Art/Museums logo

Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera,
and Twentieth-Century Mexican Art

The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection

El Museo del Barrio

1230 Fifth Avenue at 104th Street

April 28 to September 26, 2002

Seattle Art Museum

Oct 17, 2002–Jan 5, 2003

"Self-Portrait with Monkeys" by Kahlo

Frida Kahlo, "Self-portrait with Monkeys,", oil on canvas, 81 1/2 by 63 centimeters, 1943

By Carter B. Horsley

Jacques Gelman, an émigré who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, moved to Mexico from Eastern Europe in 1941 and became a movie mogul who produced many films with Mario Moreno, who was best known as the actor Cantinflas. Mr. Gelman and his wife, Natasha Zahalka Gelman, a Czech immigrant from Moravia, became avid art collectors and recently donated a collection of European modern masters to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Jacques Gelman died in 1986 and his widow died in 1998 leaving 85 classic modernist works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art including 14 Picassos, nine Matisses, nine Miros, five Bonnards, four Braques, three Legers, three Grises,three Tanguys, Two Balthuses, two Vlamincks, and works by Dali, Ernest, Giacometti, Mondrian, Renoir and Vuilllard.

This stunning exhibition highlights the Gelmans' collection of 20th Century Mexican art and it includes numerous portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Gelman by some of Mexico's most important artists. The touring exhibition has been shown recently at the Dallas Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, the Phoenix Art Museum and from July 13 to October 28, 2001 at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

Portrait of Natasha Gelman by Diego Rivera

"Retrato de la Señora Natasha Gelman (Portrait of Mrs. Natasha Gelman)" by Diego Rivera, oil in canvas, 115 by 153 centimeters, 1943

In her introduction of the exhibition's brochure the Museo del Barrio, Fatima Bercht, the museum's chief curator, notes that "very often, the first step of the Gelmans' relationship with a particular artist would be the commissioning of a portrait."

"Jacques Gelman was occasionally represented; Angel Zárraga [1886-1946] as well as Gunter Gerzso [1915-2000] depicted him. Gerzso's Portrait of Mr. Jacques Gelman was an exception in the abstract painter's oeuvre. Gerzso, who worked for Mr. Gelman's film studio, crated the portrait, replete with visual puns, as a present for his friend. Most of the commissioned portraits, however, depicted Nastaha Gelman, and celebrated the beautiful collector. (Works in this exhibition include images by [Diego] Rivera [1886-1957], [David Alfaro] Siqueiros [1896-1974], [Frida] Kahlo [1907-1954], Zàrraga, and Rufino Tamayo [1899-1991].) In fact, the first work by a Mexican master that Jacques Gelman acquired was a large portrait of his elegant wife, commissioned from Rivera. The glamorous Mrs. Gelman is clad in a white gown and reclines on a divan against a background of large bouquets of calla lilies. The calla lily, a sensual, sculptural flower - and quintessential example of Mexico's exuberant flora - was celebrated by Rivera many times, particularly in frescoes depicted peasants with indigenous features carrying bundles or offerings of them. Venedora de alcatraces (Calla Lily Vendor, 1943) is an exemplary version of this highly popular theme within Rivera's easel paintings. The Gelmans would, later, carefully selected other works by the same artists, spanning distinct periods. Thus, they assembled extremely significant holdings of Mexican art from 1910 through the 1970s. In this manner, the Gelmans created micro-collections that enriched the broader, overall collection. Within The Gelman Collection, portraiture and self-portraiture are the most common artistic genres. These include self-depictions by [José Clemente] Orozco [1883-1949], Siqueiros, and Kahlo; and representations of celebrated personages such as Cantinflas by Tamayo, a caricature of Rivera by Miquel Covarrubias [1904-1957], and a humble child, Modesta, by Rivera. Other artistic styles in The Gelman Collection include colorful, rhythmic abstractions by Carlos Mérida [1891-1984]; small, metaphysical paintings by Carlos Orozco Romero [1898-1984] acquired after the artist's death); and mysterious narrative ink drawings by Agustín Lazo [1897-1971]. The Gelman Collection contains photographs by master Manuel Alvarez Bravo [b.1902], who had a lasting friendship with Mr. Gelman, as well as Lola Alvarez Bravo [1905-1993]. After Mr. Gelman's death in 1986, Mrs. Gelman continued to add to the collection. After Natasha's death in 1998, the collection was entrusted to The Vergel Foundation."

