La Voz Latina - Su puente a la comunidad Hispana de Georgia y Carolina del sur

Frida Kahlo’s First Sale

  • Dra Elliot Bostwick Davis. Foto por Catherine Rendón.
  • Frida Kahlo y su esposo, Diego Rivera, “la paloma y el elefante”. Foto del Museo de Bellas Artes de Boston.
  • Dos Mujeres. Frida Kahlo. óleo sobre lienzo. 53 x 69 cm. Museo de Bellas Artes de Boston.

At the end of 2016 Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) acquired Dos Mujeres (Two Women), the first painting Frida Kahlo ever sold as an artist. It presently crowns an extraordinary collection of iconic paintings, sculpture and material culture in the Art of the Americas wing, from pre-Columbian treasures on the bottom floor to New England’s Colonial roots on the fourth. Thanks to Dr. Elliot Bostwick Davis, John Moors Cabot Chair, this painting now belongs to Boston’s MFA and is available for all to enjoy. “Two Women” is one of a dozen Kahlo canvases that now resides in a public museum in the United States and is the first Kahlo to call a New England museum home.
In the summer of 1929, the 22-year-old Frida sold this painting to an American businessman, Jackson Cole Phillips, a month before her first marriage to the famous painter, Diego Rivera. Phillips was introduced to Mexico’s artistic circles by American ethnographer, Frances “Paca” Toor, founder of Mexican Folkways. This important publication showcased the talent of Mexican and foreign artists who supported the national project for a more tolerant and open Mexican nation. Toor assembled the most talented artists working in Mexico at the time to transmit the values of a new Mexico, one proud of its indigenous heritage and eager to embrace a more progressive society. All of these are represented in this small and excellent exhibition, on show until March 1st 2017. Many of these pieces have been together a long time since they were acquired by Phillips during his Mexican sejour. Phillips remained a life-long friend to Kahlo and Rivera.
Among the works Phillips collected were many that came from Toor’s stable of artists such as U.S. photographers Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, as well as the well-known Guatemalan painter, Carlos Mérida. Frida too was among Toor’s friends and through her marriage to Rivera she became part of a broader fellowship of artists who had a political agenda. Ultimately Kahlo’s artistic output revolved around her own life, her personal setbacks and emotional landscapes. All these artists knew one another and lived in a dynamic, modern Mexico where the traditionally undervalued native arts and peoples were embraced in a powerful artistic renaissance.
Kahlo’s own mixed heritage of German and Indian, would serve as her unique personal canvas where life and art created a new pictorial language that combined a variation on the popular tradition of “Milagros”, where private misfortunes were shared as a thanks and proof of a positive transformation, the “miracle”. Finding herself at the center of this politically committed community that embraced diversity as the centerpiece of a new kind of nationalism, the young Frida blossomed. Of her marriage to Rivera, Frida’s parents commented that it was like an elephant marrying a dove. Just as they were physical opposites, so too their art differed, Rivera’s being on a grand, bold scale, while Kahlo’s was more intimate, naive and delicate.
When I visited this beautifully organized exhibition in January, Dr. Davis showed me several signatures on the back of the canvas of the painting entitled “Two Women.” The words: “una noche muy agradable” – a most enjoyable evening anchor the writing on the back of the canvas which is also on display. This chronicles the happy occasion where the American businessman Phillips, who had invited to this reunion by Toor decided to buy one of Frida’s paintings. It was cause for celebration as this sale officially marks the beginning of Frida’s career as an artist. Among the signatures commemorating this event are those of Frida’s sister, Cristina, Frances “Paca” Toor, the artist herself, and others from less legible hands. Dr. Davis also pointed out how in 1928 (the year Kahlo painted the “Two Women”) Frida still signed her name with an “e” as in the German spelling of her name.
The two women in Kahlo’s portrait have been identified as Salvadora & Herminia. Both were familiar faces to Frida, as they were maids in her family’s employ at her childhood home, the Casa Azul in Coyoacán. Both women may have known Frida as a child and adolescent and looked after Frida during her long recuperation after the tragic tram accident in 1925 which almost took her life. It may have been during her convalescence (the first of many which were to follow during her lifetime) that Frida began to paint with a small lap easel her mother gave her. Frida had learned many skills from her photographer father and helped him retouch portraits, so it is not surprising that she chose to paint the portraits of two family servants.
