Category Archives: Frida Kahlo

Preserving lipstick (and its traces)

I recently wrote about a note in the archive from Frida Kahlo to Meyer Schapiro that includes traces of Kahlo’s lipstick. As an archivist, this naturally brought me to think about the preservation of the medium itself.

I turned to Elizabeth Homberger, Assistant Conservator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles and Carl Patterson, Director of Conservation, Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO, for some sage advice on the stability of lipstick and what I should do to preserve this piece of history.

Homberger and Patterson presented Kiss and Tell: The Conservation of Lipstick-Coated Art by Rachel Lachowicz at this years American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) session for the Objects Specialty Group.

While Lachowicz uses lipstick and make-up on large scale sculptural pieces that, by comparison, dwarf the note from Kahlo in the archive, Homberger was kind enough to share with me several important and not widely known facts on lipstick’s long term preservation.

In their research, Homberger and Patterson found that when lipstick was applied directly from the tube and in thin layers, lipstick would remain quite stable. “Condition issues,” Homberger elaborates, ” such as sweating (the migration of soluble oily components), softening, handling marks, cracking, etc. – observed in the Lachowicz works were likely the result of manipulation of the medium by the artist, including reheating of the lipstick and the addition of waxes.”

Given their findings, the team reports that lipstick is a stable medium but “sweating” may occur over time and that environmental conditions will inhibit this effect. Homberger reiterates: “Lipstick is predominately an oil and wax mixture, so assuming the selected waxes and oils are compatible and the object is kept in a cool, stable environment, lipstick is generally quite stable. Recommendations for storing lipstick-based work are: a cool, stable environment with temperatures below 68°F and RH at 50%.”

Another important issue is the dye used in lipstick. Much like pastels, overexposure to light can be harmful to works that include lipstick. Homberger explains that “many of the dyes commonly used in lipsticks are very light sensitive, so limited light exposure, low light levels when exhibited, and the exclusion of UV radiation are imperative.”

Knowing all these helpful preservation tips will assure that Kahlo’s lipstick traces are well taken care. Perhaps these tips will also be of use to any lipstick treasures you might have.

Frida Kahlo: Lipstick Traces

Frida Kahlo‘s imagery is as mythic as her life and, without question, she remains a haunting figure in the art historical canon. Kahlo’s personal relationship with the artist Diego Rivera and the turmoil she experienced with physical and medical issues all compound to make her life story a truly evocative one.

In all her posthumous fame and glory, we tend to forget that Kahlo was also a working artist. Even though Kahlo gained prominent and international recognition during her life, she, like most working artists, also relied on grants and fellowships for her artistic career.

Because Kahlo sustains a storied aura, it comes as hard to believe that she did apply to the Inter-American Competition awarded by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 1940. (The award is now known as “The Latin American & Caribbean Competition.”)

In order to complete her application, letters of recommendation were in order and Kahlo turned to Meyer Schapiro just for that reason.

Schapiro recommended Kahlo fervently and wrote how important her work was in relation to other Mexican traditions and artists:

She is an excellent painter, of real originality, one of the most interesting Mexican artists I know. Her work looks well beside the best pictures of [José Clemente] Orozco and Rivera; in some ways it is more natively Mexican then theirs. If she hasn’t their heroic and tragic sentiment she is nearer to common Mexican tradition and feeling for decorative forms.

While the note pictured above sent to Schapiro by Kahlo bears the trace of a kiss and comes from the same year as his recommendation, I can’t determine if this is a thank you note for that very purpose. However, it does demonstrate Schapiro’s commitment to fostering the work of artists. This stems from his own practice of the arts. Alongside his art historical work, Schapiro was also a prolific artist and the collection houses more than 4,000 of his prints, drawings, and paintings.

But while Kahlo and Schapiro were friends, there’s one thing Frida got wrong: Schapiro’s first name is spelled with an “e” not an “a.”