La canasta con flores or The Flower Basket, as this painting by Frida Kahlo is known, has never been fully studied by scholars, as it has always been in private collections and lent on very limited occasions for exhibitions. In turn, it has been rarely requested for temporary exhibitions or included in any of the artist’s major retrospectives over the years. That said, it must also be noted that the work’s precise details including Kahlo’s approach to the composition, have not been sufficiently acknowledged.
Signed and dated 1941, The Flower Basket signals Kahlo’s decade of greatest maturity as a painter, both technically and stylistically. The 1940s marked the consolidation of her career as an artist at the height of her virtuosity just before the start of her physical decline that would slowly incapacitate her. The painting is executed in a beautiful and festive chromatic range, with flowers placed in a semi-circular wreath, within a basket brimming with roses, daisies, sunflowers, dahlias, and orchids, which are visited by an eager bumblebee, an iridescent blue butterfly and a hummingbird lured by the promise of sweets.
By 1941, Frida Kahlo had found a certain emotional stability after having separated in 1939 from her husband, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, whom she had just remarried the following year. In her newly married phase, Kahlo insisted in keeping her own independence in her decisions, but kept a close friendship and camaraderie that made them both artistic and ideological accomplice. After a successful solo exhibition in New York in 1938 and another in Paris, the following year at the Gallery Renou & Colle, where her paintings were praised by artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, Kahlo obtained a certain status in the Mexican art world, not just as Diego Rivera’s partner but as an artist in her own right.
The recognition achieved for her work led to an invitation in 1941 from the Presidency of Mexico to paint five portraits of illustrious women from Mexican history to decorate the new dining room in the reception halls of the Palacio Nacional; among these were portraits of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Doña Josefa Ortíz de Domínguez and Leona Vicario (see letter dated 18 June 1941 to Dr. Leo Eloesser). Shortly after researching the pertinent iconographies, Kahlo was informed of a change in the content of the initial commission and was asked to paint still lifes instead of portraits. In a letter to Marte R. Gómez, she requests help to obtain clarification regarding the changes:
“I would like to let you know that Mr. De la Sota Riva called me and I was told that he had not received an official notice regarding the subject of the medallion shaped paintings for the dining room of the Palace and suggested that since I have completed the first still life that I bring it on Monday morning and show it to the President. As you told me that the President does not want still lifes but portraits…I beg you be so kind to let the President’s wishes be known to Mr. De la Sota Riva to make sure they agree, because he insists on the theme of still lifes, and further insists that they be finished by September 15, which will be impossible since I am a slow painter, not because I am lazy but because that is my nature.” (Marte R. Gómez, Textos inéditos. Diego y sus mujeres, 2013).
We now know that The Flower Basket was part of the decorative project, along with another painting titled Still Life, 1942 now in the collection of the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City. Both paintings were executed in the same style and on a copper plate support to fit into the architectural settings in the dining room of the reception halls of the National Palace. The latter explains why Kahlo used the Renaissance format of the tondo for the painting, slightly concave, to highlight the compositions within the wooden decorative architecture of the official palace. Unfortunately, due to the urgency and surely the lack of clarity in communicating the President’s wishes on the part of his advisors in charge, the project for the decoration for the dining room was scrapped and neither the three of the five portraits nor the series of still lifes were completed in time. This left Frida with two finished paintings and a third in progress, and for which she yet again sought help from her benefactor and friend, Marte R. Gómez, requesting his aid in securing payment for her work:
“I am so sorry to bother you again regarding the matter of the paintings that the President commissioned for the dining room of the Palacio Nacional, since the National Fund has not resolved anything definitive, work on the project has been canceled, and I frankly find this somewhat strange. Both Mr. De la Sota Riva and Mr. Cházaro greatly insisted that I complete at least two paintings by September 15. I worked earnestly to keep my word and delivered the two round paintings on the afternoon of September 13. I presented a proposal to Mr. De la Sota Riva as early as July 22. I told him I would charge $900 pesos for each painting for a total of $4,500 for the five . . . I would like to get paid for the two that I finished ($1,800 pesos) since I am really broke . . . but now Mr. Beteta refuses to sign my contract and has cut me off.”
