Frida Kahlo is everywhere, peering from plates, boxes, calendars, shop windows and restaurant walls with her haunting stare, internal organs exposed, blood dripping down her elongated neck, nails piercing her body, fetus floating from her umbilical cord like a kite, tears sprinkling her face.
No doubt Frida Kahlo had a tough life. And Mexicans apparently like to be reminded of that.
They have plastered the country with pictures of the self-possessed, suffering artist and copies of her anguished paintings (mostly self-portraits) with religious fervor. In fact, perhaps only the revered Virgin of Guadalupe cuts a more familiar figure here.
"In the U.S. there is a passion and obsession for Frida, but in Mexico she has become a patron saint," said Hayden Herrera, author of an acclaimed biography on Kahlo. "Her fame has made Mexicans very proud. Instead of American culture being pushed on Mexico, here's an example where a Mexican has had a huge impact on art all over the world."
Art historians call the phenomenon the Cult of Kahlo. Spurred on by a seemingly voracious worldwide appetite for Kahlo's works, Mexicans have transformed the surrealist painter, who died 42 years ago, into an icon. In 1984 the Mexican government declared her a national treasure.
"There is a Fridomania," said Raquel Walls, owner of a boutique here that sells mini-reproductions of Kahlo's paintings. Citing the artist's polio, a near-fatal bus accident and tumultuous marriage with the philandering muralist Diego Rivera, Walls said, "She was a woman who suffered much. . . . Women in particular like her because she was an example for their emancipation."
Said Catalina Martinez, a psychologist here: "I think that she was a woman who, in a way, pretended to be the classic Mexican woman. . . . She was obedient and submissive, totally in contrast with the innovative, authentic and brave woman that she clearly was. I admire her capacity to defend herself and maintain her originality."
One of Kahlo's most ardent admirers is Madonna, who bought two paintings -- "Self-Portrait With Monkey" (1940) and "My Birth" (1932) -- in the late 1980s, when a Kahlo canvas could still be had for around $1 million. The pop diva, who stars as Eva Peron in the forthcoming movie "Evita," is also reportedly interested in making a movie about Frida.
"It's not just Mexico -- there is a Fridomania everywhere," said Silvia Coxe, head of the Latin American Department at Christie's auction house in New York, noting that Kahlo's "Self-Portrait With Monkey and Parrot" (1940) holds the record for the most expensive Latin American artwork sold at auction -- $3.2 million in May 1995. Privately, her works have sold for even more, art experts say.
"Her art is so absolutely honest, anyone can identify him or herself with the pain she went through. In every portrait she's looking at you, saying, This is what my story is,' " Coxe said. "There's a very Mexican quality to her work, with a lot of symbolism, but you don't have to struggle to understand it."
Most admirers have to content themselves with small-scale reproductions of her self-portraits, in which the artist stares -- unsmiling, confrontational -- at the viewer, with her trademark eyebrows joining above the nose, and the hint of a mustache.
For many who collect these icons, and for feminists the world over, Kahlo herself has become a symbol of courage and perseverance, liberation and rebellion. Moreover, this frail, chain-smoking alcoholic, who endured more than 35 operations, had her leg amputated late in life and became addicted to painkillers, has deeply touched the Mexican psyche.
She lied about her birth date, claiming she was born in 1910 to coincide with the start of the Mexican Revolution, when in fact she was born three years earlier. She was part Indian and reveled in her indigenous heritage before it was popular to do so, braiding her long hair and sporting Indian clothes and jewelry. Despite living in a traditionally male-dominated society, she asserted her independence, was openly bisexual, joined the Communist Party and had an affair with Leon Trotsky.
In truth, when Kahlo died on July 13, 1954, at age 47, she was considered at best a marginal talent, with a relatively small body of work (about 150 paintings and drawings) that was admired by a comparatively modest number of people. A cadre of intellectuals and artists, including her husband and Picasso, believed that she was one of the greatest Latin painters ever. But during her life she had only two one-person shows, and when her first painting appeared at auction in 1977, it fetched just $19,000.
