First look at Diego Rivera’s new shrine
By Jeff Spurrier Photographs by Ann Summa
For at least sixty years, Dolores (“Lola”) Olmedo has not had the slightest doubt about who was the greatest painter of the twentieth century. It was not the Frenchman Matisse, not the Spaniard Picasso, but the Mexican Diego Rivera. And for some of those years, especially in the 1930s, most people might have agreed with her. Rivera (1886-1957) was a prodigious painter, a man whose works not only were beautiful but also contained a message. He was the prime exponent of the socialist ideal of the Mexican Revolution and of the nationalistic idea of Mexicanidad, or “Mexicanness.”His famous compatriots and fellow muralists David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco helped to create a blaze of interest in Mexican art, but it was the extravagant, fat, funny, highly intelligent Rivera who caught the popular imagination.
Then, as the world plunged into war, everybody forgot him.
Not Dolores Olmedo. Late this summer, with the exquisite timing for which she is renowned—and a cynic might add, not without a thrill of vengeance—she is turning La Noria, her magnificent private home in Mexico City, into a museum. It contains fine pre-Columbian pieces and much folk art, but what will draw the crowds is her 137 works by Diego Rivera and 25 by his third wife, Frida Kahlo. These Olmedo has collected assiduously since 1950, by hook, by
Of Mexican Art
Crook, shrewdly and well. If, in the process, she made enemies, well, Olmedo shrugged. She was merely fulfilling a promise she says se made to Diego Rivera in the sad last years of his life.
Stepping through the tall double wooden doors of La Noria, a splendidly restored sixteenth-century monastery, is like entering another world. Outside it is the Xochimilco section of Mexico City. Cars and buses rumble slowly over concrete speed bumps while pedestrians and street vendors clog the streets around the nearby electric-railway station. Behind La Noria’s ten-foot-high stone walls, peacocks strut across manicured lawns. There is a large pond shaded by tall eucalyptus. A curving cobblestone drive leads up to the main section of La Noria, dominated by the two-story chapel tower. Beside it sits a massive bronze bust of La Noria’s uncanonized saint: Diego Rivera. His bulging, heavy-lidded eyes and slight leer make him look self-satisfied---like a gourmet contemplating a dream meal or a saint contemplating his shrine.
Inside La Noria is as grand a monument as any painter could wish. The sketches, oils, watercolors, and lithographs span every genre that Rivera worked through, from the Postimpressionism and cubism of his early years in Europe to the distinctive blend of social realism and mythic themes that brought him world fame in the thirties. The scope and detail of the collection make it legendary among Rivera historians. Assembled emotionally rather than intellectually, it is a lasting declaration of Olmedo’s love for the artist, displayed in neither thematic nor chronological order. It is both overwhelming and frustratingly uneven.
The early academic efforts from his years in Europe, El Picador and El Matematico, and the Postimpressionist portraits are moody and subdued, unrecognizable as Rivera’s to one who knows only the luminous flattened graphics and socialist polemics of his later work. But quickly the eye is attracted by more-familiar pieces: la Tehuana, a portrait of a young Dolores Olmedo, an excellent example of his control and strength as an easel painter; La Canoa Enflorada, a nostalgic scene of the Xochimilco canals, which shows his love of Mexico’s tropical greens; and Danza a la Tierra, one of a series of surrealistic interpretations of a black dancer, painted in 1939.
Off the main gallery is the rare collection of cubist works, highlighted by the precise El Joven de la Estilografica, in which Rivera shows his chameleon like ability to mimic divergent styles. This well-crafted work is clearly an exercise, a visual statement by Rivera that he could master any style—even Picasso’s—if he so desired.
It is in the renovated chapel building—the core of the old monastery—that one sees where Rivera’s destiny as a painter was leading him. In the place of honor hangs the seven-by-six-foot, mural Frozen Assets, which he painted in New York during the Depression. This scathing indictment of the capitalist system shows Rivera at the peak of his artistic powers and socialist commitment. With the skyline of New York above, Rivera takes the viewer on a trip to the bowels of the city, where the millionaires stash their loot and the homeless sleep in public shelters. While his easel portraits are often quietly soothing, Frozen Assets is the work of angry, blistering genius.
