A self-portrait by Frida Kahlo, titled Diego y yo (Diego and I) is set to appear in auction in November at Sotheby’s and, if its estimate of over $30 million is met, will become the most valuable Latin American artwork ever publicly sold. Not only that, it could possibly become the highest price ever for a female artist, if it sells in excess of the current record of $44.4 million – the amount paid for Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1(1932) in 2014.
Brooke Lampley, Sotheby’s chairman and worldwide head of sales for global fine art, recognised the importance of this work appearing at auction in a statement, saying that “Frida Kahlo’s emotionally bare and complex portrait Diego y yo is a defining work…To offer this portrait in our Modern Evening Sale in November heralds the recent expansion of the Modern category to include greater representation of underrepresented artists, notably women artists, and rethink how they have historically been valued at auction”.
Diego y yo depicts a bust of Kahlo with her hair uncharacteristically loose and flowing, appearing to almost strangle her. Her eyes are tearful, and on her forehead is a portrait of husband, Diego Rivera. The connection to her tumultuous relationship with Diego is clear, and it is notable that it was painted in the same year that Diego had an affair with film star María Félix. Whilst Kahlo professed to be unfazed by the affair, newspapers reported that Rivera was planning to divorce Kahlo and their relationship became a public scandal. Kahlo’s own writings support the idea that her love life affected her deeply; in a notebook she wrote, “I suffered two great accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar knocked me down … the other accident is Diego.” It is ironic that this painting, which seems to so obviously make reference to her relationship, could become the most valuable work of Latin American art, as it is a work by Diego Rivera himself which is currently in that position – in 2019, Rivera’s The Rivals sold at Christie’s for $9.76 million.
Aside from a commentary on her relationship, there are other complex elements to Kahlo’s art. She explored themes such as identity, postcolonialism, gender, class and race in Mexican society. She belonged to the Mexicayotl movement, a group which focused on reviving the indigenous religion, philosophy and traditions of ancient Mexico. This interest is prevalent in Diego y yo, where Kahlo wears a huipil, a traditional blouse worn by the women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico. Kahlo’s dress and self-representation has also been the subject of much study, and is thought to be her way of expressing feminist and anti-colonialist ideals.
Julian Dawes, Sotheby’s co-head of Impressionist & Modern Art in New York, said in a statement that, “a painting by Kahlo of this quality and excellence is a rarity at auction” and the auction house have stated that this sale, “will be a watershed moment for Kahlo and Latin American artists”. The painting will be on display in London prior to its sale, from 22 to 25 October.