In the universe of Mexican art, one petite star has shined consistently bright despite the eclipse caused by male counterparts. If it were a constellation, its shape would be a thick unibrow and its name Friducha.
That was famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s name for his painter wife Frida Kahlo. Both are now the focus of a new exhibition organized by the Norton Museum of Art that goes to the heart of the museum’s self-imposed commitment to inclusion, diversity, equity, and access.
On view through Feb. 6, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection is what happens when an institution pours its heart into celebrating commonality. The vehicle, in this case, is the art produced by modernist artists such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, Carlos Mérida and Rufino Tamayo, following a decade of war, division and violence.
Landscape with Cacti is an example of what they returned to for inspiration. During Spanish occupation, indigenous people lost control of their ancestral lands. The landscape adopted a new meaning after the Mexican Revolution ended in 1920. It was grounds on which to shape a future that infused tradition with modern ideals, a time machine to recall pre-Hispanic and colonial-time memories.
Rivera’s 1931 oil piece carries a humorous innocent quality. His green meaty limbs, symbolic of Mexico, stand in non-threatening fashion and gesticulate as if they were real arms. The lighthearted desert scene seems lifted straight out of Walt Disney’s Fantasia except the magic brooms came nine years after Rivera’s muscular plants.
The geometric abstraction closely associated with European modernism makes an appearance, too, via Carlos Mérida’s Festival of the Birds (1959) and Gunther Gerzso’s Archaic Landscape (1956), but theirs is of a different variety. This breed combines structure and clean lines with vivid colors and pre-Hispanic imagery that, in the case of Mérida, depicts birds landing above the hands of vigorous figures who are up in arms about something.
Gerzso’s work, on the other hand, sports cooler tones and its primitive shapes are much quieter. It reduces the homeland’s terrain to a series of staggered horizons that appear light on the surface and gradually darken as our eyes descend to the base. If a seed were planted here, its journey from the subsoil to the surface would be precarious.
Scars don’t form on corpses. By contrast, all that’s required for emotional scars is to be alive. Kahlo was the proud owner of profound physical and psychological wounds, both of which she captured in her work with vivid — at times gory — detail. The show, however, doesn’t indulge them and keeps its star’s suffering implicit, trusting us to deduce her unwavering spirit from the material included.
And what a selection it is. Paintings, candid photographs, works on paper and period clothing make up the largest group of works by Kahlo and Rivera ever on view at the museum. Mexico City saw an explosion of creativity at the end of the Revolution that broadcast local talent to the world and welcomed foreign support and influence. The Gelmans established themselves as important art patrons and collectors in a newly unified country boasting with creativity and activism. Kahlo, Rivera and their circle of friends seized the moment and crucial connections.
Their social ties, however, did not compromise their work. Rivera added polemic historical figures (think Vladimir Lenin) to his giant frescoes, one of which is replicated here. His social alliances and commitment to the communist cause are evident in this reproduction of In the Arsenal, which features Kahlo as the central figure dressed in red and giving out arms to revolutionary soldiers. Photographer Tina Modotti, a friend who facilitated the meeting between Rivera and Kahlo, appears on the right with her Cuban revolutionary lover Julio Antonio Mella.
Rivera might have gotten the large commissions in big American cities, but Kahlo spoke her mind without vacillation (sin pelos en la lengua). One pencil drawing from 1949 featuring the Statue of Liberty is littered with ideas, notes, and arrows that are more accusatory than instructional. The phrase “screwed people (pueblo jodido),” at the base of the statue, is a conclusion from lines at the top: rich capitalists (ricos capit.) and necklace of puppets (collar de títeres). In lieu of a torch, she holds up the atomic bomb.
Try as it does to mediate an introduction between viewers and other prominent contemporary voices, Mexican Modernism keeps gravitating toward Friducha. Whether it’s a black-and-white photograph of her crutches or colorful traditional silk blouses paired with velvety skirts and floral headpieces, her spirit is never too far away. Kahlo frames the entire experience. It is she who dedicates the show to the art community at large on behalf of her country and heritage.
And in the same vein as her warm greeting on a 1932 visceral drawing depicting her miscarriage, she signs off: “…with all my heart.”
Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection runs through Feb. 6 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1450 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach. Hours are 10 a.m. through 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. The museum is closed Wednesdays. Call 561-832-5196 or visit www.norton.org for more information.