But just a few steps away, one can see just how bad a painter Rivera could be. The series of watercolor and oil portraits of Soviet children, painted in 1956, are more evocative of Keene greeting cards than they are of the man who painted Frozen Assets. And Rivera’s last series, a group of Acapulco sunsets, visionary in style and reminiscent of Turner and the early-twentieth=century Mexican painter Dr. Atl, pales in comparison with the stronger pieces that surround it.
The collection of twenty-five Frida Kahlo works shows none of the inconsistencies found in the Riveras. Sequestered in a tiny courtyard room removed from the main galleries, they seem reduced to a mere supporting role. Passing between the two areas is like going fro Charles dickens to Emily Dickinson, grand to specific, the popular to the personal. Moving from Rivera’s jazzy black-dancer series to Kahlo’s the Broken column is like stepping out of a warm tropical rain into a bone-chilling blizzard of pain.
In both quality and subject matter the Kahlos here overwhelm those in any other collection. “Dolores Olmedo has ones that are more important in subject matter,” says Hayden Herrera, author of Frida, a 1983 biography of Kahlo. “They are complex and show what Frida was thinking. Lola has Kahlo’s gritty, ferocious paintings—the kind no one else could have painted.” And indeed one of the first paintings that meet the eye is Kahlo’s disturbing Broken Column, its title a reference to the fractured vertebrae she suffered in a terrible bus accident. In the painting, the artist stares through her tears out at the viewer, her naked body strapped with bands and pierced by nails, her torso split in half, her spine a shattered Greek column. In Henry ford Hospital the artist lies nude on a blood-drenched bed, her hand clutching six cords leading off to objects symbolically tied to the miscarriage she had just undergone: her broken pelvis, the fetus of the dead child, a snail, an orchid, a piece of machinery, a torso on a pedestal. Like all of Kahlo’s surrealistic images, it is haunting and hypnotic, powerful far beyond its physical size.
Either the Kahlo or the Rivera collection would dazzle a visitor; together with the setting and the 600-plus pieces of pre-Columbian at and colonial-era statues displayed throughout the galleries, La Noria becomes the Mexican equivalent of a British stately home.
The foundation is a grand gesture, like Olmedo’s life, which has been accompanied by stories of political intrigue and culminates with this magnanimous gift to her country. Ever since Dolores Olmedo arrived on the scene in Mexico city, in the 1930s, she has been the subject of rumors and gossip, a distinctive figure adorned in her trademark jewels, her hair plastered back over her skull in a severe tight cap, which led Rivera to dub her “La Planchada(the ironed one). Diminutive and coquettish, the young woman from Tehuantepec lived up to the reputation of Tehuana women from the Mexican state of Oaxaca: aggressive, strong-willed, flamboyant, and unwilling to kowtow to the male-dominated power structure that ruled Mexican politics and business. While Olmedo had some peripheral connections to the art world, it was her friendships with industrialists and the country’s most powerful politicians that brought her a notoriety and power unique to a woman in Mexico.
Even now, more than 45 years after her rise to prominence in the city’s power circle, Dolores Olmedo is a force to be feared. “If you put the subject of Dolores Olmedo on the table, people will gossip,” says one Mexico City art dealer. “Some will say nice things, but more will say terrible things.” The deeper one delves, the more disturbing the innuendo and gossip: Lola is rich because she was the love of Miguel Aleman, Mexico’s resident in the late forties; Lola has so many Riveras because she was Diego Rivera’s lover; Lola sells fake Riveras; Lola can have you disappeared if she does not like you. But there is also a light side to this larger-than-life character—Olmedo is also revered for her humor, her dedication to her four children, and her continuing charity and environmental efforts in Xochimilco. One wonders whether she would be the subject of such gossip if she were a man.
“They said I was the lover of Aleman,” says Olmedo, sitting on a Victorian sofa in the main exhibition room of La Noria. She is dressed in black, a large coral necklace draped around her neck. “It was a lie. I was not a lover of the president. I had my own affairs, but they always say you have money because you are the lover of somebody. They don’t understand you can make money and use what is between your two ears and now what is between your two legs.”
