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Frida and Diego at the NCMA

/ November 13, 2019

Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism presents highlights of the indomitable Gelman Collection, epitomizing the vitality and expressiveness of modern Mexican art. These works were produced during a pivotal period in Mexican history—just after the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century—when the nation sought to redefine itself through political, social, and cultural reforms. Several of the artists presented here (Rufino Tamayo, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Lola Álvarez Bravo, David Siqueiros, and others) garnered international attention and status during their lifetimes.

Perhaps none are more well known and revered, however, than Diego Rivera (1886–1957) and Frida Kahlo (1907–1954). Rivera’s bombastic personality, revolutionary politics, and inspiring murals made him a celebrity during his lifetime. Although he once overshadowed his equally talented wife, Kahlo’s fame has far outstripped that of her husband in the years since her death. The raw emotion of her paintings still resonates today, and her intense self-portraits have made her face familiar across the globe.

During his lifetime Diego Rivera became one of the most revered figures in Mexican modernism, contributing to the development of the nation’s visual culture throughout the first half of the 20th century. Rivera painted several ambitious mural cycles in Mexico and quickly established himself as the painter of choice for the Mexican government. By the late 1920s, political conflicts largely ended new commissions of public murals in Mexico, so Rivera traveled to the United States in 1930, creating large-scale murals in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York. The resulting works both at home and abroad popularized and elevated Mexican art throughout the world.

Frida Kahlo drew her greatest artistic inspiration from her own life—her cultural heritage, personal history, and relationships. Nearly a third of her paintings are self-portraits, which fuel current-day fascination with the artist, a turn of events she may never have predicted. In her lifetime Frida Kahlo’s work was well known in artistic circles, particularly in Mexico. Since her death in 1954, her popularity has steadily increased, and today her fame is so widespread that she has become an international cultural phenomenon, one whose visage has been adopted for various causes and means: as a beauty icon, feminist, accessibility advocate, and Latinx idol. This “Fridamania” developed partly from interest in Kahlo’s artwork but is also inexorably intertwined with images of Kahlo herself.

The diverse works in this exhibition are united through the vision and personal taste of Jacques and Natasha Gelman. Film producer Jacques met Natasha in Mexico City, after each separately emigrated from eastern Europe following the outbreak of World War II. They married in 1941 and began collecting art soon after, commissioning and purchasing works by Mexico’s leading modern artists. The Gelmans formed close friendships with many of the artists included in this exhibition, often acting as patrons and promoters of their careers. These personal connections have resulted in a collection that moves beyond any singular classification to capture the vibrancy of Mexican modern art and its enduring legacy as it continues to inspire contemporary artists and viewers.

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