Reacquainted with the past
We tend to think of Modernism as something bold and almost brash - loudly proclaiming its own importance, dynamic to the point of being pushy, ostentatiously foregrounding its own style. Which, in Europe and North America, it largely was. But perhaps things were all different over in Mexico. These works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera are bold, true, but also simple and unshowy. They sit and wait for you to notice how good they are.
Why the difference? The earlier Mexican Radical Prints exhibition at the British Museum gave us a chance to contrast the Mexican and Russian revolutions. In Russia, earlier folk art influences were purged by its rupture; like a seismic shift, it propelled artists forwards, into a clean break with the past. But in Mexico, not imperial power but victim of conquest, it led to people reacquainting themselves with their past. The phrase ‘Mexicanidad’, or pride in Mexican heritage, recurs throughout this show.
In some ways the works look as much like naive as folk art; they’re simultaneously simple and hyper-real. There’s a rigorousness to the way objects are flatly delineated, even when the imagery becomes surreal, like a joke told deadpan. Expressions are largely impassive (even in those among Kahlo’s self-portraits where she is injured and bleeding). Check out, for example, Riviera’s ’Sunflowers’ (1943, below). It looks straightforward, almost as simple as the children it depicts. But there remains something indefinably unsettling about it. Children are supposed to be open books and yet their games can elude us.
Contrasts and contexts
For all these similarities of style the show tells us “the contrast between the work of Riviera and Kahlo could not be a greater one. Riviera is focused on the outside world of history, politics, science and a Socialist utopia, Kahlo’s work is small and self-exploratory.”
We could quibble with some of this. We know Kahlo was interested in politics before she met Riviera; indeed it’s hard to see how she could not have been. (She essentially grew up during the Mexican revolution.) And many of her self-portraits were made after she was invalided after the infamous bus crash, when the only subject available was the mirror.
However, it would be truer to say they go for the right nail but don’t quite strike it straightly. To see the difference between them, we can compare their portraits of Natasha Gelman (one of their patrons, from whose collection this show comes), both completed in ’43. Riviera depicts the actress lolling alluringly on a sofa, her frame echoed by the lillies around her (below). It’s like a publicity photo. Eschewing this public persona, Kahlo closes up on her to paint a more private face. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find this image online, but please take my word for it!) It would be easy to miss these were two works of the same person.
Kahlo’s painting style tends to be a little more sophisticated, more realised than Riviera. But the crucial distinction is that for Riviera people are generally there to epitomise types. When he paints the daughter of his housekeeper, (‘Modesta’, 1937) she is named but you feel it’s her Mexican identity he’s aiming to capture. Riviera worked principally in the symbolic medium of the mural. For Kahlo, and starting with her self-portraits, they’re people with all their complexities.
Kahlo’s self-portraits were influenced by the indigenous tradition of 'ex voto paintings'; though stripped of all the original religious content, they keep this form. (For example, though no saint’s dedications there still tends to be written inscriptions.) Like the originals they’re often painted not on canvas but on metal, wood or masonite (a kind of hardboard). This seems to emphasise their ‘drawn-ness’, work against the illusion of pictorial depth. (The gallery’s permanent collection has a room on naive art, where it’s notable that Alfred Wallis paints on often the roughest board, and his imitators all on canvas.)
The result is that, like Jesus’ crown of thorns, every object depicted (her dress, adornments and so on) become as delineated as her face, and so ask for the same attention. In Lucienne Bloch’s ‘Portrait of Frida Kahlo with Necklace’ (1935, upper above) she’s photographed sitting under her own portrait. This portrait is displayed next to it, ‘Self Portrait with Necklace’ (1933, lower above). Looking at the photo, as we would with a real person, we are drawn into her face. With the portrait the necklace is as present as anything else. (Which is once more there to emphasise her Mexican heritage.)
Kahlo painted many self-portraits, and you wonder if at times she’s deliberately trying to make them repetitive. She depicts her face from the same angle, a three-quarters view, with her hair up in a bunch. (See for example ‘Self-Portrait with Monkeys’, 1943, above.) It becomes a repeatable icon, as recognisable as the Queen’s head on a stamp.
