Often, when a member of a marginalized group achieves fame in an area in which her group lacks representation, she becomes an icon. This is nearly inevitable, and continues to happen today to women like Lena Dunham and Hillary Clinton.
Being an icon definitely has its perks. People love you. They want more of you and what you do. And they’ll pay.
But it also has it drawbacks. Icon status forces a person into symbol-status. No longer does who they are and what they do just represent them as individuals, but also the whole underrepresented group that identifies with them. Before long they are expected to be all things to all people, and somewhere in that process the focus on their work and message either becomes skewed or disappears.
Such a fate befell Frida Kahlo, the half-Jewish, Mexican, artist whose cult status has made her huge in the stationary and dorm-room poster business, but overlooked among the art elite. In a story on ArtNews, Carolina A. Miranda writes about a new Kahlo exhibit which is aiming to change this and get people thinking about her very real achievements as an artist. The show pairs Kahlo’s work with contemporary art, an attempt to illustrate how truly avant-garde she was in terms of painting style and subject matter.
Miranda writes about how Kahlo was respected in her lifetime — she was the first Mexican artist to have a painting acquired by the Louvre — but fell out of fashion after her death in 1954 while the work of her husband Diego Rivera and other Mexican muralists stayed relevant. Kahlo remained a “footnote” until feminist scholars who were actively seeking out work by women artists began paying attention in the late ‘70s. Before long she was at the center of a retrospective, which was later followed by a 500-page biography, and then in 2002 a movie directed by and starring Salma Hayek as the painter. All this attention certainly lifted the veil of obscurity off of Kahlo’s work, but also reinforced the idea that she was an icon first and painter second.
By pairing Kahlo’s work with that of boundary-pushing artists working today, this show might change that. For one, it will allow us to see how, as the curator put it, radical Kahlo’s approach was when it came to depicting women’s bodies. “The painting of physical, biological experiences of women—reproduction, abortion, miscarriages,” she told Miranda, “Kahlo put that top of mind.”
It will also remind us how making work that is deeply personal, using one’s life stories and even one’s body, was once seen as feminine and therefore trivial, but is now something even the guys do to. “My Struggle anyone?
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.
Free Frida Kahlo!