From Mexican Artists to the Soviet State the Story of an Unwanted Gift

By Lopatkina, Katarina | Studia Politica; Romanian Political Science Review, July 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

From Mexican Artists to the Soviet State the Story of an Unwanted Gift


Lopatkina, Katarina, Studia Politica; Romanian Political Science Review


Introduction

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera got divorced on November 6th, 1939. It was a short-term separation: on August 8th, 1940 they renewed their marriage vows. Nevertheless, it was enough time for Frida to create several iconic pieces: The Two Fridas (1939), The Dream (1940), Self-Portrait with Cut Hair (1940), and The Wounded Table (1940). One of them, The Wounded Table (La mesa herida) (122x244 cm) became the largest painting ever created by the artist. Researchers attribute this quite unusual to the artist "gigantism" of the work to a desire to surpass the size of Diego Rivera's works as they were displayed at the same show, the International Surrealist Exhibition in 1940. After Mexico, the exhibition was successfully held in New York and upon returning from the United States, and until 1945 the painting was kept at the house of the artist, the famous Blue House (La Casa Azul) in Coyoacán, Mexico. In August 1945, Frida presented The Wounded Table to the Soviet Union. The last time it was seen, was in the exhibition of Mexican art in Warsaw in 1955 where it was sent from Moscow, and has since been considered lost.

For many years, this painting was the Holy Grail for many researchers and fans of Frida's art, and the topic was seductive enough to start my own research devoted to the issue. As the subject was not new, I decided to approach it from the other angle: my starting point were the questions about an initial intention of the donation, about people and institutions involved in this process and the reasons behind it.

The research started with a discovery of a body of documents related to the Mexican-Soviet cultural relation in The State Archive of Russian Federation (GARF)2 and in The Foreign Policy Archive of the Russian Federation (AVP RF)3 - the archives, where a major part of the documental collection from soviet official institutions could be found. Then by using a narrative and document-based retrospective reconstruction I attempted to retrace the history of the donation and recreate its chronology. I managed to find about thirty documents dated from 1946 to 1955 of different origin: official and diplomatic correspondence, extracts from diplomatic diaries, records and reports of Soviet organizations, responsible for the international cooperation which became the source base for the research.

The studies of Alexandr Sizonenko4, Tatyana Chekova5, Vladimir Savin6 devoted to different aspects of the Soviet-Mexican cultural relations; works by Michal David-Fox7, Aleksandr Golubev8 and Nina Javorskaya9 on the Soviet system of cultural display, as well as published official directives and articles about the Soviet art establishment of the 1930s-1950s10 were helpful to reconstruct the context of the time and the connotations of an international art exchange in the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 1950s. Also important to mention are publications by Helga Prigniz-Poda, devoted to the history of modem Mexican art and, in particular, to the life and work of Frida Kahlo11.

During the research a story of one of the world's most famous Mexican lost painting turned into a story of dysfunction of the Soviet institutions for cultural exchange or rather the change of their function with the change of political discourse, and became a spectacular example of the soviet visual censorship. The evolution and the rise of this censorship is reflected in correspondence and protocols of the official meetings of Soviet cultural authorities related to the donation.

Mexican-Soviet Cultural Exchanges in the 1940s

The first and major document-based finding was that the unusual and generous gift made by Frida Kahlo was neither occasional nor unique. In 1945 she agreed to become a participant of a large art exchange program between Mexico and the Soviet Union. For the first time a concept of exchange was introduced in 1943 by the Soviet ambassador to Mexico Konstantin Umansky12 and the initial idea of the project was to familiarize the Soviet public with Mexican visual arts by donating works of leading contemporary Mexican artists to a Soviet museum13. …

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