Announced a year ago, the Denver Art Museum exhibition “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism” was to be the art event of the year for Colorado – another hotly anticipated event following a string of blockbuster shows at the museum in recent years. Last year’s Claude Monet survey and the 2016 “Star Wars” costume collection at the museum drew national attention and became a mandatory road trips for anybody within driving distance.
While the novel coronavirus pandemic had changed the Kahlo/Rivera exhibition, it still opened to the public Sunday and will run through January.
With crowds limited and social distancing measures in place, here’s how attendance works: Tickets are available for purchase online in 10-minute increments; when you arrive you cannot come early. Tickets have sold out through mid-November, but there are many open days after that. In late November, a second block of tickets is due to go on sale.
At a virtual press conference about the exhibition last week, the museum offered a sneak peak of the show and what to expect if you venture to the exhibition.
The show includes 20-plus Frida Kahlo paintings and drawings, including seven of her beloved self-portraits. There are also 13 pieces by Rivera, including his iconic political murals.
It includes more than 100 works from the collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman, who were Mexico City-based patrons of the country’s modernists in the 1920s and beyond. For Denver, the show is augmented by artworks lent by local collectors John and Sandy Hawkes.
The result is both a greatest hits package from Kahlo and Rivera as well as a wider scope view of the post-Mexican Revolution spirit that birthed the avant-garde style they found along with the modernist countrymen in 1920 as an independent Mexico was birthed.
As exhibition curator Rebecca Hart put it, they were working out “how to make a new visual form that would give life to a new nation.”
Their work embodied the new concept of “mexicanidad,” which blended Mexican nationalism and ancient native tradition. And it incorporated the novel idea of what was then being called “the marvelous real,” now commonly known as magical realism, which posits the impossible in an otherwise realistic setting.
“Mexican artists joined he ancestral to the present, the indigenous to the colonial and the imagined to the physical,” Hart explained.
The first piece you’ll see in the exhibition is Rivera’s “Calla Lilly Vendor,” which does all of those things and epitomizes the idea.
“A painting like this symbolized the new hope of Mexico at the end of the revolution,” Hart said. “Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo were two of the artists who helped make a visual reality for the new modern Mexican state.”
The outsize personalities of Kahlo and Rivera – popularized in decades of pop culture and recent films like the animated “Coco” and the Penelope Cruz-starring “Frida” — and the couple’s passionate and tumultuous relationship are also in evidence here in pieces like Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait with Monkeys” and others.
A section of the show looks at what exterior forces were pushing Kahlo and Rivera creatively. Titled “Circles of Influence,” this section examines how the Mexican Modernists filtered the movements coming from Europe through their own lens, and how it took shape in the artwork and the new Mexican culture at large.
“One of the points we make in the exhibition is that Diego and Frida were a hub of circles of influence,” Hart said. “The Mexican Modernists created a visual identity for the modern Mexican state – rooted in tradition yet thoroughly modern.”
The show closes with the Kahlo’s famous “Diego on My Mind,” the self-portrait with a small portrait of Rivera stamped on her forehead and offers a wealth of works by her contemporaries like Lola Álvarez Bravo, Gunther Gerzso, María Izquierdo and Carlos Mérida.
At the press conference, museum director Christoph Heinrich detailed some of the COVID-19 health and safety practices the museum has put in place for the show, including arranging the layout of galleries to avoid bottlenecks and crowding.
Sanitation and ventilation practices at the museum meet or exceed the CDC standards, he said. The ventilation system, he noted, was put in place to protect artwork from contaminants in the air and is therefore cleaner than most any other indoor space.
The museum is rolling out a robust lineup of virtual events tied to the exhibition, including interactive and art-making happenings and lectures. The museum is filming a virtual version of the exhibition this week. Hart expects it to roll out by Thanksgiving.