Surveilling Frida Kahlo’s dark side

Dedicated to my good friend Dani Salka, who happens to love Frida as much as I do.

What would you do if your most intimate feeling was revealed to everyone? If the most painful moment of your life was on display for everyone to see and judge? We are constantly reading tweets, articles, and posts about celebrities and politicians, about their outfits, mistakes, dates, and companions. However, surveillance has a gender dimension that is usually forgotten by critics. Women tend to appear more on news, tabloids, and TV. This tendency seems to be a continuation of social criticism, as Canadian researcher Kristy Robertson points out women are usually the ones targeted by surveillance. The reason behind the gendered surveillance is that men are the ones watching.

Criticism about how women should behave reaches artists too. Even if an artist’s life was controversial revealing his/her most personal issues and putting them on display is an abuse of surveillance. A specific example would be a post-mortem display of painful objects from Frida Kahlo’s life. Kahlo is one of the best-known Mexican artists. She was a surrealist painter. She was born in Coyoacan, Mexico in 1907 and passed away in 1954. Aside from being a famous artist with exhibitions in New York, Paris and a Vogue spread, her lifestyle transformed her into a well-known celebrity. Her life was controversial because of her relationships, her friends, and her health issues.



The painter had a turbulent marriage with the famous Muralist Diego Rivera, whom she married and divorce twice. She befriended people that shared her political views or artistic passions, like Leon and Natalia Trotsky, Pablo Picasso, Andre Breton, Dorothy Hale, and Marcel Duchamp. Through her paintings she found a way to release her suffering from contracting polio, losing her leg, and hurting her spine in a bus accident.

The new exhibition at the “Blue house”, her former house and studio, provide voyeurs with another opportunity to gaze upon her intimate life. The “Appearances Can Be Deceiving” exhibition was launched in November of this year at La Casa Azul Museum in Mexico City. Usually the museum exhibits her artwork and some of her skirts, shoes, and jewelry, but now it has integrated a Jean Paul Gaultier corset that is similar to the one Kahlo used as well as a prosthetic leg with the boot she used after her right leg was amputated.


This exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s personal objects uses surveillance as a marketing strategy to attract visitors. Emotions cannot be objects of the surveillance gaze, but physical objects trying to represent emotions can. The strategy used is to display the Mexican artist’s pain. The curator built or asked others to recreate the sort of objects that she wouldn’t actually put on display. Attracting public through voyeuristic view not to for her talent as an artist.

In the particular example of Kahlo’s wardrobe, surveillance is a misleading advertisement. The objects are exposed with the initial intention of helping the viewer to understand the message in her paintings but in reality are exposing the dark, intimate side of a woman’s long suffering. Art helps humans to express their anxieties, feelings, and pains. The artists are the ones that decide what to exhibit. Each spectator connects in a different way with visual art. Kahlo is known for portraying suffering, love, and indigenous elements.

Building objects, like her corset and prosthetic leg, is an invasion of her privacy. The revelation of the darkest moments of her life is a cheap and sensationalist way to sell tickets. Curator Circe Henestrosa did this instead of relying on her legacy to the art world. On an interview for the New York Daily News she said:

“Her way of dressing was the result of her strong sense of identity, an identity built from physical pain” – Henestrosa


This exhibition uses surveillance as a marketing strategy in a disrespectful and tacky way. Because someone is dead does not mean that it is acceptable to sell her pain. Just because she was an artist does not give others the right to profit from her private life. The new objects exhibition’s purpose is to connect the audience with the artist’s pain and how she expressed it through her paintings. However, the purpose is distorted when it causes sensationalism about her provocative life instead of linking the emotions with her art. Today’s society has taken for granted that artists deserve personal privacy as well. We see this phenomenon everyday at the news, tabloids, and TV.


“Frida Kahlo.” (2012). Bio. True Stoy. Retrieved from

Frida Kahlo Fans. (2008). “Gallery of Paintings by Year. ” Retrieved from

Frida Kahlo Fans. (2008). “Vogue Cover. ” Retrieved from

Garrido, E. (2012, November 26th).  “Frida Kahlo’s wardrobe goes on exhibit in Mexico City.” NY Daily News. Retrieved from

Museo Frida Kahlo. (2012). “La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s Intimate Universe.” Retrieved from

Robertson, K. (2008). “Try to Walk With the Sound of my Footsteps: the Surveillant Body in Contemporary Art.” The Communication Review. Routledge. Taylor & Francis Group. 11: 24-41.

This post was originally published in the blog “Yale Students on Sousveillance”


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