"Diego on My Mind" by Frida Kahlo

"Diego on my Mind," by Frida Kahlo, oil on masonite, 76 by 61 centimeters, 1943

The exhibition, which has about 100 works, represents the broad range of artistic developments and cultural forces influencing the development of Mexican Modernism during the last century. According to the museum, "Periods addressed in the exhibition span from early experiments with European Cubism and Surrealism and post-revolutionary efforts to develop an indigenous Mexican aesthetic, to the diverse styles and techniques of post-World War II abstraction and realism."

Major funding for the exhibition is provided by Vivendi Universal, Goya Foods, and JPMorgan Chase.

"This exhibition examines social, political and cultural developments in Mexico over a period of 50 years. Through the exhibition and accompanying programs, we hope to shed light on an exciting period in the history of this pivotal Latin American nation and celebrate the works of these master artists," stated Tony Bechara, chairman of the board of the museum.

The star of the show is Frida Kahlo, the fascinating artist who married Diego Rivera, Mexico's most famous muralist.

In his foreword to the exhibition catalogue, which is available for $34.95 from the museum's bookstore, Brian Kennedy, the director of the National Gallery of Australia, provides the following commentary:

"The self-portraits of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo are renowned for their dream-like quality and emotional intensity. A passionate woman endowed with an indominable spirit, Kahlo overcame injury and personal hardship to become one of the world's most important female artists. Celebrated by the surealists in her own lifetime, she has attained cult-like status both for her extraordinary art and her tempestuous love-life with her husband, Diego Rivera, Mexico's most prominent modern painter."

Frieda Kahlo's "Self-Portrait," a 1929 oil on masonite that measured 20 1/2 by 24 inches, sold at Sotheby's May 31, 2000 Latin American Art auction for $5,065,750 including the buyer's premium, setting a new record for Kahlo, for a woman artist, and for Latin American art! (See The City Review article.) Another self-portrait, showing Kahlo with short curly hair, sold at Christie's Nov. 18, 2003 (see The City Review article).

In a fine article in the August 31, 2002 edition of The Village Voice, Joy Press provides the following commentary about Kahlo:

"Frida Kahlo was the perfect feminist heroine for the '80s. Hayden Herrera's Frida, the first biography of the then obscure Mexican artist, was published in 1983, just as Madonna and Cindy Sherman were parlaying experiments with female self-representation into a mainstream spectacle. At the same moment, interest in Latin American magic realism was booming, and Kahlo's audacious, fantastical self-portraits placed her at the intersection of these otherwise unrelated trends. Kahlo, who died in 1954, was a crippled, bisexual Communist who painted visceral images of miscarriage and menstruation and was overshadowed by her more famous husband, Diego Rivera. Yet in the last 20 years, she's joined the rarefied ranks of artists like Picasso, whose work is as ubiquitous as wallpaper. More than just a poster girl for artsy adolescents or a Latina role model, Kahlo is now a coffee mug, a key chain, and a postage stamp. Suddenly a fierce new wave of Fridamania is upon us that is conjuring up a new Kahlo, customized to suit 21st-century desires. This spring brings the publication of Kate Braverman's The Incantation of Frida K., a provocative novel based on her life, and the opening of "Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and 20th Century Art," an exhibition at El Museo del Barrio featuring 10 of her paintings. There's also the inescapable buzz surrounding Frida, the forthcoming Miramax film starring Salma Hayek and directed by Julie Taymor. The race to make a movie of Kahlo's life has been frantic, with Frida admirers like Hayek, Madonna, and Jennifer Lopez all hatching rival projects. (Both Lopez's version, to have been produced by Francis Ford Coppola, and Madonna's, which reportedly would have starred Marlon Brando as Rivera, are out of commission for the moment.) Miramax's Frida has been postponed until October amid gossip about wrangles between the director and Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein, but it was originally slated for release this spring - hence the media blitz that included a photo spread in Vogue and an odd Times piece on entertaining: 'Kahlo often decorated her table with flowers that spelled out special greetings. Of course, in Kahlo's case, one might say 'Viva Trotsky,' as one of her floral arrangements did in 1937 when her favorite Communist visited.' Kahlo's story lends itself to mass marketing because she consciously forged her own 'brand,' painting herself over and over with that trademark unibrow and the traditional Tehuana costumes she wore to reclaim her indigenous heritage. Her life was also crammed with movie-ready melodrama and tragedy. There's the trolley accident that shattered her teenage spine and sent a handrail through her pelvis, leaving her unable to bear children; the tempestuous marriage to Rivera, a world-famous artist and compulsive adulterer; her own numerous affairs, most notoriously with Leon Trotsky. Frida translated this raw material into paintings that pulse with voluptuous agony and eccentricity....Frida was once celebrated as the queen of pain. But now that female misery is unfashionable (kicked out the door with so-called 'victim feminism'), the current resurrection of Frida Kahlo seems like a reaction against the blandness of post-feminism...."

