Fighting over Frida Kahlo

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Nov. 1 from Princeton Architectural Press -- that includes the little Frida-deer painting, together with a previously unpublished archive of about 1,200 items (notebook pages, letters, diary entries, recipes, clothing, etc.).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.

A preemptive, blindly made fraud claim is a political strategy, more authoritarian than authoritative. It recalls physician and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist asserting that Terri Schiavo, a comatose Florida woman, was not in a persistent vegetative state, based on his review of a videotape rather than the actual patient. Of course, three months later an autopsy confirmed that Schiavo had suffered severe, irreversible brain damage. Actual study of the Kahlo archive might prove similarly redemptive.

A firsthand look

As it happens, I have seen the disputed archive at the gallery -- not once, but three times in the last 18 months. Carlos Noyola and his wife, Leticia Fernandez, art and antiquarian dealers in Monterrey, Mexico, for nearly four decades before moving to San Miguel a few years ago, acquired it in 2004, after a friend asked them to look at the battered little deer painting. It wasn't the only object attributed to Kahlo they were given to examine.

There was also a traditional Michoacan-style floral batea -- a painted wooden tray -- decorated with a hot-pink flower bearing Frida's eyes and initials, a pure white flower bearing those of her notoriously philandering husband and a bright yellow flower hovering above Diego, anonymously and suggestively, like a woman's flouncing skirt.

There was more. In fact, when all was said and done, the trove included 16 small oil paintings, 23 watercolors and pastels, 59 notebook pages (diary entries, recipes, etc.), 73 anatomical studies (some dated prior to Kahlo's disfiguring 1925 trolley accident), 128 pencil and crayon drawings, 129 illustrated prose-poems, and 230 letters to Carlos Pellicer, the Modernist poet and Frida's close confidant, many adorned with sketches -- skulls, insects, lizards, birds.

Mostly it's ephemera, like a small box holding 11 taxidermy hummingbirds. There are pistols, such as an ornate 1870 Remington; a tricolor Mexican flag, its central white panel altered to celebrate Leon Trotsky ("Troski") and the Communist Party, to which Kahlo and Rivera belonged; hotel bills; photographs; receipts for sales of Rivera paintings; an embroidered huipil, a traditional Mayan blouse; an intimate diary, with one entry expressing Frida's intense (and unrequited) erotic attraction to lesbian ranchera singer Chavela Vargas; a French medical text on amputation, painted over with blood-red pigments; and more.

The Kahlo cache is said to have been stored for 50 years in two wooden chests, a metal trunk, a wooden box and a battered suitcase. The forthcoming book, honest in its uncertainty about authenticity, tells a spare but reasonable history of ownership -- first given by the dying artist to sculptor Abraham Jimenez Lopez, a friend of Kahlo and Rivera's, in 1954, and then sold by him to attorney Manuel Marcue in 1979 -- as well as the Noyolas' initial efforts at verification.

Is the archive genuine? I do not know. I've seen a majority of Kahlo's approved paintings, but I'm not an authority.

It's certainly an odd assortment for a forger to bother with. The archive's drawings and paintings, all modest, cut a wide stylistic swath. Unlike Rivera, a virtuoso draftsman, the largely self-taught Kahlo had little innate facility. Her drawings are often notational, her paintings intentionally folkloric, sometimes even crude.

Some archive works verge on academic, the last way one thinks of Kahlo. Various curios might be by other hands, memorabilia she saved.

The most compelling painting shows an amputated leg wrapped in thorns or barbed wire and planted upside-down in a darkening Surrealist landscape. Sporting a winged foot and surrounded by a saw, ax, swallow and airplane, it's a secular ex-voto, traditional Mexican offering to a saint.

Nothing is truly major, ranking with the great self-portraits. As a whole, though, the artist's obsessive self-regard rings true.

Critic Ben Davis has noted that feminist Surrealism is only part of Kahlo's artistic story, one that helped catapult Herrera's marvelous biography because it corresponded with societal interests after the 1970s. Yet Kahlo's conscious "reiteration of the self, transformed into myth" is also a primary trait of Social Realist art in the 1920s and after -- the aesthetic language that created cults around Lenin, Stalin and Mao. This aspect of Kahlo's work shows her determined political sympathies for post-revolutionary Mexico, as well as for crafting her own reverential following.

What comes next

Nobody was more resistant to Frida's worshipful veneration than Dolores Olmedo Patino, the rich and powerful collector to whom Rivera, reputed to have been her youthful lover, gave posthumous control of his and Kahlo's estates. The Rivera-Kahlo Trust's Carlos Phillips Olmedo is her son.

I made the first of several visits to Olmedo's 16th century hacienda in Xochimilco in 1984, as she was planning to turn the estate into a museum. (The Museo Dolores Olmedo opened 10 years later.) Conceived as a Rivera shrine, it features 145 of the painter's works; 900 pre-Columbian sculptures plus folk crafts, which he championed for their indigenous character; and engravings by Angelina Beloff, his conventionally talented first wife.

Each time I would ask to see Olmedo's 25 Kahlo paintings -- the largest collection anywhere, about one-eighth of Kahlo's output. She would frown, dismiss them as minor and finally relent. Usually the paintings were kept in an out-of-the-way room, lined up on the floor facing the wall.

"In the future, Kahlo will fade away," Olmedo once told The Times.

Just before his 1957 death, Rivera instructed Olmedo not to unseal, for a period of 15 years, the many rooms packed with Kahlo's belongings left behind at Casa Azul, the famous "blue house" in Coyoacan where the artist lived. In fact, Olmedo never unsealed them.

Finally opened after her death in 2002, they yielded 28,000 new documents, 5,800 photos, 300 garments and many paintings and drawings. Kahlo was a pack rat. Perhaps their 2004 unveiling coaxed the Noyola's archive out of hiding.

New information always comes to light. Ferocious yet cavalier denunciations don't discredit the uncertain archive, only the entrenched establishment that utters them. Generational change is wrenching -- a woolly mammoth bellows in a tar pit -- but the tumult shows that it's certainly underway.

Brass-knuckles intimidation tactics are clear evidence for what should happen next. The archive, compelling enough for serious further study, needs sunshine -- difficult to find anywhere, but certainly unavailable in official Mexico. The Noyolas have done interesting, basic forensic research and have always been open to any scholar who would like to actually see the archive. They should move it to more neutral ground outside the country.

Here's the irony: Had it been accepted as official national patrimony, the archive would not be allowed to leave Mexico. The nation's loss could be art's gain.

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christopher.knight@latimes.com

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