Painter, bisexual, communist, Diego Rivera’s wife, fashion muse, pop culture icon, and feminism emissary are some words that define her. Several authors have dove into Frida Kahlo’s life and work from different perspectives that have shown her legacy goes beyond art and Mexican culture.
Text by Valeria Martínez
Photos by Rodrigo Palma
“I saw Frida once, but first I heard her.” -Carlos Fuentes
Her way of dressing, of adorning her hair, her unibrow, her red lips, and her unwaxed mustache, were all a part of the image that Frida herself constructed to present herself to the world. “I once saw Frida, but before I listened to her”, writer Carlos Fuentes once said, in reference to the silver and gold pre-Hispanic jewelry the painter wore and matched with colorful Tehuana dresses and tipically-indigenous garments such as the huipil and the rebozo. Her identity based on ethnicity, disability, self-affirmation and extravagance have made that only pronouncing her name is enough for her face to pop up on your head, and that’s something that can’t be said about many artists other than Dalí, Picasso or Warhol. Talking with Circe Henestrosa, curator for the exhibit “Las apariencias engañan: Los vestidos de Frida Kahlo” (Looks can be deceiving: Frida Kahlo’s dresses, 2012), we explore her aesthetic and the transgressive concept of beauty seen through Kahlo.
L’Beauté: How did Frida see her own aesthetic? Through imperfections, differences, from her disabilities?
Circe Henestrosa: The exhibit explored how Frida constructed her own identity informed by her complex cultural heritage, the experiences brought on by her disabilities, her political convictions, and her gender perspective. Her unique focus when dressing and creating her own image became a source of inspiration to give life to a revolutionary kind of art.
LB: Were elements in Frida’s image, such as the unibrow and mustache, intentional?
CH: In many of her self-portraits, she not only emphasized her feminine traits, she did the same on her masculine ones. She would pay special attention on her mustache, but also on her red lips. In current terms, I would say Kahlo didn’t conform with binary categories as male and female, I’d say she adopted a non-binary, gender-fluid identity. However, academic definitions and texts regarding sexuality and gender identity during Kahlo’s life were almost non-existent in comparison with the abundant offer found today.
LB: Was there some narcissism in her, or was it a form of insecurity?
CH: I don’t believe she was a narcissist; she would spend a lot of her time on her own because of her several disabilities, which is why she did so many self-portraits.
LB: ¿Hay alguna obra en específico de ella que consideres que manifiesta su concepto sobre la belleza?
CH: Las primeras pinturas que realizó a mediados de la década de los años 20, muestran la influencia de maestros del Renacimiento y artistas europeos como Modigliani y más tarde de pintores como Hieronymus Bosch y Van Eyck. Kahlo se inspiró además, en la cultura mexicana y el arte popular mexicano, atraída por su propio universo en la Casa Azul, ella pintaba plantas, animales y todo lo que la rodeaba. Tenía también una fascinación por la vida y la muerte, su estilo combinaba elementos realistas y en ocasiones fantásticos.
LB: ¿Frida representa a la cultura mexicana por excelencia?
CH: Creo que ella definitivamente se alineó a los ideales del renacimiento mexicano post revolucionario. Un nuevo sentido de orgullo acerca de la multifacética herencia de México, en particular de los muchos pueblos indígenas, emergió de la Revolución mexicana, la cual puso fin a una época de dictadura y estableció una república constitucional. Artistas, escritores, fotógrafos y cineastas de todo el mundo llegaron a México como resultado de este período, llamado “Renacimiento Mexicano”, al tiempo en que nuevos hallazgos arqueológicos dieron lugar a una mayor comprensión de la compleja historia del país. Muchos artistas y académicos, Kahlo y Rivera entre ellos, se sintieron especialmente atraídos por estos valores mexicanos y regiones como el Istmo de Tehuantepec en el sur de México. La región estaba considerada como representante de la rica cultura nativa, no corrompida por las conquistas coloniales. Aunque Kahlo nunca visitó el Istmo, adoptó los vestidos de la región como parte de su inconfundible identidad sartorial y como símbolo de su ‘mexicanidad’.
LB: Was Frida a feminist?
CH: Kahlo’s image has been long-lasting because she was able to break with many taboos related to the experiences of women, to the challenges of overcoming illnesses and physical injuries, by exposing them and conquering these traumas in a creative way. This resistance, fighting attitude, and a determination to enjoy life despite difficulties turn her into a powerful symbol. Her iconic image conveys strength and possibility for change, that’s why she still speaks to many groups of people until this day.
LB: Do you think Frida ever imagined or even wanted to leave a mark as far as to become a pop phenomenon called “Fridomania”?
