How did an eccentric former model and the central bank of Mexico come to mismanage as much of Frida Kahlo’s estate as Kahlo’s own niece?¹ How is it that a former muse of Diego Rivera withheld some of Kahlo’s most famous paintings while the Mexican government failed to enforce the fiduciary trust responsible for this national treasure?²
There are more questions than answers and a small cast of characters that include two museums and two nieces continue to compete for the marketing and management of a legend that wasn’t always revered.³
Kahlo’s likeness personifies Mexico the same way Marilyn Monroe epitomized classic Hollywood. Unlike France’s Edith Piaf, Kahlo and Monroe’s faces have been marketed as pop art with wild success.
Almost any souvenir shop or stand in any Mexican surf town, big city or pueblo magico will likely have some kind of Frida Kahlo something or other for sale. And none of these souvenirs, from shoulder bags to coffee mugs to jewelry, seem to violate the Mexican Federal Law of Author’s Rights.⁴ But where does that money go?
Part of Kahlo’s legacy may or may not be owned by a company that’s actually called ACME.⁵ In what seems to be an un-ironically named enterprise that has nothing to do with the Road Runner cartoon they sell knick-knacks and pens and money clips of no artistic value but limitless potential to clutter up junk drawers around the world. They also seem to have legal rights to market tchotchkes with the iconic Dark Side of the Moon cover art and a menagerie of other pop culture iconography.
ACME seems to have licensed Kahlo’s name and signature to Soriana, the Mexican Safeway/Target-type chain of household superstores. And Soriana is selling discount dinnerware under Frida Kahlo’s name with a registered trademark. These boxed sets of barely-better-than-camping cookware bare no likeness to Kahlo nor her art. The two-tone black and white has an occasional peacock feather with a bored green splotch and one errant peacock itself with a dollop of dull Crayola cornflower blue.
“Backed by wealthy investors, niece Isolda Pinedo Kahlo said the Frida Kahlo Corp. wants to ‘place the name Frida Kahlo as a brand that expresses and reflects strength, energy, commitment and passion.’”³
Communist Kahlo likely would’ve abhorred the commodification of her visage plastered all over everything from journals (guilty) and grocery totes to magnets and crop tops. I would venture to say her face has been even more commodified than Che’s. No one is putting his face or name on maxi pads and credit cards. And no one is trying to make a Ken doll⁶ in his likeness.
“Frida Kahlo is not a product or a brand… Frida Kahlo is not a doll. For us, it is important to maintain the image of Frida Kahlo as the painter that she was.” Cristina Kahlo, the artist’s great niece.
In a world where anything can be reproduced quickly, cheaply and on a mass scale, combined with “entrepreneurial” opportunism and access, it’s no surprise the market is flooded with reductive knock-offs.
Kahlo’s legacy can’t be diluted but it is being disrespected when not properly managed. Just because every stoned surfer recognizes her face doesn’t equate art appreciation. Neither connoisseurs nor the newly curious can experience the depth and complexity of her work when her museum is often closed and her paintings aren’t displayed anyway.
The majority of Kahlo’s most internationally known and beloved paintings are not on display at the world-famous Museo Frida Kahlo in Coyoacán, Mexico City. Popularly known as The Blue House, the museum houses many of her personal effects and her famous bed with the mirrored canopy. Even those who never saw Salma Hayek’s movie associate this bed with her self-portraits while she recovered from the surgeries that inspired much of her work. But many of her paintings were bought by another muse of Rivera’s, per his request, and were displayed at her private estate, in a museum she named after herself.
As for the now deceased Dolores Olmedo, her longstanding jealousy of and admitted disdain for Frida Kahlo might have something to do with many prominent missing paintings.
The museum’s website lauds “Doña Lola” not only as Diego Rivera’s muse and confidant, but also trumpets her patronage of the arts as being as important as art itself — “an art patron on a Renaissance scale,” her preternatural gift for recognizing “good art” before others, a legacy for which we are indebted to her vision. As president of the steering committee of the Diego Rivera Trust, she and the trustees were supposed to maintain the Kahlo and Rivera legacy for the public.⁷
“If it were not for my private collection, Frida Kahlo would not be known to the world,” Olmedo, NYT interview.
