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Frida Kahlo self-portrait fetches a record $34.9 million

<i>Sotheby's</i><br/>A self-portrait by Frida Kahlo is expected to set a record for a work by a Latin American artist when it goes up for auction in New York later this year.
A self-portrait by Frida Kahlo is expected to set a record for a work by a Latin American artist when it goes up for auction in New York later this year.

Isabelle Jani-Friend, CNN

A self-portrait by Frida Kahlo has become the most expensive work by a Latin American artist ever to sell at auction, fetching $34.9 million in New York on Tuesday.

The price achieved by the painting “Diego y yo” (“Diego and I”) more than tripled the previous record of $9.8 million, set by a work by Kahlo’s husband — and the inspiration for her painting — Diego Rivera, in 2019.

The auction house behind the sale, Sotheby’s, said in a statement that the price tag “places Frida Kahlo center stage among the great titans of art history.” The sum also smashed the public auction record for a work by Kahlo of $8 million, set in 2016, the auctioneer said.

“Painted in the same year her beloved Diego embarked on an affair with her friend, the Mexican Golden Age (actor) Maria Felix, this powerful portrait is the painted articulation of her anguish and sorrow,” said Sotheby’s director of Latin American art, Anna Di Stasi, in a press statement following the auction. “You could call tonight’s result the ultimate revenge, but in fact it is the ultimate validation of Kahlo’s extraordinary talent and global appeal.

“‘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.”

Kahlo painted bust self-portraits, a format first popularized during the European Renaissance, throughout her career, and they are among her most famous works.

Completed in 1949, five years before her death, “Diego y yo” is the artist’s final self-portrait of the 1940s.

Following her second marriage to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera — the couple remarried in 1940 after divorcing a year earlier — Kahlo was influenced by subjects ranging from Aztec and Eastern mythology to medicine and botany. She also depicted her debilitating health issues and her turbulent relationship with Rivera, creating a personal iconography in her work.

Kahlo met Rivera when she asked him to critique her work, and the ups and downs of their relationship became a key subject of her art.

“Diego y yo” depicts Kahlo wearing a huipil, a type of blouse traditional to the women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico. She wears this particular red huipil in many of her best-known self-portraits, and in a famous series of photographs by Hungarian-American portraitist Nickolas Muray.

Kahlo’s loose hair, usually tightly braided, appears to almost strangle her. She has red flushed cheeks, and a tearful gaze.

In the middle of her forehead are the head and shoulders of Rivera — a symbol of his central position in her mind. Rivera, in turn, is depicted with a third eye in his forehead.

“Frida Kahlo is a global icon of modern art whose work is beloved around the world,” Di Stasi said in a statement announcing the sale in September. “‘Diego y yo’ epitomizes the painstakingly detailed rendering, complex iconography, and deeply personal narratives that are hallmarks of her mature painting.”

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