New York City, the United States – Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait, Diego y yo, sold for $34.9m at Sotheby’s New York on Tuesday night, breaking the record for the most valuable work of Latin American art ever sold at auction.
Diego y yo (Diego and I) depicts Kahlo’s tumultuous second marriage to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Completed in 1949, the painting is Kahlo’s final fully-realised bust self-portrait before she died in 1954 at the age of 47.
The work alludes to Rivera’s relationship with the Mexican actress Maria Felix, who was also a close friend of Kahlo’s. At the time, the affair was the subject of numerous rumours and tabloid fodder. Publicly, Kahlo joked about it.
Diego y yo includes a small image of Rivera in the centre of Kahlo’s forehead. Rivera’s image bears a third eye.
Kahlo’s dark hair, which in her paintings she usually depicted in neat braids, hangs loose around her face, almost strangling her neck. Her cheeks are flushed and three tears flow from her eyes.
A Sotheby’s spokesperson identified the buyer as Eduardo F Costantini, a founder of a museum of Latin American art in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The Kahlo is for his private collection. The auction house did not reveal the seller.
Diego y yo was last sold at Sotheby’s in 1990 for $1.4m, when it smashed records and made Kahlo the first Latin American artist to fetch more than $1m at auction.
Tuesday’s auction heralds Sotheby’s recent expansion to include greater representation of marginalized artists, notably women artists. The auction house says Kahlo’s work encompasses “raw emotive power” with Diego y yo capturing “an inner restlessness and distress”.
Kahlo is one of an elite group of artists who have transcended the world of fine art to become an influential figure in pop culture and beyond. Her commercial appeal skyrocketed in recent decades to heights rarely achieved by painters. She is one of the most recognisable artists of the 20th century in the same stratosphere of fame as pop icon Andy Warhol.
Kahlo’s image – the brunette braids, flowers in hair, thick unibrow, red lips – has been printed on countless T-shirts and other merchandise and sold at major retail chains like Old Navy, Target and Urban Outfitters.
Behind the bright colours is the story of a life of pain: both physical and emotional.
At 18, Kahlo nearly died in a bus accident which left her with a life of chronic pain which she often depicted in her self-portrait paintings. Her works also convey emotional pain stemming from her marriage with Rivera.
Their union in art has continued well into the 21st century. Kahlo’s previous auction record was $8m for a painting titled, Two Nudes in a Forest, which sold in 2016. It was the highest price paid for a Latin American artwork until 2018 when Rivera’s, The Rivals, sold at Christie’s auction house for $9.76m.
In the viewing room at the Sotheby’s building on New York’s Upper East Side, where Diego y yo was displayed, the walls were black and the light dim. What stood out was the bright portrait of a crying woman, sorrowful, and the man on her forehead. The painting itself is small, about 30 cm (12 inches) in length and 22.4 centimetres (8.8 inches) wide. Visitors leaned in to get a closer look. They snapped photos with their iPhones.
On the black wall to the right, printed in gold letters, were Kahlo’s own words describing her relationship with Rivera, what the world expected of her and what she really was like or aspired to be. She is open. She is sharing. She does not want to be seen as a victim. For all her sacrifices, she will win at the end, she writes.
The words read not unlike a modern-day Instagram caption:
“I will not speak of Diego as ‘my husband’ because it would be ridiculous, Diego never has been and never will be anyone’s ‘husband’… Probably some people expect of me a very personal, ‘feminine,’ anecdotal, diverting portrait, full of complaints … Perhaps they hope to hear from me laments about ‘how much one suffers’ living with a man like Diego. But I do not believe that the banks of a river suffer for letting the water run or that the earth suffers because it rains, or the atom suffers discharging its energy … for me everything has a natural compensation. Within my difficult and obscure role of ally of an extraordinary being, I have the same reward as a green dot within a quantity of red. I have the reward of ‘equilibrium.’”