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Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism

The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection
13 July 28 October 2001 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
The self-portraits of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo are extraordinarily compelling. While her physical
features and elaborate costumes are striking, it is her interior life that seems to explode beyond the canvas: as
the Surrealist writer Andr Breton once remarked, The art of Frida Kahlo is a ribbon around a bomb.
Combining the familiar with the strange, marrying naturalistic depiction with bizarre symbolism, Kahlo
invented a singular portrait style that cuts straight to the heart of deeply felt passions and sorrows. We are
always convinced of the psychological veracity of her paintings in spite of their often implausible content.
Celebrated by the Surrealists in her own lifetime, Kahlo has attained cult-like status both for her extraordinary
art and her tempestuous love life with Diego Rivera, Mexicos most prominent modern painter.
An outstanding selection of works by Kahlo and Rivera forms the centrepiece of the Jacques and Natasha
Gelman collection. Jacques Gelman, the Russian emigr film producer, and his wife Natasha lived in Mexico
and developed a collection which is regarded as the most significant private holding of twentieth-century
Mexican art. Upon Jacques death in 1986, the Gelman collection of European modernism was donated to the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Frida Kahlo was born in 1907 in Coyoacn, on the outskirts of Mexico City. At eighteen she was involved in
a bus accident and severely injured, leaving her with chronic health problems that would prevent her from
bearing children. In 1929 she married the mural painter Diego Rivera, and thus began a life-long tempestuous
relationship fractured by infidelity, divorce and jealousy. Kahlos paintings speak of psychological and physical
pain often related to her accident and difficult marriage.
Much ink has been spilled over the question of whether Kahlo was a Surrealist. While Andr Breton
described her work as pure surreality, Kahlo publicly denied knowledge of the French art movement,
commenting that, I never knew I was a Surrealist till Andr Breton came to Mexico and told me I was.
However, the reality was more complex. As recent research has shown, Kahlo was aware of European art
movements and the ideas that motivated them. Before meeting Rivera, she had experimented in a variety of
painting styles. Encouraged by her Austrian-born photographer father, Kahlo studied the classics of European
art and literature. While a student at the National Art Academy in Mexico City, she was influenced by Italian
Futurism. Like European artists Andr Derain and Carlo Carr during this period, Kahlo privileged the
untutored art of indigenous peoples and children. She was also particularly interested in the Latin American
tradition of the retablo painting simple religious images depicting a miraculous event in a saints life.
Surrealist ideas and images had made their way to Mexico before Bretons arrival in 1938 through art
journals and personal contacts. Artist such as Max Ernst and Joan Mir who belonged to the Surrealist
movement explored automatic drawing techniques and biomorphic forms to transcend rational thought. While
Kahlos work displays little similarity to that of those artists, it does conform to the Surrealist aspiration to
express the functioning of the mind. In her paintings objective reality is penetrated by bizarre elements
motivated by an interior, mental truth. However, the fantastical elements of her work are never an abstract
exercise in breaking down rational thought but rather serve to elucidate very real and deeply felt psychological
Two of Kahlos greatest works are in the Gelman collection, namely Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego on My
Mind) and Self-Portrait with Monkeys, both from 1943. In the first painting, Kahlo depicts herself in the
elaborate wedding headdress of the women of the Tehuantepec region of Mexico, stressing her relationship to
Diego Rivera. This image bears a close resemblance to the Catholic tradition of the crowned sister painting
which commemorated a nuns entry into monastic life. Literally becoming the bride of Christ, such women
were depicted crowned with flowers and bearing an image of their spiritual husband, similar to the way in
which Kahlo shows Riveras image emblazoned on her forehead. Their marriage, the cause of both joy and
suffering in Kahlos life, can be compared with a nuns mystical marriage to Christ. As she wrote in her diary,
Diego is the beginning, the constructor, my baby, boyfriend, painter, my lover, my husband, my friend, my
mother, myself, and the universe. To convey her powerful attachment to Rivera, Kahlo appropriates elements
of Christian and indigenous Mexican symbolism. Moreover, the sprawling threads of the dress are intertwined
with tendrils from the crown of flowers, conveying the pervasive quality of her feeling. Accompanying this

