One of Frida Kahlo’s most psychologically-revealing paintings, “Diego y yo” (“Diego and Me”, 1949), has just sold at Sotheby’s auction house in New York for $34.9m (£25m). The self-portrait illustrates the artist’s anguish over her husband Diego Rivera’s infidelity and depicts Rivera occupying Kahlo’s third eye in the centre of her forehead – an indication of the extent to which their turbulent relationship was occupied her psychic and emotional terrain.
Seven decades later, the saga of one of art history’s most passionate and tumultuous couples continues. In a posthumous plot twist, “Diego y yo” has now far exceeded the record previously set by Rivera himself when his artwork “Los Rivales” became the most expensive Latin American work of art to be sold at auction it fetched $9.76m in 2018.
During her relatively brief life, Kahlo could never quite escape Rivera’a powerful orbit. The pair met when she was a 15-year-old art student and he was over 20 years her senior and already established as a world-renowned artist. Despite marrying him twice before her death at the age of 47 in 1954, she would never be able to emotionally step outside the power dynamic established by their initial encounter. In the pages of her own notebook, she’s known to have compared their meeting to a tragedy of near-fatal proportions: “I suffered two great accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar knocked me down … the other accident is Diego.”
“Diego y yo” was painted just five years before Kahlo’s death, the year Rivera began a high-profile affair with her friend, Maria Félix – one of Mexico’s most celebrated actresses of the 1930s and 40s. In the aftermath of the oil painting’s record-breaking auction, Anna Di Stasi, Sotheby’s director of Latin American art, was quoted by The Guardian as saying: “You could call tonight’s result the ultimate revenge, but in fact, it is the ultimate validation of Kahlo’s extraordinary talent and global appeal. ‘Diego y yo’ is so much more than a beautifully painted portrait. It’s a painted summary of all of Kahlo’s passion and pain, a tour de force of the raw emotive power of the artist at the peak of her abilities.”