Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and 20th-Century Mexican Art

at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, through April 27

Before globalism, there was internationalism. Modernism was inseparable from that movement. In the first half of the 20th century, artists and writers traveled throughout Europe and the Americas exchanging ideas and images, hoping to create a new world. Practitioners of various isms argued in paint and words, producing work with a sense of vitality directly related to the artists’ sense of agency.

All the excitement and all the contradictions of the Mexican contribution to modernism are visible in the collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, a collection that includes work made as recently as the 1980s. While Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera get top billing and clearly provide an audience for the show, Mexican modernism is its real subject; Kahlo and Rivera’s offerings are presented in their visual and cultural context. Giants like Rufino Tamayo, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jose Clemente Orozco, and Maria Izquierdo synthesized modernism and the Mexican vision; these paintings provoke awe at the grandeur and seriousness of the Mexican transformation of such well-known styles as expressionism, formalism, and surrealism. Less devoted to popular culture than Kahlo and Rivera and to a stylized, even programmatic realism, the lesser-known artists’ experiments with color and gesture are truly revolutionary. Their blend of figuration and abstraction is jarring at first, but then it becomes apparent that these disjunctions energize the work. Though most of these painters were muralists, the privately owned easel paintings in this collection retain the presence and traces of the power of the larger public works.

The problem of audience lies at the heart of one of modernism’s essential contradictions. Artists convinced that representations had power and consequences sought to destroy old ways of thinking by rearranging the visual world, hoping to be part of a new world built by workers and peasants for workers and peasants. They needed to speak directly to the public. In the words of a 1922 manifesto published by a coalition of technical workers, painters, and sculptors in Mexico City: “We repudiate so-called easel art and all such art which springs from ultra-intellectual circles, for it is essentially aristocratic. We hail the monumental expression of art because such art is public property.” At the same time, wealthy, cosmopolitan collectors like the Gelmans provided crucial support for these artists. This collection not only reflects the taste of the patrons but includes their likenesses.

Kahlo and Rivera both painted portraits of Natasha Gelman–and it’s impossible to tell whether they’re expressing irony or delight and affection. Kahlo’s painting is glazed and glossy (unlike her own portraits, which are unvarnished), depicting Natasha–a Czech who met Jacques Gelman in Mexico in 1941–as a glamorous blond with a heart-shaped face, wearing stylish curls on top of her head, diamond earrings, and a fur coat. Speaking in a voice different from the folkloric idiom she uses to portray herself, Kahlo borrows here from fashion photography. Rivera does something similar, painting Natasha reclining on a couch among vases of calla lilies, clothed in a smooth, sexy white satin gown that echoes the shape and texture of the flowers. Like Kahlo, Rivera pays meticulous attention to Natasha’s hair; once again she wears diamonds, and the lacquer on her nails matches the color on her lips. Elongating her figure, idealizing her sinuousness, he clearly pays homage to Hollywood glamour. (Jacques Gelman was a film distributor and producer.)

Tamayo, Siqueiros, and Angel Zarraga all painted portraits of Natasha as well, each in his signature style. Tamayo gives her a mythological remoteness. Zarraga makes Gelman look as if she’s appearing in a magazine illustration, the perfect graceful, wistful hostess. Only Siqueiros eschews glamour and lends her some of his revolutionary melancholy, though he makes sure her jewelry and delicate hair emerge from his thick, moving tracks of paint.

Most of the female subjects here are unlike the fair-haired Gelman or the quizzical Kahlo; most common is the monumental female body, emblematic of the painters’ preoccupation with national identity. Orozco’s women are even more dynamic than those of Siqueiros: while on the surface the brush strokes swirl similarly, like water in a flooding arroyo, underneath Orozco’s surface is a sense of strength. Like Picasso’s mother figures of the 20s, Orozco’s women offer something grander than eroticism. Off to the side in his 1942 Painting–showing a seated woman, her truncated, anonymous body the focus of the work with her face in profile–is the stirring face of her worried female companion, rendered quickly in great dark lines. (Orozco and Siqueiros recall Rouault, who also used thick lines to define his subjects and to force himself away from detail.) It’s hard to say how we imagine “the worker” today; the service economy suggests a hyperkinetic, attenuated, and fungible youth. But up until 1945, at least in Mexico, this monumental indigenous woman appears again and again, almost always at work.

It makes sense that images of women–the conduits of family and tradition–would be pivotal to a society emerging from colonialist rule to confront social, political, and economic changes: women give the transition continuity. Yet one wonders whether the really hard questions about women’s participation in the economy could be framed in the 30s and 40s, when most of these works were completed. An anchoring sense of dignity, stability, and generosity produces the heft in these representations of women, although in retrospect the contradictions of women’s lives remain troubling. Surrealism offered women painters like Izquierdo the opportunity to articulate women’s discomfort about gender relations in the language of dreams. Izquierdo’s small paintings of horses (1938 and 1940) have an oneiric force, identifying women with the power of these animals. In one, a woman covered with a cloth wanders among horses covered with cloths, and in the other a woman in a tutu blows a horn for another woman atop a rearing white horse while other animals prance in a circus ring.

In contrast to these romanticized images of women is Kahlo’s portrait of her husband, which is like a police blotter photograph. Though full of detail and carefully tracing the planes of his face and his features, it doesn’t reveal anything. Rivera’s eyes are downcast, as if giving the painter license to observe him, but he refuses to show anything. While accomplished technically, this work retains the feeling of an illustration.

Though this is basically a nonpolitical collection, European modernism and the Mexican political vision met in evocative images of working people. Tamayo portrays women seen from behind drifting into a diffuse pictorial distance, perhaps the past, with huge baskets on their heads. Orozco portrays liberty as a woman holding a sword and a torch. A beautifully composed low-angle shot by Gabriel Figueroa–a still from the movie Rio Escondido (“Hidden River”)–repeats the image of women, here wearing black shawls, moving away from the viewer and into deep space. Rivera relinquished the cubist style he perfected in Paris and adopted figurative painting, the language of his homeland. This collection includes one of his romantic images of Indian children selling calla lilies, and his enigmatic painting of a solid, powerful little girl sitting in a chair adds a sad balance to Kahlo’s painting of an empty child’s bed.

Like Rivera, Kahlo quite consciously used vernacular forms, particularly retablos–paintings on tin that often depict miraculous events. The attributes of the sitter–her possessions, or sometimes the setting–connect her to a narrative the way a medieval saint’s accoutrements remind us of his or her tribulations. What we think of as Kahlo’s tribulations–was she a victim or in control of her relationship with Rivera?–are almost beside the point in light of the style of painting she appropriated, which necessitated melodrama, sin, and redemption. A 1937 self-portrait on a narrow child’s bed alone with a sad-looking unclothed white doll, in which Kahlo portrays herself as very dark and dressed in peasant’s clothing, suggests a childless woman’s wait in an empty nursery.

We may be intrigued by Kahlo’s feminist sensibilities, her search for authenticity and identity, but this retablo-style image suggests she had no desire to live as a soltera (a woman alone); the painting’s very flatness testifies to the sitter’s emptiness and disappointment. In the end, however, Kahlo is not simply complaining about her inability to have children. She’s invoking solidarity with other women. This very private painting is also a public work. There’s something pure and clear about the paintings of both Kahlo and Rivera that transcends the lurid tales about their marriage: it seems their unambiguous humanism and dedication to Mexico override the dissolutions of the flesh.