The art of self : Frida Kahlo’s ‘Diego y yo’ brings self-portraiture in vogue

There is also a universal appeal in the dramatic portrayal of her life visually seen in artworks—the injury from the bus accident, unstable marriage, sensational love affairs, and heavy drinking and drug use.

The art of portraiture has been practised by various artists over the years. Some popular names who have explored various ways of sketching portraits are Pablo Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci and Salvador Dali. Recently, Frida Kahlo’s 1949 self-portrait titled Diego y yo (Diego and I) was sold for $34.9 million, shattering the artist’s own previous high of $8 million, at a Sotheby’s auction in New York.

A modern art masterpiece, the painting also set a benchmark for a work of Latin American art as Kahlo took up the mantle from her husband, famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who until this auction held that record with a price of $9.8 million. Executed in 1949, the enigmatic portrait last appeared at an auction in 1990 when it sold for $1.4 million at Sotheby’s New York. The portrait has been acquired by Eduardo F Costantini, a renowned collector with a longstanding commitment to supporting Latin American art and artists, and founder of Malba, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires.

“An emotionally bare and complex portrait, Diego y yo is a defining work by one of the few artists whose influence transcends the world of fine art to pop culture and beyond. It heralds the recent expansion of the modern category to include greater representation of underrepresented artists, notably women artists, and rethink how they have historically been valued at auction,” says Brooke Lampley, Sotheby’s chairman and worldwide head of sales for global fine art.

Since it’s rare to find a painting by Kahlo at an auction, the self-portrait is a quintessential example of Kahlo’s singular approach to intense portraiture. The ‘bust’ self-portraits painted throughout her career are some of the finest examples created in this decade and among her most famous, coveted and emblematic works. Indeed these portraits are detailed, expressive, and full of drama and explore contemporary themes of identity and experience.

However, this work of art under auction is considered a double portrait. As it includes a small image of Rivera in the centre of her forehead, bearing a third eye to symbolise the degree to which he occupied her consciousness. Her normally tightly braided hair is loose, almost seeming to strangle her; she has flushed cheeks, and an intense, tearful gaze.

Kahlo’s works are a true representation of her tumultuous experiences with chronic illness and increasingly complicated relationship with Rivera to build a rich, deeply personal iconography. Going beyond personal story, engagement and existential questions around life, death, and love, Kahlo’s portraits have an emotive power, restlessness and distress. She became a global icon of resilience against adversity and patriarchal oppression with Central America’s marginalised indigenous populations, creating the history of Mexico through her art, techniques, and values.

There is also a universal appeal in the dramatic portrayal of her life visually seen in artworks—the injury from the bus accident, unstable marriage, sensational love affairs, and heavy drinking and drug use.

Besides Kahlo, earlier this year, the leading artist of the Italian Renaissance, known to many for his famous Primavera and The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli’s painting titled Young Man Holding a Roundel, was sold at Sotheby’s for a record $92.2 million. It was the first major auction of 2021, where the painting saw transatlantic bidding between Sotheby’s representatives in New York and London.

This auctioned work establishes art market history as one of the most significant portraits, of any period, ever to appear at auction—alongside Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (sold in 2006 for $87.9 million) and Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet (sold in 1990 for $82.5 million)—stated Sotheby’s website.

Yet another prolific artist known for portraits of human figures and these were prominent centres of Sandro Botticelli’s artworks. Since the Renaissance was associated with an era that embarked on a major change in depicting subjects with unique insight —decades before Leonardo da Vinci painted his enduring Mona Lisa in soft gaze, restrained and mysterious smile—the graphics, bold colours and humanistic virtues of notable individuals in Early Italy are deftly captured in a revolutionary style of Botticelli.

Another mention of a very eccentric style of using geometric shapes in human and other forms by Spanish painter Pablo Picasso is a must. Picasso pioneered Cubism and changed the face of European painting and sculpture and surrealist painter Salvador Dali’s psychedelic and hallucinating compositions were often evident of his delusional ideation.

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