Such bluntness is typical of Olmedo, who often chooses words for their shock value. At the same time, a visitor is still likely to be charmed by her vitality, candor, and wit. The daughter of a schoolteacher, she was among the first group of women to attend the National University of Mexico (where she studied law). After her divorce from her first husband, she went into business for herself, becoming the first woman to be the general manager of a construction company in Mexico. It was at this time, in the late forties, during the Aleman presidency, that she began her rise to vast wealth, especially in landholding and political influence, refusing to let her sex stand in the way.
“In business I am as hard as any man,” she says calmly. “You have to. Otherwise they make you love and you are lost. I am very cold. Always.”
“Dolores is a very macha lady,” says Manuel Avila Camacho, a longtime Olmedo acquaintance. “If Orozco or Siqueiros had a lady like Dolores Olmedo, they would be on the same level (in the world’s view) as Rivera is now. She is a titan. No Mexican painter ever had a woman like that.”
Dolores Olmedo met Diego Rivera in 1930 when she and her mother were visiting the Ministry of Education, where Rivera had just completed his three floors of murals for the building. Struck by Olmedo’s presence and her Tehuana clothes, Rivera asked her mother if he could paint the young girl.
“I went to the house in Coyoacan—he was already married to Frida—and he painted me in the nude,” Olmedo recalls. “But I never told my mother that. Many times in my life, since 1930, I posed nude for him. He made lots of paintings of me, but I didn’t have the money to get them then. But when I began to have money, I began to buy them.”
Olmedo does her best to put the record straight about Rivera’s reputation as a philanderer. “I met him when I was very young and he was a big man, already forty years older than I was. I was never his lover. Diego was in love with his paintings—that’s the real life of Diego.”
Yet, when she married the publisher Howard S. Phillips, in the late 1930’s, her new husband did not like his wife’s friendship with Rivera and angrily forbade any contact. While Olmedo says she continued to see Rivera and pose for him, it was not until the midfifties, after the death of Friday Kahlo, that she took on the dual role of protector and patron to the master. In 1955, when Rivera began to suffer from the cancer that would kill him two years later, Olmedo put her substantial resources to work for the ailing artist, commissioning portraits of herself and her family and offering him the use of her Acapulco home during his recovery from cobalt treatments. It was at this time that Rivera encouraged her to form a collection. He gave her a list of what he considered his essential works and prodded her to buy nineteen of his early Spanish and cubist paintings from the estate of a Parisian collector, Enrique Freyman.
But when Olmedo pursued the paintings in Paris, she was told by Freyman’s son-in-law that he knew Rivera had cancer. He added, “When he’s dead, I’m going to auction them at Parke-Bernet gallery, and I’ll let you know.”
Three years later, when the Freyman auction was held—the first of Rivera’s paintings since his death—the determined Olmedo bid resolutely against Rivera collectors such as Edward G. Robinson and Otto Preminger and walked away with eleven paintings. Ever since then, Olmedo has acquired Riveras wherever she could find them, even leaving behind some of her jewelry when she did not have enough cash on hand. “Delores came up to the first sale of Mexican art that Sotheby’s held, I 1977,” recalls the art dealer Mary-Anne Martin, who founded the Sotheby’s Latin American art department. “She was interested in some portable murals that had belonged to Erhard Weyhe, but she didn’t have any money. Most of her assets were property, paintings, and jewelry. She brought me an emerald—it looked like a doorknob—and asked if I could arrange something. The jewelry department gave her credit up to 490,000,” and with that she bought the most important piece in her collection, Frozen Assets, for $31,000. Mary-Anne Martin was very happy with the sale; she was less happy with the controversy Olmedo caused over another painting in the auction: la Dama del Velo.
In 1959, Rivera had been placed on the national-patrimony list, which meant that none of this work then in Mexico could ever leave the country. At a presale party held at the Mexican consulate, Olmedo recognized Rivera’s La Dama as one of his paintings that were protected by the patrimony law. This could mean only that it ad been smuggled illegally out of the country.
“Lola went to the president of Mexico and asked what he was going to do about it,” Martin remembers. “She caused an incredible uproar, and the Mexican Ministry of Education put ads in the newspapers saying, “Beware, potential collectors—you may be purchasing works which have been illegally exported form Mexico.’” (La Dama del Velo was withdrawn from the sale. Its current whereabouts are unknown.)
