Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera Arrive in Kansas City

PHOTO: "Diego On My Mind" by Frida Kahlo. Part of the exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City: Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and masterpieces of modern Mexico.Nelson-Atkins Museum
"Diego On My Mind" by Frida Kahlo. Part of the exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City: Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and masterpieces of modern Mexico.

Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and several other Mexican artists have arrived to America's Heartland.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri is currently showing Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Masterpieces of Modern Mexico from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection (quite the name). The museum's assistant curator Stephanie Knappe said it might be the exhibition with the longest title, but if it had to be summed up to one word it would be "passion".

So what is Mexican art doing in Kansas City, you ask? The show has an interesting backstory and its paintings are some of the best Kahlo works out there. Plus, the museum is reaching out to local kids and incorporating them into the exhibit. Let's take a look.

The Gelmans were the Steins of Mexico:

The art collecting couple Jacques and Natasha Gelman (pictured above) were like the Stein family of Mexico in that they befriended and collected art works from some of the most influential artists of their time (the 1940s and '50s). They had the works of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera all around their house. Imagine having a Frida original over your living room couch -- incredible.

Both Jacques and Natasha were Eastern Europeans who fled to Mexico from World War II. Jacques was a film producer from Russia and when he arrived in Mexico he started producing Cantinflas' films, and became pretty successful. He fell in love with the culture and the art and started collecting again, having had to leave his European art collection when he fled. He met and married Natasha in Mexico in 1941, and they became Mexican citizens by 1942.

Inside the Gelmans' home:

Why Kansas City?

The Nelson-Atkin Museum's director, Julián Zugazagotia says, "The reason why we're bringing the exhibition to the Midwest is because the region has never had an exhibit that showcases Mexican art and splendor in this way," said Zugazagotia, who is a Mexico City native himself. "There is a large community here of Hispanics who have never had a celebration of their culture. Bringing these artists here addresses that in a way," he says. Great.

Local Outreach

The museum reached out to local high schools and elementary schools to inspire and educate students on modern and historical Mexican artists. They brought copies of art pieces from the collection and asked the students to explain what they saw. Some of the responses they got were so great that curators decided to include excerpts from some of the students next to the pieces in the exhibit. Below you'll find some of those intuitive excerpts from local Kansas City students.

Now, the art (with commentary from curator and children):

Diego Rivera Portrait of Natasha Gelman, 1943

Above is the first portrait the Gelmans commissioned from a Mexican artist, and it was painted by none other than Diego Rivera. Assitant curator Knappe says Natasha's pose reflects her husband's early film career -- that's why she's posing like a movie star. The calla lilies around her appear in many of Rivera's paintings and murals but they are usually associated with laborers and struggles. This was an interesting change for the artist's use of lilies.

Diego Rivera Calla Lily Vendor, 1943

"I think these girls are getting ready for a party or a wedding. In the background there is a mysterious man. Who is he? Is he spying on the girls or helping them?" -Fifth-grade student, Shawanoe Elementary.

Ángel Zárraga Portrait of Jacques Gelman, 1945

Frida Kahlo Portrait of Diego Rivera, 1937

Frida painted her husband "more youthful and less imposing than how he is typically portrayed," Stephanie says."Kahlo's affectionate description of Rivera is somewhat ironic given the tension in their relationship in 1937. At that time, Rivera invited Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky to live with himself and Kahlo, and Kahlo and Trotsky engaged in a love affair."

Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait with Necklace, 1933

"I see a beautiful woman with black hair, peach skin and wearing black pearls. She has fierce eyes. She needs this picture for her job. Maybe it's for a work ID badge." - Fifth-grade student, Shawanoe Elementary.

Frida Kahlo Diego on My Mind, 1943

Knappe says Kahlo is wearing the traditional wedding attire of Tehuantepec women from Oaxaca in southern Mexico. "Kahlo's husband, Diego Rivera, appears on her forehead in the position of the third eye (a symbol of wisdom). His presence imposed on her body and her gown's similarity to a wedding dress suggest the idea of two people becoming one."

Diego Rivera Modesta, 1937

"I wonder how long it took Diego Rivera to paint the portrait of this little girl. Did she have to come inside from playing? Did she have to sit for hours? Why didn't he tell her to smile?" -Fifth-grade student, Shawanoe Elementary

The exhibit Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Masterpieces of Modern Mexico from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection will be on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum until August 18, 2013.

See also: Frida Kahlo's Closet is Opened After 58 Years