December 2009

Kahlo’s ‘Archive’

Recipes For Debate

Letters, a diary and other materials purportedly owned by Frida Kahlo are the subject of a recent book. But is it all fake?

By Roger Atwood

The author of a book based on a trove of papers, objects, and paintings attributed to Frida Kahlo is defending the work against experts on Kahlo and on Mexican art who insist that the material, “discovered” in an out-of-the-way antique shop, is an elaborate forgery. Descendants of Kahlo and her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera, along with two museums dedicated to their work, have filed suit in a Mexican court, asking the country’s attorney general to investigate the origin of the alleged fraud. The book, Finding Frida Kahlo, by Barbara Levine, an American independent curator, was published in the United States last month by Princeton Architectural Press.

Kahlo experts are scathing in their criticism. “It’s dreadful, every page of it. It makes you want to laugh, it’s so obviously fake,” says Helga Prignitz-Poda, co-author of the 1988 catalogue raisonné of Kahlo’s work and co-curator of an upcoming Kahlo show at Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin.

With a cover price of $50, the book includes photographs of several hundred objects from a cache of 1,200 artifacts that an American independent curator, Barbara Levine, says she found in an antique shop in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, after hearing rumors about it. The materials, most of which were packed in chests and boxes, include drawings, letters, lottery tickets, some 50 recipes, stuffed birds, and other ephemera, in addition to about 25 paintings.

Levine, a former exhibitions director at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, produced the lavish book with the help of Stephen Jaycox, creative director at the Cincinnati Art Museum, and the married Mexican antique dealers Carlos Noyola and Leticia Fernández, owners of the San Miguel de Allende shop. There was no input from academic experts, according to James Oles, a Kahlo specialist at Wellesley College, and other sources.

The trove includes what purports to be a Kahlo diary, in which the writer muses on Rivera’s cruelty and her affairs with Leon Trotsky and a woman named Doroti.

“It’s very raw. There has been this resistance to accepting that she would ever talk about things like this,” Levine told ARTnews. She says she welcomes further research on the material’s authenticity. “But if that reveals it’s not by Frida Kahlo, then why would someone create such a compelling, fictitious archive? If it wasn’t written by Kahlo, then who had such intimate knowledge of her life?”

Noyola and Fernández, who own nearly all the material, are quoted in the book as saying they bought the cache from a Mexico City lawyer who in turn acquired it from a now-deceased wood carver who had made frames for Kahlo and accepted artworks as payment. To authenticate the works, they consulted Kahlo’s former pupil Arturo García Bustos, who is now in his 80s, and Rivera’s granddaughter Ruth Alvarado Rivera, who “gave us certificates of authentication . . . as soon as we had acquired the entire collection,” Noyola writes in the book. Alvarado died in 2007.

“The idea behind the book was to let the collection speak for itself, present the archive and let each reader draw his or her own conclusions,” Noyola told ARTnews, adding that the material’s authenticity “is still in the process of being researched.” Kahlo’s descendants want to stop the book from circulating, he says, “because it goes against their economic interests, since they consider themselves the sole owners of her legacy.”

Noyola also consulted a handwriting analyst who, he says, determined that the letters and diary could have been written by Kahlo. A forensic specialist who analyzed the pigments in several of the oil paintings in the collection concluded that the paint dated from Kahlo’s time. But that specialist, Javier Vásquez Negrete, later cautioned against using his findings as confirmation of the works’ authenticity, telling ARTnews that paints from that period could have been used many years later.

“What I have given is a scientific opinion on the age of the pigments, not a certificate of authenticity,” he said in a telephone interview.

Vásquez Negrete said he was “reinterpreting” his original conclusion that a painting from the Noyola collection of a likeness of Kahlo holding two amputated legs dated from about 1940. That work has drawn particular ridicule from the book’s critics because Kahlo’s leg was amputated about a year before her death in 1954, yet the painting depicts her as a young woman.

“If she painted this in 1940, how, then, did she know she would have a leg amputated years later? Some kind of premonition?” says Mary-Anne Martin, a New York dealer who has sold numerous Kahlo works. She notes that the face suspiciously resembles a photograph of Kahlo taken by Imogen Cunningham in 1931 — right down to the same earrings, necklace, and lighting.

“It’s not an archive,” she told ARTnews. “It’s a constructed bunch of stuff that started out with some fake paintings and then had the supposed diary and letters added to it. It’s a hoax.”

Prignitz-Poda says that in the course of compiling the Kahlo catalogue raisonné, “we interviewed everybody — all her relatives, friends, pupils,” including the former student who now says he believes she gave the archive to the wood carver. “Why didn’t he say something then?” she asks.

Princeton Architectural Press stands by Finding Frida Kahlo. “It has always been our view that this material is in the process of being authenticated,” says marketing director Katharine Myers. “The material has been authenticated by experts, but other experts disagree. Opinions run very strong.”

Oles says his suspicions of the trove are based not only on what the archive contains, but also on what is missing. “Why is there not a single photograph,” he says. “And why is this being released just when almost everyone who knew Frida has died?” Ironically his question is echoed by Noyola, who says he is confident only one person, Kahlo herself, could definitively confirm or deny the material’s authenticity, “and she is dead.”