How Frida Kahlo Paintings Overshadowed Her More Famous Husband’s Murals [Opinion]

Think of female painters, and it’s unlikely any will come to mind before Frida Kahlo. What other creative woman of her era could, after all, boast a world record-breaking gathering of her dopplegängers, as took place last week at the summoning of more than 1,000 Frida lookalikes in Dallas, reported NPR.

Earlier this year, on International Women’s Day, not only was Kahlo one of the select few female icons featured on Google Doodle, but Snapchat even allowed users to superimpose Frida’s signature unibrow on their own faces, previously reported the Inquisitr.

Now, try to think of another female painter, especially a dead one, and Kahlo’s status becomes even more impressive. Add that to the fact that she’s Mexican, not European or even American. Against all odds, Frida Kahlo, not her husband muralist Diego Rivera, is perhaps the de facto face of Latin American art in the rest of the world.

At the time Frida was producing her artwork, 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 her that she was special. 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 Lupe would eventually concede, “I really like that girl.” Rivera himself was smitten.

“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 people came to know Kahlo in the first place. Furthermore, she’s arguably the globe’s most recognized female painter, a category in which the male Rivera has hundreds of iconic names to compete with. Even if her husband is symbolic of Mexican national identity, he cannot claim the same for his gender as a whole.

Curators, however, see something far beyond Frida’s luck striking gold in the modern pop-culture canon. When Kahlo 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 his wife “dabbled” in art.

One of her most famed moments from the trip was quipping at noted anti-Semite Henry Ford, “Are you a Jew?”

Frida Kahlo paintings

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, who needed an introduction, something that he felt went much deeper than the 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.”

By other metrics, Frida still pales in comparison to some of her male 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.

Adriana Zavala, associate professor of art history and director of Latino studies at Tufts University, told Artsy that there’s more to this disparity than Kahlo’s gender.

“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.”

Frida Kahlo paintings

In terms of staying power, this popularity 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 groundbreaking 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.

Just Google “famous artist couples.” The Mexican lovers appear instantly, usually with Frida Kahlo taking first billing.

[Featured Image by Robin Atzeni/Shutterstock]