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A Mexican Artist and Muse Reclaims Her Legacy

A high-profile retrospective of work by Nahui Olin at Mexico City’s Museo Nacional de Arte sheds light on the largely forgotten artist and her nonconformist life.

Nahui Olin, “Autorretrato” (ca. 1927) (Colección particular, courtesy Museo Nacional de Arte, INBA)

MEXICO CITY — At the age of 84 and in declining health, Nahui Olin asked to be taken to the grand mansion in Tacubaya where she spent her early childhood. Fiercely independent, Nahui had spent the past three decades in relative isolation, living with her cats in a crumbling old house that had been left to her by her father, the celebrated military general Manuel Mondragón. Outside a nearby metro station, she occasionally earned a few pesos selling nude photographs of herself from the 1920s and ’30s, when she was known as Mexico’s most mesmerizingly beautiful woman.

There were no grand homages to Nahui Olin when she died, in the home where she was born, in 1978. Though she was once a powerful presence within Mexico’s cultural and artistic scene, by the 1970s, she had been devalued and marginalized by the artistic and intellectual class that had once celebrated her beauty and brilliance. By historians and scholars, she was remembered — if at all — as a model for many celebrated artists, and for her infamously passionate relationship with painter and writer Dr. Atl.

Installation view of Nahui Olin: La mirada infinita at MUNAL (photo by Julie Meade)

Now, 40 years after her death, a stunning new exhibition, Nahui Olin: La Mirada Infinita, at the Museo Nacional de Arte (MUNAL) in Mexico City seeks to reexamine Nahui’s legacy. The largest collection of Nahui’s work ever assembled, it displays a selection of her early drawings and the colorful, naïve paintings for which she was later known, in addition to showcasing her astonishing range and ingenuity as a model. According to the exhibition’s curators, it is intended to present the most profound and thorough academic investigation into Nahui’s life and influence to date.

Nahui Olin was born Carmen Mondragón, the fifth of eight children in a wealthy military family, in 1893. Extraordinarily precocious, she began writing poetry and prose as a schoolgirl in France, where she lived from ages four to 12. Later, she became a part of artistic circles in Paris, after marrying the handsome Mexican diplomat Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, who would also become a famous painter of the era.

Martín Ortiz, “Boda de Carmen Mondragón y Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, 6 de agosto 1913” (1913) (Colección particular, courtesy of Museo Nacional de Arte, INBA)

During her years in Paris, and during the First World War in San Sebastián, Spain, Mondragón experimented in poetry and artwork with a variety of styles and influences. Her well-rendered portraits and craftily drawn caricatures are hung in the first room at MUNAL, along with one of her first paintings that expressed elements of “primitivism,” a movement of the European avant-garde that would later be closely associated with Nahui’s painting.

Following World War I, Carmen Mondragón and Rodriguez Lozano returned to Mexico. Though they separated shortly thereafter, both enrolled in the prestigious art school at the Academia San Carlos. It was a time of great intellectual and artistic achievement in Mexico. In the wake of the Revolution of 1910, the country was reshaping itself, politically and culturally. Notably, Mexico’s Secretary of Public Education Jose Vasconcelos oversaw the establishment of the famed mural program that would define the era in art. In 1922, when Diego Rivera founded the artist-and-artisan union Obreros Técnicos, Pintores, Escultores y Similares, Carmen Mondragón was one of only two women included on the roster. She later taught drawing to children at a vocational school, and published a manifesto on her method of teaching art in 1925, which is exhibited at MUNAL.

As described with passionate detail in his diaries, Dr. Atl first met Carmen Mondragón at a party in 1921; he was immediately captivated by her intelligence and beauty — particularly, her extraordinarily large and vividly green eyes. Atl was a highly respected artist, writer, scientist, and political activist, deeply involved in the revolutionary and artistic movements of the era. They began a passionate and volatile love affair, living together on the roof of the Ex-Convento de la Merced, an abandoned colonial-era monastery in the oldest market district in Mexico City. He baptized her Nahui Olin, a Nahuatl name that translates, roughly, to “the movement of the cosmos.” She never again responded to the name Carmen.

Paintings of Nahui Olin by Dr. Atl (photo by Julie Meade)

Though it was marked by passion and public scandal, Nahui Olin and Dr. Atl’s relationship was a period of tremendous inspiration and creativity for both. It was during this time that Nahui homed in on the painterly style that became her signature: wide brushstrokes, saturated colors, and a notable sense of movement, energy, and, often, sensuality. She painted many portraits and self-portraits (often depicting her subjects with exaggeratedly enormous eyes), as well as charming scenes of daily life in Mexico — weddings, pulquerías, bullfights.

Nahui’s paintings are often referred to as naïf, but MUNAL’s curatorial deputy director, Mariana Rubio, rejects a simplistic reading of her work. Like many within the artistic vanguard in Mexico, the artist was an avid reader of scientific texts, and was fascinated by developing theories of relativity, electricity, optics, and atmosphere. Rubio tells Hyperallergic, “This is not someone who is simply painting how children paint; rather she’s approaching it through these themes of synthesis and science, but as seen through her memory and her experiences. I like to define it in that way because it’s much more complex that simply calling it ‘naive.’”

