The Kahlo Cult of Personality
For some observers, the cult of personality surrounding Kahlo tests patience. “[T]he veneration of Kahlo has become far-fetched,” wrote Sanford Schwartz in a 2008 New York Review of Books article. He is one among many critics and commentators who have questioned whether Kahlo’s #artwork deserves the amount of attention and praise it has attracted, but in many ways, that line of questioning is incomplete. So much of Kahlo’s posthumous following is less about her artwork, and more about Kahlo herself, though it’s true that the two are often inseparable.
The attraction a global public feels for Kahlo is about the laid-bare struggle of her life after the devastating trolley accident left her in perpetual pain, about her tempestuous, impassioned relationship with Rivera, the fact that she wasn’t just willing but seemingly compelled to live these challenges publicly rather than hide them and, not unimportantly, about Kahlo’s carefully cultivated sense of style, the persona she crafted for herself.
That persona was created, in large part, through the clothes and accessories in which Kahlo chose to outfit herself. Kahlo was never one to blend into the scenery. “Everything about her, from her hairstyle to the hem of her dress, breathed a kind of roguish glee…” wrote her stepdaughter, Guadalupe Rivera, in the book Frida’s Fiestas. “Roguish” and “gleeful” might not be the first adjectives that come to mind as a viewer looks at one of Frida’s self-portraits; though there are photographs and videos of Kahlo smiling and laughing, in nearly all of her paintings she depicts herself soberly, with a steady, often hard gaze and a serious expression.
But her #clothing and accessories - rich, textured velvets and silks; bold, hand-colored and embroidered threads; and statement pieces of #jewelry made of local materials such as coral, jade, and volcanic stone - they all did seem alive. From the day of her wedding to Diego Rivera, wrote Guadalupe Rivera, Kahlo decided to dress herself “in the Oaxaca style… heavy with embroidery, ribbons and floral motifs….” The clothing, most of it handmade by #indigenous communities from the isthmus of Tehuantepéc in the state of Oaxaca, set Kahlo apart from her contemporaries, who were increasingly moving away from traditional Mexican dress and were instead embracing “modern” European designs (think, for example, of a Chanel suit).
The journalists, all of whom are covering the Detroit Opera’s Frida production, have joined a representative of the opera on a journey to Oaxaca, where the costumes that will reflect Kahlo’s life and style faithfully have been commissioned. They are here for a crash course in Oaxacan #textiles, a topic, which they will soon learn, is vast in both breadth and depth and which engages issues that affect us all.