Modern Mexico from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection
Fiery passion and the warm, festive atmosphere of Mexico define an exhibition opening on June 1 at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Masterpieces of Modern Mexico from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection showcases more than 100 paintings, sculptures, photographs and drawings collected by the Gelmans in their adopted homeland of Mexico. This is a rare opportunity for visitors to see this intimate collection.
Jacques Gelman, a Russian-born film production mogul, and Natasha, his Czechoslovakian-born wife, became Mexican citizens in 1942. Over the next five decades, the Gelmans supported generations of internationally renowned Mexican artists. They established friendships with and collected art by such icons of Mexican modernism as Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Rufino Tamayo, and Gunther Gerzso, among others. The Gelmans collected stellar pieces from these great Mexican artists.
“This is a rich and deeply personal collection,” says Stephanie Knappe, Assistant Curator of American Art. “One can’t help but imagine what it must have been like to have Diego Rivera paint your portrait, or have three Gerzsos hanging above your sofa. Who hasn’t walked into a museum and played the game of ‘What would I take home to hang in my living room?’ The Gelmans didn’t have to play this game, and our visitors will experience firsthand how intimately the Gelmans lived with their art.”
The Gelman Collection is the realization of an intimate collaboration spanning more than 40 years; it was the predominant passion of Jacques and Natasha. The collection began with the couple’s marriage in 1941 and continued to grow even after Jacques’ death in 1986 and Natasha’s death in 1998. The couple collected art without hesitation. They acquired the canvases of well-established artists like Rivera and also emerging talents, who are now some of the greatest Mexican artists of all time. Perhaps the most distinguished part of the collection is the work done by Kahlo and Rivera.
Although their styles were radically different, Kahlo and Rivera were similarly captivated by painting’s potential to explore the human condition. Rivera painted massive murals depicting the heroic struggle of Mexican society forging its future; Kahlo explored the inner workings of her soul, which reflect the female condition today, in a series of self-portraits that revealed her tragic medical history and affirmed her Mexican identity.
Born in Mexico in 1907, Kahlo was involved in a traffic accident at the age of 18 that affected her for the rest of her life. Lying on her back in a plaster cast, her spinal column broken in three places, Kahlo’s injuries left her unable to have children and resulted in grave health issues. She abandoned her plans to become a doctor and began to paint.
Diego Rivera, born in Guanajuato in 1886, studied art in Europe before returning to Mexico to become the central figure in the mural movement. He produced an epic series of murals during the 1920s and 30s, a period that is considered to be the apex of his career. In 1928, a young woman approached him as he painted murals in
the Ministry of Public Education, asking for his opinion on her paintings. Kahlo was 21; Rivera was 41. She became his third wife a year later.
Jacques Gelman commissioned Rivera, the most celebrated and powerful painter on Mexico’s national cultural scene, to paint a full-length portrait of his wife, Natasha, in 1943. Rivera portrayed her languidly lounging on a blue sofa with a background of exuberant arrangements of white calla lilies. The Gelmans then commissioned Kahlo to paint portraits of Natasha as well. Kahlo was destined to play a leading role in the Gelman collection.
“Beyond sharing iconic paintings by Kahlo and Rivera, this exhibition celebrates the breadth of the Gelmans’ collection and the richness and diversity of Mexican art,” Knappe says. “As the Gelmans continued to meet artists, their tastes changed and their collection grew. Abstract compositions joined the figurative paintings that hung on their walls. Their deeply felt passion for Mexican art prompted a desire that their collection continue to evolve and express the vitality of contemporary Mexican art long after they were no longer able to add it to their collection themselves.”
The Gelman collection is, in and of itself, a work of art. It is also a work in progress. Owing to the enthusiasm they felt for Mexican art, the Gelmans desired that their collection be kept up to date. Works by significant contemporary artists such as Paula Santiago and Betsabee Romero have recently entered the Gelman collection. Thanks to the discerning eye of its president, Robert Littman, the collection continues to grow and evolve according to the forward-thinking couple’s wishes.
Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Masterpieces of Modern Mexico from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection runs through Aug. 18 at the Nelson-Atkins and showcases an exceptional private collection that not only highlights the rich and vibrant artistic traditions of the Mexico of yesterday, but underscores the inventiveness and vitality of Mexican art today.