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Reviving Fridamania

MEXICO CITY Fridamania - the cult and the industry - may soon get a second wind.

Hollywood is finally making a movie on the tortured, colorful life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo after a decade of abortive attempts. If the film is a hit, Mexico City could see a wave of Frida-inspired merchandising like the one that engulfed the capital a few years ago.

On an autumn day in 1997, you could on one day go to a Frida bar, see a Frida play, have a Frida dinner and load up on Frida T-shirts, calendars, cookbooks and key rings featuring her baleful, beetle-browed visage.

Overshadowed in her lifetime by her husband, the artist Diego Rivera, and ignored by the public for decades, Kahlo became an icon of popular culture. She was transformed into Mexico's Elvis, a "brand" that has sold several forests' worth of postcards, picture books and posters.

Fridamania began building in the late 1970s, spurred on by the interest of European feminists and Chicano muralists who saw her as a forerunner, said Raquel Tibol, author of "Frida Kahlo: An Open Life." A 1983 biography by Hayden Herrera helped popularize the legend. Rivera willed all rights to his and Kahlo's images and intellectual property to the Mexican people after his death in 1957. And Mexico has made out handsomely, although not as well at it might have, because of weak copyright protection laws. To merchandise Kahlo legally, movie producers and souvenir manufacturers must pay royalties to the Mexican Central Bank.

Kahlo's house - la Casa Azul, or Blue House, where she lived, worked, was born and died - is Mexico City's Graceland, a museum now visited by an average of 300 pilgrims a day. They view the dozen Kahlo paintings on display, immerse themselves in the legend and pay homage to the artist's ashes - she died at age 47 in 1954 - stored in an urn on the premises. But like all fads, Fridamania has subsided. Visits to the museum have declined 25 percent from the 1997 peak. Merchandisers report that demand for coasters, mirrors, calendars, key rings and desk calendars has slipped significantly. The onslaught of books and theatrical productions - the latter now numbering at least 60 - has slowed.

Frida is still there, just not everywhere.

One place she is these days: the city of Puebla, where Miramax Films began shooting this month on its production, starring Mexican actress Salma Hayek. Release is expected early next year.

The vagaries of pop culture and merchandising fads aside, Kahlo, who overcame polio, an almost fatal bus accident and other setbacks to become an accomplished artist, remains a powerful cultural force here. Ask a dozen museum-goers, art experts and Frida merchants why that is, and you get a dozen different answers. "It was her attitude before life that appeals to people, that of an indefatigable fighter who struggled against physical problems, the shadow of her famous husband, the social restrictions of womanhood," said Luis-Martin Lozano, director of the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City. MEXICO CITY Fridamania - the cult and the industry - may soon get a second wind.

Hollywood is finally making a movie on the tortured, colorful life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo after a decade of abortive attempts. If the film is a hit, Mexico City could see a wave of Frida-inspired merchandising like the one that engulfed the capital a few years ago.

On an autumn day in 1997, you could on one day go to a Frida bar, see a Frida play, have a Frida dinner and load up on Frida T-shirts, calendars, cookbooks and key rings featuring her baleful, beetle-browed visage.

Overshadowed in her lifetime by her husband, the artist Diego Rivera, and ignored by the public for decades, Kahlo became an icon of popular culture. She was transformed into Mexico's Elvis, a "brand" that has sold several forests' worth of postcards, picture books and posters.

Fridamania began building in the late 1970s, spurred on by the interest of European feminists and Chicano muralists who saw her as a forerunner, said Raquel Tibol, author of "Frida Kahlo: An Open Life." A 1983 biography by Hayden Herrera helped popularize the legend. Rivera willed all rights to his and Kahlo's images and intellectual property to the Mexican people after his death in 1957. And Mexico has made out handsomely, although not as well at it might have, because of weak copyright protection laws. To merchandise Kahlo legally, movie producers and souvenir manufacturers must pay royalties to the Mexican Central Bank.

