When Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were living in Detroit, husband adjusted to our country more easily than wife. Rivera was famously enjoying a career high note. Kahlo was famously miserable.
There, in 1932, beset with homesickness, she painted what would become one of her best-known works: Self Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States.
And — in the “incredible timing” department — this painting will be on display in the city this fall at the Philadelphia Art Museum. Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910-1950 will show work from Kahlo and her contemporaries. The upcoming exhibition will shine a light on how her generation of artists delved into politics and national identity, at times thoughtfully contrasting them against the US. As The Art Newspaper points out, the exhibition, which will be open through Election Day, will carry an added layer of significance in the current American political climate: it’s hard not to look at Self Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States differently— newly official Republican nominee Donald Trump would place a wall where Kahlo is standing.
Trump’s rhetoric on Mexican immigration is not unique in his party. Sixty-three percent of Republicans, per an April Pew poll, support building a border wall. A 2015 Pew survey revealed that a mere 13 percent of Republicans believe that Latino immigrants have brought positive impacts to American society, while 58 percent would say they’ve spawned negative effects. While commenting on a CNN panel during the network’s RNC coverage, Iowa Congressman Steve King caused controversy Monday: “This whole ‘old white people’ business does get a little tired, Charlie,” he said to fellow panelist, writer Charles Pierce. “I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you are talking about? Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”
“You know, I don’t think Trump invented any of the rhetoric that we’re hearing in the news these days,” says Matthew Affron, one of the exhibition’s curators. “It certainly goes back to Reagan in the 1980s, [then] there was a discussion of a kind of invasion from the South.
“Of course some of this rhetoric has been amplified with his candidacy. Both before and after Trump’s nomination, one of our goals was to point out the importance of strong cultural relations between the U.S. and Mexico.”
Affron explains that they couldn’t have planned for the theme to align with the election cycle. The collection has been three years in the making, so it began before Trump was a serious candidate, let alone the nominee. Paint the Revolution is a co-venture with the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. It’ll run from October 25 through January 8 in Philly, and head towards the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes straight after. While Affron cautions that the exhibition can’t speak for current US politics, the questions on identity and Inter-American relations remain relevant.
“There’s a theme in the work made by these great Mexican artists in the early ’30s, and that theme is how to work out the relationship with our nation and the nation to the north,” says Affron. “Of course, America stood for super modernity and the 20th Century, and they wanted to think about their century and contribute to its culture.”
Paint the Revolution will feature many other heavy hitters, as well. Visitors will see the work of Tina Modotti, Maria Izquierdo, Rufino Tamayo and David Alfaro Siqueiros among others.
The exhibition’s period of focus begins with the Mexican Revolution and captures a litany of charged perspectives on the country’s realities and future— topics of hot debate at the time. Within this period, the US art world paid a great deal of attention to Mexico.
During the FDR years, Fireside Chats extolled the Good Neighbor Policy, and preached the values of healthy Inter-American relations. But also, American museums and tycoons took a special interest in Mexican muralists in the 1930s. “The artistic rapprochement between the two countries, however, was short-lived,” Fabiana Serviddio wrote in the Journal of Social History in 2010. “Misunderstandings began because, along with the private sponsorship that stimulated the exhibition of Mexican art, the U.S. government also started to promote Mexican art to accomplish diplomatic aims.”
Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and United States was not that type of content. Kahlo distinguishes the American side with symbols of machinery, industrialization and metropolis. The Mexican side, in contrast, has plants and a decrepit Aztec temple. Playing up traditional indigenous Mexican imagery was common among Mexican artists: It communicated a departure from European society, and honored the mestizo character of Mexico’s self image.
In the painting, America has electrical wires where Mexico has roots. The stars and stripes are obscured some in smoke clouds rising from a Ford factory. Kahlo really did not have the best time here.
Mexican painters were key to the development of muralism in both countries. Nathan Timpano, a professor of Art History at the University of Miami, expanded on this in an email. “All three of the major Mexican Muralists (Rivera, David Siqueiros and José Orozco) worked on public art projects (mostly murals) in the US, and as a result, these Mexican artists were responsible for hiring and training a number of US-American artists before New York City became the center of the art world after the war,” he wrote. Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco, los tres grandes as they’ve been called, will all be represented in the exhibit. The Philadelphia Museum of Art will be creating digital reproductions of their murals come fall.
One of them, Orozco’s The Epic of American Civilization, certainly calls for revisiting in light of the political debates of the day. It’s on the walls of the Baker Memorial Library at Dartmouth, and presents a sweeping, dark view of American history continentally. Dartmouth has a cool interactive, panoramic view of it available online.
The mural’s panels begin with arrival of indigenous people to the land and pre-Columbian life, before following the path of the Americas as colonialism and industrialization shaped what eventually becomes the modern era.
Affron believes that in Orozco’s criticism of American society, there’s a forward-looking optimism too. “His mural cycle ends with a very hopeful postscript, which ends with a young worker contributing to the construction of progress in Depression-era America. It’s not quite clear, but the young worker seems to be a person of mixed-race, a mestizo,” he says. “Orozco like many Mexicans at the time believed that there was a future in the mixing of the American with European that would take us into what comes next. All of that kind of becomes a hopeful vision of future, even though the mural is full of terrible, terrible things also.”