testament to her passion is a sinister quality; the strands and roots threaten to become tangled and allenveloping, and the impassive image of Riveras face on her forehead speaks of Kahlos psychological
obsession but also of her philandering husbands notorious indifference to her feelings.
In Self-Portrait with Monkeys the artist is depicted surrounded by four spider monkeys. Rivera gave Kahlo a
pet monkey as a surrogate for the child that she was unable to bear. While the technique in this work is highly
realistic and precise, this painting is not simply a realistic portrait. A key to the disturbing subtext of this
painting is given by the monkeys which impishly peep out from behind leaves and with disturbingly long arms
and fingers cling to her body and toy with her clothing. In this image, as in many others showing her intimately
associated with plants and animals, Kahlo proclaims her connection to the natural world while emphasising the
unnaturalness of her childless state, a source of great despair to her. As Rivera argued in the year this image was
painted, Frida is 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. While the monkeys seem to mock her predicament, from her steely gaze we
sense that she remained proud in spite of her fate, giving birth not to children but rather to powerful, living
documents of her interior life.
Diego Rivera was born in 1886 in Guanajuato, moving to Mexico City soon after with his parents. He was an
exceptionally gifted painter, and studied at Mexicos National School of Fine Arts. In 1909 he visited Europe
where he came into contact with contemporary avant-garde movements and studied Italian Renaissance fresco
techniques. In 1921 he returned to Mexico and began painting the grand mural works that made him famous. In
the enormous painting commissions of the 1920 and 1930s, Rivera synthesised various strands of art, including
Cubism, Tuscan quattrocento painting, and Mexican popular art. In the 1930s Rivera and Kahlo settled in the
United States where Rivera painted some of his most extraordinary and controversial commissions. His mural
for the Rockefeller Center in New York was destroyed at the order of the Rockefeller family when the artist
refused to remove a portrait of the Communist leader Vladimir Lenin. Both Rivera and Kahlo were members of
the Communist Party, and like many other Mexican artists of their time, felt that their art should reflect strongly
held political beliefs.
The works by Diego Rivera in the Gelman collection reflect a number of different aspects of his work. The
early Cubist masterpiece The Last Hour, painted while Diego was in Paris in 1915, shows his full embrace of
that avant-garde painting style. Recognisable objects such as books, vases and a newspaper have been reduced
to two-dimensional geometrical elements that appear to shift and scuttle on the picture plane. In his subsequent
work he returned to a more classic rendering of form, without the visual distortions seen in Cubist painting.
While the Gelman collection does not contain any work directly related to Riveras mural painting activity, the
Calla Lily Vendor of 1943 borrows a theme from one of his frescoes at the Mexican Ministry of Public
Education in the 1920s. The symmetrical composition, simplified forms and indigenous Mexican focus evident
in this painting are qualities that are pervasive throughout his later work. In another painting, Portrait of
Natasha Gelman of 1943, Rivera paid his Hollywoodian tribute to feminine beauty. In this work his approach
was more indulgent, and he abandoned the severity of his signature style, emphasising the sinuous curves of the
elegant Natasha which are echoed by the extravagant bunches of lilies adorning the background.
Beyond Frida Kahlos work, Mexican modernism has a strong surrealist current as is evident in a number of
paintings in the Gelman collection. One of the most important artists working in this mode was the Englishborn painter Leonora Carrington, who moved to Mexico in 1942. Born in 1917 in Lancashire, England and
educated in convent schools, she studied with Amde Ozenfant before meeting Max Ernst, the Surrealist
painter. She exhibited with the Surrealists in Paris until the Nazis interned Ernst in 1940, when she fled to
Spain. Committed by her family to a mental hospital in South Africa the following year, she subsequently
escaped to Mexico where she lived and painted until 1985, meeting Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and other
Mexican artists.
Carrington has been credited with giving impetus to the Surrealist movement in Mexico. As in the work of
Surrealists Max Ernst or Giorgio de Chirico, objects and figures are combined in her work in surprising
juxtapositions. However, like Frida Kahlo, her work is less fantastical than that of her male counterparts and
relies on emotionally laden connections between animals, objects and people. In Carringtons paintings
combinations of realistic and implausible elements heighten her paintings to the point where they open a
window onto the intense experiences of the artists interior life.
The Powers of Madame Phonecia, painted in 1974, depicts an elderly woman in a heraldic pattern
surrounded by various creatures, including ducks, armadillos, scorpions and goats. A believer in the subversive
nature of female power Carrington was inspired by Robert Graves book The White Goddess to privilege
potent female figures. Drawing on ancient mythology, Celtic religion and indigenous Mexican rituals, animals

feature prominently in her work and are attributed with quasi-magical powers. The occult efficacy of the old
woman in the picture is symbolised by the streams of hair-like substance emanating from her nostrils. While
less realistic than her earlier work, the relation between woman and nature is still a subject. Forms of magical
power are alluded to, and the image has the form of a religious mandala in its extreme symmetry.
Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, will also
display work by other famous painters such as Jos Clemente Orozco and Rufino Tamayo, giving the audience
the opportunity of viewing the work of Kahlo and Rivera within the broader context of twentieth-century
Mexican art.
1. Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Monkeys, 1943, oil on canvas, 81.5 x 63 cm. Vergel Foundation, New
York. Reproduced courtesy INBA and Banco de Mexico
2. Frida Kahlo, Diego on my Mind, 1943, oil on masonite, 76 x 61 cm. Vergel Foundation, New York.
Reproduced courtesy INBA and Banco de Mexico
3. Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Red and Gold Dress, 1941, oil on canvas, 39 x 27.5 cm. Vergel
Foundation, New York. Reproduced courtesy INBA and Banco de Mexico
4. Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Necklace, 1933, oil on canvas, 35 x 29 cm. Vergel Foundation, New York.
Reproduced courtesy INBA and Banco de Mexico
5. Diego Rivera, Calla Lily Vendor, 1943, oil on masonite, 150 x 120 cm. Vergel Foundation, New York.
Reproduced courtesy INBA and Banco de Mexico
6. Diego Rivera, The Last Hour, 1915, oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm. Vergel Foundation, New York.
Reproduced courtesy INBA and Banco de Mexico
7. Diego Rivera, Portrait of Natasha Gelman, 1943, oil on canvas, 115 x 153 cm. Vergel Foundation, New
York. Reproduced courtesy INBA and Banco de Mexico
8. Leonora Carrington, The Powers of Madame Phonecia 1974, 42.5 x 44.5 cm. Vergel Foundation, New