Sixty-four years after her death, the Mexican surrealist artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) has become so iconic that her very likeness is now a counter-culture symbol, her face a kind of human ‘emoji’ representing (s)heroism as well as the ideologies of feminism, communism, nationalism, self-reinvention and indomitable nonconformity. A true individual, in many ways Kahlo was hard to pigeonhole. “They thought that I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t,” Kahlo said. “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
It’s safe to say that the artist, who was also disabled, bisexual and politically outspoken, is now more famous for what she represents than any of her paintings. Crippled in a collision between a bus and a tram when she was 18, Kahlo’s story of triumph over adversity so resonates with 21st-century audiences that her fame seems only to gather momentum. She’s regularly lauded in the media for being a feminist and sexual revolutionary, her life has been forensically examined by a number of biographers and she’s frequently portrayed on big and small screens, from the 2002 biopic Frida, to Disney-Pixar’s 2017 children’s animation, Coco. Controversially, this year, Kahlo was even turned into an 11.5 inch-tall articulated Barbie doll.
The Kahlo doll is part of Mattel’s new Barbie: Inspiring Women series, a collection Mattel says is designed to teach young girls about women “who helped pave the way for them.” African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson and Amelia Earhart, who was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, are the other female role models depicted in doll form for the series, so far. Kahlo’s doll, however, has been slammed by critics for not accurately portraying the artist’s unfettered beauty, her disabilities or even the traditional Mexican dresses that she so proudly wore. Kahlo’s great-niece, Mara de Anda Romeo, has called for Mattel to redesign the doll, and the family recently won a temporary injunction against the toymaker in a dispute about the rights to use Kahlo’s image.