CH: This is a question that highlights the enormous gap between Kahlo’s marginalized status as an artist during her lifetime and her international contemporary fame. Kahlo is a renowned cultural icon around the world, but during her lifetime she was mostly known as Diego Rivera’s extravagant wife. It’s hard to believe, but she only held two individual exhibitions during her whole life: the first one being at New York’s Julien Levy Gallery in 1938; and the second one at a gallery in Mexico City later in 1953, a year before her death. There’s a heartbreaking interview from that era in which she states: “I’ve done nothing worthy of recognition during my life”.
LB: What do you think was Frida’s most beautiful moment?
CH: I think she thoroughly enjoyed the moments she spent with her father. They were very close, and she was his favorite daughter (she had three sisters and two stepsisters). Unlike her indigenous mother, Wilhelm Kahlo was German and Hungarian. He migrated to Mexico when he was 18 years old towards the end of the 19th century, he changed his name to Guillermo and became an important architecture photographer that documented both historic and modern sites during the Porfiriato era. Ten years after his passing, Kahlo dedicated a heartfelt portrait. Guillermo Kahlo’s liking of self-portraits probably influenced her and her works.
LB: Did she redefine the concept of beauty by not following the era’s stereotypes?
CH: She adopted an ethnic attire during a time when women wore Parisian and Hollywood fashions. Beauty standards during that time were set by movies, so not a lot of women would’ve worn a traditional Tehuana dress in 1930’s Mexican society, which is when Frida adopted that as a second skin. In a way, she chooses indigenous attire in a non-normative way, she said so herself: “I’ve broken many social norms”. Frida was exploring subjects related to gender fluidity, disabilities, trauma, and the female body during the 20’s and 30’s, and such subjects were seen as peculiar and improper during her lifetime but now resonate with diversity; that’s why she’s still relevant today, because of the intersection she represents.
LB: For 50 years, and by Diego Rivera’s command, Frida’s belongings were kept inside her room’s bathroom at Coyoacán’s Casa Azul. In 2004, the contents of those trunks were recovered and around 300 personal objects were found. When you set up the exhibit, what was the first thing that caught your attention?
CH: I had the opportunity to see her belongings up close while I set the exhibition up, and it was a very special thing because I can say that’s when I met Frida for the first time. I discovered a very sophisticated woman who loved makeup, perfumes and fashion.
LB: Which do you consider was the most relevant beauty product and why?
CH: Makeup was important for Kahlo. Friends of hers like Helena Rubinstein would send her compacts and lipsticks from the United States, but she would also buy imported beauty products from big department stores like El Palacio de Hierro in Mexico City. Revlon was her favorite brand and a red nail polish she used to always wear was found in one of the trunks.
LB: What do you think would be a beauty tip that Frida would give?
CH: She created a very distinctive style, a sort of mix between traditional Mexican fashion with European, matched with the fundamental effects of her disabilities and her beliefs regarding politics and gender. Kahlo as a bohemian and Tehuana artist, was a hybrid that used art and wardrobe to express herself. We all remember her through her own image using traditional Mexican dress to style herself. Kahlo dealt with her life, political convictions, health problems, the accident, and her turbulent marriage. All of this makes her unique as a woman and an artist, the beauty tip she’d give would be to stay true to yourself and your convictions.
LB: ¿Cuál crees que sea el producto de belleza encontrado más relevante y por qué?
CH: Maquillarse era importante para Kahlo. Amigas como Helena Rubinstein le enviaban compactos y lipsticks desde Estados Unidos, pero también compraba productos de belleza importados en grandes almacenes como en El Palacio de Hierro en la Ciudad de México. Revlon era su marca favorita y justo en los baúles se encontró un esmalte de uñas rojo, que siempre usaba.
LB: ¿Cuál crees que sea el consejo de belleza que Frida podría dar?
CH: Ella creó un estilo distintivo, como una mezcla de la moda tradicional mexicana y europea, combinada con los efectos fundamentales de sus discapacidades y sus creencias políticas y de género. Kahlo como artista bohemia y tehuana, una persona híbrida que usaba el arte y la vestimenta para expresarse. Todos la recordamos a través de la imagen que tiene de sí misma mediante el uso de vestidos tradicionales mexicanos para estilizarse. Kahlo lidió con su vida, convicciones políticas, problemas de salud, el accidente y su turbulento matrimonio. Así que todo esto es lo que la hace ser única como mujer y como artista, el consejo de belleza que ella daría es ser fiel a ti misma y a tus convicciones.
Dior x L’Beauté
Photos: Rodrigo Palma
Model: Mariana Arias for New Icon
Makeup: Miguel Ángel Zariñana, National Makeup Artist for Dior
Hair: Monserrat Uriostegui
Photo 1 and 2: Dior Contour en 999 and Rouge in 743 Rouge Zinnia satin finish by Dior; Foto 3, 4 y 5: Dior Universal Countour / Rouge in 314 Gran Bal matte finish de Dior; Foto 6 and 7: Dior Contour in 999 and Rouge Velvet in 999 by Dior.