In his catalogue essay, "Frida and Diego," Gregory O'Brien, curator of the City Gallery in Wellington, Australia, provides the following commentary"

"While Rivera was painting massive murals depicting the heroic struggle of Mexican society to fore its own future, Kahlo was staring into a mirror, descending into the depths of her own being. Rivera's mission was, in his own words, to 'reproduce the pure basic images of my land. I wanted my paintings to reflect the social life of Mexico as I saw it, and through my vision of the truth to show the masses the outline of the future.' By contrast, Kahlo singlemindedly explored the female condition in a series of self-portraits that revealed the tragedy of her medical history and affirmed her Mexican identiy. She was also, as Rivera said, '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.' Born in Coyoacán, Mexico, on 6 July 1907, Frida Kahlo was involved in a road accident at the age of eighteen that would affect the rest of her life. The bus she was traveling on was hit by a tram and she was impaled on a piece of metal - 'the arms of the seat went through me like a sword into a bull,' she recalled. Kahlo was plucked barely alive from the wreckage and rushed to hospital. With her sister at her bedside and her family grief-stricken, Kahlo lay on her back in a plaster cast, her spinal column broken in three places, and with a fractured pelvis and numerous broken bones. Kahlo's injuries left her unable to have children and were the cause of grave ill health thoughout her life. Bedridden for some months, Kahlo abandoned plans of becoming a doctor - her intention since childhood - and began painting....It was three years after her accident that she met Diego Rivera. Diego Rivera was born in Guanajuato on 8 December 1886 and studied at the Academy of San Carlos before travelling to Spain. He spent fourteen months in Europe, when he mixed with the cubists...attending in particular to Puvis de Chavannes and the symbolists. In 1921, in the wake of the Mexican revolution, he returned home and became the central figure in the mural movement. Turning his back on early experimental works such as The Last Hour, Rivera produced an epic series of murals during the 1920s and 1930s - a period which is generally considered the apex of his career. An ardent communist, Rivera travelled to the Soviet Union in 1927. During the following year, while Rivera was painting murals in the Ministry of Public Education, an admiring young woman seeking the elder artist's opinion of her work approached him. Kahko was twenty-one at the time and Rivera forty-one. She became his third wife on 21 August 1929. On their first meeting, Rivera immediately recognized the power of Kahlo's paintings: 'They communicated a vital sensuality, complemented by a merciless yet sensitive power of observation. It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist,' he said. As well as sharing political convictions - both were members of the Communist Party - Kahl and Rivera had many artistic interest in common. Both were inspired by the primitivism of Rousseau and Gauguin and, most importantly, by Mexican folk art and pre-Hispanic culture. Key figures in the Mexican cultural renaissance of the 1930s, Kahlo and Rivera were acutely aware of the significance of their historical moment. Although adopting some of the contemporary modernist art conventions, both were concerned with pictorialising such enduring themes as birth and death, fertility and barrenness. Although their individual styles were radically different, both were captivated by painting's potential explore the human condition. During the 1930s, the couple travelled the world, spending four years in the United States, where Rivera worked on murals in San Francisco, Detroit and New York. During this time Kahlo had to have her first pregnancy terminated as a result of a 'pelvic malformation.' A devastating series of miscarriages affected Kahlo's health, which was at best precarious and, following an operation in 1934, she had several toes amputated....Serious strains were emerging in the couple's marriage, with Rivera having embarked upon an affair with Frida's younger sister, Cristina....By the following year, Kahlo had moved into an apartment of her own and regained her composure sufficiently to embark on an affair with the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Kahlo and Rivera later resurrected their marriage, and Kahlo forgave her sister, who subsequently become, with her two sons, an integral part of the unorthodox Rivera-Kahlo family....In 1938 Kahlo and Rivera travelled to Michoacán with the exiled Russian Leon Trotsky (with whom Kahlo, famously, had an affair) and the leader of the French surrealists, André Breton, who immediately claimed Kahlo as a 'surrealist' despite her claiming to have no knowledge of the movement....In 1943 Kahlo's work was exhibited in group shows in Mexico, Philadelphia and New York. Her paintings of that year attest to her maturity and growing eloquence as a painter. Diego on my mind and Self-portrait with monkeys are tough-minded revisions of the passive female subjects of western art history. Kahlo portrays herself as the master of her environment, both subject and object of the painting - the centre of her own universe. Yet the paintings have their dark side: anxiety and vulnerability persist. Although Kahlo's companions in Self-portrait with monkeys are traditional symbols of fertility and maternal protection, the paintings can also be read as a study in childlessness and longing. Diego on my mind is a remarkable exploration of both entrapment and fertility; of devotion and its dark cousin, obsession....In 1943, Rivera produced some of his most sumptuous reveries, among them such lavishly constructed works as Sunflowers, Calla lily vendor and Portrait of Mrs. Natasha Gelman (whom Kahlo also painted that year)."