The third picture from the commission of five is perhaps another painting depicting an exotic tropical landscape. Once the project was canceled, the latter painting became the background for the round shaped portrait of Marucha Lavín, also from 1942. Lavín was the wife of Frida Kahlo’s patron, José Domingo Lavín, who had commissioned other paintings for his collection, among them, the 1945 work, Moisés.
As the commission for three still lifes was half-finished and without receiving any payments for these, Mr. Marte R. Gómez arranged for the two paintings which had been installed in situ at the Palacio Nacional be returned to Kahlo. Kahlo found other collectors for these works—one still life was offered to the composer Carlos Chávez, from whom she would distance herself in later years and never return the painting after she had borrowed it from him for a solo exhibition in 1953, while The Flower Basket was sold to film star Paulette Goddard.
Despite the failed commission of the still lifes for the dining room of the reception halls for the Palacio Nacional, as late as October 31, 1941, Kahlo was still confident that she would paint the portraits from the original commission of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Leona Vicario and Josefa Ortíz de Domínguez: “Mr. De la Sota Riva told me that the portraits could be done for another location in the Palace,” however, this did not happen, which must have been frustrating for Kahlo. Although this is a much greater loss for the public art collections of Mexico. If the commission had been completed at the Palacio Nacional, Mexican institutions would have more paintings by the artist in its collections. But such is the history of art, of dreams, and projects, some realized and others not. Now, one of the works originally intended for Mexico’s Palacio Nacional, will be offered at auction, allowing a large international public to see an exquisite and rare work by Frida Kahlo with a fascinating history.
Professor Luis-Martín Lozano, art historian
Late in life, when former Hollywood film actress Paulette Goddard prepared to leave her legacy to New York University, she decided to let go of the exquisite still life The Flower Basket, a technically masterful and chromatically pleasing painting that she had purchased from Frida Kahlo in December of 1941; at the time of the painting’s auction in 1980, Kahlo had not yet achieved the status of popular icon that she holds today.1 The release of Hayden Herrera’s biography of Kahlo in 1983, “her adoption by feminists, the pop singer Madonna's publicly proclaimed passion for Kahlo, the numerous books, exhibitions, (films), and memorabilia, as well as her stoic veneer representative of ‘exotic’ Mexico plastered on billboards set against the Manhattan skyline (during the blockbuster exhibition Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries), and the sale of her work for 1.4, then 3.2, then 5.6 million dollars,”2 followed by the 2016 record of 8 million set at Christie’s, superficially trace the artist’s upward trajectory to star status.
The 2014 exhibition Unbound: Contemporary Art After Frida Kahlo at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago sought to reframe Kahlo’s art as separate from her posthumous celebrity, by highlighting Kahlo’s relevance to, impact on, and dialogue with leading contemporary international artists working in a variety of media; Kahlo’s art was shown in relationship with that of Francis Alÿs, Louise Bourgeois, Julio Galán, Ana Mendieta, Shirin Neshat, Hélio Oiticica, Catherine Opie, Gabriel Orozco, Daniella Rossell, Cindy Sherman, Lorna Simpson, among many others.3 Their artworks were organized into four categories: gender, national identity, politics, and the body; the category of “still life,” was not one of them.
Kahlo painted between “over 25” to “about 40” still lifes during her artistic career.4 As art historian Nancy Deffenbach pointed out in her 2015 study María Izquierdo and Frida Kahlo: Challenging Visions in Modern Mexican Art, “The scarcity of studies devoted to Kahlo’s still lifes probably stems from scholars’ overwhelming reliance on biographical and psychological methodologies that have prioritized her self-portraits.”5 Deffenbach adds that Kahlo’s still lifes in fact resist the kind of biographical lens through which the self-portraits habitually continue to be read.
Even so, the still life The Flower Basket, which has been exhibited rarely, and has little scholarship attached to it, is nonetheless surrounded by sensationalism, especially when the motivation for its creation has been determined (seemingly in error) not only as an act of Kahlo’s forgiveness of Goddard for the latter’s love affair with Kahlo’s then ex-husband Diego Rivera, but of Kahlo’s own supposed romantic affection for, and sexual conquest of Goddard (the “ex-rival”). The work, in fact, as Luis-Martín Lozano suggests here, was likely painted to partly fulfill a Presidential commission that Kahlo initiated July 22 and completed, delivering two painted tondi, or circular, copper plates to the dining hall of the National Palace on September 13th of 1941. Kahlo’s fight for payment is documented in her letter of appeal to Marte R. Gomez, when the government apparently refused to pay the artist for her work.6 But rather than an object tied to betrayal, victimization, and scandal, we can consider The Flower Basket in light of Kahlo’s emancipation, productivity, and artistic prowess.
