Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: From the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection

Sydney is beautiful.  I spent a whirlwind 48 hours there, and left wondering why I don’t visit more.  As usual, I managed to squeeze in some art; though I had to book this one in advance as the exhibition has been very popular!  The date and time of your visit had to be specified, and the closing date has been extended by two weeks.  And it is very easy to see why 🙂

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) is an enduring icon.  You cannot mention Mexico without thinking of her, and along with her husband, painter Diego Rivera (1886-1957) they were pivotal figures in 20th Century Mexican art.  Both of their styles were heavily symbolic incorporating aspects of indigenous Mexican culture, but whilst Rivera painted large murals that expressed his political views and social activism, Kahlo painted deeply personal and autobiographical works, most of which were self-portraits. Kahlo has said, ‘I am my own muse, I am the subject I know best.  The subject I want to know better.’  Their tumultuous marriage, described as being between an elephant and a dove, and their fervent forging of a Mexican identity is explored in this exhibition, albeit the focus is more personal in scope, a reflection of the collectors’ own interests.

The artworks come from the collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman.  Both were born in Europe (he was from Russia, she was from Bohemia), before meeting in Mexico in 1939.  Jacques had moved to Mexico in 1938 on the eve of World War II and decided to remain, going on to become a partner in a leading Mexican film house, Posa Films.  They married in 1941 and became Mexican citizens soon after.  The Gelmans were avid collectors of modern Mexican art – commissioning portraits and new works.  This exhibition includes portraits of Natasha Gelman painted by Rivera and Kahlo in markedly different lights: Rivera portrays her in a rather seductive pose wearing a white dress with a slit that resembles the calla lilies behind her; whilst Kahlo also picks up on her elegance, her painting focuses on her face and Gelman’s expression is more sullen.  There was no animosity between Gelman and Kahlo as they became close friends.

I was fascinated by Rivera’s painting, Last Hour (1915, oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm) as I am more familiar with his mural work.  Painted in a Cubist style, with a play of various textures on the surface area and including the text ‘ULTIMA HORA’, there is an interesting anecdote that accompanies this period in Rivera’s life.  According to artist and Rivera’s lover at the time Marevna, Picasso used to come to Rivera’s studio and poke around his works, to which Rivera commented ‘I’m sick of Picasso: if he pinches something from me, people will rave about Picasso, Picasso.  As for me, they’ll say I copied him.  One of these days I’ll chuck him out or I’ll shove off to Mexico.’[1]

What are of utter captivation are Kahlo’s self-portraits.  Diego on my mind (Self-portrait as Tehuana) (1943, oil on masonite, 76 x 61 cm) is hung against a gorgeous burnt orange wall, and just transfixes the viewer.  Kahlo wears a lace huipil, which is traditionally worn on Sundays by Tehuana women.[2]  The delicate threads from her garment disperse outward from her mind towards the edges of the painting, like a spider’s web or veins and arteries.  Painted in the middle of her forehead is a portrait of Rivera, literally what the title states – he is on her mind all the time, inhabiting her thoughts and being.  Another portrait titled Self-portrait with braid (1941, oil in canvas, 51 x 38.5 cm), shows her covered by a grapevine, a symbol associated with Bacchus the Roman god of wine, and used by Kahlo to represent everlasting love; this work was painted soon after her remarriage to Rivera.  The impressive pretzel-like braid atop her head is shaped like the infinity symbol, and is a reference to the way that women from Oaxaca wore their hair.  What is noticeable in almost all of Kahlo’s portraits is the inclusion of distinctly Mexican elements such as clothing, hairstyles and plants, which contribute to her expression of a Mexican identity and pride in her culture.

Alongside these paintings were a number of black and white photographs and a few shot in colour.  The colour photographs by Nickolas Muray (1892-1965), Kahlo’s on-off lover for a decade, simply just pop, and are also the most well-known images of her.  Kahlo’s father Guillermo was a photographer, and there is a staged quality to many of the photographs taken of Kahlo, indicating that she was well aware of the power of photography in the creation of her image as an artist.  A black and white photograph by Bernard Silberstein, Frida Kahlo in her bedroom (1940, 34.3 x 27.9 cm) shows her seated by her bed, but my eyes were drawn up to her full body cast that was atop her four poster bed, highlighting the chronic health issues that stemmed from a railcar accident when she was 18.

Lastly, there are three short videos at the end of the exhibition.  The first of Rivera painting a large mural; the second of Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalia Sedova’s fateful arrival in Mexico in 1936; and finally one of Kahlo and Rivera playing around in the garden.  You are left with the lasting image of Rivera bringing Kahlo flowers to put in her hair and their sharing of sweet kisses.

The exhibition also includes an informative timeline, facsimiles of some of their letters, lithographs and sketches.  Well worth it, the Art Gallery of New South Wales is also a stunner of a building 😀  Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: From the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection is on until Sunday 23 October 2016.  If there is anything on Grab a Seat, add this to your ‘To Visit’ list!  Also on that list should definitely be Black Star Pastry, there is one in Newtown and one inside the Kinokuniya in The Galeries.

Please see their website for tickets:

There is also this great artboard, where you can check out the timeline, look at photos and even watch the video of Kahlo and Rivera in the garden:

See you soon Sydney!


[1] Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera from the Gelman Collection (Istanbul: Pera Müzesi, 2011), p. 171, cited in Nicholas Chambers, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: From the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2016), exhibition catalogue, p. 13.

[2] Nicholas Chambers, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: From the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2016), exhibition catalogue, p. 16.