And Dos Mujeres makes 13. Prior to the Museum of Fine Art’s acquisition of the first painting Frida Kahlo ever sold, there were 12 of her paintings in U.S. museum collections. Earlier this week, the trustees of the Boston gallery made it a baker’s dozen when they agreed to the purchase for an amount that is still the subject of speculation.
The last public record of a sale of the Mexican artist’s work was at a sale of Latin American art by Christies in 2010. The painting, called Survivor, was a little-known work that had not been viewed or photographed for over 70 years. The asking price was $5.6 million.
Casual admirers of Kahlo’s work might recognize Survivor and Dos Mujeres by her style if not by the figures on the canvases. The artist, whose works have graced a million different articles of kitsch in alternative goods shops, is best known for her surreal self-portraits. Paintings like the aforementioned Survivor are not as often recognized as part of her body of work for two reasons.
Kahlo was not a prolific painter. As a young woman, she was involved in an automobile accident that damaged her spine and pelvis. This was the cause of health issues that would plague her for the rest of her life, leaving her bedridden in her final years. While she was not without ambition, she faced a number of barriers to full agency in the art world of the early 20th century.
Frida Kahlo wrote that her lush landscapes and sometimes arcane imagery were both expressions of her inner life and of national pride. American critics were sometimes dismissive, seeing her meditative compositions through the rather paternalistic filter of sexism coupled with an assumption of naive exoticism. Her marriage to activist/muralist Diego Rivera, whose work was as intensely declarative of his ideals as hers was private, often brought unfair comparisons.
The administering body of culture and arts in Mexico, known as CONACULTA, has strict rules in place when it comes to the sale of works by artists who are considered influential voices of the Mexican people and who have created works that are arguably canonical in the body of the country’s artistic heritage. Few, if any, of Kahlo’s paintings have been sold outside of Mexico since the creation of the agency. The works that have gone on the block were usually sold or given by Frida Kahlo to friends and admirers and thus kept by family members and curators of private collections.
Dos Mujeres is significant for more than just its rarity. It was the first work Kahlo sold. The artist was only 21 when the portrait of two women, most likely domestics in the Kahlo-Rivera household, was purchased by Jackson Cole Phillips, a manufacturing tycoon who was also an active patron of the arts. Phillips was a family friend who encouraged art dealers in the United States to raise the profile of the young artist, making her work attractive to his fellow collectors.
In an interview with NPR, MFA Director Matthew Teitelbaum hopes that the installation of Kahlo’s painting will serve as a step towards correcting what critics saw as a lack of diversity and absence of Latino artists in their collection.
“Our dream was to acquire something by Frida Kahlo, who is an artist who really was a pathfinder and a woman with strong political views that animated her heart.”And this came on the market and everybody knew that it was going to be important for us and help us invite new audiences into the MFA.”
The museum is offering art lovers a chance to see Dos Mujeres through March 1. After that, the painting will spend some time in the lab, where it will undergo a material study and steps will be taken to keep it preserved before it reaches its place in the gallery with other works in MFA’s permanent collection.
[Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]