German Art Collector Remembers Frida Kahlo
TWIG - Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, known for her colorful relationships and the symbolic imagery of her works, attracted countless prominent moths to her flame. One of them, Heinz Berggruen, began a short but passionate love affair with Kahlo when he was only 25 years old. At the time, she was 32 and had just finished her "Two Fridas," a set of iconic double portraits that would come to stand for the crisis of identity she dealt with during the early stages of her marriage to muralist Diego Rivera.
Sixty-five years later, Beggruen is considered the most important private collector of modern art in Europe, the Berlin museum named after him one of the world’s greatest collections of the works of Picasso, Braque, Klee, and Giocometti.
Berggruen is just one of the prominent figures from around the world who recounted his memory of Kahlo to commemorate the 50th anniversary of her death on July 13. The artistic legacy left by the artist, the daughter of a Jewish-German photographer father and a Mexican mother, has experienced a renaissance of recent scholarly interest, even inspiring the Oscar-nominated film "Frida" from 2002 starring Salma Hayek. Decades of neglect as one of the most important artists of her time has been eclipsed by a far-reaching interest in her work and, even more often, fascination with the tumult of her personal relationships.
Figures such as Madonna and Robert DeNiro are just two of the celebrities who have expressed a fascination for Frida, but Berggruen is one of the only remaining people who actually knew her. He first wrote about his affair with Kahlo in his autobiography "Hauptwege und Nebenwege" (Main Paths and Side Paths), and he spoke fondly of his short but fiery love affair with Kahlo in a recent interview with the Frankfurter Rundschau.
"Our time together was very freeing for Frida," says Berggruen, speaking of their 6-week relationship that fell in the brief period during which Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera were divorced.
While working as an assistant to Rivera, Berggruen met Kahlo in a hospital in San Francisco, where she was receiving treatment for chronic pain from a bus accident she survived as a young woman. As an artist, she had just experienced her first successes in a surrealist show in Paris; privately, she was in the process of separating from Rivera. Her lover Leon Trotsky had been killed, and she seemed eager to leave her known world behind her.
"You will meet my wife, and you will fall in love with her," Berggruen quoted Rivera as having said minutes before the initial meeting.
Ironically, none of Kahlo’s work hangs in the Berggruen collection, and Berggruen himself saw none of her paintings during their short affair. Though Berggruen would become one of the most prominent critics and art collectors in the world, talk of art was nearly absent from their relationship.
"I met Frida Kahlo the woman, and that was enough for me," he said.
Today, Berggruen is less a jilted lover than a connoisseur of Kahlo’s work. "She cannot be categorized, she is a singular being, completely independent in the world of modern art." Kahlo, he said, reminded him of the culturally-open Berlin of his youth, the city he grew up in before he fled the Nazi regime to France and later to the United States.
In the end, Berggruen was just one of dozens of people, men and woman, who had affairs with Kahlo. Ten days after she left him, she remarried Diego Rivera, a marriage many have called that of "an elephant and a dove" that lasted until her death in 1954.
In Germany, as it has throughout the world, reception of
Kahlo’s work since her death has been inconsistent. Despite a revival of
interest in her work by the feminist art movement of the 1970s, few of her
works had entered the art market until Sotheby’s of New York auctioned a
portrait of Kahlo’s sister for $1.7 million in 2001. Another auction in
December 2002 featured a potpourri of documents spanning 13 years, including
the artist’s naturalization papers and her last letter to her husband. But
beyond the drama of her personal relationships, it is her art that tells of
a truly singular 20th century life and continues to attract fans long after
her untimely death.
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