Academic journal article Material Culture

Made in Her Image: Frida Kahlo as Material Culture

Academic journal article Material Culture

Made in Her Image: Frida Kahlo as Material Culture

Article excerpt

Abstract Frida Kahlo's art and persona are powerful examples of material culture. This article examines how Kahlo's development and influences from early twentieth-century Mexico City played crucial roles in her personas as artist and celebrity. This article notes the contested nature of Kahlo's status as female artist and details the geographical and historical circumstances that led to her reigning title as the most famous Latin American artist. This examination of Kahlo's positionality demonstrates how Kahlo's appropriation and production of material culture began even in her own lifetime and continues to multiply at an astonishing pace in the current milieu.


Frida Kahlo's image and art are hot commodities. Their marketability includes not only the selling of her actual paintings and photographs, but also a host of tangible items ranging from magnets to tennis shoes. These items can be found online, in tourist shops, in museum gift shops, and in other offbeat capitalistic enterprises (Borsa 1990). A friend of the authors' recently came back from a trip to Berkeley, California with Frida Kahlo socks purchased from a generic 'ethnic' shop (Figure 1). This 'Fridamania' or 'Fridolatry' or even 'Kahloism,' has been non-stop since Kahlo's rediscovery as an artist - a cultural phenomenon that some pinpoint to the 1982 exhibition of both Kahlo and Italian photographer Tina Modotti at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, some to the 1983 publication of Hayden Herrera's biography, Frida, and yet others to the flowering of Chicana and feminist art movements in the 1970s (Heiland 1991; Bergman-Carton 1993; Francis 2001; Dosamantes-Beaudry 2002). In particular, Herrera's book has an accessibility and broad emotional appeal that helped catapult Kahlo to high-profile popular culture, including the matronage of Madonna, and a shot of Melanie Griffith reading Frida in the opening scene of the 1986 film Something Wild (Bergman-Carton 1993).

Prior to her rise to individual fame and notoriety, Kahlo was known primarily, both abroad and in Mexico, as Diego Rivera's wife; the headline of her death in 1954 in The New York Times read "Frida Kahlo, Artist, Diego Rivera's Wife." Kahlo now has a global pop culture status that challenges the likes of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe; yet, it is the attention she receives in academic space, in the international art world, and as an emerging national symbol in Mexico that makes her unique as an icon of material culture.

It is certainly no accident that Kahlo's popularity rose with the linguistic and cultural turn in the humanities and social sciences. With a greater emphasis on representation and identity politics, the academy found in Kahlo a perfect subject for analysis. Kahlo's complex ethnicity (Hungarian/German father, mestizo mother), artistic autoeroticism, and evident links to gender construction are of much appeal to poststructuralists (Greer 2005; Dragomir 2009). While Kahlo's strong connection to a postmodern sensibility is intriguing, it often leads critics to ignore her geographical and historical context within post- Revolutionary Mexico City (Borsa 1990; Baddeley 1991).

In the following essay we imbue Kahlo within her geographical and historical context and examine the ways in which Kahlo constructed herself as material culture. The theoretical foundation of the essay allows a further examination of how her image and the reproduction of her artwork are transformed into material culture in the contemporary milieu. Essential to our narrative is a progression beyond Kahlo's standard biography. A frequent complaint in the literature is the obsessive focus on the colorful details of Kahlo's life and their supposed direct connection to her work. Although Kahlo's personal narrative is significant in any discussion of her artistic identity, an overemphasis on it has the tendency to mask what David Lomas describes as "the disruptive force of her imagery" (1993: 5). …

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