Mexico City in 1939 was a vibrant place for music, dance and art. It was also the landing place for two sophisticated young people – Natasha Zahalkaha and Jacques Gelman – who arrived in Mexico, escaping Nazi Europe, at about the same time. They fell in love with each other, and they also fell in love with the country that welcomed them.
As so often happens with immigrants, they saw the culture and art with new eyes, and they embraced it wholly. The Gelmans, who married in 1941, were known for their glittery life of entertaining, traveling and collecting art, and through the years they amassed a major collection of 20th-century European paintings, now housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They also became friends and patrons of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and other Mexican painters, and now the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection is a trove of modern Mexican art.
I am honored to be part of bringing this collection to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art for an exhibition that will be open through the summer. Watching these works be installed on the walls of this museum has been quite moving to me on two levels.
First, as a native of Mexico, these images are deeply familiar. Stories of Frida Kahlo’s and Diego Rivera’s passions and politics are part of the fabric of everyday life in Mexico, and now their powerful images will draw thousands of people to the Nelson-Atkins. I am excited that their work also will spark interest in the work of other important Mexican artists who are part of the exhibition.
Second, I recognize the warmth the Gelmans felt for Mexico, the country that embraced them. Immigration means movement, and displacements are rarely easy. My own family immigrated to Mexico after the Spanish Civil War and on the eve of World War II, landing in a newly adopted homeland about the same time as the Gelmans arrived.
At the age of 18, I left Mexico to go to Paris to study, and since then I too have been an immigrant. I have always been grateful to be received and welcomed in every country where I have lived since. So now this criss-crossing of the Atlantic comes full circle. As a native of Mexico who finds himself in the middle of America, I invite you to see the vibrant images that the Gelmans acquired, lived with and ultimately are sharing with the world.
Menefee D. and Mary Louise Blackwell Director & CEO