Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
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Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
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FRIDA KAHLO (1907-1954)

Self-Portrait (Very Ugly)

Details
FRIDA KAHLO (1907-1954)
Self-Portrait (Very Ugly)
signed 'FRIEDA' (lower left) and inscribed 'SIRV, OH! BOY, VERY U' (right)
fresco on Celotex board
10 3/4 x 8 3/4 in. (27.3 x 22.2 cm.)
Executed in 1933
Provenance
Lucienne Bloch, New York (gift directly from the artist, 1933).
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 27-29 November 1984, lot 138.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Literature
H. Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, New York, Harper and Row, 1983, p. 170.
H. Prignitz-Poda, et al., Frida Kahlo: Das Gesamtwerk, Frankfurt, Verlag Neue Kritik, 1988, no. 146, p. 265 (present lot illustrated in color, and as originally painted, p. 181).
H. Herrera, Frida Kahlo: The Paintings, New York, Harper Collins Publishers, 1991, no. 102, p. 241 (illustrated, p. 102).
C. Monsivais, et al., Frida Kahlo: Una vida, una obra, Mexico City, Editorial ERA, 1992, no. 22, p.161 (illustrated in color).
A. Kettenman, Frida Kahlo: 1907-1954: Leid und Leidenschaft, Cologne, Taschen, 1992, no. 26, p. 94 (illustrated in color, p. 26).
A. Kettenman, Frida Kahlo: 1907-1954: Pain And Passion, Cologne, Taschen, 1993, no. 26, p. 94 (illustrated in color, p. 26).
E. Billeter, The Blue House: The World of Frida Kahlo, Frankfurt, Schirn Kunsthalle, 1993, p. 250.
A. Kettenman, Frida Kahlo: 1907-1954: Pain And Passion, New York, Smith Mark, 1995 (illustrated in color, p. 41).
H. Herrera, Frida Kahlo: die Gemälde, München, Schirmer/Mosel, 1995 (illustrated, p. 158).
T. Hardin, Frida Kahlo: A Modern Master, New York, Todtri Prod LTD, 1997 (illustrated in color, p. 17).
S. Grimberg, Frida Kahlo, New York, Barnes and Noble, 1997 (illustrated in color, p. 60).
S. Grimberg, Frida Kahlo: Song of Herself, New York-London, Merrell, 2008 (illustrated in color, p. 12).
S. Grimberg, Frida Kahlo Confidences, Paris, Chêne, 2008 (illustrated in color, p. 12).
G. Souter, Diego Rivera: His Art and His Passions, New York, Parkstone International, 2009 (illustrated in color, p. 113).
L. M. Lozano, ed., Frida Kahlo: The Complete Paintings, Cologne, Taschen, 2021, no. 41, pp. 506-508 and 583 (illustrated in color, p. 506).
Exhibited
Mexico City, Museo Nacional, Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Los surrealistas en México, July-September 1986, no. 119.
New York, Baruch College Gallery; Stony Brook, Fine Arts Center Gallery, Women Artists of the Surrealist Movement, October 1986-January 1987.
Frankfurt, Schirn Kunsthalle; Vienna, Messepalast; Dallas Museum of Art, Images of Mexico, December 1987-October 1988, no. 103 (illustrated in color, p. 230).
Dallas, Meadows Museum of Art, Frida Kahlo, February-April 1989, no. 14 (illustrated in color, p. 48).
New York, Nassau County Museum of Art, The Latin Century: Beyond the Border, August-November 2002, pp. 59 and 73 (illustrated in color, on the cover and p. 1).
Dallas Museum of Art, on extended loan, 1989-2005.
London, Tate Modern, Frida Kahlo, June-October 2005, no. 122 (illustrated in color, p. 202).
Mexico City, Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Frida Kahlo: 1907-2007, June-August 2007, no. 20, pp. 140-143, 388 (illustrated in color, p. 141).
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center; Philadelphia Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Frida Kahlo, October 2006-September 2008, pl. 16, p. 289 (illustrated in color, p. 148).
Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum, Guests of Honor: Self-Portraits by Frida Kahlo, February-March 2009.
Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau; Vienna, Bank Austria Kunstforum, Frida Kahlo: Retrospective, April-December 2010, no. 19, pp. 106 and 244 (illustrated in color, p. 107).
Biarritz, Le Bellevue, L’art Mexicain 1920-1960: Éloge du corps, June-October 2013 (illustrated in color, p. 156).
Rome, Scuderie del Quirinale, Frida Kahlo, March-August 2014 (illustrated in color, p. 125).
Detroit Institute of Arts, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, March-July 2015, cat. 48 (illustrated in color, p. 100).
Dallas Museum of Art, on extended loan, 2016-2020.
San Francisco, de Young Museum, Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving, September 2020-May 2021, no. 6 (illustrated in color, p. 47).
Waltham, Rose Museum of Art, Brandeis University, Frida Kahlo: POSE and Frida Kahlo at the Rose Art Museum, June 2021-October 2022.

