Her value is not in her stupendous auction prices, but in her hard-won road to artistic greatness
18 November 2021 | Guardian Editorial | The Guardian
A late self-portrait by Frida Kahlo sold this week at a New York auction house for $34.9m.
That makes her the most expensive Latin American artist ever, eclipsing her husband, Diego Rivera, whose reputation, as well as his prices, once outshone hers. Kahlo, nearly 70 years after her death aged 47, has become one of the most famous self-depicted faces in art.
Her visage, with its confrontational gaze and famous monobrow, is as recognisable as that of Rembrandt or Warhol.
Kahlo was a great artist. Not that auction prices are the measure of quality; rather, at this mind-bending level, they reflect an artist’s scarcity and desirability to a slender tranche of the global super-rich. (The painting, Diego and I, has been bought by the Argentinian businessman and collector Eduardo Costantini.)
But the rise of her prices from the tens of thousands of dollars in the 1980s to the tens of millions now also reflects Kahlo’s assimilation from the narrow channels of art history into the broad river of popular culture.
Kahlo, whose life and art were the subject of major exhibitions in London and New York in 2018, has become a perennial fashion inspiration, as influential in her own way to designers as Grace Kelly was. Her face adorns homeware and clothing; she has become, effectively, a brand.
Her face even featured on a bracelet worn by Theresa May while giving her most disastrous speech – the Conservative conference keynote address of 2017 when the then prime minister was assailed by a coughing fit, handed a P45 by a comedian, and upstaged when letters that formed a slogan affixed to the wall behind her slowly drifted to earth.
Mrs May, to those of a fanciful cast of mind, might almost have been cursed by the shade of Kahlo – a card-carrying communist and lover of Trotsky – who would surely have been outraged at the idea that her physiognomy should be attached to the wrist of a Tory prime minister.
Kahlo appeals to a young, global generation of feminists: her defiant self-fashioning seems to resonate perfectly with the current moment.
Her distinctive beauty was entirely her own, untamed by traditional ideals of femininity, or conventional notions of sexual attractiveness. (Salma Hayek, who played her in a 2002 biopic, recently recalled that Harvey Weinstein, the film’s producer, would berate when she was being made up for the role, saying: “I didn’t hire you to look ugly!”)
Her sense of style, too, was entirely self-created, rejecting the fashions of the time and asserting her cultural identity by dressing in the colourful traditional style of Mexico’s Tehuana women.
Her creativity was hard fought through the physical pain of polio and disability owing to a near-fatal road accident; her strength, so evident in her self-portraits, was forged in vulnerability. It is a highly potent mix.
And, while it is possible to find her cultural ubiquity – and popular focus on her personal life – trivialising of her status as a great artist, there are many worse people in the world to aspire to emulate than this creator of, as the writer Jennifer Higgie has put it, “fierce, troubled joy”.