Politics and Culture in Mexican Modernism Art Exhibit

I recently visited the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, where there is an exhibit titled “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection.” The Frist’s website gives a description of the exhibit and some background info about the featured artists, particularly Kahlo and Rivera, and includes a lot about the political and cultural importance of their art in post-revolutionary Mexico. This, as well as the fact that the first thing to meet my eye upon entering the exhibit was a large panel outlining the connection of these artists with the ideas of the Mexican Revolution, gave me the impression walking into the museum that the exhibit would have a very clear emphasis on the culture and politics of the artists. 

As I walked through the maze of the gallery, one of my first thoughts was that there didn’t appear to be much rhyme or reason to the way the paintings were organized, and many of the important details of Kahlo’s and Rivera’s lives that would have given the average museum-goer a better understanding of the political impacts of their art were either left out or only mentioned briefly. For example, Rockefeller once commissioned Rivera to paint a mural in the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, yet fired him and destroyed his mural upon realizing that he had included an image of Vladimir Lenin, calling the work anti-capitalist. This is in many ways a rather important thing for Americans to know, as it is a clear instance of the long-standing conflict between the political goals of the Mexican Revolution and American capitalism. However, the only mention of the incident was in the description for a small, unassuming picture of Rivera painting the mural. I was additionally surprised to find there was not much mention of Kahlo’s political leanings woven into the many rooms of her paintings; even the exhibit’s main description of her did not mention anything about her politics, though there were some mentions of her hatred of American capitalism and her admiration of communist figures later on in the exhibit. 

This is not to say there was no mention of the artists’ role in promoting the revolutionary ideas; indeed, one of the most captivating and central images was a floor-to-ceiling recreation of Diego Rivera’s mural The History of Mexico, for which the description clearly stressed the political significance of his murals regarding ideas like workers’ rights. Also, while there didn’t seem to be a consistent acknowledgement of the revolutionary politics specifically, there was a strong emphasis placed on the representation of traditional Mexican culture. For instance, nearly all of the descriptions for Kahlo’s self-portraits point out the various ways in which she rejected western fashion in favor of indigenous traditions, and there was even an enormous section of the exhibit featuring examples of the indigenous dresses Kahlo liked to wear, with lots of background information on their history and cultural significance. It is true that the emphasis on traditional Mexican culture is inherently a comment on the artists’ politics, as this is often directly tied with the glorification of the working class that the Revolution sought to lift up. My overall impression, therefore, is that the constant theme of Mexican cultural expression in this exhibit does translate some broad aspects of post-revolutionary Mexico into the American conscience. I was only surprised there wasn’t a more explicit or recurring mention of the specific values that the Revolution espoused, considering the museum’s main description of the exhibit so clearly emphasized these values, and the rich history of post-revolutionary Mexico is an important aspect of the translation of Mexican Revolutionary art into the modern American conscience. 

Comments

  1. Annemarie Wolf says:

    This is a fascinating first post. I remember learning about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in art history back in high school, and also focusing mainly on the cultural aspects of their work. I’ll be really interested to hear more about the political influences their work has had, especially considering I had no idea about the history behind this Rockefeller mural. Are there more incidences where their work was censored like this? And did this only happen in America, or also in Mexico?
    I wonder if the museum (I can’t speak for all museums showcasing Mexican modernist art), in suppressing such connections (or, at the very least, not highlighting them) is robbing us of an important aspect to Kahlo and Rivera’s painting that they had intentionally included in their creative process. Despite the constant talk of politics today, I feel it’s still censored in art when the political ramifications are too applicable to current events, and cultural aspects of the work then overshadow any political messages the artist was trying to convey. Especially in such contentious political environments, it’s important to make sure that people are able to say what they want, and that speech and expression is not censored in any way as I feel you suggest it is here.