A farewell to Frida… for now

The exhibit "Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life" opened at The New York Botanical Garden on May 16, 2015. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)
The exhibit “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life” opened at The New York Botanical Garden on May 16, 2015. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)

Though I have one more assignment to file related to Frida Kahlo— a 1,200 word feature for an in-flight magazine about Frida’s Mexico City– with this weekend’s opening of “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life,” an exhibit whose development I’ve been following for nearly a year, I feel like I’m beginning to say a slow good-bye to someone who has been my constant companion for a long while.

There was a piece for Bio.com about Frida’s and Diego’s America; a longform piece for Contributoria about Frida’s enduring appeal; an article for FOX News Latino about the Frida-Diego show at the Detroit Institute of Arts; and two pieces for Remezcla, one about Frida’s love letters to José Bartolí and another about how Frida’s image gets used in fashion and other product placement.

While working on these assignments, I reread work by and about Kahlo and found several texts I’d somehow missed in my nearly two decade long interest in Kahlo, among them Frida’s Fiestas and Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress. I thought it wasn’t possible to learn more about her.

I was wrong.

Spending so much time with one subject, albeit one who is no longer living, and to have so many assignments about her has been gratifying, a writer’s dream, really. I feel like I’m at the end of this run, though, and will soon be saying a temporary farewell to move on to other projects.

A re-creation of Kahlo's studio from Casa Azul in the exhibit at New York Botanical Garden. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)
A re-creation of Kahlo’s studio from Casa Azul in the exhibit at New York Botanical Garden. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)

Collection of Frida Kahlo Letters Auctioned for $137,000

Peter Costanzo of Doyle, auctioning Lot #231, a collection of letters from Frida Kahlo to her lover, José Bartolí. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
Peter Costanzo of Doyle, auctioning Lot #231, a collection of letters from Frida Kahlo to her lover, José Bartolí. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

The mystery buyer arrived at the auction of 582 lots approximately five minutes before Peter Costanzo, Vice President of Doyle New York Auctioneers and Appraisers and the auctioneer for the first half of Wednesday’s sale, opened bids for Lot #231, “an important unpublished archive of approximately twenty-five autograph letters to José Bartolí, with photographs and various enclosures.” Seven minutes later, and just two minutes into bidding on Lot #231, the woman wielding paddle #283 was declared the winning bidder, with the coveted collection of letters going for $110,000, $10,000 below what the auction house estimated as the high bid range for the lot.

As is the custom at U.S. auctions, the bidder was not identified by name, though Doyle indicated to at least one outlet that the winning bidder, an Asian woman who made her bid from the floor, was a New York City-based artist and art collector. Bidding started at 12:55 PM, nearly three hours after the highly anticipated auction opened. Just over a dozen people were in attendance, with the winning bidder the only member of those assembled who entered a competitive sum. She responded immediately when bidding opened at $60,000 and offered counter bids as other offers came in by phone and Internet.

Costanzo, who indicated during previews of the letters that “everyone” in the art world knew about the auction, declined to reveal which museums and cultural institutions might be bidding for the lot of letters, which Kahlo wrote to her lover, José Bartolí, in the 1940s. In addition to the letters, the lot contained drawings made by Kahlo and photos of her, including some by renowned photographer Nickolas Muray, who had had his own affair with Kahlo. Costanzo said that museums might find it hard to vie for the collection, as the objects wouldn’t fit neatly amidst artworks, and institutions like Mexico City’s Casa Azul, the house where Kahlo was born, where she lived with muralist Diego Rivera, and which is now a museum, might find it difficult to raise the kind of money required to purchase such a valuable collection. Costanzo’s observation seemed to play out in the gallery on Wednesday, as the volley of offers and counter-offers was somewhat lethargic. After offering her final bid of $110,000, Costanzo held off on confirming her as the new owner of the letters until several phone and online bidders were asked directly if they wanted to up the ante.

They did not. After Costanzo issued a final warning and the bid was sealed, the winner was whisked away by Doyle staff, who added a $27,000 buyer premium to the bid, bringing the total to $137,000.

Frida Kahlos in New York City

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
**

A woman channels her inner Frida.
A woman channels her inner Frida.
What struck me, as I looked at Francisco’s photos of the women who showed up for the Frida Kahlo look-alike contest at New York City’s La Casa Azul Bookstore, was how each woman embodied Frida.

I didn’t say looked like Frida. I said embodied.

Yes, there was the woman whose eyebrows did seem to arch and join in the way that school kids learning about Frida and men who are afraid of strong women find so uncomfortable they have to joke about her unibrow. But these women weren’t trying to be Frida. Instead, they were each, seemingly, trying to take inspiration from some aspect of Frida’s essence and channel it in her own unique way.

And it was interesting to me, too, what aspects of Frida’s identity or the images of Frida that we are most familiar with were appropriated and interpreted: the oversized jewelry, the intense expressions and fearless eye contact, and the monkey… the monkey! I must have looked at 20 photos before I saw the woman who had the monkey on her shoulder.

The Frida Kahlo look-alike contest was one of many events hosted by La Casa Azul bookstore, which describes itself as “grounded in Latino culture.” If you’re in New York City and want to visit the bookstore, it’s located at 143 E. 103rd Street.

Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907. The look-alike birthday celebration was held on July 7, 2012.
Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907. The look-alike birthday celebration was held on July 7, 2012.

A contestant puts the finishing touches on her maquillaje.
A contestant puts the finishing touches on her maquillaje.

Notice the monkey on this Frida's shoulder? Frida Kahlo had a pet monkey named Fulang Chang, and monkeys appeared in several of her paintings.
Notice the monkey on this Frida's shoulder? Frida Kahlo had a pet monkey named Fulang Chang, and monkeys appeared in several of her paintings.
The contestants pose for a group shot, staying entirely "in character."
The contestants pose for a group shot, staying entirely "in character."
The contest over, the Fridas leave together and then go their separate ways.
The contest over, the Fridas leave together and then go their separate ways.

The complete set of Frida Kahlo look-alike photos is available for viewing on Flickr.

Playing Dress Up

In one of my fantasy lives, I look like Frida Kahlo.

Without those mad, wild eyebrows, of course.

I don’t imitate her style, exactly, but I’m not afraid to wear cuff bracelets and chunky necklaces with stones that look like they were freshly mined from the earth and rough-polished. I’m not afraid to wear colors that stand out in a crowd. I put flowers in my hair as if it were the most normal thing ever, and I wear rebozos and indigenous prints stitched by hand in rich-colored threads woven into deep dark velvets. I call attention, in a good way.

In my real life, I’m non-descript: happiest in a worn-in pair of jeans, an earthy colored tank top or cotton pull-over, a super comfortable pair of flats I bought for $20 at Target and which I wear with everything until the soles are thin. I wear my wedding band and nothing else. If I call attention, it’s probably for looking like a schlub.

“Look at her,” people on the subway probably say, “what a bland outfit. She must be a terribly boring person.”

If they only saw my inner Frida!

Sometimes, though, she creeps out. Yesterday I played dress up, layering blues and greens over each other so that my upper half looked like the sea. I wore earrings and a bracelet and an extra ring, and threw a mossy green rebozo in my bag just in case. No one noticed but me, but it sure felt good to play dress up.

Who would you be if you played dress up?

The singer Lila Downs, channeling her inner Frida so well:

Photo: califdweller (creative commons)