Mexican Modernism: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection
by Deloris Tarzan Ament
"The art of Frida Kahlo is a ribbon around a bomb," according to surrealist artist André Breton. Her paintings are bright, beautiful pictures rife with symbols of gut-wrenching emotions. In her 1943 Self Portrait with Monkeys the four impish spider monkeys who surround her are stand-ins for the children she was unable to have, as a result of severe injuries that left her with a pelvic malformation and made her an invalid for most of her life.
Dozens of fine artists worked in Mexico in the 20th Century, but none developed a greater mystique or a more avid following than Kahlo. The batwing eyebrows, the sensuous lips incongruously topped with a downy moustache, and the unflinching stare of her self portraits have become icons as widely recognized and admired as Marilyn's parted, pouting lips or Madonna's bustier. "Fridamania" has become so rabid that someone has even founded Kahloism, a religion that worships her.
Why? Perhaps because she exemplifies triumph over suffering. Her right leg was already crippled from childhood polio when at age 18, she was nearly killed when a bus she was riding in was struck by a tram. A metal railing rammed through her spine and pelvis and exited through her vagina. She said, "The arm of the seat went through me like a sword into a bull." Thirty operations later, bedridden and in constant pain, she began to paint.
Diego Rivera called her "the first woman in the history of art to treat, with absolute and uncompromising honesty, one might even say with impassive cruelty, those general and specific themes which exclusively affect women." He was acknowledged as Mexico's greatest living artist when he made her his third wife in 1929, three years after her accident. They were drawn together by their admiration of each other's work and their mutual passionate dedication to Communism. He was 43; she was 22.
While he painted epic murals depicting the struggle of the Mexican people for freedom, she painted her own struggle against pain. Her self portraits have been likened to religious icons of suffering saints transcending the physical world. They depict "a single life that contains the elements -- of all life," in Rivera's words. He saw her as "The only example in the history of art of an artist who tore open her chest and heart to reveal the biological truth of her feelings."
As mesmerizing as her pictures are, they form only a fraction of the outstanding exhibition of modern Mexican masters on view at the Seattle Art Museum October 17 through January 5. In acknowledgment of her star status, the show is titled "Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism: the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection."
The Gelman collection is recognized as the world's most significant private holding of 20th Century Mexican art. Jacques Gelman, born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1909, started film distribution companies in France and Mexico in the early years of the 20th century. He married Natasha Zahalka, a beautiful blond visitor to Mexico from Czechoslovakia, in 1941. As Jews, they could not safely return to Europe. Instead, they became citizens of Mexico.
There were few art collectors in Mexico at the time, but the Gelmans were interested in contemporary work. They bought both European and Mexican paintings, collecting subjects and artists close to their hearts. They commissioned portraits of themselves by Kahlo, Rivera, and a dozen other artists. Several outstanding examples are included in the SAM exhibition, most notably one in which Rivera places the young Natasha before a bank of calla lilies, suggesting by her languid pose and the cut of her white dress that she herself is a flower. It is one of six portraits of Natasha in the show, and certainly the most glamorous.
Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism:
Diego Rivera, Retrato de la Señora Natasha Gelman (Portrait of Mrs. Natasha Gelman), oil on canvas, 115 x 153 cm, 1943. ©2002 Banco de México, Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museum Trust and Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes.
Frida Kahlo, Retrato de Diego Rivera
(Portrait of Diego Rivera), oil on masonite, 53 x 39 cm, 1937. ©2002 Banco de México, Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museum Trust and Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes.
Ángel Zárranga, Retrato de la Señor Jacques Gelman (Portrait of Mr. Jacques Gelman), oil on canvas, 130.5 x 110.5 cm, 1945. Courtesy of the Vergel Foundation, New York
The show includes more than 100 works by some of the most famous names in Mexican art, including 15 by Kahlo, nine by Rivera, and a dozen photos by Manuel Alvarez Bravo. More than most exhibitions, this show allows us to see the artists as they saw themÞelves and each other. Self-portraits are a recurring theme, including versions by José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. But only Kahlo is present with multiple self-portraits; she has seven versions, including Self Portrait with Monkeys, and Self-Portrait with Braid, in which she depicts herself with broad bare shoulders, her steely gaze fixed on herself in the mirror as she paints. Her head is topped by a braided symbol for infinity formed of thick red yarn interwoven with her own hair, which protrudes in unruly wisps.
Two of Kahloís self portraits contain miniature versions of Rivera, but we get the best look at her vision of him in a sweet portrait done in 1937. Manuel Covarrubias also weighs in with a portrait of Rivera, but it is a cartoon vision.
One of three paintings by the celebrated artist Rufino Tamayo in the show is a portrait of Cantiflas, the wildly popular Mexican comic played by Mario Moreno, whose films Gelman produced.
One of the show's greatest pleasures is the rare opportunity to see paintings by surrealist writer and artist Leonora Carrington. Her Self Portrait at the Dawn Horse Inn, completed in 1937, shows a woman with wild hair, a tee shirt under a loose jacket, and tight white pants worn with boots, who would not look out of place in any contemporary city today. The painting's surreal aspects are three imaginary horses and the ghost of a fourth, played against the receding blocks of a tile floor. It was painted the year Carrington met Max Ernst, with whom she had a romantic liaison. After a nervous breakdown following Ernst's internment as an enemy alien in France at the outbreak of World War II, her family -- upper middle-class English -- placed her in a psychiatric hospital for the incurably insane, first in Spain, then later in Lisbon. She escaped and took refuge in the Mexican embassy. She settled in Mexico from 1942 to 1985, painting symbolic landscapes and encounters with fabled creatures, inspired by ancient Mexican mystical traditions, as well as those of Egypt and Assyria.
The Gelmans had an eye for the best, as this exhibition shows. And it is a continuing collection. Although Jacques Gelman died in 1986, and Natasha in 1998, the Vergel Foundation, which oversees the Gelman Estate, continues to add works by important Mexican artists. Because it is a private collection, opportunities to see it are limited. Until January 5, you can soak it up at SAM.
Deloris Tarzan Ament is a freelance writer about art, design, restaurants, and travel. She was Art Critic for the Seattle Times for over twenty years.
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