Standing in Line for Frida Kahlo: An Outsider’s Booming Reputation

Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Twentieth-Century Mexican Art: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection , an exhibition currently on display at El Museo del Barrio, is a mite heavy on portraits of its benefactors. There’s a reason for this: Often, the first step the Gelmans would take in establishing a relationship with an artist would be to commission a portrait. It’s not an unreasonable curatorial tack to honor this patronage by exhibiting the resulting pictures. There are eight canvases featuring one Gelman or another in a show of about 101 pieces-hardly a majority-and yet they do make their presence felt.

Jacques, who built his fortune producing films starring the Mexican comic actor Cantinflas, appears in one canvas by the painter Angel Zárraga looking very much the old-school movie mogul-cigar in hand, he cuts an imposing, though not uncongenial, figure. Most of the portraits are of Natasha, and for good reason: Not only was she a comely subject, she was the driving force behind the couple’s prodigious acquisition of art. (The European art in their collection is now a staple of the Met.) One of the best things about The Gelman Collection is comparing the various ways different artists saw Natasha.

Zarraga’s unfinished portrait of Natasha, for instance, captures something of her supreme self-confidence. Rufino Tamayo, in a canvas from 1948, turns her into a wraith-like effigy. Frida Kahlo portrays her as distant and morose. David Alfaro Siqueiros, in a canvas that’s as awful as it is muscular, depicts Natasha as a mannequin-like deity. The best of the portraits is by Diego Rivera, who paints a slinky glamour girl surrounded by two suggestive batches of calla lilies. The triumph of Rivera’s canvas is how he manages to flatter his client while retaining his own headstrong independence. Though there’s also a fine Cubist still life from 1915, this is Rivera’s best moment in The Gelman Collection .

But no one’s standing in line at El Museo del Barrio to see paintings of the Gelmans. I doubt, too, if there’s more than a few New Yorkers interested in the Rivera canvases-and yet he was once considered Mexico’s best painter. No: People want to see Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). Kahlo’s reputation has boomed in recent years, a phenomenon linked to the political requisites of feminist art history. She’s one of those artists whose standing increases the more it mirrors the fascinations of contemporary culture-in this case, with marginalization, victimization, ethnicity, sexual orientation and art as an expression of self rather than an expansion of self. As Robert Hughes has pointed out, Kahlo “[fits] every category of outsiderhood in the current litany of complaint: a bisexual Latina who spent most of her life in severe physical pain.” A major movie (or two) is in the works. Madonna counts herself as a fan.

As someone who’s seen Kahlo’s paintings here, there and in no great depth, I welcomed the opportunity to view the representative selection of paintings in The Gelman Collection -14 pieces, including seven self-portraits. I’d hoped that the real thing would clear the extra-aesthetic fog surrounding her art, but I discovered that her art needs all the fog it can get. Compounding an impressive self-involvement with a stern theatrical gift, the pictures are uningratiating, harsh and sticky. As painting they are, at best, functional; as the manifestation of psychological turmoil, more manipulative than not. The 1943 painting Diego on My Mind is typical in that it transforms a private trauma into a public fetish; it’s the kind of thing that makes Kahlo’s claque swoon.

Self Portrait with Monkeys , painted in the same year as Diego On My Mind and probably Kahlo’s most famous painting, is something else-if just barely. Surrounded by a quartet of oddly inhibited monkeys, the artist looks at us with a forbidding yet not incurious gaze. There’s something startlingly healthy about this take-it-or-leave-it image: Kahlo acknowledging someone other than her own corrosive self. Incapable of self-flattery (or self-deception), she focuses here on anatomical particulars-the thick bushy eyebrows, a fine growth of hair on the upper lip and an abruptly sloping forehead. Kahlo treats these less as emblems of infirmity than as matters of fact, and the picture benefits from the distinction. As for the artist’s unexceptional paint-handling, it does this striking image a favor by staying out of its way. Self Portrait with Monkeys may not be a masterpiece, but it is Kahlo ‘s masterpiece. You won’t hear me gripe about its inclusion in the history books.

Self Portrait with Monkeys and Rivera’s Portrait of Mrs. Natasha Gelman are the high points of The Gelman Collection -nothing else comes close to matching them in terms of aesthetic merit. Yet the two stars don’t capsize the exhibition. Most of the undistinguished work has been consigned to an adjacent gallery. In the main rooms, there are some satisfying pictures to be seen, among them Miguel Covarrubias’ hilarious and dead-on Portrait of Diego Rivera (circa 1920); José Clemente Orozco’s charcoal figure studies; an untitled tempera on paper by Jesus Reyes Ferreira; the whimsical, if dated, pseudo-abstractions of Carlos Mérida; and a fine Matissean canvas dating between 1915 and 1917 by Zarraga. On the whole, the show isn’t as strong as it wants to be; but it’s strong enough to merit and, at times, reward our curiosity.

Frida Kahlo, Diego River, and Twentieth-Century Mexican Art: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection is at El Museo Del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue at 104th Street, until Sept. 22.