A Reply to Critics of the Art Gallery of Ontario's Frida Kahlo Unibrow Promotion
The following open letter by art critic Sholem Krishtalka was published by ARTINFO Canada on Novemer 13.
Dear letter-writers to the Art Gallery of Ontario,
My Facebook feed has lately been playing host to an increased number of your open letters. These letters have all been attempting to take the AGO to task for their latest marketing gimmick. An explanation for the uninitiated: in order to draw people into the museum to see their “Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting” exhibition, the institution is giving out unibrows, inviting the public to document themselves wearing them and receive a decreased admission fee.
Your letters charge the AGO with sexism, with thoughtlessly flattening the work of a significant feminist artist down to a caricature of her looks. And every time I read your letters, I clutch my forehead and sigh.
In the interest of full disclosure, I teach part-time at the AGO, which makes me their employee. I should also point out that, in my life as an art critic, I have openly criticized the AGO while being employed by them. Take that as you will, and size up my credibility accordingly.
Now, I am no great fan of marketing gimmicks, and I don’t know anyone who is (really: when was the last time you heard someone earnestly say “oh great, a marketing gimmick!”). But the furor that has erupted over this unibrow business is, at best, needlessly self-righteous; at worst, utterly self-indulgent.
Personally, I see this particular marketing gimmick as cleverer than most. The point of those fabric brows is to get people into the show – to present them with a small but highly-recognizable aspect of an artist in order to get them into the galleries to see the richness and breadth of her work for themselves.
The ploy was created in consultation with the exhibition’s curator, Dot Tuer (who reportedly explained to the Toronto Sun, “Kahlo had a great sense of humour, a great love of life, so the unibrow is supposed to be funny”), and itself pays a certain homage to one of Frida Kahlo’s best-prized features. Kahlo herself loved her hirsuteness, and exaggerated it in her own self-portraits (she amplified her upper lip hair, as well). As photographs show, she had two distinct brows; in her own paintings, Kahlo, it would seem, carefully, proudly, lovingly filled in the space above the bridge of her nose with fine dark hair.
Kahlo’s work as a whole is an exercise in a highly deliberate, and highly politicized act of self-creation and self-documentation. Her self-appointed embodiment is a swirl of repeated motifs, of particular and meaningful signifiers, and of these, her exaggerated unibrow is one of the central totems. For Kahlo, this signified an androgynous mystique; a deeply exciting gender ambiguity; an outward manifestation of a passionate disposition. It’s also worth remembering that this was a woman whose short life was marked by a deeply troubled relationship to her own body. Given that, her own insistence on her unibrow becomes a potent emblem of reclamation.
So those brows are a neat, punchy little summation of a fairly radical aspect of Kahlo’s self-presentation, and certainly not the worst place for the curious to start their discovery. Those who do have any kind of curiosity will follow the trail of…er, eyebrow hair?...upstairs. And those who don’t, well, there’s no helping them, anyway.
This fury, dear letter writers, this angsty indignation over a feminist artist reduced to her image is simply wrong-headed. Frida Kahlo was, above all else, a relentless self-documenter, an unflinching self-portraitist. Her work is her image.