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Last week a Frida Kahlo self-portrait, titled “Diego y yo,”from 1949, came up at auction. In a pre-sale promotional video, Brooke Lampley of Sotheby’s situated Kahlo in the ranks of art history’s greatest artists: “Kahlo and self-portraiture are synonymous like Rembrant and self-portraiture,” she stated. “She is of that level of significance, recognition, and importance.”
“Diego y yo” is about the best example of a Kahlo painting you could ask for, an iconic image from a now iconic artist. The strength of the image, coupled with the fact that much of Kahlo’s work cannot leave Mexico due to cultural patrimony laws (read: Kahlo’s work is rare to see at auction), set the stage for an exciting evening, with many anticipating a new record price for a female artist. (The current record is held by Georgia O’Keeffe, whose “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1” (1936) sold for $44.4 million in 2014.)
Though the portrait was estimated to sell at between $30 and $50 million dollars, the painting barely surpassed its low end, with a hammer price of $31 million, a mere minute after it came onto the auction block. For comparison, competing interest in an Alexander Calder mobile earlier in the evening resulted in 12 minutes of back and forth bidding, driving the price well above its estimate.
An artist allegedly as great as Rembrandt, and yet Kahlo achieved the auction price of a middling Franz Klein.
In the 50 years since the pioneering feminist Linda Nochlin published “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Frida Kahlo’s star has risen. Her face has been emblazoned on everything from t-shirts to tote bags and pencil cases; she has been the subject of tens of museum shows and books (both scholarly and popular) and even a Hollywood film.
But has she achieved that elusive female “greatness” of which Nochlin so famously wrote?
I’m afraid the answer is no. There have still been no great women artists.
Nochlin’s assertion, on face value, caused many to bristle, and I am sure that my own statement will do the same. “The feminist’s first reaction,” Nochlin wrote in 1971, “is to swallow the bait, hook, line, and sinker, and to attempt to answer the question as it is put: i.e. to dig up examples of worthy … women artists throughout history.” An attempt, she notes, that misses the point.
With Kahlo in question, many might reach for the bibliography, show me the museum catalogues, and ask me what else I would need to see before I’d grant her the status of great.
And it’s true, Kahlo has many of the trappings of 21st century greatness: She is a gift shop staple, found in every museum and souvenir shop in America, and was the most googled artist in 29 countries in 2020. She is also “great” in 1971 Nochlinist terms: She has inspired the “romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying and monograph producing substructure upon which the profession of art history is based,” and even has an origin story that rivals the myths of Giotto and Michelangelo. After an almost fatal trolley accident, Kahlo painted in bed through her recuperation, drawing on the pain to fuel her work, and her work to ease the pain. In other words, art saved Frida Kahlo’s life. If greatness loves a story of art triumphing over circumstance, Kahlo has got it.
So why isn’t Kahlo a great woman artist?
Let’s return to Nochlin: “The fault, dear brothers, lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles … but in our institutions,” she wrote as an answer to her titular question. To answer our own question, I’d like to focus on Nochlin’s condemnation of institutions. But since 50 years have intervened, we’ll need to update the terms by which Nochlin judged a great artist and account for another institution, undeniable in 2021: the market.
Greatness, in this new golden age of wealth and vanity collecting, is inextricably linked to money, selling prices, and auction results. In this realm, too, women fall short of greatness. The auction record for a living female artist is $12 million (as compared to $92 million for a man). For any female artist the record stands at $44 million, a paltry tenth of the record for a male artist, which soared to $450 million with the sale of the Salvator Mundi, the is-it-or-isn’t-it-a-Leonardo. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the market’s biases, all these records were set by white artists. Records for the work of women artists of color are significantly below these numbers.
Nochlin begins her essay asserting that the investigation of the question “Why have there been no great women artists?” will not just reveal the systems of oppression and disadvantage that keep women from occupying the cultural consciousness, but will provide a framework to investigate the workings of art history and reveal its weaknesses. Answering the question “Why have there still been no great women artists?” in the context of the current art market asks us to do the same. It asks us to decouple our beliefs in value from record prices for artists of all genders, just as Nochlin asked we decouple greatness from the idea of solitary genius.
So no, by the standards of today’s market, Frida Kahlo is not a great artist.
But to pin our hopes for raising the status of female artists on the market is always to play a losing game. If we wait for artists to collect in financial terms what they are worth artistically, feminists will be disappointed for a long time to come.
We must distance ourselves from the market, which plays its own game, so that Kahlo — and many others — may finally be called that word which they have so long deserved to be named.
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