Frida Kahlo loved hot pink lipstick, the color of crushed hibiscus blossoms, of flor de Jamaica, of bougainvillea vines crawling over stucco walls. Her chosen shade, at least later in her life, was Revlon’s “Everything’s Rosy,” which she purchased in golden bullet tubes in the 1940s, after Revlon opened a manufacturing plant in Mexico. Kahlo regularly matched her lips to her nails to the blooms in her hair: crimson, magenta, bubble gum. These kinds of details—the color of nail polish Kahlo liked to wear (Frosted Snow Pink) or her perfume (Guerlain’s Shalimar, Schiaparelli’s Shocking) or how she stayed moisturized (Pond’s lanolin Dry Skin Cream)—might distract from her work. But might they also offer a glimpse of an artist’s private rituals, a way of connecting to her daily practice?
Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving, a captivating new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of the artist’s personal items alongside her paintings and drawings, makes a strong case for the latter. It’s not the first show to emphasize a woman artist’s clothing, jewels, and other embellishments, pushing the argument that self-creation too, is a work worth admiring. In 2017, the museum had a hit with Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern, which displayed O’Keeffe’s pastel wrap dresses and Knize suits as well as her paintings of sand dunes and desiccated cow bones. It was an ingenious framing for O’Keeffe’s oeuvre, particularly because few were intimately familiar with her silk kimonos, her wide-brimmed hats, and heavy silver. It shaded in O’Keeffe’s broad outlines, and gave her work, which was so focused on grand, almost disembodied depictions of place, a flesh-and-blood component. Someone stood there, trying to paint the sky.
An exhibition focused on Frida Kahlo’s self-stylings feels thornier as a conceit. Because if the public knows one thing about Frida Kahlo, it’s what she looks like. Her image has become a commodity, adorning mugs and tote bags and posters, postcards, prayer candles, pillowcases. At the Manhattan bookstore the Strand, there is currently an entire collection of Kahlo merchandise: notebooks, fridge magnets, baseball caps. A Frida Kahlo Corporation exists to license her image for commercial use. In a 2015 New York Times article, one interviewee lamented that “there are a lot of people that have Frida refrigerator magnets that have never seen a Frida painting.”
This mass dissemination of—and, in cases, profiteering on—Kahlo’s image has been called Fridamania, or Fridolatry, or Kahloism. In their 2012 article “Made in Her Image: Frida Kahlo as Material Culture,” Kansas State University professors Lis Pankl and Kevin Blake write that “Kahlo now has a global pop culture status that challenges the likes of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe,” which makes the task of separating her biography from mythology extremely difficult. Her image now travels free of context. The result can be that the more we know about the artist, the less we understand about her art.