Kahlo's house - la Casa Azul, or Blue House, where she lived, worked, was born and died - is Mexico City's Graceland, a museum now visited by an average of 300 pilgrims a day. They view the dozen Kahlo paintings on display, immerse themselves in the legend and pay homage to the artist's ashes - she died at age 47 in 1954 - stored in an urn on the premises. But like all fads, Fridamania has subsided. Visits to the museum have declined 25 percent from the 1997 peak. Merchandisers report that demand for coasters, mirrors, calendars, key rings and desk calendars has slipped significantly. The onslaught of books and theatrical productions - the latter now numbering at least 60 - has slowed.

Frida is still there, just not everywhere.

One place she is these days: the city of Puebla, where Miramax Films began shooting this month on its production, starring Mexican actress Salma Hayek. Release is expected early next year.

The vagaries of pop culture and merchandising fads aside, Kahlo, who overcame polio, an almost fatal bus accident and other setbacks to become an accomplished artist, remains a powerful cultural force here. Ask a dozen museum-goers, art experts and Frida merchants why that is, and you get a dozen different answers. "It was her attitude before life that appeals to people, that of an indefatigable fighter who struggled against physical problems, the shadow of her famous husband, the social restrictions of womanhood," said Luis-Martin Lozano, director of the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City. MEXICO CITY Fridamania - the cult and the industry - may soon get a second wind.

Hollywood is finally making a movie on the tortured, colorful life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo after a decade of abortive attempts. If the film is a hit, Mexico City could see a wave of Frida-inspired merchandising like the one that engulfed the capital a few years ago.

On an autumn day in 1997, you could on one day go to a Frida bar, see a Frida play, have a Frida dinner and load up on Frida T-shirts, calendars, cookbooks and key rings featuring her baleful, beetle-browed visage.

Overshadowed in her lifetime by her husband, the artist Diego Rivera, and ignored by the public for decades, Kahlo became an icon of popular culture. She was transformed into Mexico's Elvis, a "brand" that has sold several forests' worth of postcards, picture books and posters.

Fridamania began building in the late 1970s, spurred on by the interest of European feminists and Chicano muralists who saw her as a forerunner, said Raquel Tibol, author of "Frida Kahlo: An Open Life." A 1983 biography by Hayden Herrera helped popularize the legend. Rivera willed all rights to his and Kahlo's images and intellectual property to the Mexican people after his death in 1957. And Mexico has made out handsomely, although not as well at it might have, because of weak copyright protection laws. To merchandise Kahlo legally, movie producers and souvenir manufacturers must pay royalties to the Mexican Central Bank.

Kahlo's house - la Casa Azul, or Blue House, where she lived, worked, was born and died - is Mexico City's Graceland, a museum now visited by an average of 300 pilgrims a day. They view the dozen Kahlo paintings on display, immerse themselves in the legend and pay homage to the artist's ashes - she died at age 47 in 1954 - stored in an urn on the premises. But like all fads, Fridamania has subsided. Visits to the museum have declined 25 percent from the 1997 peak. Merchandisers report that demand for coasters, mirrors, calendars, key rings and desk calendars has slipped significantly. The onslaught of books and theatrical productions - the latter now numbering at least 60 - has slowed.

Frida is still there, just not everywhere.

One place she is these days: the city of Puebla, where Miramax Films began shooting this month on its production, starring Mexican actress Salma Hayek. Release is expected early next year.

The vagaries of pop culture and merchandising fads aside, Kahlo, who overcame polio, an almost fatal bus accident and other setbacks to become an accomplished artist, remains a powerful cultural force here. Ask a dozen museum-goers, art experts and Frida merchants why that is, and you get a dozen different answers. "It was her attitude before life that appeals to people, that of an indefatigable fighter who struggled against physical problems, the shadow of her famous husband, the social restrictions of womanhood," said Luis-Martin Lozano, director of the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City.
Los Angeles Times

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