Seattle Art Museum, 100 University St., 206-654-3100 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sun.; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thurs. ends Sun., Jan. 5
THE CATALOG FOR the Seattle Art Museum's current exhibit devotes all but two of its 20 introductory pages to headliners Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The imbalance only confirms that the two now rule our notions of Mexican art—a domination that has as much to do with the couple's infamously tempestuous lives as it does with their work. But in this selection of paintings and works on paper from the Gelman collection, it's the supporting cast, many no less renowned in their own country, who provide the greatest satisfactions and make the show fresh.
Most of the artists represented here worked during the politically turbulent years that immediately followed Mexico's 1910 revolution, and they struggled to reconcile the era's contrary forces: public and private art (the mural and the canvas), nationalism and European influences, workers and wealth. Their approaches—synthesis, compromise, protest—may be most obvious in the six portraits of the collectors, Jacques and Natasha Gelman (he gets two, she gets four).
Eastern European 魩gr鳠with plenty of money (Jacques was a successful film producer), the Gelmans settled in Mexico in the 1940s and began acquiring art. But the Gelmans represented exactly the sort of power that the trio of muralists—David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jos頃lemente Orozco, and Rivera—fiercely opposed. In fact, Siqueiros' portrait of Natasha from 1950 (commissioned, like the others, by her husband) comes across as a rebuke. Under harsh light, she stares directly at the viewer with a cold, severe expression, while an angry red aura rises behind her. The brush strokes, especially those across her forearms, are like scratches. The painting is in stark contrast to his sympathetic treatments of Mexicans (Head of a Woman and Woman With Shawl), and to his powerful (and worshipful) self-portrait, Siqueiros by Siqueiros, which depicts the artist as a noble priest in a gesture of supplication.
UNLIKE THE OUTSPOKEN muralists, painters Angel ZᲲaga and Rufino Tamayo embraced European styles (both spent many years abroad), making more subtle statements about their native country. ZᲲaga, who tried everything from cubism to French classicism, painted two fine realist portraits of the Gelmans just before he died in 1946. In the first, Jacques sits smugly in the producer's chair, wearing his ascot and holding a cigar. But ZᲲaga, frequently criticized in Mexico for his associations with the upper class, makes it clear (albeit slyly) that Gelman's success relies on his workers; bracing the studio lights on either side of his figure, two arms, clearly Mexican, rise like demonstrations of the people's strength. And ZᲲaga's portrait of Natasha, displaying a beautiful balance of color but left unfinished (it has a few technical problems), seems to suggest a similar disdain toward the subject's status. The artist tipped Natasha's hand forward so that her ostentatious green ring dominates the work's center, but gives her an expression of boredom or melancholy—privileges of the wealthy.
Rufino Tamayo steadfastly steered away from the political, refuting Siqueiros' claim that muralism was the "only way." Maybe that's why his 1948 oil-and-charcoal portrait of Natasha, who sits meditatively in a chair, is the finest in the show. Somber and elegant, and deriving its emotion from the gradations of earthy color, the painting has a Zen-like simplicity. Tamayo, a Zapotecan Indian, gave his subject an angular, sculptural presence, similar in style to the pre-Columbian objects he collected. The symmetry is precise: Natasha's arms and even a curl in her hair mirror the lines and shapes of the chair. In two other paintings—Rooftops and Portrait of Cantinflas—you can see Tamayo's extraordinary appreciation for geometric forms and color, unmatched by his country's contemporaries.
More than any others, the portraits of Natasha by Rivera and Kahlo reflect the artists' well-known personalities. A man who was never above flattery when it came to women, Rivera painted Natasha as a pinup girl, with impossibly long legs and a dress shaped like his signature calla lilies. It's expertly rendered but fawning, and, frankly, looks more like a magazine ad from the 1940s, when the soft, streamlined style pervaded design. With the exception of the bright Calla Lily Vendor, Rivera doesn't come off well in this exhibit. A storybook kitsch creeps into other of his works here, such as The Healer or Landscape With Cactus, and even the one cubist entry looks more perfunctory (a Juan Gris copy) than inspired. It's a shame that SAM couldn't augment the Gelman selections with a few of Rivera's best paintings.
KAHLO GETS MORE complete treatment, particularly with several of her famous, and by now iconic, self-portraits. (Not surprisingly, Kahlo's Natasha comes across as only dutiful—a distraction from painting herself.) The most vivid of the self-portraits might be the least flamboyant, the early and wonderfully smooth Self-Portrait With Necklace (1933), painted on metal in reference to Mexican votive tradition. But to see the portraits together is to realize how contemporary Kahlo's self- obsession feels today—think Cindy Sherman, Karen Finley, or even the ubiquitous Web cam aimed at someone's bedroom. The intense Kahlo stare, repeated over and over and imbued with all we know of her suffering and appetites for life, seems to resonate for today's audiences as strongly as The Scream. Kahlo's works will undoubtedly bring in the majority of the visitors (especially with the opening of Julie Taymor's new film on the artist), but take a look at Carlos Merida's jaunty geometrical abstractions, Agustin Lazo's stippled ink-and-gouache renderings of high drama, or Maria Izquierdo's Chagall-like horses, and you'll see that the richness of Mexican art goes well beyond Frida and Diego.