It is only since 1978 -- when biographer Herrera organized a Frida Kahlo exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art -- that her popularity exploded, riding the feminist movement. Now she has surpassed all of her contemporaries to become, if not the greatest Latin painter, certainly the most famous and most sought-after.
One reason her paintings command such high prices is that when Mexico declared her a national patrimony, it prohibited the export of her paintings for sale. Now, according to Coxe, there are probably fewer than 10 Kahlo paintings in private hands worldwide that have a chance of ever showing up on the international market.
"I still think Diego Rivera was the greatest Mexican painter ever, but there's more of a mystique about Frida, people are more obsessed with her, and it's all because her painting is so personal," Coxe said.
"People feel they know her, like a movie star. But a movie star is just a character. In her paintings, this is the real Frida, putting herself totally naked in front of us -- all her feelings and soul and life -- so people grow closer to her."
Many of Kahlo's paintings are tied to specific events in her life, in which her face appears calm and stoical while various symbols -- a necklace of thorns, a face superimposed on her forehead -- describe her life situation and emotions. "I never painted dreams," she once wrote. "I painted my own reality." Rivera said that through her art, Kahlo "tore open the breast and heart in order to speak the biological truth of what is felt within them." For the most part, that was pain and suffering.
Kahlo was afflicted with polio at age 6, which left her right leg withered. But the defining moment in her life came in 1925, when she was 18, and the bus she was riding home from school was rammed by a trolley car. She was impaled on a steel handrail that ran through her body, piercing her pelvis. Her spine was fractured in three places, her right leg in 11, her foot was dislocated, and her collarbone and a rib were broken.
She took up painting during her long and lonely convalescence, explaining later that "I paint myself because I am frequently alone. I am the theme which I know best." She met Rivera in 1929 (he was 43 and about 300 pounds, she was 22 and about 100 pounds), and though they tried to have children, the accident left her unable to carry a child and she had three abortions.
She underwent dozens of operations for her back and leg, spending months bedridden and in body casts. Rivera, meanwhile, took numerous lovers, and the couple divorced briefly in 1940 before remarrying. Her right leg was amputated below the knee because of gangrene about a year before she died of acute pneumonia.
Today, copies of her grotesquely honest self-portraits are sold across Mexico in the cheapest junk shops and the swankest department stores in displays that have a shrinelike quality.
"In fact, many of the people who sell the pictures and display them don't know who she was, and have pictures only of her face, but not the true pictures of Frida, such as A Few Small Nips' or The Broken Column,' " said accountant Javier Orozco during a recent visit to the Frida Kahlo Museum here.
"These pictures are tragic, as tragic as Frida's life, but these types of paintings are the most interesting because they reflect her life." "A Few Small Nips" (1935) shows a naked woman lying on a bed, the sheets and floor smeared in blood, with a man holding a knife standing over her. It is generally seen as a statement of Kahlo's unhappiness around the time she discovered that Rivera was having an affair with her favorite sister, Cristina.
In "The Broken Column" (1944), a tearful Kahlo stands with nails sticking out of her body, a portion of which is transparent to show multiple fractures in her backbone, a clear reference to her medical problems.
"Her very bold, frank depiction of her suffering appeals to people all over the world," said Herrera. "The main thing is her defiance of her pain. She kept working despite her miserable situation. Young women painters in particular found strength in Frida Kahlo's example. She changed contemporary art in Mexico, and gave permission to women and male homosexuals to become much more personal in their painting.
"Part of her art had to do with wanting to get attention. She was lonely and she wanted people to take note of her and her suffering," Herrera said. "It's too bad it's become an industry, but Kahlo was of the people' and would like being on postcards. I think she'd be amused at all the attention she's getting." CAPTION: Frida Kahlo in a 1941 self-portrait. CAPTION: Frida Kahlo postcards on display in Mexico, above, include photos of Kahlo with husband Diego Rivera, right, and one of her self-portraits. CAPTION: Kahlo reproductions in Mexico City's House of Tacos restaurant.