As Rivera recounts, Kahlo agreed to remarry him on December 8, 1940 under the condition that he honor her requirement for financial independence from him, and celibacy between them in their relationship.7 That Kahlo was the one chosen by the President of the Republic, Manuel Ávila Camacho, apparently among several artists connected with the Galería de Arte Mexicano, for a commission8 and the subsequent sale of The Flower Basket in December of 1941 to Goddard (as patron, not gifted as lover) attests to Kahlo’s artistic recognition and business savvy. Perhaps Kahlo even double dipped; author Dr. Salomon Grimberg adds to the story that Marte Gómez Leal claimed that Kahlo was in fact paid her commission,9 while, a customs document not only recorded that Paulette Goddard hand carried The Flower Basket into Brownsville, Texas on December 19, 1941, but also listed her payment to Kahlo for the artwork.10 Striving to support herself only from the sale of her art, Kahlo requested an advance from Alberto Misrachi, her gallery representative, on her January $500 monthly stipend, complaining to him that having had to cover outstanding debts, by December 10th she had already spent the money she received from “Paulette” as remuneration for the still life.11
There is a Baroque, self-conscious over-exuberance in Kahlo’s The Flower Basket that echoes her rebellious and innovative character. As Deffenbach notes, Kahlo “challenged conventional expectations about still-life painting.”12 She presents a crowded arrangement of cut wild flowers—not the cala lilies that Rivera was known for, as those in the Rivera painting that Goddard purchased at the same time, or flowers tied to Mexican national identity such as cempazuchil (marigold), associated with the Day of the Dead—but a carefree, central grouping just beginning to show signs of fatigue. The unruly cluster of flowers, perhaps cut from the surroundings of the Blue House where Kahlo was living at the time, or brought from the nearby mercado is juxtaposed against a tightly arranged, symmetrical, commemorative wreath. The memento mori, reminder of death’s immanence, is visited by the symbolically loaded hummingbird, a butterfly, bee, and bug.
Kahlo avoids the interest in heightened texture and the metaphysical expressed in Rufino Tamayo and María Izquierdo’s still lifes of the late 1920s and 1930s. And subdued here are signs of Kahlo’s grounding in arte popular, particularly the round, decorated, lacquered bateas and ceramic trays from Michoacán that she owned, which informed her oil on metal painting Charola de rosas of 1924. In fact, with The Flower Basket Kahlo masterfully walks the line between a post-modern kitsch appearing long before its time, and the Mexican 19th Century still life tradition, both academic and provincial to include José Agustín Arrieta, Mercedes Zamora, and Hermenigildo Bustos.
Kahlo’s importance to contemporary Mexican (and Chicano, and Latinx) painters, such as Rocío Maldonado and Georgina Quintana, who artistically came of age in the 1980s as they turned to the everyday, the personal, and nature as subject, has been examined in scholarship accompanying the exhibitions ¿Neomexicanismos? Ficciones identitarias en el México de los ochentas and Pasión por Frida, for example.13 Finally, given the simultaneous presence of Galán’s Hice bien quererte of 1990 (refer to lot 59), the temptation is just too great to not bring in another example of the latter’s work as a comparison with The Flower Basket: Galán’s still life Tanto of 1987. Offering an innocuous (or is it?) vase with pansies, their faces on full display, Galán creates a frame within a frame by encircling the floral arrangement with the outline of a heart; he underscores this concept with his signature and date in duplicate. The thought “YA NO TE QUIERO” (I Do Not Love You Anymore) lettered at the top center of the canvas is completed by the title “Tanto” (So Much). While Galán sometimes denied identifying with Kahlo, and sometimes relished the association,14 this comparison makes clear that in addition to a sympathy in subject-matter, similar compositional centrality, incorporation of a horizon line, and use of a framing device, Galán, like Kahlo, flaunts the play with artifice, sentimentality, sexuality, and mortality.
Teresa Eckmann, Associate Professor of Contemporary Latin American Art History, University of Texas at San Antonio