Books and poetry manuscripts by Nahui Olin (photo by Julie Meade)

To underscore this point, Rubio points to Nahui’s 1923 book of poetry, Óptica Cerebral, an early edition of which is exhibited at MUNAL. “It’s evident that Nahui was in dialogue with Dr. Atl in her works,” Rubio says, noting that a number of poems in the volume were composed as early as 1918, demonstrating her longstanding interest in scientific, spiritual, and metaphysical themes. “Many of the poems in Óptica Cerebral work, or worked for us, as a way to understand her art, because the book talks about color, memory, material — everything is there.”

Nahui Olin wasn’t the author of what is perhaps the most well-known work in the exhibit, though she was certainly complicit in its creation: Edward Weston’s photographic portrait of her, part of his series Heroic Heads. Here, Nahui is shot at close range, looking directly into the camera, her cropped hair unevenly fringing her face, and her eyes expressing an air of melancholy, or perhaps defiance. Though Weston called it one of the best pictures he made in Mexico, his diaries reveal that Nahui disliked the photo, and demanded he take others. Some of these photos, on display at MUNAL, have never been exhibited before.

Though Weston’s images are among the most famous, Nahui was captured by dozens of other artists, including Diego Rivera, Jean Charlot, and Dr. Atl. Paintings, charcoal drawings, and silver-gelatin photographs of Nahui fill the exhibition’s largest room, and show her in a variety of poses and styles. Although she appears remarkably different in each, she is invariably captivating and animated — supporting the proposition advanced by MUNAL’s curators that Nahui was not a passive model, but an active participant in the artwork’s creation through her body and poses.

Installation view of Nahui Olin: La mirada infinita at MUNAL (photo by Julie Meade)

“Our thesis is that she’s drawing with her body,” says Mariano Meza, the exhibition’s curator. “We start with images that were taken in photographic studios where they told the person being depicted what to do. Little by little, you can see how she liberates herself. She takes control of her body and creates.” Her active role in creating these pieces is underscored by the fact that she cosigned the portraits created of her by French artist Jean Charlot.

In the late 1920s, Nahui’s love affair with a boat captain, Eugenio Agacino, was the inspiration for some of her most vivid paintings, which show the pair twisted into a loving embrace in front of the Manhattan skyline or walking along a darkened pier, their bodies fused into one. These portraits are among the mostly small-scale works hung in the exhibition’s final rooms. Many of them were not catalogued until the 1990s, when art restorer Tomás Zurián began his influential, decades-long study of Nahui.

Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo), “Nahui Olin” (ca. 1922) (Colección Arquitecto Antonio Jauregui Villagomez, courtesy of Museo Nacional de Arte, INBA)

Very little is known about Nahui’s life in the decades following Agacino’s unexpected death in 1934. Though she continued to teach, it’s unclear if she painted or wrote poetry after the 1930s. According to Zurián, she contributed work to an exhibition at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes in 1945, but her public activities were rare thereafter. “What’s certain is that what we know as the work of Nahui Olin is probably not even 50 percent of the work she created,” says Meza. Exhibition catalogues from the past list names of work by Nahui Olin that MUNAL’s staff was unable to locate.

“We don’t really know what happened with Nahui Olin, why she was so abruptly censured,” Rubio tells Hyperallergic, though she and Meza posit that a combination of social factors and Nahui’s own choice to withdraw from society contributed to her isolation. By the 1930s, Mexican society had become far more conservative, and Nahui became an almost mythical being, rumored to be mad or to possess of supernatural powers.

Whatever factors sent her into obscurity, they seem to be operating in reverse today. The exhibition at MUNAL is joined by several other high-profile events related to Nahui in 2018. Earlier this year, Adriana Malvido’s 1993 biography of her was reissued with additional chapters, plus an introduction by intellectual Elena Poniatowska. Later this summer, a feature film about Nahui’s life, starring actress Irene Azuela, will be released in Mexico.

Antonio Garduño, “Nahui Olin” (ca. 1927) (Colección particular, courtesy of Museo Nacional de Arte, INBA)

Meza notes that Nahui Olin appears to have particular relevance to this generation, adding that many younger visitors have come to the show and often offer new interpretations of her life and work. Meza is hopeful that an exhibition of this size will inspire more scholarship on her, and potentially lead to the discovery of more of her lost paintings.

“I am a misunderstood being who is drowned by a volcano of passions, of ideas, of sensations, of thoughts, of creations that cannot be contained in my breast, and so I am destined to die of love,” a 10-year-old Carmen Mondragón wrote, surprising her French schoolteachers with her insight and talent. More than100 years later, Nahui Olin — painter, poet, essayist, teacher, model, and muse — is still struggling to be understood.

Nahui Olin: La Mirada Infinita continues at the Museo Nacional de Arte (Tacuba 8, Centro Histórico, Mexico City) through September 9.

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