“Doña Lola was already a revered local figure, … a favored citizen and an honored member of the Xochimilco community.” But the legacy Rivera supposedly entrusted her with, more than fifty of his paintings and an unknown number of Kahlo paintings, “for the pleasure and enjoyment of the People of Mexico”, in her words, are often unavailable to the public. Currently, many are being exhibited in Moscow and St. Petersburg through May of 2019.
But if Ikea can mass produce one-quarter of Klimt’s Water Serpents II with giclée on canvas then maybe grocery stores can bypass art altogether and just use a famous artist’s name as a label for tableware. I don’t know that Kahlo was known for any particular culinary talents and much of her art is regarded as macabre magical realism that doesn’t exactly lend itself to polite dinner conversation.
Perhaps the vaguely nationalistic sloganeering — OUR ROOTS, OUR CUSTOMS — paper-thin marketing gimmick that it is, will be enough to move low-quality cookware en masse.
Klimt’s original Water Serpents, once confiscated by the Nazis, has been bought and sold several times in its brief 100-ish year lifespan. It sold most recently for almost $200 million but the Ikea canvas reprint now proliferates resale websites all over the world for as little as US$25.
The Viennese painter and father of 14 illegitimate children was as celebrated by the avant-garde art lovers as he was reviled by the art establishment of the time for his decadent eroticism. His opulent artistic rebellion ran parallel with the intellectual movement of the time. He was a contemporary of Freud, Wagner, and Mahler and was inspired by the intellectual rebellion of the Jung-Wien group.⁹
He was an anti-traditionalist whose work a century later has become a somewhat traditional home decoration. The critical difference between Kahlo and Klimt reproductions is that Klimts are being reprinted — not repurposed. Albeit only a quarter of the original painting in the case above but the reproductions maintain the original intent — at an affordable price for your average Ikea shopper. But those reprints are being hung in prominent places in people’s homes and maybe offices.
“Museums sell more color reproductions of Klimt’s paintings than those of any other artist.”⁹
Although there are certainly Klimt coffee mugs and journals for sale they don’t saturate the market the way Kahlo’s face wallpapers souvenir shops throughout Mexico and beyond.
When does art enter the public domain? Laws vary by country and within each country.
“In general, works published after 1977 will not fall into the public domain until 70 years after the death of author, or, for corporate works, anonymous works, or works for hire, 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first.”¹⁰
Mexican copyright laws seem almost inversed with the derivative stipulations in American copyright law that require you to have substantially altered an original work of art. But in any country, the laws are written in such dense legalese that only the lawyers can interpret them with certainty.
Who profits from it? Anyone who owns it. Remember when Michael Jackson bought the Beatles catalogue? Just because you made it doesn’t mean you own it. But so many entities own what we think of as Frida Kahlo, her estate and her legacy. And multiple usage and copyright laws convolute any layman’s concept of ownership.
Who gets to alter it? Anyone who owns it. Kahlo’s nieces’ divergent priorities are a perfect example of this. One wants to maintain her artistic integrity and cultural significance by protecting it from private businesses like Mattel’s attempts to commercialize it. The other claims to want the same by commercializing it.
“The best way to judge art is by the gift shop,” journalist Suzanne Moore said in describing the 2018 “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up” exhibit at the V & A in London.¹¹
“Frida Kahlo is not a Halloween costume.” — Cristina Kahlo
Oh, Ms. Moore. Though you go on to gush, “There was so much Mexican stuff on sale, which I love, and so many books,” I do hope you’re being sarcastic. After all, you ask, “Oh Frida, did you paint a hammer and sickle on your plaster body cast for nothing?” You acknowledge her avowed communism and her posthumous marketability in what reads as a schizophrenic lament. And the size of the gift shop is a measure of just that — marketability, not the quality, impact or value of art.
Maybe the writers should leave the art appraisal to the experts — and the commodification to the vultures.
- “Dispute Over the Kahlo and Rivera Legacy”. The New York Times.
- “Art lovers fret as kin cashes in on Frida Kahlo name”. Chicago Tribune.
- TITLE VI Of The Limitations of Author Rights and Connected Rights, Chapter II of the Limitation of Patrimonial Rights, section VII; https://web.archive.org/web/20140701182338/http://www.diputados.gob.mx/LeyesBiblio/pdf/122.pdf
- “Mexican court blocks sales of Frida Kahlo Barbie doll”. The Guardian.
- “The tangled history of Klimt’s ‘$170m’ Water Serpents”. Financial Times.