Travelers Welcome

Travelers Welcome

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Museum Dolores Olmedo Patiño

by Claudia Rey

If Mexico is a multifaceted country, Mexico City is even more so. In the short time of an underground ride you go from the majestic, imposing, pompous centre with its baroque mansions and enormous squares to poor suburbs – and you can count on your fellow travellers to help you in the transition from one world to another. Starting from the underground station, where there’s no benches of any sort and many people sit casually on their heels like their peasant ancestors have been doing for centuries.

On the train you find other examples of imaginative resilience. In Europe, poor people beg: in Mexico they sell. A single piece of chewing-gum, a pencil, ten rubber bands, a notebook with maybe twenty pages. “Diez pesos le cuesta, diez pesos le vale”, is their mantra. Roughly, You give me ten pesos, you get then pesos’ worth. Ten pesos buy a plain tortilla, twenty or thirty a quesadilla or enfrijolada, a tortilla filled with cheese or black beans. Enough for a snack that keeps them going for another while. Sellers jump on the train, stay for a couple of stops, jump down again, eluding the occasional policeman who is supposed to punish this kind of individual enterprise. I have the feeling that people around us root for the sellers. I certainly do.

When resurrecting at La Noria station after a fifteen minutes ride, we are actually plunged into a different world. No elegant mansions or monuments, no gardens, no big shops, but small broken-down houses, spindly trees, stalls lining the streets and selling food, shoes, bolts and nails and hammers – in a word, anything. And dust, and smell, and heat.

But then we arrive at the walls of a building similar to a Texan hacienda. Our destination, the museum hosting nearly all the works ever painted by Frida Kahlo – and many painted by her husband Diego Rivera. There’s a double wooden door, a small brass plate. And behind the doors, heaven. Green lawns, flowerbeds, jacaranda trees – probably the most beautiful tree in the world – heavy with purple flowers. A life-size statue in blond polished wood welcomes the visitors: the landlady, Doña Lola Olmedo, portrayed in her naked beauty. And around the statue, peacocks! The first ones draws a shriek of surprise from me, and I start snapping photos. The guys oblige, spreading their tails. But then another group arrives, and another. Dozens of them. The novelty sort of fades away, because in the meantime we have reached the enclosure reserved for the Xoloitzcuintle hairless dogs. The only native dogs of Mexico, they were adored by Frida Kahlo who always had at least a couple of them: rather ugly creatures, dark grey as stone, with small piercing eyes. Maybe her fascination for them lied in their snouts, somewhat resembling Maya sculptures?

Since Dolores Olmedo's death in 2002 all her house has been open to the public. In her bedroom the walls are covered with huge photos of herself, as well as painted portraits, caricatures, letters written to her by the VIPs of the time. All rooms are filled with furniture and sculptures and works of art Doña Lola collected throughout the years – some extremely beautiful, some extremely kitsch.
But we came here mainly for Frida, so we look for the rooms where her paintings are kept: twenty-seven of them, from the very first to the moving last ones, when she was so sick she could barely hold a brush. The Broken Column, The Henry Ford Hospital, Self-Portrait with Monkey, Just a Few Pricks, and My Nurse and I; and Viva la Vida, one of her last. What kind of incredible human being can still celebrate life when knowing that death is not so far? Just her…

The hundred-something paintings by Diego Rivera are no less good of course. It is a bit difficult to admit that he was an excellent painter and muralist and to forget that he was such a horrible man – not only physically – unfaithful and selfish and conceited... But hey, what an artist.
Almost all of his works are political. In this, at least, he was honest. His commitment was real and deeply felt, and he certainly didn’t hide his opinions and his support to what he thought a good cause. All this faith reflected in his paintings - and in the amazing murales in the Palacio Nacional, among others.

After such an immersion in beauty and arts, it is difficult to go back to the real world – and reality certainly strikes more than ever in the dusty streets outside the museum. I stop at a stall selling talismans, mainly because the seller is an older replica of Emiliano Zapata, with white handlebar moustache but no sombrero. He shows me a small cellophane parcel holding a tiny Madonna, a minuscule horseshoe, some sequins, a red bean (“Esa es la semilla de un arbol sagrado” explains Emiliano) and some black crumbs that are probably copal, the strong smelling incense used in churches and private houses as well. All this on a background of white paper, sporting a cross and four words around it: AMOR, SUERTE, ABUNDANCIA, FELICIDAD. How can I resist? I buy it without even bargaining.

I don’t know if it worked in the years since then, but I still have it: it’s here on my desk while I write.

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