Frida Kahlo self-portrait expected to break auction record

  • Frida Kahlo's painting "Diego and I" is a symbol of the iconic artist's passionate and painful relationship with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Now it's up for auction.
Frida Kahlo self-portrait expected to break auction record(Tolga Akmen/AFP)
Frida Kahlo self-portrait expected to break auction record(Tolga Akmen/AFP)
Published on Nov 16, 2021 04:25 PM IST
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ByDeutsche Welle, Delhi

Her self-portraits are legendary. Frida Kahlo looks deep into the viewer's eyes. Her hair is usually pinned up in braids and adorned with flowers. She wears hand-embroidered Mexican clothing in bright colours along with eye-catching accessories. Her iconic unibrow and faint traces of a mustache are clearly visible — two attributes that contradict conventional beauty ideals for women.

But the painter, who was born in 1907 and died in 1954, cared little about conventions.

The Frida cult

Frida Kahlo was born to a German immigrant and a mestiza (Spanish and Purepecha) mother.

She contracted polio at the age of 6 and was injured so severely in a streetcar accident at 18 that she had to wear steel and leather corsets for the rest of her life.

Confined to bed after the accident, Frida Kahlo began painting to pass the time. It was the beginning of an unprecedented career that made her Mexico's most-famous artist. Her charisma and eventful life, as well as her focus on gender-related subjects considered taboo at the time — abortion, miscarriage and breastfeeding, among others — transformed her into a cult figure.

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A passionate relationship

Now, one of Frida Kahlo's final self-portraits is up for auction and is expected to fetch a record-breaking sum. It depicts her life partner, renowned Mexican painter and muralist Diego Rivera, enthroned as the third eye on the artist's head.

Diego y yo — "Diego and I" — is the title of the work. It says a lot about her relationship to the famous painter, whom she adored.

But their passionate relationship was also marked by pain and suffering. "I suffered two grave accidents in my life," Kahlo once said. "One in which a streetcar knocked me down … the other accident is Diego."

Kahlo's quip characterizes the unusual love story that connected her to the famous painter.

For Frida Kahlo, it was love at first sight with Rivera, who was 20 years her senior. She presented him with her first attempts at painting in 1928, when she was still an unknown artist.

Although both were repeatedly unfaithful — Rivera's affair with her sister Cristina hit Kahlo especially hard — they stayed together. After Kahlo died in 1954 at age 47, Diego Rivera made a confession: "I realized that the best thing in my life was my love for Frida." He continued to promote her art until his death.

Record proceeds expected

Diego y yo was created during Rivera's affair with Kahlo's close friend, actress María Felix, and the deep suffering of the deceived Kahlo is reflected in every brushstroke.

It is one of the last self-portraits the Mexican artist created in the 1940s. In it, her hair is wrapped around her neck like shackles and tears drip down her cheeks.

Now the painting Diego y yo — the symbol of a lasting yet complex love story —goes under the hammer. Sotheby's auction house in New York will sell it to the highest bidder on November 16.

The oil painting measures only 30 by 22.4 centimetres (11 by 8 inches), but the expectations for the sale proceeds are high. Estimates range from $30 to $50 million (about €26 to €44 million).

In 1990, Sotheby's sold the work for a modest $1.4 million (€1.2 million) to New York art dealer Mary-Anne Martin. At the time, it was the first work by a Latin American artist to fetch more than a million dollars at auction.

Since then, prices for Frida Kahlo's works have risen steadily.

The early work El tiempo vuela ("Time Flies") from 1929 fetched $4.6 million in 2000, and Dos desnudos en el bosque ("Two Naked People in the Forest") went for $8 million in 2016.

If Diego y yo does indeed fetch the targeted auction price, it would set the auction record for any Latin American artwork ever sold at auction — adding to the lasting fame of this unique artist.

Criticism of Kahlo

Yet her work has not escaped criticism. Indigenous author Joanna Garcia Cheran of the Purepecha people is critical of the fact that the artistic avant-garde in Mexico — including Frida Kahlo — "reflected the spirit of the times, including a mythologized Indianness in easily digestible aesthetics formulated by the white and rich elite" — and without the contribution of Indigenous peoples themselves.

For example, Kahlo liked to wear the colourful garments of the Tehuana women, and made the style popular as part of her "brand."

"Her status and ability to wear 'Indigenous' as an art practice substantially reflects her cultural role: a mestiza woman of the upper class," wrote Garcia Cheran in the US art news publication Hyperallergic.

Speaking to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Garcia Cheran stressed: "We need more Indigenous voices to bring a critical perspective to a culture that has historically excluded Indigenous perspectives."

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