Juan Guzmán: Sessions with Diego and Frida

Colección y Archivo de Fundación Televisa

Explore the work of two of the greatest Mexican artists of all time, through the eyes of photographer Juan Guzmán.

The writer Luis Cardoza y Aragón was not exaggerating when he described Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo as the hallmarks of Mexico's "spiritual landscape." The painters' lives, works, and legends generated an infinite and persistent brilliance. In their time, the couple embodied the spirit of modern Mexican art like few others. In the 50 years following the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the country had to reconcile loyalty to its traditions with its desire for modernity. The country that emerged found two of its most illustrious and significant stories in the careers of Rivera (1886–1957) and Kahlo (1907–1954).
Rivera and Kahlo created works that differed in their dimensions, ambitions, and scope: one was accustomed to presenting allegorical visions of national and world history on a vast scale, while the other was more inclined to use an easel to paint impressions of her pain and hardships. The presence of both artists was felt in the cultural, social, and political life of their time, and not just by way of their brushstrokes.

The mural in this image is located in the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City.

Militants and followers of the communist ideology; active opponents of US imperialism; outspoken citizens; a couple in an atypically open and polymorphous relationship; seductive, provocative, and sarcastic—the artists were fully aware of their status as public figures.
In Mexican celebrity circles in the first half of the 20th century, which only included a few hundred people, what Diego and Frida did and did not do tended to be the news of the day, and the subject of rumor, scandal, and controversy. Having played host to ideologist of the permanent revolution, Leon Trotsky, and the patriarch of surrealism, André Breton, the pair were looked to as points of reference. They were influential voices with extreme behaviors and characters, which were indistinguishable from their own political and artistic utopias.
The photographic iconography surrounding Frida and Diego therefore piques particular interest, beyond a purely biographical curiosity. As was the case for other personalities of the time, such as politicians, actors, aristocrats, and sports stars, photography was a primary means by which Diego and Frida could consolidate themselves as public figures.
The central element of Rivera's work—his murals on public buildings—was mainly shared through photographic reproductions. The detail of the muralist's pictorial epics and effigies were captured by the key photographers involved in the rise of the Mexican Renaissance: Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, and Manuel Álvarez Bravo.
Hans Gutmann Guster
A German who settled in Mexico in 1939 after fighting for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, he was one of many photographers who managed to gain access to Diego's and Frida's worlds. As a correspondent for the American magazines "Time" and "Life," a reporter for Mexican magazines, and someone they treated more as a friend than in simply a professional capacity, the photographer (who took on the name Juan Guzmán) knew Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo both as people and characters.
With the thousands of images that make up Gutmann-Guzmán's photographic archive, Mexican photojournalism offers us a visual account of that period that helps us to understand the twists and turns of Mexican modernity. Among them are images of the legendary painters surrounded by hallmarks of their environment and the period in which they lived.

The Blue House, where Frida lived, is now the Frida Kahlo Museum.

Posed and spontaneous portraits, reprographics of now iconic works, images of murals and paintings in progress, and records of press conferences and newsworthy events all come together to formulate that iconographic memory.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo's Home Studio Museum in San Ángel.

Diego Rivera
No other Mexican artist was as important to Guzmán as Diego Rivera. Whether in the modest role of reprographing his work and his biographical documents, or more visibly as a reporter (providing information about his works in progress, social gatherings, press conferences, and other public appearances), Guzmán was both a collaborator and an ally when it came to building the fame of the painter and muralist.
As well as pictorial arts, Rivera dominated in other fields, including verbal, scenic, fabulist, and rhetorical arts. This enabled him to entice and attract attention, sling criticism in all directions, advocate his political beliefs widely, give his compulsive lies free rein, and become a magnet for scandal. Guzmán photographed all of these art forms.
As correspondent for "Time" in Mexico, Guzmán collaborated on a lengthy article and rare spread showing reproductions of Rivera's pictorial works. It was a piece that the American magazine dedicated to him in 1949, in honor of the great retrospective exhibition that the painter put together for the Palace of Fine Arts.
Guzmán produced an abundance of iconography featuring Rivera, which was widely reproduced but not always duly accredited. In it, the painter and muralist can be seen in the company of local celebrities (publicist Santiago Reachi; archbishop Luis María Martínez; the actress Silvia Pinal), next to illustrious visitors (Nelson Rockefeller; Orson Welles; Walt Disney), in animated conversation with choreographer Katherine Dunham and her dancers, and posing proudly with his collection of archeological pieces.
Working on several of his murals, including one that was conceived as an underwater story for the 1951 hydraulic piece Cárcamo de Dolores ("Water, Origin of Life"), and another painted for the Theater of the Insurgents (Teatro de los Insurgentes), called "History of the Theater in Mexico" (1953).

Cárcamo de Dolores Museum, Chapultepec.

Facade of the Theater of the Insurgents, Mexico City.

Frida Kahlo
Guzmán dedicated a considerably smaller number of portraits to Frida Kahlo, Rivera's companion. He produced far more following the career of her partner, who produced "Nightmare of War, Dream of Peace" (1952). However, there is a sense of proximity and closeness in the portraits that goes beyond simply a mutually convenient working relationship between a recognized artist and a photographer, who had access to international publications.
Frida had to endure countless medical interventions and treatments, and Guzmán was allowed to visit the English Hospital in Mexico City and even approach the bed where the painter convalesced, rested, and regained her strength. Lying on a bed, which she surrounded with memories and turned into a second studio, Frida Kahlo was photographed by Guzmán while she worked on a painting containing the figures from her family tree, or watched a puppet show.
In another series of portraits, Frida posed with her orthopedic corset exposed and decorated with the communist symbol of a sickle and hammer, and with a sugar skull on her lap bearing her name on its forehead. These portraits with the corset and skull, which show a body constrained by immobility and yet capable of liberation through the resolve of its creative energy, evidence Guzmán's insight into Frida Kahlo's pictorial imagination and biographical journey.
Credits: Story

The exhibition "Juan Guzmán: Sessions with Diego and Frida" is the result of the Televisa Foundation's Visual Arts Direction' reviews of Juan Guzmán's photojournalistic archive—one of the photography collections entrusted to it.
Curation and texts by Alfonso Morales and Cecilia Absalón.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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