We are showcasing a series of blog posts written by our second year students as part of our Engaging Art History module which introduces students to ideas of public engagement in museums and galleries, and how to use the knowledge gained during their studies to speak to a wide range of audiences. This post is by Mollie Martin …
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) is best known as a feminist icon — a reputation that sometimes overshadows her activities as an artist (her art is pretty cool – www.fridakahlo.org). She also had a pretty interesting, if not turbulent, personal life, involving: a nearly fatal traffic accident (causing temporary paralysis and lifelong pain); a marriage to the very prominent artist Diego Rivera, which ended in divorce; a commitment to communism; and an racy love life involving both men and women. It is no wonder that Kahlo’s life has become a subject of fascination, resulting in her becoming a 21st-century icon feted for subverting typical beauty standards or societal norms surrounding sexuality and marriage.
There is an academic argument that Kahlo the person has somehow become divorced from her artwork. One factor that has sustained this disassociation is the coverage of Kahlo in magazines including Elle and Vogue, which promote a sort of fixation with Kahlo’s ‘exotic’ style. Articles in these magazines draw attention to the artist’s bejewelled hands, her authentic Mexican dress and her famous monobrow, but not her art. Yet, curiously, these celebrations of Kahlo’s identity often censor her image in one key way: by removing her moustache.
Kahlo, it seems, intentionally presented herself with a dark top lip: a moustachioed woman. This is evident in many self-portraits and photographs, in which she sports a hairy top lip. I assume that it was a valued part of her personal identity. It is also another kick ass way in which Kahlo destroyed feminine stereotypes of beauty. But her facial hair has been censored throughout history, right from her vogue cover shoot in 1938 and right up to 2018, on the exhibition poster produced by the V&A for their Making Her Self Up exhibition.
I think this censorship is a result of institutions like Vogue, and the V&A, still prescribing to ‘normalised’ ideals of beauty; yes I am a bit of an angry feminist. The ‘moustache’ has always been perceived as strictly ‘male’ body hair. It has been a symbol of masculinity throughout history, right from medieval knights who had special armour to accommodate their moustaches, to the 21st century and the male charitable movement Movember (admittedly for a good cause). The moustache has been a representation of manhood in a way that the monobrow never was.
This association between masculinity and the moustache has become embedded in societal views of what feminine or masculine should be. A woman with a moustache threatens the norm of feminine beauty (especially in the beauty industry which profits on the insecurities of the feminine image). Throughout media coverage of Frida Kahlo her moustache has been erased and censored, it was not just exotic but abnormal, repulsive even for a woman. This is ironic in a society that worships Kahlo as a feminist icon yet takes away her own personal identity. Next time you buy a Kahlo tote bag, or badge ask yourself does this have a REAL representation of Frida Kahlo, moustache and all?
Dosamantes-Beaudry, Irma, Frida Kahlo: the creation of a cultural icon, University of California, Los Angeles, 2002.
Lindauer, Margaret., Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo, Wesleyan University Press, London, 1999.