Frida Kahlo self-portrait sells for $35 million

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo's "Diego and I" has sold at auction for the highest price ever paid for a painting by a Latin American artist.

Frida Kahlo self-portrait sells for $35 million


The oil painting Diego y yo, which measures only 30 by 22.4 centimeters (11 by 8 inches), has been sold on Tuesday at Sotheby's auction house for $34.9 million (€30.9 million).

It was part of the prestigious Macklowe Collection, alongside works by artists including Mark Rothko, Alberto Giacometti and Jackson Pollock. The 35 lots generated over $676 million at auction.

In 1990, Sotheby's sold Diego y yo for a modest $1.4 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.

The Frida cult

Her self-portraits are legendary, with Frida Kahlo looking 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 colors 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.

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.

A passionate relationship

Diego y yo — "Diego and I" depicts Frida Kahlo's life partner, renowned Mexican painter and muralist Diego Rivera, enthroned as the third eye on the artist's head.

The painting says a lot about her relationship to the famous painter, whom she adored.

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."

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.

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.

Criticism of Kahlo

Even though she has become an icon of pop culture, Frida Kahlo's 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 colorful 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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