The fetishisation of radical politics

By Maia Mathieu
Conservative Party Conference 2017

Prime Minister Theresa May at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, 2017.

You know her unibrow, even if you don’t know her art. Since celebrities like Madonna discovered her art in the early nineties, Frida Kahlo has become a symbol of feminine perseverance, unconventional beauty, and individuality so readily identifiable that she’s an easy Halloween costume or calavera, even outside of the Latinx community. A recent Etsy search turned up 12,682 results tagged with her name and the Frida Kahlo Corporation, run by her descendants, offers the opportunity to have an officially licensed Frida VISA credit card. If she were alive to see it, I think she’d be disgusted. Much of the pop culture of Frida Kahlo is posthumous myth building on a deeply sentimental biography and an artsy biopic. Both of these soft-pedaled a very important detail about her life in favor of the more soapy stuff: Frida Kahlo was a devout communist, and she’d hate your tote bag.

Born in 1907, Kahlo would later fudge the year of her birth to 1910, the year of the Mexican revolution, as she considered herself a true daughter of the revolution. She joined the Mexican Communist party in 1928 as a young woman, and can be seen at the forefront of future husband Diego Rivera’s painting of the same year, En el Arsenal, taking up arms as part of the workers’ struggle. In 1930, Kahlo travelled to New York with Rivera when he was commissioned as a muralist by various patrons, including Nelson Rockefeller in 1932. The fresco was chiselled off the wall of Rockefeller Center soon after, as Rockefeller would not tolerate a mural prominently featuring Lenin. Kahlo’s disdain for ‘Gringolandia’ was obvious in her paintings and letters of the time. To the Communist League of America, Kahlo wrote, “I’ve learnt so much here and I’m more and more convinced it’s only through communism that we can become human.” Proudly Mexican, but with a German immigrant father, ‘Frieda’ dropped the Germanic ‘e’ from her name in 1935 to distance herself from the developing association of all things German with fascism.

Both of these soft-pedaled a very important detail about her life in favor of the more soapy stuff: Frida Kahlo was a devout communist, and she’d hate your tote bag.

Politics mattered a great deal to Kahlo, even though being in and out of hospitals didn’t lend itself to much practical action. She lived with chronic pain due to surviving a terrible trolley accident in her youth, and this left her bedridden for much of her life, with only her painting and interior world as solace. These unglamorous details are never included when she’s deemed ‘The Selfie Queen’, nor the fact that she was her own primary subject due to much of her work being done flat on her back on a specially made easel, and she had her inner world and a mirror to work from. Kahlo’s flower crowns, shawls and long skirts were a rebellion against the imperialism of Western beauty and fashion – they were elements of traditional Mexican peasant dress, and the long skirts hid the brace on her leg, withered from polio in her youth. Her ‘iconic’ unibrow was not a simple branding stunt, her autonomy over her own body deserves more respect than that.

Towards the end of her life, the inward-looking artist began to be more explicitly political in her work. Those later paintings show a less deft hand than her early work due to the pain medication she was on, particularly following the amputation of her leg due to gangrene. Until her death in 1954, Kahlo worked on several pieces featuring major communist luminaries. This work goes generally unexhibited and not merely because much of it is unfinished. The painting known posthumously as ‘Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick’ was originally titled ‘Peace on Earth so the Marxist Science may Save the Sick and Those Oppressed by Criminal Yankee Capitalism’ — there is no mistaking her intentions.

Her ‘iconic’ unibrow was not a simple branding stunt, her autonomy over her own body deserves more respect than that.

It’s an ugly truth faced by any woman with something to say and who exercises her right to say it that her personal life and appearance will attract at least as much scrutiny as her message. The fact that Kahlo’s face has become more ubiquitous than her work is the clearest example of this. Marketing never tells the whole story. The smallest glimpse of the life of this incredible artist, considering her values and her struggle and her art, highlights just how disturbing it is that her suffering and rebellion have become a visual shorthand for a certain sort of commodified funky, faux-rustic, in direct opposition to everything she strove for. Consider this when you’re looking at Etsy or whatever, and while you’re at it, maybe re-think that Che Guevara t-shirt, too.

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