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Frida Kahlo – Austin’s most well-traveled woman

September 13, 2011

Frida Kahlo (self portrait)AUSTIN –Since the 1980s, when “Fridamania” started to roll, a 1940 self-portrait by the iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo has become the most widely requested and widely traveled work in the art collections of the Harry Ransom Center, the eminent museum and research library on the University of Texas Austin campus.

Titled “Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird,” this symbolically rich portrait has travelled more than 100,000 miles since 1990 while appearing in major museums around the world and acquiring widespread cult followings. Ironically, “Frida,” as the painting is affectionately called, is better known around the world than in Austin, probably because she is on the road more than at home.

Frida did stay home in Austin for six months in 2011, but she took off again in January 2012 to join major exhibitions in Los Angeles,  Canada and Mexico. She has been at the L.A. County Museum of Art since Jan. 29. Her appearance here winds up May 6. Next its off to the Musee National des Beaux-arts in Quebec City, Canada, where she will be on display from  from June 7 to September 3.  Her appearance at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City extends from September 27 to January 13, 2013.

Frida will stay home in Austin from January to August, 2013, reigning solemnly from her perch just inside the entrance to the Ransom center, before starting another tour.

The famous 1940 Kahlo portrait was among 102 pieces of Mexican art collected by photographer Nickolas Muray. The Random Center bought the collection in 1966 from Muray’s family in New York City, just months after Muray’s death. One of Kahlo’s many lovers, Muray had purchased the portrait from Kahlo when she needed money.

 The cost has not been made public, since the Ransom Center “refrains from putting a value or estimate” on its works, said a spokesperson. But today one thing is certain: Frida Kahlo portraits fetch big bucks. One self-portrait sold to a European collection in 2005 for $5.25 million, reports art critic Jason Kaufman.

An invalid from age 18, Kahlo painted some 80 self-portraits, often while bedridden.  She completed the 1940 portrait at a crossroads in her life, as she was breaking up with Muray and divorcing her husband, muralist Diego Rivera.  Sacred and profane, this shows Frida with a spider monkey, given to her by Rivera, on one shoulder. On the other perches a cat seemingly ready to pounce on the dead hummingbird dangling from her thorn necklace, which is similar to Christ’s crown of thorns.

Kahlo died in 1954, at age 47. Her works were largely overlooked until the 1980s when surrealism and multiculturalism emerged in the arts. A biography of her exotic life by Hayden Herrera in 1983 helped to propel her from obscurity to iconic fame, as did two movies of her life. The 2002 biopic starred Mexican actress Salma Hayek as Frida.

Since 1990, the Ransom Center has loaned “Frida” 33 times to other art institutions, from San Francisco to New York City and from Canada to Australia. She always travels in style, with her own travelling case, her own escort, her own reservation in the hold of a major airline.  A bonded truck takes her to the airport. She rides on a cushion of air in a special, narrow case that’s placed inside another crate. Her escort sees her into and out of the hold, walks her through customs and hands her to her new hosts who provide stringent security.

The Ransom Center acquired two other works by Kahlo when it purchased the Muray collection in 1966. They are “Still Life with Parrot and Fruit” (1951), an oil painting, and “Diego y Yo” (1930), a drawing. This is on such brittle paper it is only shown to scholarly researchers.

The officially recognized Kahlo oeuvre includes only some 200 works. Small, but compelling, they reflect her love of Mexico’s traditions, history and mixed cultures. They also document the lifelong pain she suffered from a traffic accident when she was a teenager.  Her paintings were not widely recognized in her lifetime.  A New York City gallery held a one-woman exhibition of her works in 1938, but it was 1953, the year before her death, before her first solo exhibition was held in Mexico City.

Since her “rediscovery” in the 1980s Kahlo has become known—in art circles and popular culture—as one of the 20th century’s greatest Mexican artists. Many boast  that she was a feminist before that term was invented.

Thousands of web sites are devoted to Kahlo’s memory. Her name appears on such marketable gadgets as mouse pads, key chains, T-shirts, and dolls. Kahlo’s niece, Isolda Kahlo, has been marketing Frida KahloTequila in Mexico for several years. In 2001, the United States Postal Service put Frida’s1931 self-portrait on a 34-cent stamp.

Kahlo’s posthumous fame often focuses more on her fascinating life than on the complexity and importance of her art work. Born in Coyoacan, near Mexico City, she was of mixed heritage. Her father, a photographer, was a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who arrived in Mexico in 1891. Her mother was of Spanish and Mexican Indian descent. Kahlo grew up during the Mexican revolution and, along with Rivera, she was an active and outspoken Socialist and Communist. Her home in Mexico City, the Blue House, or Casa Azul, was a mecca for international intelligentsia. Her many lovers included artist-designer Isamu Noguchi, Communist leader Leon Trotsky, and the great entertainer Josephine Baker.  But her true love was Rivera, whom she married twice.

Also keeping her fascinating legend alive today are periodic “discoveries” of Kahlo paintings and personal items that are questionable at best. The largest trove of such “rediscovered” Kahlo folklore is owned by Carlos Noyola and his wife Leticia Fernandez, owners of an antique store, La Buhardilla, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. This includes more than 1,200 items–oil paintings, drawings, diaries, letters and the painted boxes in which Kahlo allegedly kept such ephemera.

The Noyolas say they bought the collection between 2004 and 2007 from a reclusive Mexico City lawyer who had purchased it from a woodcarver who had bartered with a needy Kahlo for the items. In the book “Finding Frida Kahlo,” published in 2009 by Princeton Architectural Press, Barbara Levine, former director of exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, curates the Noyola collection lending it authenticity. This didn’t satisfy the Rivera-Kahlo Trust in Mexico City, which owns the copyrights to Kahlo’s works. The trust brought suit last year charging the Noyola works are fakes.

In deciding the case, the Mexican attorney general did not take a stand on the authenticity of the works stating only that the trust failed to prove they were counterfeit. So the wrangling goes on with descendants of both Kahlo and Rivera taking stands on opposing sides.

What would Frida think of all this? Peter Mears, associate curator at the Ransom Center, who frequently escorts Frida on her travels, believes “she would be astounded and pleased.

“She really is an iconic figure,” Mears says. “She has been martyred.  No one predicted how remarkable her effect would be. It just keeps rolling. I used to say evolving, but it’s not evolving. It’s rolling.”

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