This exhibition has two very important Kahlo self-portraits, the "Self-portrait with Monkeys" and "Diego on my mind," both illustrated above, as well as numerous other works including two very interesting and fine drawings and a 1937 portrait by her of Diego Rivera, see below.

Both self-portraits are striking but "Diego on my mind" is an extraordinary work in which Kahlo has depicted himself in an elaborate wedding headdress typical of the women of the Tehuantepec area, but it is also similar to Catholic paintings of nuns. With its broad area of gold and the flowers, the painting at first conveys a lyrical, beautiful, calm, reminiscent of a Russian icon, but on closer observation the tendrils of the floral crown interwine with her hair and threads from her dress, conjuring the fascination, lure and terror of a spider's web and is the small portrait of Diego Rivera in the center of her forehead the spider or an entrapped victim?

"Self Portrait with Monkeys" is less mystical and menacing, but the monkeys' arms and tails wrap around her and critics have noted that Rivera once gave her a pet monkey as a surrogate for a child she could not bear. Her proud and stoic gaze indicates her defiance of the cruelties of life.

These are two of her masterpieces. Her oeuvre is uneven in painterliness, but not in intensity.

In 1953, Kahlo's right leg was amputated below the knee and she died July 13, 1954 after contracting pneumonia. "Although a 'pulmonary embolism' was the official cause of death, suicide was not discounted as a possibility....Rivera's own health deteriorated, and the following year he underwent medial treatment in the Soviet Union. He died on 24 November 1957. His wishes that his ashes be mingled with those of Kahlo were ignored, and he was buried in the National Rotunda of Illustrious Men. Although Kahlo's work was overshadowed by her husband's during her lifetime, Frida Kahlo's reputation has subsequently grown to eclipse Rivera's," wrote Mr. O'Brien.

Rivera's mural for the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Plaza (see The City Review article) was destroyed because the Rockefeller family objected to his inclusion in it of a portrait of Lenin. Rivera was the most famous member of the Mexican Mural Movement, which also included David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente and was immensely influential as the most revolutionary public art of the 20th Century. "Although all three artists were intent on communicating political and social ideals, the paintings of Orozco and Siqueiros are more vigorous and expressionist than those of Rivera....Jackson Pollock worked as an assistant to Siqueiros in New York during the 1930s," observed Anthony White, the curator of international paintings and sculptures at the National Gallery of Australia.

