In analyzing her complicated marriage on canvas, Frida Kahlo both emphasized and undermined the traditional roles of husband and wife.
F rida Kahlo’s wedding portrait – painted two years after she married muralist Diego Rivera – captures an artistically in-tune but emotionally volatile couple. Even their physicality was jarring; they were nicknamed the “Elephant and the Dove”. Frieda and Diego Rivera is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, the city in which it was painted during a visit by the two Mexican artists in 1931 (Rivera had been commissioned to paint a mural for the San Francisco Stock Exchange). In the work, Kahlo uses her trademark naïve folk art style to detail a very modern marriage – over the course of three decades, the couple married, divorced and remarried. The painting is a composition of both intimacy and isolation, convention and innovation.
Interest in the Mexican couple has endured for more than half a century due to the combination of their stormy relationship and their shared status as leading Latin American artists. At the Victoria & Albert Museum in London this summer the exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up shows how Frida’s sense of style – her dress, necklaces, makeup – was as much a part of her artistry as her paintings.
As the V&A curators explain: “In 1954, following her death, Frida Kahlo's possessions were locked away in La Casa Azul (The Blue House) in Mexico City, her lifelong home. Half a century later, her collection of clothing, jewellery, cosmetics and other personal items was discovered.” The collection even included her prosthetic leg, created after the amputation of right leg in 1953. The Observer describes the show as “an extraordinary testimony to suffering and spirit”.
In the years since the deaths of Kahlo and Rivera – 1954 and 1957 respectively – Diego’s public murals have become places of reverence for scholars and art lovers alike, but Frida’s fame has rocketed, fuelled by famous fans like Madonna, the 2002 biopic Frida – with Salma Hayek in the title role – and Kahlo’s posthumous standing as a feminist icon. Her works are highly sought after but rarely appear at auction.
In 2000, Sotheby’s sold a Kahlo self portrait for $5 million, far exceeding its high estimate. Roots – another self portrait in which she emphasized her love of nature – sold in our New York saleroom for $5.6 million in 2006. And, in 2016, we sold an early work, Niña con collar (1929) for $1.8 million – the painting had spent six decades on the walls of one of Kahlo’s former studio assistants.