Frida Kahlo's letters fetch more than $1,000 per page at auction

The Takeaway
Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo, seated next to an agave plant, from a 1937 photo shoot for Vogue entitled "Señoras of Mexico".

Toni Frissell/Wikimedia Commons

Last week, the New York City auction house Doyle put 25 love letters written by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo up for sale and netted $137,000 — more than $1,000 per page.

The letters are addressed to Kahlo's lover, José Bartoli, a Spanish artist that she met while she was recuperating from spinal surgery in New York.

Though she was married to artist Diego Rivera, Bartoli and Kahol maintained a long distance love affair after their initial meeting. These letters are notable for their steaminess, but also for how completely vulnerable they reveal Kahlo to be:

“My Bartoli…I don’t know how to write love letters. But I wanted to tell you that my whole being opened for you. Since I fell in love with you everything is transformed and is full of beauty….Love is like an aroma, like a current, like rain. You know, my sky, you rain on me and I, like the Earth, receive you. Mara” -- Frida Kahlo, October 1946

Art historian Hayden Herrera, the author of "Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo," says many of these letters closely correlate to Kahlo’s works of art.

“Especially the painting that she did soon after the spinal fusion in New York — it’s called ‘Tree of Hope,’” says Herrera. “It’s a painting in which Frida appears twice: Once she’s recumbent on a hospital trolley with great wounds on her back from the incisions of the surgery, and next to her is a strong Frida holding a flag that says, ‘Tree of Hope, Keep Firm.’ It was her motto, and also the first line of a Mexican song that both she and Bartoli loved.”

In many of these letters, Kahlo often refers to Bartoli as her own “Tree of Hope.” Herrera says that many of the letters cry out with a heart-breaking loneliness.

“In a way, she keeps telling him that without him she can’t be strong, she can’t paint, she won’t be happy, and she’ll be lonely,” says Herrera.

Totaling more than 100 pages, these love notes were held privately by Bartoli until his death in 1995 and were subsequently passed down in his family. Bartoli was a Catalan refugee that fought in the Spanish Civil War and was subsequently imprisoned in an internment camp, only later to escape to Africa and eventually Mexico. But Bartoli ultimately settled in New York City—nearly 3,000 miles away from Kahlo’s home in Mexico City.

“When Frida Kahlo was recovering from the spinal surgery, she returned to Mexico and he seems to have appeared in Mexico about two weeks later,” says Herrera. “They were together for a while, and then he had to go back to New York. There’s a period in 1947 where he apparently came to Mexico and didn’t even see her. Then their love affair appears to resume in 1949, according to the letters. I was wondering whether his not visiting her when he came to Mexico in 1947 had something to do with what you see in these letters, which is her extreme neediness. ... He may have felt a little bit under pressure because they’re a little bit claustrophobic.”

Though Kahlo loved Rivera, Herrera says that these letters suggest that she would have left him in order to live with Bartoli. Many of the letters include keepsakes inserted by Kahlo, among them drawings, photographs, pressed flowers and other mementos. And while these were deeply personal letters, Herrera doesn’t believe that Kahlo would have a problem with making them public.

“The one thing that Frida Kahlo wanted in life was to be known,” she says. “Just look at her paintings — she painted herself being born with spread legs with a baby coming out from between her legs; she painted herself having a miscarriage in Detroit. She didn’t hold back, and in life she was extremely forthcoming and direct. I don’t think she would’ve been upset to have these letters published.”

Herrera's latest book, a biography of sculptor Isamu Noguchi (another one of Frida Kahlo's lovers), will be published later this month.

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