"Diego Rivera" by Kahlo

"Diego Rivera," by Frida Kahlo, oil on masonite, 53 by 39 centimeters, 1937

It is unfair to judge Rivera by his easel paintings for his greatest achievements were his large, vibrant and complicated murals. His portrait of Natasha Gelman is one of his finest portraits, a very lush and sensuous work that complements the sitter, the heritage of Latin America and recalls some of the great depictions of reclining woman in western art by Titian, Courbet and Velasquez.

Rivera, not surprisingly, is better with more humble subjects and the Gelman collection has two masterworks, "Calla Lily Vendor" and "Sunflowers," both executed in 1943. Both paintings are large and celebrate the relationship of peasants and nature.

"Woman with shawl" by Siqueiros

"Woman with Shawl," by David Alfaro Siqueiros, piroxiline on masonite, 119.5 by 97 centimeters, 1949

David Alfaro Siqueiros is the most expressive of the Mexican Muralists and he experimented with a variety of paint materials. His oeuvre is also uneven, but at his best he is very, very powerful and "Woman with Shawl," shown above, is a good example of his bold style.

Five panels by Mérida

Five panels by Carlos Mérida, gouache and watercolor and pencil on cardboard, 130 by 25 centimeters each, 1963

Carlos Mérida was born in Guatemala and died in Mexico City. Between 1910 and 1914 he worked in the Parisian studio of Kees van Dongen and met Diego Rivera and Piet Mondrian. He returned to Guatemala in 1914 to found an ethnographic pro-Indian movement and moved to New York in 1917 and then to Mexico City in 1919 where several years later he would work on murals with Rivera. He returned to Paris in 1927 where he became friends with Joan Miro and Paul Klee and was influeced by Vassily Kandinsky and subsequently his work focused on colorful geometric abstractions that show the influence of Pre-Columbian culture. "Five Panels," shown above, is a good example of his strong sense of rhythm and dynamic compositions.

"Figure in red and blue" by Gunther Gerzso

"Figure in Red and Blue" by Gunther Gerzso, oil on canvas, 100 by 73 centimeters, 1964

Gunther Gerzso is another very important Mexico abstractionist. Although born in Mexico City, he studied in Switzerland. When he returned to Mexico in the early 1930s, he was interested in designing theater sets and costumes and from 1935 to 1940 he was the staff set designer for the Cleveland Playhouse in Ohio. He began to get interested in painting but continued to do set designs, working in movies for such directors as Luis Bunuel and John Ford. In 1944 he met Leonora Carrington and Wolfgang Paalen, European Surrealists who moved to Mexico and he was also influenced by Yves Tanguy. The El Barrio museum's brochure notes that "the most comprehensive set of works by a single artist in The Gelman Collection is by Gunther Gerzso," including "Figure in Red and Blue," shown above, a typical and fine work, and "Archaic Landscape," one of his masterworks.

The exhibition also has a good work by Carrington, a nice portrait of Cantinflas by Rufino Tamayo, and several fine photographs, such as "The Instruments," executed in 1931 by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, and some excellent paintings by the always consistent, colorful and interesting Francisco Toledo (b. 1940).

El Museo del Barrio is the northernmost of the cultural institutions along Fifth Avenue's "Miracle Mile." It was founded in 1969 by Puerto Rican community activists, artists and educators in East Harlem's Spanish-speaking El Barrio and its mission has expanded to include the cultures of the Carribean and Latin America. It is open Wednesdays to Sundays, 11 AM to 5 PM and admission is $7 for adults and $3 for students and seniors. It is housed in the former Heckscher foundation for Children settlement house that has many delightful and fine terracotta reliefs of children in the city in its lobby.

Major funding for the New York presentation of the exhibition has been provided by Vivendi Universal, Goya Foods, and JPMorgan Chase.

Click here to order the catalogue from


Home Page of The City Review