PORTLAND, OR — The preview for the Portland Art Museum’s Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism was a polite affair. The ample gallery rooms were quiet, the only noise the faint hush of affluent viewers murmuring to each other, shaking hands. The 150-artwork show was most recently exhibited at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, and displays the tastes of Jacques and Natasha Gelman, late philanthropists from Eastern Europe who relocated to Mexico in the 1940s and began collecting Mexican art. The exhibition, which also features portraits of the Gelmans by Kahlo and Rivera, reflects this intimate connection. 

Clearly invested in the Kahlo family unit, the exhibition also puts on view documentary photographs by Guillermo Kahlo, Frida’s German father. A portrait of one of Kahlo’s sisters, Cristina, by Diego Rivera, hangs prominently in the upper gallery, stoking the drama of the infamous affair between Cristina and Diego that led to Frida and Diego’s temporary separation.

The title of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism feeds into the repeated use of Kahlo and Rivera’s work, and the mythology of their romantic relationship, as shorthand for an entire era. The fanaticism around Frida Kahlo only gained steam after Sotheby’s sold her painting “Diego y yo” in 1990 for $1.4 million, becoming the first Latin American artist whose work sold for over $1 million at auction. In November 2021, the same painting sold for $34.9 million. Since then, there have been mugs, T-shirts, bags, even toilet seat covers with her thick-browed face printed on them. This paraphernalia is in no short supply at the Portland Art Museum’s gift shop. The exhibition has proudly been touted as the museum’s first featuring a Mexican artist, and one can’t help but wonder about the weight of this representation in light of the art market’s tokenization of Latinx art. The Gelman collection highlights the transactional relationship between art market and museum, and the pressure put on museums to trot out the same figureheads for each art movement. What’s more, many of the works in the exhibition are not even by Mexican artists, but rather European photographers capturing Kahlo at work and with her animals, friends, and lovers.

Installation view of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism at the Portland Museum of Art, featuring Lola Álvarez Bravo’s “Desnudo” (1945) (image courtesy the Portland Art Museum)

In a less visible section, one can find a black and white, semi-nude photograph, “Desnudo” (1945), of Mexican artist Juan Soriano by Lola Álvarez Bravo. In the image, light spills down Soriano’s contoured back. This set of Bravo photographs continues with a portrait of Mexican architect Ruth Rivera Marin. Marin lays with her head tilted back and hair splayed out across a piece of driftwood laying on the shore. Her body’s lines blend into those of the land around her, reminiscent of contemporary photography like Laura Aguilar’s Nature Self-Portrait series. The exhibition also features a vibrant collection of abstract Gunther Gerzso paintings as well as early Cubist Rivera work such as “Ultima hora” (1915). In these nooks and crannies of the show, viewers can start to piece together the other, less prominent players within Mexican Modernism. But moving through the museum, many audience members floated past these pieces, flocking towards a photo by German artist Fritz Henle of Kahlo dressed in traditional Tehuana clothes with a chained monkey hanging around her neck.

Frida Kahlo, “Self-Portrait with Monkeys” (1943), oil on canvas, 32×24.8 inches (the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th-Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation and MondoMostre in collaboration with the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura (INBAL), © 2022 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, DF/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo by Gerardo Suter)

As a traveling exhibition, one can assume that the museum had little say in the works selected. (The show was originally organized by the Vergel Foundation and MondoMostre with the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura, with Sara Krajewski as the Portland curator.) There is, however, great attention shown to the exhibition’s framing, especially the wall texts. This framing serves a successfully didactic function that moves the viewer through the different stages and impact of the Mexican Modernist period. 

Other nods to the collective, rather than the idolized, spirit of Mexican Modernism, exist outside of the museum’s walls. Exhibition programming involves a mural project led by local Portland artist Hector Hernandez and featuring murals by Latinx artists. Community outreach efforts include a bilingual activity guide for children and a school partnership with the César Chavez School in North Portland, working with teachers and the artist Patricia Vázquez to design a roster of art-making workshops and field trips. Through these activities, rather than the exhibition itself, audiences might perhaps draw lessons from Kahlo’s work about loss, labor, multicultural identity, and the power of a woman’s body in pain.

Angenette Escobar, Hector H Hernandez, and Christian J. Barrios mural (image courtesy the Portland Art Museum)

Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism continues at the Portland Art Museum (1219 SW Park Ave, Portland, OR) through June 5. The exhibition was curated by Sara Krajewski.

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Rosa Boshier

Rosa Boshier is a writer whose work can be found in the Guardian, Literary Hub, the Washington Post, Vice, Bitch Media, the Rumpus, and Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. She teaches at Otis College...