By Jill Brooke
Are you a big fan of flower-loving artist Frida Kahlo? The feminist pop culture icon, who so many female artists have been inspired by, just broke the record for a Latin American artist sale at Sotheby’s auction.
A 1949 painting, titled Diego y yo (Diego and I) sold for $34.9 million to Eduardo F. Constantini, the founder of a museum in Buenos Aires. For a little poetic justice, the last record was held by a painting by the artist’s husband Diego Rivera called The Rivals which sold at Christie’s for $9.8 million in 2019. Her last sale, “Two Nudes in a Forest” sold for $8 million in 2016
As Sotheby’s said, this sale ‘further secures her place as one of the true titans of 20th-century art.”
While battling chronic health issues, Kahlo always turned to flowers as inspiration – gotta love that, right? Confined to bed after a near-fatal bus crash, Kahlo spent more time painting. Although famous for her self-portraits, her work was entwined with nature and flora and the symbolism attached to it.
In her self-portraits, she often wore pink bougainvillea wrapped into her braided hair; floral motifs adorned her native clothing. That was her signature style, even though sophisticated Mexican women by the 1930s and 40s were gravitating to more Westernized ensembles. Native flowers like salvias, marigolds, dahlias and cannas appeared also in her art.
“I paint flowers so they do not die,” said Kahlo.
Kahlo took pride in Mexico’s culture and history, from its ancient civilizations to the Revolution, which began in 1910. Painting flowers from her garden was one way she expressed these values on her canvases since they were symbols of her heritage.
In a Financial Times article, Robin Lane Fox shared an insight into one of her most significant canvases, the 1940 “Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.” It was on display at the New York Botanical Garden in 2015, when they also recreated Frida Kahlo’s garden at Casa Azul.
“Above a necklace of spiky shoots, which are drawing drops of blood from her neck, a pet monkey plays with one end of it, while a cat sits on her other shoulder. A hummingbird, an old Mexican charm for restoring love, hangs from her necklace’s loop,” he writes. “Flowers of fuchsia and a zinnia, two Mexican plants, are merged with insects’ wings in the bold green leaves on either side of her dark hair. This portrait dates to Kahlo’s brief, but painful, divorce from Diego Rivera, the giver of the pet monkey.
“But unlike feminist critics, I do not see the monkey is causing the necklace to draw blood from her neck. Experts at the [Botanical] garden have now identified it as a necklace of bougainvillea. In their greenhouse display, I noted how a bougainvillea’s mature stems are indeed thorny. Through a gardeners’ eyes, one of the century’s great self-portraits can be better understood.”
Once again, flora tells a story. In the language of flowers, love must have thorns along with the rose — or in this case — the bougainvillea. Not sucking one’s lifeblood, but declaring the reality that love has its seasons, withering and sometimes blooming again.
She died in 1954 at 47 years old, and ironically enough is the world’s most famous least-prolific artist with only 200 paintings. Well, quality not quantity right? According to Forbes, Kahlo’s self-portrait is also the second-most expensive artwork by a female artist, after American painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1,” which fetched $44.4 million in 2014.
Kahlo exhibits at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, New York Botanical Garden, Tuscon Botanical Garden and Brooklyn Museum have attracted record crowds.
I have a pillow of one of the lead images today in my living room. She inspires resilience, beauty and acceptance to me when I see it. What do you admire about Kahlo? Also, did you see the fab movie “Frida” with Salma Hayek? Worth seeing.
Maybe like flowers, Frida’s appreciation took time to cultivate, ascending especially during the feminist movement of 1970’s and now in the 2020s. The best-selling Latin American artist of all time continues to bloom.
Jill Brooke is a former CNN correspondent, Post columnist and editor-in-chief of Avenue and Travel Savvy magazine. She is an author and the editorial director of FPD and floral editor for aspire design and home magazine and contributor to Florists Review magazine.