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Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco Head of 20th Century Evening Sale, Head of Impressionist and Modern Art

Lot Essay

“He does pretty well for a little boy,” Frida Kahlo once allowed of her husband, Diego Rivera. “But it is I who am the big artist,” she concluded, laughing at the seeming audacity of her claim. If Kahlo once struggled to be seen as “a painter in her own right,” she has long since emerged as one of the most influential and important artists of the twentieth century (quoted in F. Davies, “Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art,” Detroit News, 2 February 1933). In March 1933, she and Rivera disembarked at Grand Central Station, beginning what would be a tumultuous and often strained, eight-and-a-half-month stay in New York before their departure for Mexico at year’s end. While Rivera worked on Man at the Crossroads, the mural infamously commissioned (and destroyed) by Nelson Rockefeller, Kahlo painted hardly at all in New York, increasingly disenchanted with the pretensions of “Gringolandia” and in poor health. A rare and poignant work from this time, Self-Portrait (Very Ugly) betrays the psychic pain that Kahlo suffered with pathos and characteristically self-deprecating humor. She may have languished in New York, forever “dreaming about [her] return to Mexico,” but she nevertheless found sundry amusements and incitements, rallying support around Rivera and making her rounds in the city (quoted in H. Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, New York, 1983, p. 172).
Kahlo and Rivera had taken New York by storm two years earlier, when Rivera had opened a retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, and Kahlo renewed her friendships and favorite pastimes upon their return. “Frida went through dime stores like a tornado,” recalled Lucienne Bloch, the artist and daughter of the Swiss composer Ernest Bloch, of their shopping trips. “Suddenly she would stop and buy something immediately. She had an extraordinary eye for the genuine and the beautiful. She’d find cheap costume jewelry”—perhaps including the necklace that she wears in the present self-portrait—“and she’d make it look fantastic.” Kahlo was so taken by Jean Cocteau’s experimental film, The Blood of a Poet (1930), that she saw it twice in the same day (the second time with Rivera in tow). She scandalized her friends with the bawdy drawings she contributed to games of cadavre exquis, the Surrealist parlor game. “Frida did all the worst ones,” Bloch admitted. “Some of them made me blush, and I do not blush easily... Diego laughed and said, ‘You know that women are far more pornographic than men’” (quoted in ibid., pp. 162-163).
In May, the succès de scandale of Rivera’s mural at Rockefeller Center—sparked by its unmistakable portrayal of Lenin—upended the life that he and Kahlo had established in Manhattan. Kahlo lent her full support to protest efforts, from meetings to letter-writing campaigns; as a sign of her loyalty, she gave up the modish fashions that she had recently adopted and returned to traditional Tehuana dress. In a sympathetic interview, the New York World-Telegram described “Señora Diego Rivera, the comely young wife of the artist,” as “grieved, but not perturbed” (G. Sartain, “Rivera’s Wife Rues Art Ban,” New York World-Telegram, 10 June, 1933). The couple moved downtown, to 8 West 13th Street, in June so that Rivera could take up a mural project at the New Workers’ School. “Their house was always open in the evening, and anyone who wanted to would come,” recalled Louise Nevelson, who took a studio in the same building. “They were very serious about people; they didn’t make distinctions…Princesses and Queens…one lady richer than God. And workmen, laborers” (Dawns + Dusks: Taped Conversations with Diana MacKown, New York, 1976, p. 57). Among their group were the painter Marjorie Eaton, the dancer Ellen Kearns, and the sculptor John Flanagan.
While Rivera’s spirits revived as he returned to work, Kahlo was increasingly adrift, the physical pain in her right foot exacerbated by Rivera’s absences (in the company of Nevelson) and neglect. “Frida did not go out,” recalled Rivera’s ex-wife Lupe Marín, who spent a week with the couple while passing through New York. “She spent the whole day in the bathtub. It was too hot to go out in the streets” (quoted in H. Herrera, op. cit., p. 170). It was at this moment of malaise, in the summer of 1933, that Kahlo made the present self-portrait. “Rivera was painting a series of movable fresco panels at the New York ‘firetrap’ loft of the new Workers School,” Bloch recalled. “I was grinding colors for him and also experimenting with little fresco panels. When Diego saw my work, he suggested that it might be good for Frida to have a fresh plastered panel like mine to get her started again at painting. She had been homesick for Mexico and was very lazy” (quoted in Frida Kahlo: Das Gesamtwerk, Frankfurt, 1988, p. 180).
The first panel that Bloch and Stephen Dimitroff, one of Rivera’s assistants, brought to Kahlo dried before she began to paint, but the second panel became Self-Portrait (Very Ugly). “When later we came to see her at her apartment a block from the School, she was quite disgusted with her work,” Bloch recollected. “The background of her portrait was still barren, except for the writing she had scribbled all around the beautiful face: ‘No sirve—absolutely rotten—terrible—very ugly—Frieda’ and there was a sad looking bird and an apple and an expression she used to enjoy ‘oh boy!’ It was on the floor with a corner chipped off. We loved it so she gave it to us” (ibid., p. 180).
Self-Portrait (Very Ugly) survives as a plaintive memento of the loneliness that loomed over Kahlo’s final months in New York. She gazes outward with expressive intensity, her countenance conveying both resolve and vulnerability behind her signature single eyebrow. Though washed of its usual color (and carefully applied make-up), her face appears here as beguiling as ever, its charm belying the self-abnegation of the words that surround her. The glamour of New York had lately paled for Kahlo—a sentiment echoed in My Dress Hangs There, the only other painting she made during this stay—and in Self-Portrait (Very Ugly) she visualizes the free-floating anxieties that haunted her last months in the city. “For fifty-three years it was on the wall of each home we had, from New York to Michigan and California,” Bloch recalled of the fresco that she received as a gift. “This was Frida in all her beauty and her lively sense of humor—as we knew her when she was as young as we were” (ibid., p. 180).
Kahlo produced fewer than 150 easel paintings throughout her lifetime. While she painted a range of subjects, it is her haunting and enigmatic self-portraits—Self-Portrait (Very Ugly) among them—that define her oeuvre and her unmistakable contribution to the history of twentieth-century art and the genre of self-portraiture. Kahlo painted a mere fifty-five self-portraits, of which only twenty-nine are held outside of collections in Mexico. Works by Kahlo in Mexican collections are restricted under cultural patrimony laws and may not be exported from Mexico. Of the twenty-nine self-portraits not in Mexican collections, nine are held in public collections; the remaining twenty self-portraits are held privately around the world and rarely come to market.

Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
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