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Mysterious Frida Kahlo painting turns up after six decades in hiding

The early work bears all the hallmark intensity of the artist who lived with pain her whole life

'Niña con collar' (Girl with Necklace) by Frida Kahlo at Sotheby's in New York.
'Niña con collar' (Girl with Necklace) by Frida Kahlo at Sotheby's in New York.SHANNON STAPLETON / REUTERS

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A mysterious painting by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo which had been in hiding for more than 60 years is to go on sale at Sotheby’s in New York.

Kahlo painted Niña con collar (Girl with necklace) in 1929, the same year that she married famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. She was just 22, and was beginning to find her way as an artist after a childhood marked by polio and a nearly fatal 1925 bus accident which left her in pain for the rest of her life.

The unfinished painting was later photographed but then disappeared, only to reemerge now. Sotheby’s have provided little detail as to the painting’s history, only saying that it had remained with Kahlo up until death, at which point Rivera gave it to a woman who had helped her in the studio.

The new owner, now aged over 90, held onto the work at her home in California for six decades, but has now decided to sell.

Sotheby’s have estimated the value of the painting – still in good condition after being kept in a dark part of the owner’s house – in the $1.5 million to $2 million range, but this sum could easily be exceeded. In May, Kahlo’s 1939 painting Dos desnudos en el bosque (La tierra misma), was sold for over $8 million – a world record for both Kahlo and for Latin American artists in general.

While Niña con collar is an early Kahlo work, it has all the primordial power which characterizes her oeuvre. The figure in the painting, a young indigenous girl, is the absolute center of attention: not even the vibrant color scheme can compete with the intensity of her eyes. The eyes look at the viewer, but that gaze is also fixed on the future of the artist.

Experts believe the painting was left unfinished by Kahlo so that it could serve as a source of permanent inspiration. In the image are all the hallmarks of her celebrated later work: the frontal pose, the eyebrows, the jade bead necklace and the hooped earrings.

“The painting had special significance for her, and over the course of time it was the starting point for many of her self-portraits,” said Kahlo expert Salomon Grimberg.

Niña con collar has all the primordial power which marks Frida Kahlo's mature works

Kahlo, one of the most important artists of the 20th century, is also a cult figure and a pop icon, with interest in her personal life still intense 60 years after her death.

“When it comes to her, we want the impossible: we want to always know more and to know every detail about this woman who gave birth to herself,” Grimberg said.

In 2015, 25 letters from the Coyoacán-born artist to her Spanish lover were sold for $137,000. The letters to Josep Bartolí, a Catalan émigré living in New York, date from 1946 to 1949 and reveal her deep, almost adolescent passions.

“My Bartolí…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 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,” Kahlo wrote in one of the letters.

English version by George Mills.

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