Two hundred-fifty pages, 19,625 items.
That’s how many products are available on Etsy.com bearing the image or words or work of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Cupcake toppers, painted planters, lanyards – even items bearing the likeness of actress Salma Hayek, who played Kahlo in the 2002 movie “Frida,” may be purchased.
Why is there such an enduring fan base around the artist, who died at age 47 in 1954?
On Wednesday, Judith Reynolds will explore Kahlo’s seemingly never-ending popularity in her presentation “Fridamania: The Art, Career and Cultural Legacy of Frida Kahlo,” as part of Center of Southwest Studies’ free Summer Lecture Series, this year themed “Hispanidad!”
For art historian and Herald contributor Reynolds, there are five possible reasons people are still so fascinated by Kahlo: Our celebrity culture, Kahlo’s persona, the artist’s tragic life, her highly accessible artistic style and Kahlo’s self-disclosure in her work.
Kahlo was born July 6, 1907, and while professionally she was a success, her personal life was fraught with drama, both physical and emotional, a life Reynolds sees as a story of pain, struggle and resilience. Because of early onset polio at age 6 and a horrendous 1925 bus accident at age 18, Kahlo had an extraordinary medical history, Reynolds said, noting that she underwent more than 30 spine operations, several foot operations and had four unsuccessful pregnancies. She wore various orthopedic devices throughout her life, and was in constant pain. Shortly before her death, her right leg was amputated, and she died a week after her 47th birthday.
“Kahlo chronicled all of this in intense detail in her more than 40 self-portraits. I think people today latch onto her personal story of struggle, pain, persistence and resilience,” Reynolds said. “My view is that her life was complex, difficult, painful and, ultimately, tragic.”
And, especially in today’s endless stream of celebrity news, Kahlo’s life was the stuff of Page Six and TMZ.
Kahlo’s life was full of drama, and she was catapulted into international fame in the 1930s partly because of her famous husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera – whom she married, divorced and remarried – Reynolds said. In time, her colorful and dramatic life superseded his, and she’s now more famous as an artist than Rivera ever was.
“That’s the world we live in, and it’s fueled by mass media,” Reynolds said. “A small number of celebrities are elevated to superstar status and are kept there with fresh information, scandals, records, marital difficulties, exhibitions and commercial products.”
Part of Kahlo’s lasting allure, Reynolds said, is also her persona – the way she looked. Close your eyes and picture Kahlo – what do you see? Hers was an iconic look, Reynolds said.
“After her student days, when she wore a school uniform and had short, curly hair, she changed her look for Diego. To please him and identify herself with her half-Mexican heritage, she dressed in a conventional, folklike, ultra-feminine manner: Tehuana outfits, long skirts and shawls, flowers in her upswept hair – a perfect Mexican wife,” she said. “She was petite, pretty and she exaggerated her ‘unibrow’ to distinguish herself from other women.”
And through her highly accessible art was her use of self-disclosure: The good, the bad and the ugly. Kahlo chronicled her life and struggles – not so far removed from what we do today, Reynolds said.
“Historians have labeled our era a Culture of Narcissism or the Therapeutic Age; it’s interesting now that we’ve morphed into the Age of the Selfie,” she said. “What better pioneer of self-disclosure than Frida Kahlo? She was a perfect personality and visual artist for our time.”
Unfortunately, much of Kahlo’s struggle has been lost in her popularity, and in the undying commercial appeal of her life and art.
“Most of the for-profit Frida images and interpretations have been sanitized. She’s been turned into a Barbie doll, socks, T-shirts, mugs, pins, iPhone covers and tote bags. Other than her physical resilience, the idolatry surprises me,” Reynolds said. “I question how and why feminists and political activists have championed her. If people knew her story and not just the commercial imagery, it would be another matter. But that’s how commercial exploitation works – change the image, sell the products. Print the legend, not the reality.”
For Reynolds, there is much to be taken from Kahlo’s life and art.
“Stand in awe of both,” Reynolds said. “She lived an extraordinary life. She created indelible, autobiographical images.”