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Artist Frida Kahlo’s popularity soars, even as family struggles to manage her legacy

But scholars and the painter’s descendants lament she has been reduced to a set of distinctive physical features that often overshadows her actual work.

The debate heated up this spring when toymaker Mattel released a Barbie in Kahlo’s image, over protests from her family.

The Barbie and other merchandise do not capture Kahlo’s complex legacy as a feminist icon, a disabled woman who channelled her pain into art, an ardent communist and an inspiration to the LGBT community, scholars say.

This month, a new project aims to return the focus to her art. Alphabet’s Google, working in collaboration with the Kahlo family, has dedicated a portion of its Arts and Culture app to the artist’s life and work. The search giant partnered with 33 museums to digitise Kahlo’s most famous paintings and bring new work into the public eye.

The app also features rare letters, diary entries and sketches, in addition to a virtual tour of her famous blue home. The Kahlo family played an active role.

U.S. artist Alexa Meade and Mexican musician Ely Guerra collaborated on a piece of “living art” honouring Kahlo, working under her great niece’s guidance.

Kahlo’s husband, artist Diego Rivera, established a trust supervised by the Banco de Mexico to operate museums dedicated to the couple’s work, and the trust also oversees the copyright to the works.

Kahlo’s brand and image are more contentious.

In the early 2000s, one of Kahlo’s nieces, Isolda Pinedo, and her daughter, Mara Romeo, assigned rights to the Kahlo brand to a company known as the Frida Kahlo Corporation, according to court papers. Tension boiled over in March when Mattel released a Kahlo Barbie, licensed by the Frida Kahlo Corporation.

“Frida Kahlo is not a product or a brand. Frida Kahlo is an artist. In the case of the ‘Barbie’ (in Frida’s likeness), I also say that Frida Kahlo is not a doll. It is not the appropriate way to project the image of an artist at Frida Kahlo’s level. The importance of platforms like Google is that it is something serious that speaks of the painter. It is not a product for a girl to play with,” her great niece, Cristina Kahlo said. 

In a case launched by family members, a Mexican civil court judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking the sale of the doll and other products licensed by the Frida Kahlo Corporation in Mexico.

Mattel asked a federal court to lift the injunction, and a ruling is expected in June.

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