"At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can." - Frida Kahlo
I became obsessed with tracking down a collection of nail polishes and lipsticks featuring Frida Kahlo after Karen at Makeup and Beauty Blog posted about them back in December. After having no luck finding them in Baltimore, on December 23, 2016, while visiting my family in Pennsylvania, I was granted an early Christmas miracle and came across them at a CVS near my sister's house. Needless to say I was over the moon, since this collection is exactly the kind of thing the Museum was meant for. While I still haven't been able to get my hands on all of the designs, I'm happy with what I did find. :)
I've said before with other major artists that it's beyond the scope of my humble little blog to write a very long essay about the artist's work/biography, especially given the staggering amount of resources on Kahlo - everything from films to exhibitions on her fashion and personal possessions to her diary have been made available - but I at least want to give a brief summary for those not so familiar with her. Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was a Mexican artist who is best known for her self-portraits, which expressed her tumultuous life and impassioned personality. "I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best," one of her most famous quotes explains. To say that she had not been dealt an easy hand in life would be an understatement. After surviving polio at the age of 6, at 18 she suffered a terrible bus accident that nearly killed her and left her in constant pain for the rest of her life despite over a dozen surgeries to help her heal. This is to say nothing of her turbulent marriage to (and subsequent divorce from and remarriage to) fellow artist Diego Rivera, or the fact that she badly desired children and ended up with 3 near-fatal miscarriages instead. While Kahlo's paintings are a direct reflection of the trauma she endured, I also believe she channeled her emotional and physical pain into her art rather than letting it consume her spirit. In looking at her paintings, you clearly see her pain but also fierce will and determination to keep going. She was a fighter who approached everything in life with a ferocious intensity, which is especially apparent in some personal details. For example, towards the end of her life she was bedridden from chronic pain but attended the opening of her first solo exhibition, arriving in an ambulance. And I love this photo of her in bed, still painting away.
In the year before her death, she also lost of most of her right leg to gangrene yet created a work of art from her prosthetic.
(image from collectorsweekly.com)
It's these incredible displays of strength, I think, that make Kahlo such a fascinating and enduring icon.
Now let's get to the beauty collection, shall we? I wasn't familiar with Republic Nail before now, but it looks like they released this collection sometime in the summer of 2016. I was only able to find 5 of the 12 designs, but I figured I'd discuss each one anyway and compare the designs to Kahlo's work and photos. First up are the ones that I was able to buy.
I'm fairly certain the image of Kahlo comes from this 1939 photo taken by fashion/commercial photographer Nickolas Muray, Kahlo's lover and close friend, who photographed over 40 portraits of the artist. "Viva La Vida" is a title of one of Kahlo's paintings.
(image from nickolasmuray.com)
This design also borrows a portrait of Kahlo by Muray but combines one of her best-known works.
(image from nickolasmuray.com)
Besides the above design, others in the Republic Nail collection feature images of hummingbirds, most likely inspired from this 1940 self-portrait. Hayden Herrera, one of the most prominent Kahlo scholars, explores the possible meanings behind the painting's hummingbird in her excellent book Frida Kahlo: The Paintings: "Hanging from the thorn necklace is a dead hummingbird, whose outstretched wings echo Frida's joined eyebrows. The bird must point to Frida's feeling of being cut down in flight or to her rejection by Diego: in Mexican folk tradition dead hummingbirds were used as charms to bring luck in love. In Aztec mythology the hummingbird symbolized reincarnation - the spirits of dead warriors returned in the form of hummingbirds. In Christian symbolism birds in general stand for the winged soul. Given the religious atmosphere of this painting, in which Frida looks as solemn as a Pantocrator, the bird might also refer to the Holy Ghost." (p. 142). Interesingly, other artists such as Ashley Longshore (whom I featured at the Museum for Clé de Peau's holiday 2016 collection), have also depicted Kahlo with hummingbirds.
This design is a copy of Kahlo's "Wounded Deer" from 1946.
There's a lot going on in this painting and I'm too lazy to rehash it all, so if you're curious you can check out a good explanation here.
More hummingbirds (I think).
As far as I know Kahlo never painted herself in Day of the Dead makeup; however, sugar skulls and skeletons figured prominently in her work. During her recovery from the bus accident in 1925, "she dressed papier-mache skeletons in her own clothes and hung them from her bed's canopy so that they jostled in the wind. One of her favorite possessions was a sugar skull of the type that children eat on the Day of the Dead. Frida ordered the skull to be made with her own name written in bold letters on its forehead." (Herrera, p. 36)
Physically Kahlo never fully recovered from the accident, and suffered numerous other ailments afterwards. Death never seemed far away, hence the frequent references to it in her work.
The sugar skull with her name on it makes an appearance in this very sad work from 1945.
While the sugar skull design on the polish refers to Kahlo's more macabre works, I liked the inclusion of the hand-shaped earrings. These were a gift to Kahlo from Picasso. She wore them frequently, even for two of her self-portraits. They appear in black on the Republic Nail items, but they look to be ivory or shell in Kahlo's versions. (There are tons of imitations available for sale too, if you're so inclined.)
(image from nickolasmuray.com)
Here's the other portrait with the earrings. I found this in another book I purchased for research for this post, Martha Zamora's highly acclaimed Frida Kahlo: The Brush of Anguish.
