Mexican modernism was more than Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

PORTLAND, OR – The Portland Museum of Art Preview Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican modernism was a polite affair. The vast halls of the gallery were quiet, the only sound being the faint silence of well-to-do spectators whispering among themselves, shaking hands. The 150-piece exhibit was last on display at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, and features the likes of Jacques and Natasha Gelman, late philanthropists from Eastern Europe who moved to Mexico in the 1940s and began collecting Mexican art. The exhibition, which also features portraits of the Gelmans by Kahlo and Rivera, reflects this intimate bond.

Clearly invested in the Kahlo family unit, the exhibition also presents documentary photographs of Guillermo Kahlo, Frida’s German father. A portrait of one of Kahlo’s sisters, Cristina, by Diego Rivera, is prominently displayed in the upper gallery, stoking the drama of the infamous affair between Cristina and Diego that led to Frida and Diego’s temporary separation.

The title of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican modernism fuels the repeated use of Kahlo and Rivera’s work, and the mythology of their romantic relationship, as shorthand for an entire era. Fanaticism around Frida Kahlo only grew after Sotheby’s sold her painting “Diego y yo” in 1990 for $1.4 million, becoming the first Latin American artist whose work sold for over a million dollars at auction. In November 2021, the same painting sold for $34.9 million. Since then, there have been mugs, t-shirts, bags, even toilet seat covers with his thick-browed face printed on them. There’s no shortage of such paraphernalia in the Portland Art Museum’s gift shop. The exhibition was proudly presented as the museum’s first featuring a Mexican artist, and one can’t help but wonder about the weight of this portrayal in light of the art market. latinx art tokenization. The Gelman collection highlights the transactional relationship between the art market and the museum, and the pressure on museums to present the same leading figures for each artistic movement. Moreover, many of the works in the exhibit aren’t even by Mexican artists, but rather by European photographers capturing Kahlo at work and with her animals, friends, and lovers.

Installation view of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican modernism at the Portland Museum of Art, with “Desnudo” by Lola Álvarez Bravo (1945) (image courtesy of the Portland Art Museum)

In a less visible section, one can find a black and white, semi-nude photograph, “Desnudo” (1945), by Mexican artist Juan Soriano by Lola Álvarez Bravo. In the image, light spills over Soriano’s contoured back. This set of Bravo photographs continues with a portrait of Mexican architect Ruth Rivera Marin. Marin is lying with her head tilted back and her hair spread out on a piece of driftwood on the shore. The lines of her body merge with those of the earth that surrounds her, reminiscent of contemporary photography such as that of Laura Aguilar. Self-Portrait of Nature series. The exhibition also features a vibrant collection of abstract paintings by Gunther Gerzso as well as early Cubist works by Rivera such as “Ultima hora” (1915). In these nooks and crannies of the show, viewers can begin to piece together the other lesser players in Mexican modernism. But as they wandered around the museum, many onlookers passed these pieces, flocking to a photo by German artist Fritz Henle of Kahlo dressed in traditional Tehuana clothing with a chained monkey around his neck.

Frida Kahlo, “Self-Portrait with Monkeys” (1943), oil on canvas, 32 × 24.8 inches (Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and Vergel and MondoMostre Foundation in collaboration with the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura (INBAL), © 2022 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, DF/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo by Gerardo Suter)

As this is a traveling exhibition, we can assume that the museum had no say in the works selected. (The exhibition was originally organized by the Vergel and MondoMostre Foundation with the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura, with Sara Krajewski as Portland curator.) However, great care is taken in the framing of the exhibition , in particular to wall texts. This framing performs a successful didactic function that moves the viewer through the different stages and impact of the Mexican modernist period.

Other nods to the collective rather than idolized spirit of Mexican modernism exist outside the walls of the museum. The exhibit’s lineup includes a mural project led by local Portland artist Hector Hernandez and featuring murals by Latinx artists. Community outreach efforts include a bilingual activity guide for children and a school partnership with César Chavez School in North Portland, working with teachers and artist Patricia Vázquez to design a list of artistic creation and field trips. Through these activities, rather than the exhibit itself, audiences may be able to learn lessons from Kahlo’s work about loss, labor, multicultural identity, and the power of a woman’s body in pain.

Mural by Angenette Escobar, Hector H Hernandez, and Christian J. Barrios (image courtesy of Portland Art Museum)

Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican modernism continues at the Portland Art Museum (1219 SW Park Ave, Portland, OR) until June 5. The exhibition was curated by Sara Krajewski.

About Bernice D. Brewer

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