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Fighting over Frida Kahlo

In Mexico, the emergence of work said to be made by the artist has led to a very public debate about its authenticity. The Times' art critic has seen the pieces.

September 06, 2009|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | ART CRITIC

Policing the legacy of artists can be a tough business. Nowhere is it tougher than in Mexico, where the magnetic, self-mythologizing painter Frida Kahlo (1907-54) shot from relative obscurity to iconic status only in the last quarter-century.

Now, a festering dispute over a little-known archive of ephemera attributed to Kahlo has erupted into open warfare. Despite the tantalizing possibility that some or maybe even all the material is authentic, a sharp line has been drawn in the art historical sand.

The story is marked by startling intimidation tactics that seem more a part of Tony Soprano's world than the genteel environs of scholarly argument. Aggressive bullying by Kahlo-establishment figures is so strange that it suggests something bigger: A fading ancient regime in Mexico might be coming to an end.

Consider these four episodes:

* Ruth Alvarado Rivera, now-deceased granddaughter of the great muralist Diego Rivera, Kahlo's husband, gave a 2005 interview to Mexico City's Reforma newspaper, illustrated with photographs of several small paintings never published before. One showed a slightly damaged little canvas in which Kahlo's head was affixed to the body of a slain deer.

Retribution was swift and fierce.

Reforma ran a story the next day denouncing as outrageous fakes the Kahlo works it published just 24 hours before. The assault was led by respected critic Raquel Tibol, an elder statesman of 19th and 20th century Mexican art history, whose books include a 1983 Kahlo survey.

* A recent New York Times "Antiques" column published a freelancer's short item about a forthcoming book -- "Finding Frida Kahlo" by Barbara Levine, former exhibitions director at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and coming Nov. 1 from Princeton Architectural Press -- that includes the little Frida-deer painting, together with a previously unpublished archive of about 1,200 items (notebook pages, letters, diary entries, recipes, clothing, etc.). Within hours, a condemnatory letter was fired off to the newspaper from Carlos Phillips Olmedo, head of the executive committee of the Diego Rivera-Frida Kahlo Trust at the Central Bank of Mexico, guardian of the artists' copyrights.

The letter, which the newspaper did not publish, protested "in no way do we recognize [the archive] as originals of Frida Kahlo."

* A few weeks later in Mexico City, 11 prominent museum officials, gallery owners, art historians and artists signed an open letter decrying the imminent publication of these Kahlo "fakes." Citing no evidence for their explosive charge, the letter insisted that "the authorities and cultural institutions responsible for Mexico's artistic patrimony intervene immediately."

* London's Art Newspaper wrote a story about the letter on Aug. 20, with the headline "Art Historians Assert That 'Lost Archive' of Paintings, Drawings and Diaries Are Forged." Mary-Anne Martin, longtime New York dealer in Latin American art, was quoted at length about the book. "In my view the publishers have been the victims of a gigantic hoax," said Martin, who also signed the letter. "I am astounded it has gone as far as it has."

I'm astounded too -- but for different reasons.

For one thing, Tibol, Phillips Olmedo and Martin have never laid eyes on the material they nonetheless insist is a blatant forgery. They've not seen the little painting of a deer, nor indeed any of the archive's 1,200 artifacts.

For another, they and all the signatories to the open letter are cogs in the machinery of what could be called the Frida Kahlo Industry. That emergent enterprise took off a generation ago with the 1983 publication of the landmark "Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo" by Hayden Herrera, who also signed the joint letter. Her book performed an extraordinary feat -- a major scholarly work that also became a popular bestseller. Kahlo rightly metamorphosed from an artistic also-ran into an icon.

The doubters might not have seen the purported archive, housed in a secure back room of a gallery in the central Mexican colonial town of San Miguel de Allende. But they do share a vested interest in Kahlo's robust market and the publishing business around it.

A dealer specializing in Latin American art had better not cross a trust as powerful as the one devoted to Rivera and Kahlo, the two biggest names in Mexico's Modern art history. A historian wishing access to Kahlo material, including reproduction rights for books, is ill-advised to stray too far outside the officially approved field. An artist critically supported by that establishment needs to be careful in speaking out. Much is at stake, socially and financially.

In Mexico, Kahlo is officially ranked an artist of the national patrimony, a formal endorsement foreign to American culture. Without official backing, an archive of previously unknown material faces high hurdles for acceptance.

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