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Finding Frida Kahlo?

interior-kahloI reported on this story for BBC World Service radio and the Sunday Herald, in September 2009. You can listen to the radio version by clicking below. The presenter cue was as follows:

The artist Frida Kahlo is an icon, both in her home country of Mexico and around the world. Her paintings, in particular her self-portraits, are frank depictions of pain, sexuality, love and doubt. As she famously said: “I paint my own reality” – casting an unflinching eye on her turbulent marriage to painter Diego Rivera, his betrayals, her many lovers, the traumatic after-effects of a serious road accident in her twenties and later, the amputation of her leg.

A newly published collection of her paintings, letters, diary entries and personal effects claims to shed dramatic new light on her life and work. ‘Finding Frida Kahlo’ documents a treasure trove of more than 1,200 items on display at an antique store in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The archive’s owners say that it was kept hidden for fifty years after her death, first by the friend she entrusted it to, then by a secretive lawyer who bought it for his private collection.

There’s only one problem: it’s a forgery – or at least, several of the world’s most respected Kahlo scholars and collectors say it is. Now the owners are fighting back, saying they’ll prove it’s genuine – even if they have to ship it out of Mexico to get a fair hearing. Andrew Purcell has been following the story.

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The following article was published in the Sunday Herald.

In life, the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was as famous for her tumultuous bisexual relationships as her surreal self-portraits. Five decades after her death, she is at the centre of a controversy as bizarre and gripping as the scandals that define her in the popular imagination, following the discovery of an astonishing trove of letters, notebooks, paintings, sketches and personal effects that is either one of the greatest art finds of the century or the most brazen hoax since the Hitler diaries.

Following a series of increasingly heated exchanges, the dispute about the archive’s authenticity has developed into a Mexican stand-off: two gangs with guns drawn, refusing to back down. On one side, the entire might of the Kahlo establishment, including her biographer, the executor of her estate, and almost all the most prominent scholars of her work. Facing them is an antiques dealer in a small town who says he is being bullied because the collection he has unearthed threatens to disrupt a lucrative monopoly.

Kahlo is a feminist icon. Her paintings are frank depictions of pain, sexuality, love and doubt. “I paint my own reality,” she declared, casting an unflinching eye on her marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivera, his betrayals, her many lovers, including Leon Trotsky and Josephine Baker, the traumatic after-effects of a serious road accident in her youth and later, the amputation of her right leg.

The collection of 1,200 items, stored in four wooden chests and a suitcase in the back room at La Buhardilla Antiquarios in San Miguel De Allende, is overflowing with intimate details. There are diary entries describing Kahlo’s sexual encounters, letters complaining about Rivera’s infidelity, recipes, keepsakes, hotel bills and scores of artworks, from doodles to composites of her most famous paintings.

One journal purports to contain “the pleasures of life, from the table to the bed.” On page two, Trostky is represented by a skull, with the inscription “I remember that bastard for the moments of pleasure.” A letter recounts a meeting with folk singer Chavela Vargas: “extraordinary, lesbian… I craved her erotically… If she asks me I wouldn’t doubt a second in undressing before her.”

To New York dealer Mary-Anne Martin, a specialist in Latin American art, this merely shows that the forgers knew salacious details would arouse the most interest. “The content is being manufactured, working backwards from known biographical details,” she says. “The entry about ‘being bisexual’ is not even spelled correctly. Also, in the 1940s, bisexual meant hermaphrodite. We don’t think the term existed when these diaries were supposedly written. They’re full of funny mistakes like that.”

The owner, Carlos Noyola, has vigorously defended his collection, insisting there’s a good reason it stayed hidden for so long. Kahlo, he claims, passed it to a sculptor friend, Abraham Jimenez Lopez, to keep her most intimate confessions separate from the official archive at her home, the Casa Azul in Coyoacan. Lopez respected her wishes for 25 years before selling it to a lawyer, Manuel Marcue, who kept it secret in turn, in a safe guarded by a pack of dogs at his home.

Martin says this is “exactly the kind of provenance that you have to be suspicious of, because it’s unverifiable.” Her copy of Finding Frida Kahlo, the coffee table art book full of photographs of the collection due out in November, is covered in Post-It notes detailing discrepancies. The most glaring, she says, is a self-portrait in which Kahlo holds amputated legs that is very clearly drawn from a photograph taken 20 years before the operation.

When the book was announced, a group of celebrated Kahlo scholars, including her biographer Hayden Herrera, the guardian of her trust Carlos Phillips Olmedo and the author of her catalogue raisonee Salomon Grimberg, wrote an open letter to Mexico’s arts council urging it to “put a stop to this type of fraud.”

Noyola says he has been scrupulous in proving the archive’s authenticity. The graphologist he hired confirmed that the handwriting is Kahlo’s. Chemical analysis of the paint showed that it dates from the 1940s. Kahlo’s protegees Arturo Garcia Bustos and Arturo Estrada believe it to be genuine. He believes the establishment is crying fraud because it’s a closed shop, worried about losing its monopoly.

“They have always controlled the financial value of her work and this new collection is outside their control,” he says. “Their motivation is exclusively commercial. None of these critics have seen a single piece of the archive in person. What makes me very sad is that Mexico’s art institutions have not shown any interest in this archive. They are a mafia directed by Carlos Phillips Olmedo. But, well, Frida Kahlo belongs the world, not only to Mexico.”

The stakes are certainly high: three years ago a Kahlo self-portrait, Roots, sold for more than $5 million at Sotheby’s. It was rumoured that Madonna was the buyer. In the past, Martin has sold single pages from Kahlo’s diary for as much as $200,000 each.

Carlos Noyola is in negotiations with a gallery in Tucson, Arizona, to exhibit the collection there early next year. Meanwhile images from the archive are being passed around on the web, intertwining Kahlo’s reality with other people’s fantasies. “My greatest hope would be that this book could be stopped before it gets out too far, because I think it will do a lot of damage,” Martin says. “Were these things to be accepted, then anything goes.”