Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine, 1939. Photo credit: © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo was an artist whose image is so distinctive that it is still being co-opted by designers the world over for everything from tote bags to cushion covers. However, Tania O’Donnell argues that Frida is not a cutesy, colourful icon to be tamed by whoever craves a safe touch of the exotic.

I think it was the anime Frida that did it. That was the point at which I thought that things had gone too far. Much like the appropriation of Che Guevara’s famous beret image to sell everything from t-shirts to pop art, Frida Kahlo’s image is everywhere. There is something appealing about her colourful traditional clothes, the flowers in her hair, the Blue House where she was born, lived and died, and, of course, her refreshing lack of eyebrow and upper lip hair removal. She means something to every woman and, for those familiar with her story, the beauty she managed to bring into the world despite being in constant pain is a supreme act of love and her legacy. She gave us something really special.

It is for this reason that I’ve become more and more irritated at the twee Frida stuff that almost every interiors company has been flogging. There are paintings and photographs of models pretending to be Frida (the vast majority of them not Mexican and some without the famous brow) and her face is on cushions and tea towels and all manner of bumpf. I’ve had a Frida print in my collection since I was a teenager, but it is not an ill-informed ode to Frida, it is one of her paintings. She was a fabulous enough artist to hold her own and not need to be made smaller, into a pastiche of herself.

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America, Frida Kahlo, 1932 (c) Modern Art International Foundation (Courtesy María and Manuel Reyero)

I was afraid that the new exhibition at the V&A would go down this road of making the cult of personality more important than the work, but it has been beautifully curated and, as another critic said, it shows that Frida Kahlo was a performance artist as well as one that worked in the medium of paint. She made herself the art as much as the art she produced.

The objects add to your knowledge of the artist rather than pander to a modern desire to reduce everything to flowers and frippery. There is her hand-painted plaster corset, a red leather booted prosthetic leg, her make-up (she wore Revlon), photographs, clothes and art. It reinvigorated my love of her and reminded me of my teenage passion for her work. It stands the test of time and still appeals to my adult self.

Self-portrait with monkey, 1945

I got back home and painted a frame in two coats of flamingo pink Protek wood paint, which I knew would pop against the blue I had already painted our hallway in homage to the blues of Mexico. I took out the Frida self-portrait print I have and framed it. There is an indescribable pleasure in seeing this much-imitated artist’s self-portrait on the wall each morning…. but you can still keep the cushions to yourself.