In my interview this week with Fort Lauderdale philanthropist Stanley Goodman, he made a simple but salient observation about Latin American art:
“Latin America is more than Cuba.”
That fact still surprises some people in Miami-Dade County. But in Broward County – where Goodman and his wife Pearl are two of South Florida’s most prominent art collectors – it’s a less shocking idea.
Starting tonight, one of South Florida's most prominent cultural institutions – the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale – will help remedy our Cuba-centric art inclinations. It's hosting a sweeping new exhibition that reminds us where Latin America’s modern aesthetic had its first real boom: in Mexico.
The NSU show – “Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection and 20th-Century Mexican Art from the Stanley and Pearl Goodman Collection” – leaves no doubt who its stars are. The iconic Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera, were one of the art world’s hottest love stories – and one of the Latin American art world’s most important stories, period.
“They became, because of their colorful personalities, their colorful history and their colorful and very strong, deep-rooted art, the people who first drew attention to the world’s interest in Latin American art,” says Salomon Grimberg, a Dallas psychiatrist and Frida Kahlo scholar.
But beyond Frida and Diego, the NSU exhibit showcases a host of kindred Mexican modernists from that seminal era, including Rufino Tamayo, José Orozco and Remedios Varo.
“I think it makes for a very compelling exhibition to show these relationships and the different type of modern art that was happening in Mexico at the same time,” says Bonnie Clearwater, art director and chief curator of the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, which is part of Nova Southeastern University.
The creative relationship between Frida and Diego is vivid in the Gelman collection – the acquisitions of the late Jacques Gelman, a Russian-born Mexican movie producer, and his late wife, Natasha (who is the subject of portraits by both painters).
“What’s interesting,” says Clearwater, “is how [Frida and Diego] both incorporate images of the other in their paintings.”
There’s Diego’s face, in fact, floating on Frida’s forehead in her self-portrait “Diego On My Mind.” Or the haunting dolls she used in her paintings, popping up in one of his canvases, “Sunflowers.”
The communist-leaning Diego was 20 years older than Frida when they met in 1922 as the Mexican Revolution was ending. They wed in 1929, and while their marriage was personally tempestuous, it was professionally fruitful.
“Diego Rivera was equal to probably any movie star at the time,” says Clearwater.
Diego’s murals were renowned for their bold hues and Aztec influences. His canvases burst with white calla lilies and bronze Mexican peasants.
Frida was less a rock star at the time because her work was so ahead of its time. Her best known paintings – the dreamlike self-portraits – were magical realist years before anyone even used that term to describe Latin American art.
They were also folk-flavored and, intentionally or not, feminist. Grimberg, who will lecture at the NSU next month, says they forced people as never before to ponder a woman’s pain, including one of her miscarriages.
“You stop and have to look at this person’s suffering,” says Grimberg, who was born in Mexico City and has written several books on Frida including “Frida Kahlo: Song of Herself.”
“Kahlo became a role model for women artists. Her art gave them the go-ahead that they really could paint whatever they wanted.”
That’s one reason, since their deaths in the 1950s, that Frida’s international celebrity has surpassed Diego’s. (Exhibit No. 1: Hollywood’s only major biopic on the couple was the 2002 Salma Hayek vehicle, “Frida.”)
In turn, she’s brought more attention to the rest of Mexico’s early 20th-century masters.
As does the NSU show and the Goodman collection. “This exhibition is showing several very, very important surrealists in Mexico of [that] period,” says Pearl Goodman.
The Goodman's Mexican works are part of a major Latin American collection they’re leaving to the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale – which has also launched a Latin American study center.
Stanley Goodman calls that project more proof that Fort Lauderdale holds its own on the Latin American art stage – even with so much attention focused on the new Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) and its immense Latin American collection.
“This puts us in the forefront of Latin American art,” he says.
In a larger sense, says Clearwater, “We now have a continuous South Florida art coast, from Miami to Palm Beach,” and she envisions Fort Lauderdale and the NSU museum “forming a bridge.”
Right now the museum is bridging South Florida to Mexico – and to the reality that Latin America is more than Cuba.
"Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection & 20th Century Mexican Art From the Stanley and Pearl Goodman Collection" opens to the public tomorrow, February 26, and runs through May 31 at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, 1 East Las Olas Blvd, Fort Lauderdale.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.