Few collectors have found themselves in such an enviable position as Jacques and Natasha Gelman, wealthy European refuges who were major patrons in Mexico City at a time when artistic geniuses far outnumbered art-loving millionaires. Being such big fish in such a small pond meant that not only were the Gelmans able to purchase numerous works by the most prominent Mexican artists of the 20th century, they also came know many of them as friends. The results of their forty years of friendship and collecting can be seen in the exhibit, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Twentieth Century Mexican Art: The Gelman Collection, which opened at the Seattle Art Museum in October after stops in San Diego, Phoenix, and Dallas. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
Ah, reputation. The fact that — at least for now — the late Frida Kahlo has eclipsed the fame of all her Mexican contemporaries put together, is due to a combination of factors that neither she nor they could have ever imagined.
Her story has come to embody many of the central preoccupations of our time, including feminism, celebration of ethnicity, relationship politics, triumph over disability, and the virtues of self-absorption. What’s more — and here’s the rub — the peculiarities of the Gelman collection further, and somewhat artificially, elevate Frida over her artistic companions. The Tres Grandes — the magnificent, brawling, larger-than-life trio of Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and Jose Orozco — won their fame almost exclusively as mural painters, and the random assortment of their mostly minor work in this exhibit only serves to highlight Frida all the more, as does the inclusion of a number of other artists of less-than-stellar quality.
Such limitations aside, this exhibit has its rewards, including several Frida contemporaries we regret not having met sooner. Few of us will have previously encountered, for example, the fascinating Emilio Baz Viaud, an artist little-known even in Mexico. His two stunning watercolor portraits pay homage to the microscopic realism of Northern masters like Holbein and Durer. There is an element of caricature in these depictions, making the personalities within seem that much more vivid and distinct.
Much the same cannot be said of the five portraits of the patroness Natasha Gelman. One of the most intriguing features of the exhibit, none of these versions of Mrs. Gelman succeed in telling us who she really was, besides wealthy and powerful. The showstopper of the group, a glamour girl by Rivera, depicts the reclining Natasha as an object of desire, surrounded by cala lilies and suffused in a hothouse atmosphere of indulgence and sensuality. The same woman, painted the same year by Frida Kahlo, seems older, sadder and more remote.
The two most peculiar Natashas have been thoughtfully hung face to face, both done by artists whose heart does not seem to have been quite in the project. The surrealist Rufino Tamayo has reduced Natasha to a monochromatic icon — flat and almond-eyed in the tradition of Modligiani. The devoutly Communist Siqueiros has taken out his distaste for doing the work of the wealthy on the painting surface itself. Not only is his Natasha painting stiff and ugly, it has an encrusted paint surface that seems to make her smooth skin boil with all the collected woes of the world.
What a contrast then, to turn to the multiple self-images of Frida Kahlo, as passionate to reveal herself to the canvas as Natasha was to keep her distance. There is an urgency and quiet excitement to her work, which includes here some of her very best paintings. Justifiably famous, the two images of Frida with monkeys and Frida as mystical bride reveal her as master of self re-invention, imagining lives for herself that compensated for things her real life lacked — children, and a reliable husband. Equally rewarding is a lush still life with the theme of the sexual abundance of nature, where papayas, bananas, and avocadoes are stand-ins for various male and female sex organs, and a prismatically-cut watermelon is presented as a symbol of fertility.
Lost in the wilds of inner city Detroit is Diego Rivera’s colossal, absolutely extraordinary fresco of the auto industry — a painting that is the greatest single work of public art in America. The fact that the author of that piece is rapidly becoming better known as the husband of Frida Kahlo is a hint that the process of historical sorting still has some balancing out to do. It would be nice to think that the rise of Frida will accompany, rather than diminish, the fame of her remarkable and brilliant contemporaries.