Modern Mastersby Brie Stimson November 27, 2017
In an exhibition of nearly 100 works, the San Diego Museum of Art is presenting a selection of the Perez Simon collection, which is made up of approximately 3,000 works based principally in Mexico City.
Curator of Modern &Contemporary Art, Ariel Plotek, took me on a tour through the exhibit, which spans two expansive galleries and covers art from the 19th century through today.
“Modern Masters From Latin America: The Perez Simon Collection” is a sequel of sorts. The museum last presented works from Simon’s collection in 2011 with “El Greco to Dali: Great Spanish Masters from the Perez Simon Collection.” While the focus of that exhibition was European art, the museum is now returning to the Americas.
The museum’s director, Roxanna Velasquez Martinez del Campo, “was the director of the [Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes] in Mexico City before she came here,” Plotek said. “Twenty-five years ago she first exhibited paintings from [Simon’s] collection.”
Frida Kahlo and her one-time husband Diego Rivera are big name draws to the exhibit as well as Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siquieros. Indeed, Rivera’s “Portrait of Maria Felix” has been on brochures and billboards across the city advertising the exhibition. The 1948 work complements two paintings found in the first section of the exhibit. “Village Near The Field,” 1919, and “Aqueduct,” 1918, are two long-term loans that have been at the museum for years, which show the European influence in Rivera’s work.
“You’re kind of getting Rivera before the Rivera,” Plokek told me. “We associate him with his political involvement for the period of the Mexican Revolution, but he had first traveled to Europe as a young man as an ambitious artist wanting to be in line with the most vast painting that was being done in France.” Plotek said there are cubist elements in “Aqueduct” and “Village Near The Field” looks very much like Renoir. “What would Rivera have looked like if it weren’t for the Mexican Revolution that calls him back to Mexico? [What if he] had remained in France painting alongside Picasso? He’s not yet painting the kind of imagery that we associate with those murals that make him world famous.”
Rivera’s “Portrait of Maria Felix,” painted 30 years after “Aqueduct” shows his proclivity to accept commissions from wealthy patrons, and as Plotek told me, there was a bit of drama going on as well.
Maria Felix was a leading lady of Mexican cinema in the middle of the last century who was famous throughout the Spanish-speaking world.
“Here [she is] painted in her prime by Rivera who we’re told was madly in love with her,” Plotek explained. “But she does not seem to have appreciated his rendering of her … She didn’t like the portrait. It wasn’t how she saw herself … She has the sort of femme fatale vampiness, which was maybe taken to a degree that she wouldn’t have wished … I think suffice it to say, Rivera was much more of an admirer or hers than she was of his.”
“Portrait of Maria Felix” was painted 10 years before Rivera’s death, but the style of work he is most famous for, murals that reflect his feelings about the Mexican Revolution, are found in the first section near his early European-style works.
Rivera started painting government-sponsored murals in the early 1920s, including “Sketch for the Mural of Life and Industry.” Murals were used by the communist government at the time as propaganda tools and as a way to employ artists. “We can’t include the murals in the show so we have the sketches for them,” Plotek explained.
Besides Rivera’s works, there are also two Frida Kahlo paintings in the exhibit. “Survivor,” 1938, shows an anthropomorphic clay figure standing in a barren desert landscape. “‘Survivor’ is interesting, because it makes me think on the one hand of this object having survived because it’s a fragile ceramic figure, and at the same time there’s something kind of uncanny and a little bit surreal about this very barren landscape, and the figure, to me at least, feels very animated,” Plotek said. “There’s also the matter that the survival may be a matter of cultural survival, but it also has this feeling of this kind of post apocalyptic landscape.”
The exhibition is broken down into three broad subsections: Landscape, The Avant-Garde Explosion and Breaking Boundaries: Post-1960s Diversity &Dystopia.
The “Landscape” section deals with issues of national identity. “The representation of the landscape serv[es] a kind of political or nationalist purpose when we think of the notion of manifest destiny and the westward move of colonial settlers and the image of this great expanse of virgin land that seems to be their birthright,” Plotek explained. Jose Maria Velasco’s “The Valley of Mexico From The Hill of Santa Isabel” and Gerardo Murillo (aka Dr. Atl) “Rainy Landscape” are included in this first section.
Off in a corner of the beginning of the second section is an educational space called “Frida &Me.” The space was designed by the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and includes interactive experiences to help children learn about the life and work of Frida Kahlo. The room includes drawing and audio stations and interactive educational screens.
Outside of “Frida &Me” is Kahlo’s second painting in the exhibition, “Girl From Tehuacan.” “The young figure holds in her hands a warplane … the camouflage looks something like a vine,” Plotek said. “Before the accident that resulted in her being bedbound for many months when she begins to paint she had been undertaking her studies in biology and zoology, and so she has quite a knowledge of the plants and animals that she so often depicts.” Kahlo’s paintings are leaving several weeks before the exhibition closes on March 11, so it’s best to see it sooner than later.
The second section includes other avant-garde paintings like Alfredo Ramos Martinez’s “Portrait of Nahui Ollin” and one of the most unusual paintings in the exhibition, Juan O’Gorman’s “Project for the Monument to the Birth of Venus.” The painting was inspired by Ferdinand Cheval, a nineteenth century French mailman who built a structure he called his “ideal palace” in Hauterives, France, akin to the one in the painting. “[Cheval’s structure] has the look of sand castles that you make by wetting sand instead of dripping it, and it has this very biomorphic character, which is a little bit what O’Gorman is capturing here in his own design.”
In the third section there are several contemporary paintings, including Lucio Fontana’s “Spatial Concept, Expectations,” which blurs the line between painting and sculpture, Jesus Rafael Soto’s “Sienna and Ochre Below” and Ricardo Martinez de Hoyos’ “Figure on Blue Background.”
“Hoyos in this show was a revelation to me,” Plotek admitted. “An artist that I did not know well prior to working on this project, and who I think … really is one the most surprising and strongest of the artists that are featured in this last postmodern section.”
Perez Simon started collecting works in the 1970s, and “he tells the story of having seen a work by El Greco, which inspired him to start collecting art,” Plotek told me while sitting on a bench surrounded by Hoyos, Fernando Botero and Alfredo Castaneda. “It’s interesting to see how broad his taste is. Early on he was buying Victorian and pre-Raphaelite English paintings … This is the first time the Latin American work is being shown as a group like this anywhere … It’s really a museum worthy collection … I can’t think of too many collections that are so wide in breadth.”
“Modern Masters From Latin America: The Perez Simon Collection” will be up through March 11, 2018.