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Frida Kahlo’s Positive Conformity

Martina Chiaraluce, Master Candidate of the Interdisciplinary Studies Programme at the College of Europe in Natolin, highlights how the figure of Frida Kahlo, reputed a non-conformist artist throughout her life, has to date become a popular and conformist image thanks to which social transformation can occur.

Aoife Thomas, Frida at the Markets, Belfast, 2020

What has happened to the legacy of Frida Kahlo? Her life, and the artistic expression of her lived experience in her cruel and tough world, has led her to become a contemporary emblem of strong yet delicate femininity across various societal contexts. She is one of the most important icons of surrealism, and in the modern day her life and work have been eclipsed by the enduring and momentous transcendence of her name into mainstream popular culture. This has led to the immortalisation of her image into a symbol and icon.

Did Frida Kahlo embody a conformist icon of her time? She certainly had physical attributes that made her unique; her characteristic monobrow has become a famous symbol outside of the world of art appreciation. Frida’s life and body were also defined against the grain in numerous ways. The poliomyelitis that affected her when she was a child made her unable to walk properly and earned her the nickname ‘Frida peg leg’. When she was only18, the crash of a bus against a wall caused by a tram irreparably damaged her spine, leaving her with scars and psychological sorrows with which she would learn to coexist with courage for the rest of her days. She was politically active in the Communist Party in a period of intense transformation of her beloved homeland Mexico. Yet she made the move to the United States,a Gringolandia in which she could never feel at home, to follow the love of her life Diego Rivera. Frida used to say that “there have been two great accidents in my life, one was the train and the other was Diego”. To this, she used to add that Diego was by far the worst, and a source of pain throughout her life.[1]

And then, there was her art: so strong and raw, arguably even violent in certain traits. Her masterpiece ‘The Two Fridas’ exhibits the peculiarities of her unique style. One Frida, the one that is no longer loved, is dressed as a bride, and holds by the hand the other Frida, dressed in traditional Mexican clothes. The two of them are tied by a vein joining their hearts and connected to a small portrait of Rivera, a manifestation and tangible sign of the irinestimable love for him.[2] All these aspects define a woman who was a paragon of ‘non-conformity’ both in appearance and behaviour; to put it in other words, a rebel.

It is interesting to note how Frida Kahlo’s non-conformity is today derailed into a true and pure conformist nexus. Little appreciated and often mocked throughout her life, Frida is, as of today, everywhere: her figure is encountered in struggles for women’s rights and feminist manifestations, the image of her face is printed on bags and jackets, her name is reappropriated by an Italian feminist page on Instagram (“Freeda”).

As much as her image can be exploited into mainstream conformity, the symbol that her monobrow represents will always remain a canon of anti-conformity that makes Frida one of the most exciting artists of the last centuries.

When faced with such an evolution a first general reaction may be: “No! All this is deeply wrong. Frida didn’t deserve this: her art, her own image, were not created to be mummified as slogans. The non-conformity that characterized her has now plunged into an indefinite form of conformity!” This thought is the result of the idea that everything that is considered conformist is also consequently necessarily banal, taken for granted or maybe even wrong; because it i the sign of imitation, and group think – that is – generally accepted without too much discussion.

Yet, after a moment spent thinking about it, one can come to a very different conclusion, by looking at the issue from an alternative point of view. Frida’s image is exploited for certain struggles, causes or battles, in social media and posters, yet this does not necessarily make her an exploited icon, nor ruin the image of the great woman she was. The word conformity, which at first glance might sound improper and nothing else than a synonym to ‘trendy’, should not really frighten us, because it can be the bearer of new and healthy ideas. And if Frida’s icon is to be a real mainstream fashion trend, what is wrong with that if it means that she is the new ambassador of important values? Canthe “Frida fashion”, as well as the “ecological fashion”or the “metal bottles rather than plastic bottles fashion” become something socially compliant, without necessarily being seen under a bad light? Social conformity, if respectful and based on fundamental rights, whether women’s rights or environmental protection, has the capacity to change the world for good. And as much as her image can be exploited into mainstream conformity, the symbol that her monobrow represents will always remain a canon of anti-conformity that makes Frida one of the most exciting artists of the last centuries.

[1] Gannit Ankori, Frida Kahlo (London: Reaktion Book, 2012), 52.

[2] Ankori, Frida Kahlo, 15