Olmedo was the head of the executors overseeing the foundation that controls the Kahlo Museum (Frida’s house in Coyoacan, which today has many artifacts but no Kahlo paintings) and the Diego Rivera Anahuacalli Museum. She lobbied her friend President Lopez Mateos to place Rivera on the patrimony list, and while the law may have limited her ability to sell art abroad it also helped her acquire it at home. For example, when Olmedo found out that the famous el Matematico had been sold to eh American ambassador to Mexico, she says, she went to him and explained that he could never take the picture out of Mexico. “This was in sixty-four. He said, ‘What can I do?” And I said, “Donate it to a museum or sell it to me.”” She smiles and looks up at the paining on the wall.
Olmedo adopted a more disingenuous tactic to acquire the Kahlo collection from the widow of the Mexican ambassador Eduardo Morillo Safa, a deal that has resulted in the most outspoken criticism of Olmedo’s collection.
According to Safa’s daughter, Mariana Morillo Safa, her mother sold the paintings with the understanding that they be bought by the Bank of Mexico (which was the executor of Rivera’s trust) and would be hung permanently in the Kahlo Museum. “This was in 1958, after Diego died,” says Safa. “He left everything to Mexico, including Frida’s house. Dolores came to our house and said they were interested in buying our collection for the museum. There were about thirty or forty. It was the largest collection. My grandmother wrote a letter to Dolores saying that as log a everything was going to be in the Kahlo Museum, then she agreed to sell two family portraits by Kahlo as well. So they belonged to the museum and were going to be there forever and ever. But they are not there anymore.”
Olmedo’s response is that she bought the Kahlos herself and not with the money from the Bank of Mexico. At the last minute, she claims, the bank failed to meet its commitment. “The bank said they didn’t have the money,” she says today, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. “Then Diego began to cry and I say, ‘Well, I will buy it.’ For years I had them in the Kahlo museum. Some friends of mine told me, ‘If you are going to do a foundation of your own, take those pictures away.’”
There is one problem with Olmedo’s version of the story. At the time of the sale, Diego was already dead. Ignoring this inconsistency, she rushes on, stating that if the bank had bought the Kahlos, under the provisions of Riveras will they never would have left Mexico.
“Otherwise Frida would be unknown in the world. I took the Fridas and sent them all around the world,” she declares proudly.
There is a certain irony in Olmedo’s statement, for it is a well-known fact that she was not fond of Diego’s painting wife. “I didn’t like Frida,” Olmedo says, frowning. “We were different. She was a lesbian, you know, and I didn’t like that. I don’t like her paintings. They are very trashy. I admire her very much, but I was never a friend of hers.” This may help to explain why the paintings have such a second-rate location in La Noria.
So, why own them at all?
“Because she loves Diego, and I think it’s out of duty to him,” says Hayden Herrera. “As he revered Frida’s art, Olmedo wants to do right by Rivera, which means doing right by Frida.”
In the process, she has done right by her country. La Noria is a much-needed addition to the museums of Mexico City a city that is short of quiet, intimate places in which to see the work of the real Mexican modernists. Beyond that, the Olmedo collection opens at a time when interest in Mexican art is on the rise in the United States. This fall, four major traveling shows will open in New York, the latest being the Metropolitan museum’s “Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries.” The Mexican masters have also begun to be recognized by the market. At a Sotheby’s auction in May, an important Frida Kahlo self-portrait, Diego and I, sold for $1.43 million. That would make a conservative estimate of the value of Dolores Olmedo’s painting run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
While the watchman begins to lock up the house, Olmedo says her good-byes and walks back toward the servants’ quarters, where she has been living while work continues on a new wing of the building. A trio of rare esquincle dogs trail after her, their tails wagging wildly. As the guards unlock the front gates, the last sound from La Noria is the scream of a peacock from the hillside above the house. Outside, reality drops down again—workers trudging home through the twilight from their jobs in the city, housewives lugging groceries in plastic bags adorned with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. This is Mexico, the living extension of Rivera’s canvases and Kahlo’s soul.
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