“Knowledge of [Latin American] art makes it possible to develop an acquaintance with and, if you will, an understanding of, our society.”—Marta Traba, Latin American art critic and writer, in Arte de América Latina
Hispanic Heritage Month was established in 1988 to recognize the histories, cultures, and contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans. Commencing on September 15, the anniversary of independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and lasting until October 15, this month-long celebration also coincides with Mexican Independence Day on September 16 and Chilean Independence Day on September 18. Now is a great time to visit the National Museum of Women in the Arts to explore the work of some foremost Latin-American women artists!
Begin your visit with a stop by Frida Kahlo’s 1937 painting Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky and pay your respects to one of the most iconic and widely recognized Latin-American artists of the 20th century.
This bold painting commemorates Kahlo’s brief affair with the exiled Russian revolutionary leader before his assassination in 1940 and proclaims her political allegiance to Trotskyism, though she subsequently broke with the movement and became a supporter of Stalin in 1939. Kahlo depicts herself in a stage-like setting reminiscent of Mexican retables—popular devotional images of saints or the Virgin Mary painted on tin, which she collected—clasping a letter to Trotsky, signed, “with all my love.” While the subject of the painting reveals her engagement with international politics, the Mexican folk art-inspired style shows Kahlo’s engagement with Mexicanidad, a post-Revolutionary movement that emphasized Mexican nationalism and eschewed European influences.
A visit to Kahlo’s Self-Portrait provides an excellent opportunity to get to know the work of another fascinating Hispanic artist, Remedios Varo.
In the same room as Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, you will find three paintings by this Spanish-born Surrealist artist, who produced many of her captivating artworks while living in Mexico: Weaving of Space and Time (1954), The Call (1961), and Phenomenon of Weightlessness (1963). As Lupina Lara Elizondo describes in Visión de México y sus Artistas Siglo XX 1901–1950, Varo viewed Surrealism as “a way of communicating the incommunicable.” Look closely at Varo’s dreamy paintings to appreciate their otherworldly subjects and beautiful, minute details.
Varo, who spent 16 years in Mexico and six years in Venezuela following her exile from Paris during the German occupation, cultivated numerous interests that influenced her art, including alchemy, magic, and the supernatural, as well as architecture, engineering, philosophy, and science. A number of her works portray women in claustrophobic spaces. They are sometimes interpreted as responses to the marginalization of women in society or within the Surrealist art movement, though she also painted many androgynous and species-bending figures in scenes that defy categorization.
—Olivia Mendelson is an education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.