahlo is the popular notion that she would have been popular, well known and artistically relevant during her lifetime. Unfortunately she was for the most part overshadowed, often quite literally, by her enormous husband Diego Rivera. He was a giant in the Mexican art scene and was internationally renowned for his revolutionary murals and fiery ideals, and Kahlo was often simply referred to in the press and by the media as ‘Rivera’s wife’. In Detroit where Rivera created the legendary Detroit Industry Murals, a newspaper at the time carried the headline “Wife Of The Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles In Works Of Art” in reference to Kahlo’s work.
The epic scale of Rivera’s work, the man himself and his larger than life persona made him a tough act to follow, let alone compete against. So it was only after her death that Kahlo’s work started to gain wide recognition for its own merit, and even then it wasn’t straight away, but almost three decades later in the early 1980s. Kahlo’s work was picked up by the Neomexicanismo Movement and by the Feminist Art Movement and was promoted by both as clear examples of what they represented. This was the first wide scale public endorsement of her artwork since the Louvre purchased her painting, The Frame, back in 1939, but it was ironic in that Kahlo had never really displayed any of the qualities that the feminist movement espoused, but had for the most part played the role of the timid wife in public, and had deferred to Rivera’s talents artistically.
Ironic or not, they were highly successful in fostering this opinion, and now the idea that Kahlo was a popular and influential feminist artist during her lifetime is a widely held one. That has in turn resulted in the ability to mass market the Kahlo brand, which was previously a niche product. There are now Kahlo movies, books, plays, music, clothing, running shoes, tequila, beer and more, many of which are licensed by the Frida Kahlo Corporation, established by Kahlo’s niece Isolda Kahlo, and now run by her great-niece Cristina Kahlo. Hopefully in between all this commercialism, Kahlo’s artwork won’t get lost – she was the Surrealist who utilised a brush and canvas in the same way most people use a shrink. Despite all the attempts to market this and rebrand that, the real Frida endures in her artwork, and at the end of the day it’s her artwork that will outlast the rest of it.