Bonnie Lander Johnson on the strange 21st-century cult of Fridolatry

This summer we took our children to the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum where, with hundreds of thousands of others, we hoped to delight in Kahlo’s mad floral scenes and stare through glass at her prosthetic legs and perfume bottles.

Fridolatry is nothing new. For decades Frida’s face has appeared on Barbie dolls, bags and calendars. At the V&A, a stream of women and girls, their pale hair tied up with ribbons and flowers, sought to imitate Frida’s style. Kahlo’s tortured self-portraiture seems to invite imitation, promising to those who follow her a life of meaning, in which beauty is the fruit of suffering and the artistic concentration on the self is a valiant struggle out of obscurity, physical pain and emotional neglect.

Until recently, Fridolatry fed only on Kahlo’s paintings and domestic objects. But the recent discovery of the artist’s intimate objects in a locked household cupboard in Mexico City has ensured that Kahlo is now the subject of full-blown secular hagiography. Shortly after these objects came to light in 2004, Ishiuchi Miyako produced a volume of still-life photographs that confront the viewer with close-up images of hairs from Frida’s head lodged in her old toothbrush, and the lipstick smears and cigarette burns on the cuffs and collars of her famous

clothing. These items swim around in the foreground of a blue room, where lines of light emerge indistinctly as though the house were underwater and its abandoned contents floating upwards towards the viewer.

The curators of Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up have sought to achieve a similar dream-like experience. Visitors must squeeze through the exhibition door into a dark blue room to study early photographs of Kahlo, charting her childhood and her embrace of communism.

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