20th century Mexican art showcased

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  July 23, 2002 at 5:50 AM
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NEW YORK, July 22 (UPI) -- An exhibition of 20th century Mexican art from the collection of film producer Jacques Gelman and his wife, Natasha, is the biggest attraction ever offered by the small but ambitious Museo del Bario, the only museum in the city devoted to Latin American and Caribbean art.

And no wonder crowds are flocking to this show of more than 100 paintings, drawings, and photographs! It contains a wealth of masterpieces by Frida Kahlo, one of the icons of modern art, and her muralist husband, Diego Rivera, a legend in his own right, as well as works by Miguel Covarrubias, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Rufino Tamayo and a dozen lesser known artists. The show is titled "Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and 20th Century Mexican Art."

The Gelmans were refugees from Eastern Europe who settled in 1940 in Mexico where Gelman made a fortune with films starring the adored comedian Cantinflas. They began buying Mexican art of the 1930-1980 era and European art, mostly 20th century School of Paris, and eventually amassed one of the world's great private collections.

When Natasha Gelman died in 1998, 13 years after her husband's death, the couple's Fauvist, Cubist, and Surrealist paintings and drawings were given to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where they kept an apartment. But their Mexican collection, now owned by a foundation, will remain in Mexico and continue to grow under the direction of its curator, Robert R. Littman.

"The collection is still a work in progress," Littman told United Press International. "Natasha always nurtured the artists of the future. In the first year after Natasha's death we added 10 new contemporary Mexican works. Eventually the collection will get its own home in Mexico, but those plans are still being worked out. And we will have another show in New York later on."

The Gelmans were friends of most of the artists whose work was selected for the Museo del Bario show, which runs through Sep. 8, and also collaborators in the form of patronage and financial help.

There are a number of commissioned portraits of the beauteous blonde Natasha, including one by Rivera showing her elegantly bejeweled and gowned, stretched out on a divan surrounded by clusters of calla lilies. This is stylized portraiture at its most stunning and proves that the sitter could hold her own in looks with such film friends as Dolores Del Rio and Merle Oberon.

Also included are portraits of Natasha by Kahlo, who shows her sitter swathed in furs but looking bored, and by Tamayo and Siquieros.

Better than these is a lively, almost abstract portrait of Jacques Gelman by Gunther Gerzso, a movie set designer who was one of the couple's favorite artists, represented in the show by more paintings than anyone else. There is also an "official" portrait of Jacques by Angel Zarraga who painted him on a movie set sitting in a director's chair, cigar in hand.

Kahlo has 13 other paintings and drawings in the show including the celebrated "Self Portrait With Monkeys" that has been plastered on the walls of every bus stop station in New York as an advertisement for the show. It show the artist in a jungle setting gazing at the viewer from under luxuriant arching eyebrows that merge over the nose, her upper lip adorned by a hint of moustache.

She is surrounded by four friendly monkeys and seems to be saying "I am one of them." And indeed her life was full of monkey business -- an off-again, on-again marriage to Rivera, infidelities and lies, and injuries and illnesses that she turned into a sort of martyrdom that reflected her masochistic nature. She was masterful spin artist and it shows in her singularly self-absorbed work.

There are self portraits showing herself wearing a barbaric green necklace, sitting on a bed with a naked doll in one of her long native Mexican dresses (which she wore to hide a malformed leg), sporting a close-clipped coiffure with the cut hair braided into a crown atop her head, and holding a baby-size Rivera shown with a third eye (hers) on his forehead.

Her 1937 portrait of Rivera is straightforward by contrast and a truly sensitive study of an unattractive but sensual man. This is not the fat, rumpled Rivera depicted in a cartoonish portrait by the caricaturist Covarrubias, best known for his work in Vanity Fair magazine, but Covarrubias' likeness is probably nearer the truth.

There are nine Riveras in the show including one of Natasha Gelman , her blonde hair turned white, her beauty sharpened with age.

But the show is not all portraits. There are fabulous photomontages by Manuel Alvarez Bravo and his wife, Lola, complex abstract compositions by Gerzso and Carlos Merida, whose "Festival of the Birds" is a real stand-out, figurative genre scenes by Orozco, monumental symbolic paintings by Carlos Romero, surreal still lifes by Juan Soriano, and neo-Cubist works by Angel Zarraga.

A lovely memory to take away from the show is Diego Rivera's "Calla Lily Vendor," one of those "bourgeois" easel paintings he claimed to despise doing when he didn't have a commission for a mural. It shows two Indian girls kneeling before a basket crammed with white lilies that nearly obscure the vendor, except for the top of his hat.

There is something about this oil that goes to the heart of spirituality and the worship of beauty in nature that is totally arresting. It is truly a masterpiece of Mexican artistic expression about which American audiences are just beginning to be acquainted in the totality of its contributions to modern art, thanks to shows such as this.

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