It’s safe to say that Frida Kahlo has become trendy. White women dress up as her for Halloween and there’s merchandise of her likeness (tote bags, t-shirts) for days. In the process of Kahlo becoming the sort of contemporary art figure better celebrated for her appearance and style rather than her actual art, the political, explicitly Communist nature of her work has been whitewashed in the process. Kahlo was a radical, not just a cool-looking woman to print on a sock.
You’d think that a recent survey exhibition of Kahlo’s life, coming to the Brooklyn museum this February, would seek to reverse this unfortunate perception of her work. But a recent interview with one of the curators of the show in the New York Times only further emphasizes the idea that Kahlo is a fashion plate whose mythical, beautiful life is worth exploring more than her art.
In addition to (I hope) her paintings, the exhibit “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” also includes her beauty products, clothing (“Kahlo delivered red-carpet moments wherever she went,” the NYT piece reads), meditations on her jewelry, and a recreation of objects found in Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s home. “There’s an aura in the presence of her actual things that you just can’t experience through media and Instagram,” Catherine Morris, a senior curator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, told the paper. “If you look at her images, she always had a perfect manicure.”
I’m sorry, but why am I supposed to care about this? Kahlo was a visually striking figure who painted many self-portraits, but building an exhibit centered around her looks and accessories only further emphasizes her status as a woman valued by society for her quirky looks and not her work. To hone in on her jewelry or lipstick shade takes her self-portraits at face value and treats them like glamour shots rather than works of art. I can’t think of an exhibit for a male artist where I was confronted with the clothes he wore, or the products he shaved with, or a gallery ethos that inexplicably connected his self-representation with modern “brand building.” And yet reading about the selection of objects included in Kahlo’s survey exhibition, I’m reminded of the Brooklyn Museum’s Georgia O’Keefe exhibit a few years ago which treaded disturbingly similar territory, filling the gallery with the artist’s clothes and the many portraits taken of her and her home. The exhibit, the Brooklyn Museum explained, took “a new look at how the renowned modernist artist proclaimed her progressive, independent lifestyle through a self-crafted public persona—including her clothing and the way she posed for the camera.”
Just because a huge portion of Kahlo “fans” whitewash her art and don’t engage with or understand the totality of her work does not mean that museums should simplify the exhibits of her art. Exhibitions of Kahlo’s work in 2019 should teach the public that she’s more than her unibrow and, frankly, more than her biography. The overemphasis on Kahlo’s things here feeds into a greater problem with how critics and historians have traditionally approached and analyzed her art as well as the art of women in general: focusing too heavily on biography as the meaning behind all the work. In an essay I wrote last year on feeling tired at critics over-analyzing women’s art recently through a lens of MeToo (a.k.a. their life and trauma), I traced that impulse back to Kahlo, writing:
Frida Kahlo’s life story, which included intense physical trauma as the result of a bus accident, as well as a lifelong struggle with infertility, can often be overemphasized in critical revisitations of her work which began in that same ’70s feminist moment. Kahlo’s self-portraits came to be seen as literally diaristic in ways which flattened the political intensity of her paintings, which were more than just reflections on her personal suffering but also her existence as a Mexican woman and a Communist. “The psychological reductionism that equates the bloody, brutal imagery in Kahlo’s work with a desire to ‘paint away’ her accident, suffering, and pain does little justice to her work,” historian Janice Helland once argued in her essay on Culture, Politics, and Identity in the Paintings of Frida Kahlo.
Museums simply cannot stage an exhibition of a women artist and focus solely on her appearance without feeding into age-old, sexist stereotypes of women artists. Exhibitions of women’s art, a relatively modern concept considering the misogyny that has weighed down women artists for decades, should stick to the work, not the lipstick.