Frida & Diego & Jacques & Natasha

Two Immigrants From Europe Leave an Extraordinary Legacy of Mexican Art and More

By Jan Lisa Huttner

Published May 23, 2003, issue of May 23, 2003.
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Interest in the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo has been riding a wave propelled by Julie Taymor’s biographical film “Frida,” which won a surprise victory on Oscar night. That interest has swelled attendance at a traveling national exhibit titled “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Twentieth-Century Mexican Art: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection.”

On May 24, the exhibit’s lands at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, the final stop on a tour that included Dallas, New York, Phoenix, San Diego, Seattle and, most recently, Chicago. In July, the Kahlo pieces will travel to Japan for a special international tribute to women artists while the bulk of the collection remains in Reno. In October, the whole collection will be reunited and installed in its permanent home: a new museum and cultural center in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

“The six Oscar nominations [‘Frida’ received] piqued curiosity and brought us a whole new audience from the northern and western suburbs,” said Cesáreo Moreno, director of visual art at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Chicago, “people who had never been [to this part of the city] before.”

With all this enthusiasm about Kahlo, however, few have stopped to ask this question: Who were Jacques and Natasha Gelman? According to Moreno and others, they were refugees from Europe who fell in love with Mexican life and culture, eventually becoming two of the greatest supporters of its art.

The Gelmans were part of the tightly knit community in Mexico City that blossomed with the infusion of Jewish emigres who arrived in the 1930s and 1940s. Born in 1909 in St. Petersburg, Russia, Jacques Gelman left in his teens to study photography in Germany. He worked as a film technician in Berlin, then moved west once the Nazis came to power. He began his career as a film producer after he arrived in Paris.

“In 1938, Jacques came to Mexico on a business trip,” said William Lieberman, a close friend of the Gelmans and the director of the Department of Modern Art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. “His permit was actually a tourist visa issued, Natasha was amused to discover, by Ethiopia. She was glad, however, that it was valid. With the advent of World War II, Jacques decided to remain in Mexico.”

A year later, a young immigrant from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) named Natasha Zahalka traveled to Mexico, where she met Gelman. Natasha, a convent-educated Catholic, had been divorced three times and was in Mexico with her latest boyfriend when she met Jacques. In him, she believed she had finally found her soul mate. She moved permanently to Mexico, and they married in 1941.

The art collecting began soon after. “Because there were very few serious art collectors in Mexico at the time, the Gelmans’ patronage had a significant impact on the Mexican artists of their era,” Moreno said.

The money to fund this passion came from Jacques’s lucrative collaboration with the Mexican comic Mario Moreno, known popularly as “Cantinflas.” (Although often referred to as “the Mexican Charlie Chaplin,” Mexican film expert Fred Dobb thinks this is misleading: “The Cantinflas persona was an urban everyman who got by on his wit and verbal ability. He’s as hard to translate as Groucho Marx and Woody Allen.”)

Jacques produced 23 Cantinflas films and traveled with him when he made “Around the World in 80 Days” in 1956. The following year, Cantinflas received the Golden Globe Award for best comic actor for the role of Passepartout, right-hand man of star David Niven. Although he is one of only three Spanish-speaking actors ever to receive a Golden Globe, it did not lead to significant new international opportunities for him.

However, working together, Jacques and Cantinflas established themselves as part of the Hollywood community, and the Gelmans developed strong relationships with two of Hollywood’s most fervent art collectors, Edward G. Robinson (born Emanuel Goldenberg) and his wife, Gladys. The Robinsons were the first people to buy work by Kahlo.

Although the Gelmans became Mexican citizens during the early 1940s, they also maintained a posh apartment in Manhattan. Both of their residences, the house in Cuernavaca (one hour south of Mexico City) and the apartment on Park Avenue, were filled with original works of art. The New York residence contained modern European art, including pieces by Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Henry Matisse, Joan Miró, Amedeo Modigliani and Pablo Picasso.

Jacques died in 1986. After Natasha’s death in 1998, all the art was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it is now known as “The School of Paris Collection.” When this collection was first shown in 1989, years before it was donated, Met Director Phillippe de Montebello called it “one of the most important gifts of works of art ever bestowed on any area of the Museum.”

“They lived with these paintings, but both homes were opened to scholars and collectors at all times,” remembered Robert Littman, a friend of the Gelmans. “I once took David Hockney to visit and he told me he though he was in heaven.”

Littman is now the president of the Vergel Foundation, which assumed responsibility for the Gelmans’ collection of Mexican art in 1998. According to Littman, when he first took over the collection, it contained 93 works of art. There are now more than 250.

Natasha also established a foundation known as The Gelman Trust, which is run by two New York lawyers, Janet Neschis and Marylin Diamond. According to Neschis, the mission of the Gelman Trust is “to develop the next generation of artists.” Beneficiaries to date include students at the Art Institute of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the Rhode Island School of Design, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and the Pratt Institute in Manhattan. (The Cantinflas films continue to produce residual fees for the trust, due to their enormous popularity. “Walk into the home of any Spanish-speaking family, and you are likely to find several Cantinflas videos on the shelf,” said Dobbs.)

In the concluding paragraph of his introduction to the Met’s catalogue, Lieberman wrote: “Jacques and Natasha shared a vision, which became a reality.” As a result of that vision, which each of them brought with them to Mexico from their native European lands, the Gelmans became influential advocates of Mexican art and a powerful force in the world of modern art.

Jan Lisa Huttner is creative director of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples (www.films42.com).






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