Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907-July 13, 1954) is known as a surrealist, a primitivist, a feminist, a communist, a mexicanist. The cult of Frida is so powerful it often eclipses appreciation of her real talents (and limitations) as an artist who, at the peak of her powers in the 1940s, earned her place as one of the great figures of twentieth century modernism.
The first time I saw a Frida self portrait close enough to touch in a private home I burst into tears. It was so exquisite and so raw and totally disarming. But the Frida painting that changed my life is not emblematic at all and frankly not especially exciting. Retrato de Cristina, mi hermana is an early picture dating to 1928, when Kahlo was just beginning to master her technique and before she had settled on herself as the all-consuming subject of her portraiture. While Frida’s best and best-known works are dramatic, intense and highly surreal, everything about Cristina is cool and composed.
I think I love this picture so much because in those days I was anything but cool: frantically working to assemble my first auction at the helm of Sotheby’s Latin American Art department, I slept little, worried constantly, and committed every rookie error imaginable. But together with the brilliant Carmen Melian (who later succeeded me as director) we scored one enormous coup: Cristina. The painting’s owners decided to sell, and entrusted the consignment to a young and untested auctioneer doing her best to uphold the tradition and distinction of the 200 year old auction house that had just hired her.
I’m glad they did, and they were too. At the May 2001 auction of Latin American Art, we sold Portrait of Cristina My Sister for $1,655,750, nearly ten times what the owners had paid for it in 1988. That quiet, unassuming picture set a record for an early work by the artist. And changed my life.