Two Nudes in a Forest - Frida Kahlo

An inside view of the New York auction world through one painting being auctioned on May 12, 2016

The May 12 evening sale of Impressionist and Modern art at Christies in New York will feature a small oil painting on metal plate by the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, entitled,  Two Nudes in a Forest.  Deputy chairwoman, Laura Paulson, noted that this work is estimated to sell for between $8 and $12 million dollars, a hefty price per square inch![1] This signed and dated work was done in 1939 and it is a repetition in miniature of a part of a larger painting,  What the Water Gave Me  of 1938. Works like this on metal were called ex votos , and they were often brought to church as religious gifts for those seeking prayer and relief from Christ or the Virgin Mary. What we have here is a small self-portrait of Frida with her head in the lap of a mulatto version of herself or possibly a female lover in a garden setting inhabited by a monkey, who once was her household pet.

Two Nudes in a ForestWhat the Water Gave Me, 1938.

Having been abandoned and divorced in this year from Diego Rivera, Frida seems to have retreated to a world of sorrow and loss and perhaps sought asylum in a relationship with another woman. Her bisexuality was noted by many. Drops of blood seem to allude to the sacrifice and loss of her child Diegito in Detroit in 1932, which she often cited as one reason for her loss of Diego himself who wanted a male heir. More likely the split was the result of frustrations which began to build in New York when they quarreled about his mural in Rockefeller Center. Rivera had agreed to remove the image of Lenin in his mural at the insistence of Nelson and his father John Jr. Frida, being the more strident Communist in the marriage, gave Rivera hell for backing down from his original ideas, and thus he left Lenin in the mural which the Rockefellers first covered then destroyed in February of 1934.[2]

This small painting passed to two collectors Dolores del Rio then Lewis Reilly in California after Frida’s death in 1954. It was then sold in New York in 1989 to gallerist Mary Anne Martin for about $160,000. She had started the Latin American department at Sotheby ‘s after her graduate studies. She sold this work to Jon Shirley, the then president of Microsoft, who has consigned it to this sale.

Besides the fact that Frida only painted about 200 pictures in her life, her work was declared national patrimony of the state of Mexico in 1984 by President Miguel de la Madrid. Once her prices reached over $1 million dollars the Mexican government decided to restrict the export of her works outside of its borders. They had done the same for several other native stars like Rivera, Orozco, Siquerios, Herran and Velasco. The movie and book, Frida, by Hayden Herrara in 2002 brought further notoriety to the life of Frida Kahlo who became a feminist icon for many such as the singer, Madonna, who added Frida’s work to her art collection. (image 4) We had a neighbor in Houston who bought a painting by Frida in 1979 for $25,000 which was valued at $25 million dollars in a recent appraisal.

frida-4-1940Self-Portrait with Monkey, 1940.

Mentored in her early years by her father Guillermo Kahlo, a noted photographer of German descent, Frida took up painting in school and focused on same after a bus accident at age 18 which confined her to bed for recovery. Her Mexican mother, Matilde Calderon, is noted as a reference in this painting for her mixed racial heritage. Proud to be a mestizo, Frida played up her Mexican identity by sporting native dress while Rivera became the rage of the Detroit and New York art scene.

frida-3Photo of Frida Kahlo, circa 1934 @ New York Botanical Garden.

Noted surrealist, Andre Breton said that Frida’s painting was like a ribbon around a bomb, full of life, self- expression and vivid imagination. Frida insisted that she painted her own reality, whether it was pleasure or pain. Her early death at age 47 has made her even more of a modern martyr and icon of Latin American modernism of the 20th century school.

We will be able to see how the sale of this item goes on May 12 as this evening is always a well- attended social event at Christies. Lot 12069 can be googled the next day or perhaps even viewed on the website in case there is a simulcast that evening. Once the catalog is released we will be able to see if there is a third party guarantor for this lot which means the auction house has sought a buyer- in- waiting for the work. By contract, this person will either get the painting at a pre-agreed price or share in the upside of the sale above the agreed estimate. This is a practice of the auction houses to get their consignors to agree to sell these expensive popular works. While this practice is not yet regulated in New York State, many have questioned the efficacy of the innocent buyer not really knowing whom he or she is bidding against in the actual sale. Time will tell how these guarantees evolves as the latest wrinkle in the world wide art market.

[1] A Dreamlike Kahlo, The New York Times, April 9, 2016.

[2] Hayden Herrera, A Biography of Frida Kahlo, Harper Perennial, 2002.


Article written by Sharon Lorenzo