It may be illustrative to contrast Kahlo’s self-portraits from Gauguin’s, as seen in his recent Tate exhibition. Like Gauguin, her personality and appearance seem as much part of her art as her art is. (She seems to have constantly worn the traditional Mexican dress of the portraits.) But Gauguin’s different faces come at you in a succession, like David Bowie’s cycle of alter egos. With Kahlo the same face returns in different settings and surroundings; we’re asked to put them all together, a compound image for a multifaceted personality. This repetition is an invite to compare the works rather than contrast them.
Happily this shared show isn’t like Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, where even us progressive types were forced to conclude that the woman artist couldn’t match the male for quality. Kahlo is not only given first billing but perhaps two-thirds of the exhibition. However, my suspicion is that Riviera’s heart was in the murals, with the result that galleries never quite capture him. We’re told here that his paintings and drawings often echoed scenes from the murals. (To see some of these go here. Alas, they don’t click to enlarge.)
However, there is a similar sense to the one found in Rodchenko and Popova in the ‘Defining Constructivism’ show, a division into male and female spheres. Riviera covers public and historical events, where for Kahlo it’s the private and psychological world. His world is grand, hers intimate. His muse his history, hers neurosis.
Unbeknownst to me, there are two small ancillary exhibitions, taken from the same collection, encountered here like Easter Eggs on a DVD. Frida’s father Guillermo was an architectural photographer, and we’re shown a series on churches. These are good enough, but the main point of interest is that they look like studies of - rather than contributions to - Mexican culture. (Guillermo was German by birth, Frida Mexican from her mother’s side.)
Manuel Alvarez Bravo, however, “the poet of the lens” and “a child of the Mexican revolution” is quite a different kettle of fish. He worked on the ’Mexican Folkways’ magazine of indigenous culture, but was equally influenced by the Surrealists. Contrasting Kahlo’s self-portraits from the photographs, I innocently imagined this literalism was some inherent feature of photography. Yet it’s certainly not for him! The title ‘The Washerwoman Implied’ (1932) sums up his style.
Like Kahlo’s paintings his photographs slip between realism, surrealism and sometimes semi-abstraction, sometimes within one work, like they know no bounds. (Compare his ‘Snail’, 1928, to her fruit still life ’The Bride Who Becomes Frightened When She Sees Life Opened’, 1943, up top.) Modernists are often keen to fly off to the extremes of a style, as if there’s prizes for being the first one to get there. But the interchange is often where the unexpected stuff happens.
Lola was both Manuel’s wife and assistant but gave up both to become a photographer herself. Her photographs are good but more straight documentary, such as ‘Ruth Riviera Moran’ 1950). (There’s precisely one surrealist collage, ‘The Dream of the Drowned’ 1945.) These divisions tend to underline what a multiplicity Manuel was capable of.
Shows based on private collections can tend to the scattershot. It’s like swapping bubblegum cards as a kid, you never quite got the set you wanted and end up with an incomplete picture. We’re told Riviera painted about two hundred Cubist works (roughly equal to Kahlo’s total output), but we only see one. (The chronology suggests he abandoned it and returned to figuration in 1917, which is roughly when he converted to communism. Could these be connected?)
Kahlo dominates proceedings, which leave them feeling a little like a footnote to her 2005 Tate retrospective. Over a third of her works were self-portraits, and of course I get that their apparent simplicity is deceptive. But even so I tend to prefer the symbolist and surrealist paintings – and there are simply less of those here. We do see some of the Forties sepia ‘Carma’ series, created while she was ill, automotive drawings like fever dreams. If these had been in the Tate show they’ve since slipped my mind. Alas, though, we see only three of these.
But of course its an opportunity to see works by two great Modernist artists, and this show functions as a useful primer. Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s unexpected appearance was a definite benefit.
Coming soon: Well, let's not say this up-to-date stuff will become a habit...
Coming soon: Well, let's not say this up-to-date stuff will become a habit...