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How Barbie failed Frida Kahlo

18 March 2018

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

Frida Kahlo has become a style reference to see off all others – even Theresa May has a Kahlo bracelet. This summer, the V&A is to host an exhibition dedicated to the Mexican artist, exploring how she constructed her distinctive identity. Entitled ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up’, the show will feature everything from handmade necklaces to colourful clothes and fabric to the prosthetic leg that Kahlo customised for herself after losing a limb to gangrene.

Whatever the artist might have made of her posthumous fashion stardom, it’s likely she would raise an iconic eyebrow at another recent tribute paid to her. As part of a new range of limited edition dolls that were released to mark International Women’s Day, toy manufacturer Mattel has produced a Frida Kahlo Barbie. According to the company, the doll ‘celebrates the ideological contributions of Frida Kahlo which have transcended the borders of art’. But if the toy manufacturer thought the gesture would win it some arty street cred, it was mistaken.

Indeed, the Frida Barbie has provoked nothing short of outrage, not least from the artist’s family, who say that Mattel do not have the right to use Kahlo’s image. Meanwhile, public figures including the actress Salma Hayek have attacked the doll for lightening Kahlo’s skin tone, reshaping her body to conform to the Barbie model, and even significantly thinning her brow.

While it’s certainly true that the doll is hardly a dead ringer for the artist, it is perhaps still a better likeness than the Andy Warhol Barbie

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