Frida Kahlo’s (1907-1954) intimate oil painting has sold for a staggering $34.9 million (£25.9 million) at Sotheby’s New York, setting a new auction record for the most expensive artwork by a Latin American artist. It is significant as one of her final self-portraits, which candidly reveals the artist’s distress over her husband Diego Rivera’s (1886-1957) public affair with friend and famed actress Maria Félix (1914-2002).
Painted in 1949, ‘Diego y yo’ (Diego and Me) depicts Kahlo with the image of Diego engrained upon her forehead, his adultery forever on her mind. Thick, dark hair poignantly envelops the artist’s face as she tearfully gazes at the viewer. It is an unsettling portrait that has fascinated art lovers and evidently captured the hearts of the bidders.
“Diego y yo is so much more than a beautifully painted portrait. It’s a painted summary of all of Kahlo’s passion and pain, a tour de force of the raw emotive power of the artist at the peak of her abilities,” explained Anna Di Stasi, the director of Latin American Art at Sotheby’s.
It last came to market in 1990, selling for $1.4 million (£1 million) to an unidentified buyer. This time around Sotheby’s were guaranteed a big sale having both a house guarantee and an irrevocable bid from a third party. Eduardo F. Costantini, businessman and founder of a museum in Buenos Aires, subsequently won the painting for his private collection.
Ironically, the previous record beaten by Kahlo was set by Diego. His piece ‘Los Rivales’ (The Rivals) sold for $9.76 million (£7.25 million) in 2018. Di Stasi not only dubbed it “the ultimate revenge, but in fact it is the ultimate validation of Kahlo’s extraordinary talent and global appeal.”
Kahlo first met the world-famous mural artist Diego at the age of 15 through her work as an art student. After suffering a horrific streetcar accident that left her bedridden for two years and dashed her hopes of becoming a surgeon, she began rebuilding her life as an artist. She met Diego again at a political activist party where they commenced their lifelong turbulent relationship. The pair were married in 1929, despite him being 20 years her senior and already having two common law wives. Kahlo’s mother was famously quoted as saying it was a “marriage between an elephant and a dove“.
During the 1930’s and 1940’s, Kahlo’s career flourished as she exhibited across Europe and America and taught at the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado. But it was not until the late 1970’s – 20 years after her death – that she began to be internationally recognised as a true icon of Mexican art, feminism, and the LGBTQ+ movements.