Comrades in harms: Denver Art Museum exhibits the prickly lives of Mexican masters

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Nearly a century later, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo — the original selfie queen — is still a feminist icon. Now, during a tumultuous political environment, a pandemic and rising racial tensions in the U.S. there’s infinitely more to learn from the figure who believed that beauty can come from pain.

Kahlo’s works, alongside Diego Rivera — the prevalent Mexican artist whom Kahlo married for the first time in 1931 — highlight the complexities of life and love in a new exhibit at the Denver Art Museum on display until Jan. 24.

“Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection” is about much more than Kahlo’s self portraits or Rivera’s famous murals. The show highlights the crucial role the couple played in modern art, their thorny relationship and how art and politics are deeply intertwined.

Kahlo first met Rivera when she was just 15 years old. Rivera was 20 years her senior. While Kahlo faced a difficult childhood (she battled polio and often described her home as one that “lacked love”), Rivera was spending his early career in Paris. Their marriage is on full display in many of Kahlo’s works, especially in one portrait Kahlo painted while the couple was living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Rivera had been commissioned to complete murals. In the painting, Rivera clutches his paints while Kahlo clutches her shawl at her waist, likely symbolizing her own pain from a traumatic miscarriage. The two look in opposite directions, a nod to a rocky relationship laced with extramarital affairs.

“Diego on my Mind”, included in the exhibit, is another of Kahlo’s deeply personal works, completed in 1940 when the two were divorced. It is an intricate self portrait, with the addition of Rivera’s portrait in the middle of Kahlo’s forehead.

The exhibit is a traveling one, organized by MondoMostre and curated for the DAM by Rebecca Hart, Vicki and Kent Logan.

“I hope this exhibition increases the understanding and appreciation of artists such as Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and the iconic Mexican modernist artists of the 20th century,” Hart said of the show. “It’s also my hope that visitors are able to draw connections with their personal experiences and the world around them through the artworks and narratives on display.”

It’s hard not to.

In addition to Kahlo’s own personal experiences that are evident in her art, the exhibit takes note of historical, cultural and political significance (the Mexican revolution, women’s role in the arts and Rivera and Kahlo’s identity as communists). Rivera’s murals often included images aimed at telling untold stories and re-unifying Mexcians after the revolution

Rivera’s murals are a nod to the issues Mexico faced in the wake up the revolution. Much of what he painted is still relevant in many ways, notably the debate about capitalism. Rivera opted for murals because they couldn’t be privatized. Instead, they plastered large public places where poorer people could still see them.

A rendition of “Man Controller of the Universe” takes up an entire wall in the DAM exhibition. The first iteration of the mural was first painted in New York City after a commission by John D. Rockefeller Jr., who scrapped the piece because he deemed it controversial. Rivera, a vocal communist, included communist images and symbols, which did not sit well with the uber-rich heir to the Standard Oil fortune. Rockefeller wanted the images removed from the mural. Rivera refused, so the mural was destroyed.

Rivera repainted the mural in Mexico City in the 1930s. It asks the question which way society will go, as facism was on the rise and the Great Depression caused enormous economic suffering. The mural takes aim at religion, science and Nazisim, putting one man at the center of all of the separate images and a large hand in front of him holding a controller.  In the new mural, Rivera put Rockefeller in an image of elites, notably disinterested in the challenges of the poor gathering nearby.

Other Mexican modern artists are also featured in the exhibit. Works from Lola Alvarez Bravo (Mexico’s first female photographer), Gunther Gerzso (a painter, designer and director), María Izquierdo (a painter) and Carlos Mérida (a Guatemalan painter who fused Latin American themes with European style) show how important art was post-revolution and how impactful to 20th century art these creatives were.

IF YOU GO

“Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican
Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection” is on display at the Denver Art Museum until Jan. 24. Check www.denverartmuseum.org for information about visiting, as COVID-19 guidances can change. For visits between Dec. 1-Jan. 24, public tickets go on sale at 10 a.m on Monday, Nov. 23.