For decades, Frida Kahlo’s 1940 painting La Mesa Herida (or The Wounded Table) has served as a “holy grail” for art historians. The famed Mexican artist once hung the massive oil painting in her home, but after appearing in a Polish exhibition in 1955, it vanished—and has eluded investigators ever since.
Though Kahlo was widely celebrated in her own lifetime, public interest in the artist has skyrocketed to unprecedented levels in the decades following her 1954 death. Today, the phenomenon boasts its own nickname: “Fridamania.” The frenzy over Kahlo’s artistic legacy makes a new claim about the whereabouts of The Wounded Table all the more enticing, write Aritz Parra and Berenice Bautista for the Associated Press. But it also gives researchers all the more reason to be skeptical.
In June, a relatively little-known art dealer named Cristian López Márquez announced that he had discovered the long-lost painting and would sell it at the behest of its anonymous owner. As López tells Moncho Ares of Spanish newspaper La Voz de Galicia, the work is currently housed in a high-security vault in London; unnamed experts have supposedly estimated its value at around $45 million.
Kahlo scholars interviewed by the AP, however, argue that López’s claim is dubious at best. Art historian Helga Prignitz-Poda, who has investigated the missing artwork in-depth, says images of López’s find reveal clear differences between the work in question and photographs of the original 1940 painting. Additionally, The Wounded Table was painted on wood, while this painting is listed as a work on canvas.
The newly resurfaced painting bears similarities to inaccurate replicas of the original, potentially suggesting that it’s a copy of a copy, according to Prignitz-Poda.
“Fridamania has been a marketing invention,” explains Susana Pliego, an art historian who has worked with Kahlo’s archive for years, to the AP. “Because her paintings are sold so expensively, someone makes a proposal to see if anyone falls for it.”
López defends the painting’s authenticity but offers few details on its provenance.
“Time will give us the truth,” he tells the AP. “ … Whoever proves genuine interest and the ability to pay the figure of 40 million euros, can spend as much time as wanted with their experts analyzing the work.”
As Gabriella Angeleti reports for the Art Newspaper, The Wounded Table was Kahlo’s biggest work to date at the time of its creation. Measuring nearly 4 feet tall and 8 feet wide, the painting depicts the artist seated at a table, possibly in a darkly ironic riff on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Kahlo—flanked by a papier-mâché Judas, a skeleton and her pet deer—sits at the center of the scene, facing the viewer directly. To her right stand her sister Cristina’s children, Antonio and Isolda; four vulva-shaped knots on the table bleed into the floor below. Per FridaKahlo.org, the work, painted shortly after the artist’s divorce from fellow painter Diego Rivera was finalized, expresses her despair and loneliness.
Photographs of Kahlo’s home, the Casa Azul, show that The Wounded Table hung in numerous locations over the years. Later in life, Kahlo, a devoted Communist, sent her painting to Moscow as a “gift of friendship.” Never exhibited in the Soviet Union, it was eventually consigned to storage.
After the artist’s death, the work was loaned to the Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, where it was photographed in 1955, as Prignitz-Poda and art historian Katarina Lopatkina wrote in a 2018 article for the International Foundation for Art Research Journal. Following the Polish exhibition, the trail goes cold: Historians have been unable to determine whether the painting was returned to Moscow, sold, damaged or misplaced.
Many researchers have speculated on the painting’s location, but as of yet, no concrete evidence regarding the painting’s whereabouts has surfaced. In 2018, art historian Raúl Cano Monroy announced that he had discovered new clues to the painting’s location, telling Mexican newspaper Milenio, “I think my investigation will bear fruit in five years,” but declined to offer any specifics.
Kahlo produced just 200 or so works in her lifetime. As the artist’s profile has risen, theories regarding her oeuvre have proliferated, making it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.
“There are thousands of Frida Kahlo fakes,” Hans-Jérgen Gehrke, director of a Frida Kahlo museum in southwestern Germany, tells the AP. “She is possibly the artist who has painted more dead than in life.”