On July 27, 1938, Frida Kahlo wrote to New York Gallery dealer Julien Levy on behalf of Diego Rivera: "My husband has asked me to tell you that he is unable to be ready for his exhibition in your galleries this fall because he has been ill for the past four months and unable to work." Unwittingly, she had opened the door that would lead to her first one-woman exhibition, during November 1-15, the dates that had been reserved for Rivera.
The catalogue of her paintings listed Between the Curtains (1937), a large self-portrait, first, and Survivor (1938), a miniature of a pre-Columbian idol, last. The November 12 issue of The New Yorker reported that "Walter Pach was the first to buy a painting. It is called 'Survivor' and it consists of a Mexican idol looking lonely on a large field. This symbolizes [Kahlo explained] the survival of Mexico in a shaky world." The price of Survivor was listed as one hundred dollars.
Frida Kahlo had arrived in New York for her exhibition with a guest list drawn up by Rivera, at the top of which were the names of Walter and Magda Pach. Also in her suitcase was a letter, "Al Pintor Walter Pach," dated "Octubre 11, 1938," written in Spanish by Rivera.
Mi querido amigo Pach:
Time has passed since I wanted to write to you but there is no worse correspondent in the world. There are plenty of excuses. No possible forgiveness for me. I take advantage of Frieda's trip to send you this letter and greet you, your wife, and son.... I recommend Frieda to you very much, as husband and as admirer of the painting that she makes, I share this admiration [with] illustrious compañeros, Breton, for example, is an enthusiast of Frieda's painting....
de su amigo, Diego Rivera.
The significance of Pach in the lives of both Riveras is curious and cannot be overestimated. Painter, critic, curator, advisor to collectors such as the Arensbergs, Walter Pach had been responsible for bringing the Armory show to New York in 1913, and was the first to have written about Cézanne in the United States in 1908, and to lecture on van Gogh, etc. In 1916, Pach saw Rivera's painting done while in Europe, in Marius de Zayas's gallery on Fifth Avenue; but it was some eight years earlier, while living in Paris, when Pach had written enthusiastically to Luis de la Rocha about it. Pach was unaware that he was Rivera's friend and would show the letter to Diego. Rivera never forgot this, and in 1922, when Pach traveled to Mexico to lecture at the Universidad, they began a life-long friendship. