Think of female painters, and it’s unlikely many people will come to mind before Frida Kahlo. By now, her distinctive unibrow, flowers-in-her-hair image is as much pop culture reference as self-portrait. Anyone with a passing interest in art will know who she is, or even choose her signature garb as a Halloween costume.
Try to think of another female painter, especially a dead one, and Frida’s status becomes even more impressive. Add that to the fact that she’s Mexican, not European or even American. Against all odds, Kahlo, not her husband muralist Diego Rivera, defines Latin American art for the majority of the world.
At the time whens he was producing, few would have expected that Rivera’s young lover would go on to eclipse him on the global stage, but even he knew upon meeting Frida that there was something uniquely special about her. In his book, My Art, My Life: An Autobiography he speaks of his earliest memories of the mischievous young Kahlo, who played tricks on him and stood proudly in front of his then-wife, Guadalupe “Lupe” Marín, while watching him work, despite her obvious annoyance. Even she would eventually concede, “I really like that girl.” Rivera himself was immediately drawn to her work.
“As I looked at them, one by one, I was immediately impressed. The canvases revealed an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity. They showed none of the tricks in the name of originality that usually mark the work of ambitious beginners. They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own. They communicated a vital sensuality, complemented by a merciless yet sensitive power of observation. It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist.”
Some may attribute the artist’s rise to fame to factors outside of her raw talent. A 2002 film starring Salma Hayek Frida was how many young people came to know Kahlo in the first place. Furthermore, she’s the first thought when many think of female artist, a category in which Rivera has scores, if not hundreds, of stiff competitors to contend with. Her self-portraits are, in some ways, the portrait of women in art as a whole. Even if her husband is symbolic of Mexican national identity, he cannot, by any means, become symbolic of his gender as a whole.
Yet some curators see something far beyond luck in striking gold in the modern pop culture canon. When Frida and Diego visited the city of Detroit in 1932, some of the country’s richest families were battling it out for a Rivera mural, while the press remarked that Kahlo herself “dabbled” in art. One of her most famed moments from the trip was quipping at noted anti-Semite Henry Ford, “Are you a Jew?”
Yet when the Detroit Institute of Arts hosted a joint show of Frida and Diego in 2015, the tables had turned. DIA director Graham Beal remarked that now it was Rivera, not Kahlo, that needed an introduction, something that he felt went much deeper than just the fact that an Oscar-winning film was made about her. Her paintings are much more in tune with the trajectory of art today, he told Detroit News.
“When I first visited [Detroit] in the early 1970s. Rivera looked hopelessly old-fashioned and wrong-headed — realistic, political, and in a way, propagandistic. Her art is much more in keeping with today — highly personal and intimate, full of pain and uncertainty.”
In other indicators of the art world success, Frida still pales in comparison to some her counterparts. Last year, she broke her price ceiling with Dos Desnudos en el Bosque (La Tierra Misma), which sold for $8 million at a Christie’s auction. In comparison, Rivera doubled that, with $15.7 million for Dance in Tehuantepec at Sotheby’s in 2016. Kahlo’s smaller offering may have to do with more than just her gender, Adriana Zavala, associate professor of art history and director of Latino studies at Tufts University, told Artsy.
“Frida is probably the best known woman artist and the best known Latin American artist… [But comparing her with artists that sell for high prices]… it’s apples and oranges. Kahlo is enormously popular with a very diverse cross-section of the international public. But it’s a very particular audience. It tends not to be the kind of people who would pay $57 million for a Basquiat.”
Yet the love of the people is not to be minimized. Frida’s paintings could sell for $100 million, and it’s not like she’ll see any of the money for it either way. Even Rivera’s murals were partially so ground-breaking because they were meant to be seen in public, by all classes, not tucked away in a collector’s mansion somewhere. When Kahlo shows up to an art museum, the people come with her. Her shows have broken records at galleries around the world, making her exhibits some of the most bankable on the planet — even if her work itself doesn’t yield the highest profits.
It’s also significant just how much people love to talk about Frida. Her rumored affairs with Georgia O’Keeffe and Leon Trotsky are art lore that rival Picasso and his women, or even JFK and Marilyn. Google “famous art couples” and the pair come up, usually with Kahlo taking first billing.
Yet these are all gossip, lore that’s fascinating to discuss but distracts from what it truly stunning about Frida Kahlo and her stunning paintings. In an art world rife with sexism, she triumphed. In a country steeped in machismo, she persevered. The great tragedy is that she never got to know just notable she would become, but with the mammoth fame that seems to only build with the years, she’ll remain a feminist icon for an infinite number of International Women’s Days to come.
[Featured Image by Sean Gallup/Getty Images]