Now for the Republic Nail items I couldn't find. I'm only showing the nail polishes here but the same designs appeared on lipstick cases.
These four aren't quite so inspired, just more of the same motifs we've seen. I do appreciate the little monkey on the cap of the polish second from the left below. Kahlo liked monkeys, keeping them as surrogate children (along with a host of other animals) and incorporating them into her portraits.
Another animal she was fond of was the parrot. The one on the nail polish looks similar to one that appears in a 1951 still life.
The design on this one refers to a painting from 1944, one of the more devastating representations of Kahlo's physical trauma.
The Broken Column was painted during a 5-month period when Kahlo was encased in a steel corset to heal her back. She wrote to her doctor, "I got a little better with the corset but now I feel just as sick again, and I am now very desperate because I do not see anything that improves the condition of my spine." (Herrera, p. 182) Unable to move and in pain, she stares out at the viewer tearfully yet stoically. The painting also includes clear sexual overtones given that the artist depicts herself topless and penetrated by a rather phallic column.
The banner wrapped around the column on the nail polish bottle's design appeared in several works, such as this wedding portrait. The inscription on the banner reads, "Here you see us, me Frida Kahlo, with my beloved husband Diego Rivera. I painted these portraits in the beautiful city of San Francisco California for our friend Mr. Albert Bender, and it was in the month of April of the year 1931."
The banner also appeared in the 1940 self-portrait with the hand earrings shown above, along with this rather disturbing work.
Finally, we have a heart pierced with a sword. As with the previous depiction of Kahlo in Day of the Dead makeup, I don't think this specific motif ever appeared in her paintings, but there were a few featuring hearts.
Or perhaps it's a reference to Memory, the Heart:
Naturally I was curious to know how Republic Nail was able to use these images. I did a little digging and saw that the designs are licensed by a company called Ask Art Agency through the Frida Kahlo Corporation. I don't understand the exact legal ins and outs, but I guess once the corporation grants a company the rights to use Kahlo's works, they can design whatever they want. The same designs from the Republic Nail line were also used for a line of phone cases produced by Ask Art Agency, and Korean cosmetics company Missha has just debuted 4 cushion compacts with similar designs. Given that the tag line "Pasión Por La Vida" is featured on the cases and at Ask Art Agency's website section on their Kahlo license, I'm assuming they're also behind the Missha collection.
(images from vutydesign.com)
The Frida Kahlo Corporation, meanwhile, seems very eager to grant licenses to use Kahlo's likeness and paintings. Founded by Kahlo's niece, the corporation has issued licenses for the artist's work to appear on everything from sneakers to planners to an upcoming line of hotels. The company's Twitter feed, with the constant references to Frida Kahlo branded tequila and other items, makes me think it's a rather unscrupulous money grab forged by greedy relatives. Indeed, while many Frida fans were overjoyed to see her images used for a beauty collection, there were a handful of killjoys detractors on Twitter lamenting the "crass" nature of putting Kahlo's work on cosmetics, especially seeing as how Kahlo was a communist. Having said all this, my personal opinion, and this is obviously pure speculation, is that Kahlo would have been delighted to see her paintings and likeness on this particular beauty collection. For starters, Republic Nail is a Mexico-based company, which I think Kahlo would be pleased to support. As for the anti-capitalist sentiment, Republic Nail is an affordable drugstore line, which at least aligns better with Kahlo's communist politics than a high-end department store line. Finally, Kahlo herself enjoyed beauty products, as evidenced by these nail polishes that were revealed when her wardrobe was finally able to be opened to the public, along with a lipstick-kissed love note to Muray.
I'm not sure how she would have felt about her face appearing on things like mouse pads, or even the Missha collection, but I think she would have been supportive of the Republic Nail lineup. The only thing I could see Kahlo questioning would be the particular images used - I could see her being very opinionated on which photos of her and which paintings should be included, as well as the color selection itself. I also think she might be adamant that her actual work appears rather than the amalgams created by the licensing company. They seemed to be prettied-up versions with none of the visceral edge that we associate with Kahlo, and for that they lose some of their impact. But I guess the original works may have been too gruesome/depressing for commercial use? Powerful though Kahlo's paintings are, they are admittedly difficult to look at, and I'm not sure if I'd want to be confronted with her suffering as I'm painting my nails. Using some original pieces by an artist, like, say, Andy Warhol is entirely different. So perhaps watered-down designs for Kahlo's works are a good thing since they celebrate her art and spirit but aren't too heavy...as you can see, I'm a bit conflicted. On the one hand I think Kahlo would have liked to see her work being used on items that help women express themselves, and I'm happy to see a beauty collection pay homage to her. (This opens up the bigger issue of artists putting their work on everyday items, which I discussed in my Shu/Murakami post a while back - I'm firmly of the opinion that these collaborations are worthwhile overall since it allows one to have a little taste of the artist's work if you can't afford the real thing.) On the other hand, I probably would have liked the collection more if they used more sophisticated designs rather than the somewhat bland ones used by the licensing agency, which remind me of old school tattoos. I also would have liked it more if they were restricted to one cosmetics company rather than being used by another brand - it would be more special if it was just a one-off collection.
What do you think about all this?