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Portland Art Museum show examines Frida Kahlo, her boo Diego Rivera and peers in the context of Modernism.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND ART MUSEUM - Nickolas Muray's photo Frida with Red Rebozo

Frida Kahlo's brand is well-established: The proudly bisexual, mestizo painter and queen of the symbolic self-portrait whose merch ranges from purses to posters, is well known from movies and memes to blockbuster exhibitions. But the new show at the Portland Art Museum, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism (Feb 19 to June 5) puts her in the context of the high style of the 20th century, Modernism itself.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND ART MUSEUM - Diego Rivera's Portrait of Natasha Gelman, his patron, is on show at the Portland Art Museum Feb 19 to June 5. Note the lilies.

Consider the lilies

The works come from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection. The Gelmans immigrated from Europe to Mexico City during World War II and collected many artists. Jacques Gelman was a film producer and Natasha was a stylish hostess. One Diego Rivera painting depicts her in a white evening gown, slashed to the waist, lounging on a couch, with blooming white lilies behind her. It's the classic flattering portrait of a patron, but Rivera, a communist, also painted peasants harvesting lilies for sale, which put the Gelmans' wealth in context.

The Portland Art Museum's Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Sara Krajewski, told the Portland Tribune that the first painting "shows Natasha as this elegant woman, almost one of the starlets that might have been featured in Jacques Gelman's films. It's very suggestive and sexualized, and the calla lilies that mimic that dress are quite voluptuous and suggestive."

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND ART MUSEUM - Diego Rivera's Calla Lily Vendors is on show at the Portland Art Museum Feb 19 to June 5. Note the lilies.

Calla lilies were a Rivera motif.

"In 'The Calla Lily Vendors,' the two women kneeling in front of the basket are almost dwarfed by the size of these flowers and the weight of that basket. Their clothing indicates that there are women from the countryside," Krajewski said of their rebozos or shawls, which were common for Indigenous women, as were their braided hair and bare feet.

"This painting is often interpreted through a political lens, that this beautiful commodity of the calla lily becomes a burden for the lower class who support the lifestyles of these rich, urban dwellers."

After the Mexican revolution established a constitutional republic, artists embraced the Mexicanidad movement. "They treated the unique aspects of rural and agrarian life, Indigenous cultures and the land, traditions of home and family in their work, and they were very concerned about what it means to make a truly modern art."

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND ART MUSEUM - Diego Rivera's Landscape with Cacti is on show at the Portland Art Museum Feb 19 to June 5. Note the anthropomorphism and the suggestion of an open relationship between Rivera, Kahlo and wife, and Nickolas Muray.

Throuple effect

Mexican Modernists were sensitive to symbols of the land. In Rivera's painting "Landscape with Cacti," the three cartoonish cacti in the foreground look like those inflatable air dancers that attract attention to mattress stores and car dealerships. Except one of them has breasts.

"Folks often interpret this painting to be that trio of anthropomorphized cacti to be Rivera, Frida Kahlo, his wife, and Nickolas Muray, an artist who was also one of Frida Kahlo's lovers," said Krajewski. "So, there's a bit of a love triangle in the center of that piece. But one thing that's unique to Rivera is how often he brought his own personal experience into his work, even when he was making an allegorical painting."

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND ART MUSEUM - Frida Kahlo's Self Portrait with Monkeys, is on show at the Portland Art Museum Feb 19 to June 5.

Selfie conscious

Rivera and Kahlo had an unconventional relationship, both stormy and creative. Her parents likened their pairing to an elephant and a dove, and the elephant was definitely the boss-eyed philanderer. One painting shows a boy and girl playing with dolls in front of huge sunflowers. The girl's doll has lost a leg.

"I wonder if that doll with the broken leg refers back to this part of their relationship?" mused Krajewski.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND ART MUSEUM - Diego Rivera's Sunflowers. The girl's broken doll may symbolize Kahlo's body or her relationship with Rivera.

One of Krajewski's favorite paintings in the show is Kahlo's "Self-portrait with Monkeys."

"She positions herself in nature, she's surrounded by lush green foliage, a bird of paradise bloom is behind her, and a cohort of spider monkeys," Krajewski says, suggesting they were child substitutes, since Kahlo came from a matriarchal culture but could not bear children.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND ART MUSEUM - Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with a Braid.

Krajewski also notes that the symbol around her neck means upheaval or earthquake, saying, "It gives us a hint into her own life, which had many upheavals in her health in her relationship with Rivera, her work as an artist and as a political activist."

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón, as she was known on her passport, was the daughter of a studio photographer, and knew how to pose for a portrait. The section called "Creating Frida" has some amazing photos of Kahlo, so bright and in focus, it's as though they were taken for the cover March of 2022 Vogue. For example, Nickolas Muray's "Frida on Bench #5" — Kahlo styled every detail to demonstrate this is a Mexican woman, as in touch with fashion as with Indigenous Sunday best.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND ART MUSEUM - Nickolas Muray's photo Frida on a Bench #5.

"From 1929, all the way up to the early 1950s, we see the evolution of her public persona. If she were alive today, she would certainly be utilizing social media to promote herself and her beliefs," Krajewski said.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND ART MUSEUM - Frida Kahlo's La Novia Asustada al Ver la Vida Abierta

Before going to the show, it's worth checking out the{obj:60372:full range of Kahlo's work online} at the Frida Kahlo Museum in her old home, La Casa Azul (Blue House), in Mexico City. While the Portland show focuses on the "it couple," it includes work from other artists in Mexico and Mexico City from 1922, about 1950, and shines a light on important work of the first half of the 20th century internationally. But Kahlo remains the star.

Krajewski concluded, "I'm hoping what this exhibition will do is present Frida as not just this icon that's been co-opted. The context of Mexican Modernism and her peers will help flesh out that story of who she was."

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND ART MUSEUM - Maria Izquierdo's Naturaleza viva

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Portland Tribune
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