Spotlight – Stephanie Fox Knappe on Masterpieces of Modern Mexico

The assistant curator of American art at Nelson-Atkins discusses her preparations for the exhibit Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Masterpieces of Modern Mexico

Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Masterpieces of Modern Mexico

June 1–August 18, 2013, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

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Above image, clockwise from top left: Stephanie Foxx Knappe.

Cisco Jiménez (Mexican, b. 1960). Códice Chafamex (Chafamex Codex), 1988 – 97.

Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907 – 1954) Autorretrato con monos (Self-Portrait with Monkeys), 1943.

The Masterpieces of Modern Mexico exhibit consists of pieces from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection and are Stephanie Fox Knappe’s favorite works of art in Kansas City.

This Is KC: What is your favorite aspect of being a curator?

Stephanie Fox Knappe: That’s an easy one! Spending time in the galleries in conversation with people in front of great art. I love sharing the Nelson-Atkins’ collection, helping people to engage with it and hearing what they have to say. Often these conversations reveal something to me that I had not previously considered about a painting, sculpture or print, even one I know well, and allow me to think about it in a new way.

Describe the curator’s duties and responsibilities to prepare for this exhibit.

For featured exhibitions, such as this one, the curator’s role is that of a collaborator. For this exhibition, I am fortunate to be part of a team. A curator can sit in her office, refine a checklist, move paper dolls on a layout, conduct research and consider the stories she hopes to tell and the audiences whom she hopes to engage, but she can’t realize any of these things well without working closely with the project team.

Throughout the last several months, we have also been in close contact with the curator responsible for the Gelman collection in Mexico City; the president of the Vergel Foundation that oversees the collection; in addition to Edward J. Sullivan, professor at New York University and renowned expert on Latin American Art; as well as students from Shawanoe Elementary and University Academy whose responses to art in the Gelman collection will appear on labels in the exhibition. Each of these many people, and more, have contributed to the shape and scope of this project—I am just lucky enough to be in the thick of all of it!

What was the extent of the relationship the Gelmans had with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera?

The Gelmans’ friendship with Kahlo and Rivera began shortly after they became Mexican citizens in 1942. Rivera was the most influential painter in Mexico when the Gelmans met him in 1943. He was renowned for his murals that covered the walls of buildings in Mexico and in the United States. In both his public murals and his smaller easel paintings the Gelmans collected, Rivera was dedicated to evoking the history of Mexico and the stories of its people.

In 1943, Rivera introduced Kahlo to the Gelmans. By that time she had married, divorced and remarried Rivera, but she was never in his shadow. Like Rivera, she was interested in the traditions of Mexico, yet she created art that was unique and intensely personal. Her paintings and drawings teem with metaphoric, mythic and surreal references. Natasha Gelman was particularly fascinated with Kahlo’s art, especially her self-portraits. Kahlo invited the Gelmans for drinks at the home of fashion designer Henri de Châtillon, where a small selection of her paintings were on view. While there, Natasha saw Kahlo’s showstopper Diego on My Mind and promptly asked her husband to purchase it for her. Soon, the Gelmans amassed one of the most significant private collections of Kahlo’s art.

To read the rest of this interview with Stephanie Fox Knappe of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, view it in the digital edition of KC Magazine here.