Frida Kahlo, “Roots,” 1943
Frida Kahlo’s love letters to her paramour, the Spanish artist José Bartoli, are up for auction at Doyle New York, reports the Guardian. Twenty-five of them to be exact. For the Guardian, Bidisha has written a text decrying the sale of the discovery, stating that they’re private material, any any desire to read them is “simple prurience.” Here’s hoping our emails and web chats won’t become auction fodder for future generations.
Read Bidisha’s article below:
Frida Kahlo: pain icon, love victim, art martyr. That’s the message that is once again being transmitted with the exhibition and auction of the great artist’s newly discovered love letters to José Bartoli in New York.
The letters were private messages between two people who were equally in love. They arose spontaneously and were not intended to be gawked at in public. Having explored the depths of Kahlo’s suffering, as shown by her striking, muscular and psychologically resonant paintings, now we get to scale the heights of her desire.
Bartoli kept all of Kahlo’s letters and they can now give small-minded people the chance to grub about, imagining what it’s like to be a great artist enjoying a great love affair, with its epic arc, operatic decline and poignant afterlife. He recognised and loved her talent and intelligence, not just her beauty, and her feelings for him were wholly reciprocated. His pet name for her, “Maravillosa”, translates as marvellous. This is all being served up like a tray of fast food, yet more low-grade fodder to fuel the Kahlo myth with sexualised details, emotional prurience and papery relics. People will pore over her handwriting in a way they never pore over her work.
Kahlo is a major artist whose achievements have been misrepresented since her death. Her life story has been held up as a cautionary tale about what happens when a great woman artist tries to survive in a patriarchal marriage, society and art world. And she has been dragged down as a self-involved, confessional egotist. These extremes of interpretation have the same result: they fail to take Kahlo’s individual paintings seriously or acknowledge how seriously she took her own work.
It is Kahlo’s paintings, not letters, that were created for public viewing. The paintings are the product of decades of serious and deliberate work fuelled by Kahlo’s artistic vision, career ambition, technical skill and brilliance with colour and form. They were not just sublimations of bodily agony or uncontrolled expressions of emotion, but composed and considered pieces. They came from her mind, not just her gut, her heart or her broken back, and they were produced with great stamina and determination, despite physical and mental pain.
Whether by fans or by critics who want to belittle her, she has variously been portrayed as a super-narcissist, a masochist consumed by her pain, a hysteric, a fashion icon and an emotionally abused wife suffering patriarchal injustices. Admittedly, I’m 100% with the last one. In a satisfying karmic twist, there’s been a steady posthumous decline in appreciation for the facile murals of Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera, who took every career perk, commission, groupie offer and mistress he could, using women while clubbing together with men who helped his career. Meanwhile Kahlo was portrayed as the weird little wifey, sitting dressed up in the corner dabbling in her laughable, solipsistic daubings.
People have consumed Kahlo’s brilliance and pain in her paintings and soaked up her beauty, style and strong charisma in photographic portraits of her. She gave her consent to those paintings and photographs being seen. But now people want to go one step further. They want to consume her pleasure too, to get right under her skin, to know what it’s like to be loved and wanted by her, to violate the privacy of the cherished communications between her and Bartoli. Through reading these love letters, they can now finally satisfy themselves with the thrill of knowing that a great artist whose reputation has risen so high is still just a female who can be diminished, humiliated and shattered by desire for a mere mortal man.
What are your thoughts–are these letters private material or fair game to be sold?