We know very little about these two women, other than their names. We know that at the time, Frida was fond of two Renaissance artists, mainly Bronzino and Botticelli, and that their distinctive style of rendering two figures side by side showing their likeness in three quarter profile rather than from the front appealed to her. Here, Kahlo chose to place the women side by side as a powerful totem-shield of calmness and strength. The composition forces the viewer to read the painting from left to right, thus entering their expressionless yet mesmerizing gaze. Neither woman smiles nor casts judgement on the viewer; each mirrors the other, and both appear flat like paper dolls and reminiscent of ancient Egyptian silhouettes.
By the mid-1920s “indigenism” was the rage and part of the progressive climate of incorporating all things Indian into daily Mexican life which had begun to be in vogue after the Mexican Revolution. Given that Frida’s own mother was Oaxacan and of Indian blood, this depiction might well be a tribute to her own native roots and an attempt to represent the innate dignity of two working women. Perhaps at this point, Frida didn’t yet realize the potency these primordial female figures instilled in her being.
Later, Frida would don the typical clothing of a Tehuana (a woman from the isthmus of Tehuantepec) as a statement. Through the use of typical Mexican clothing, accessories and hairstyles, Frida channeled her Amerindian roots with artifice and flair and created a prototype of a multicultural brand that would eventually become part of the vocabulary Latin America’s exotic mainstream. In this portrait, Salvadora and Herminia, appear plainly dressed, without any hint to their occupation or age, and yet there is an undeniable timelessness about their presence and pose. As with some of Gauguin’s portrayals of life in the South Pacific, Kahlo offers us a subdued and tranquil rendition of the power of the exotic in the everyday life of her Mexican world.
As Frida’s self-portraits evolved and Kahlo became more comfortable exploring her own personal sorrows and setbacks she created an unmistakable visual voice which combined the straight-forwardness of a “Milagro” tableau with surrealist flourishes. Although later the Frida that looks out at us from her many self-portraits shows her pain and fatalism, Kahlo never quite achieves the inscrutable air of unknowability which Salvadora and Herminia exude.
The women’s darker complexions hint to their Indian origins and Mexico’s own indigenous diversity. As for the backdrop of citrus leaves which stands behind them and serves as a wallpaper of sorts, with its repetitive lines broken by a double cluster of limes and two butterflies which diagonally frame both women, this adds a dimension of formality to their presence. Again, this doubling of fruit and insects, shows the close bond between Salvadora and Herminia even though we don’t think them to be related or close in age even though they share a life in the Kahlo household and in Frida’s eyes. This coupling of nature with their persons may hint at their shared indigenous past and closeness to the natural world, and perhaps even a more mystical one where the animal and spirit worlds meet.
It seems that the arrival of Salvadora & Herminia at the MFA is a timely one. During my time at the MFA with Kahlo and company, I heard and saw many visitors comment on Kahlo’s “Two Women” as well as on the work of Rivera and friends which accompanies them. Schoolchildren– Central Americans, Cape Verdeans, Asians and Americans –were all drawn into Salvadora and Herminia’s orbit of calmness. Perhaps they reminded them of mothers or sisters or grandmothers…
Not only do these two women show us the interconnectedness of the peoples of our continent, but also how the native American presence is still with us today. In these unusual times, where multiculturalism is being questioned and dismantled, Kahlo’s “Two Women” offers a nod to diversity, patience and perseverance. Salvadora and Herminia look out into our 21st century with the same self-assurance and trust as they did almost ninety years’ ago. Their gaze goes beyond the museum walls and transmits a deeper universal message of tolerance, compassion and wisdom which we hope will prevail. To Kahlo’s own motto, ¡Viva la vida! (“Long live life”) which appears carved into a watermelon in her last still life painting, we add one more: ¡Viva Boston!
(Editor’s note: “Two Women” will be placed on permanent display in the Art of the Americas wing later this year.)

Issue Month: 
Wednesday, March 1, 2017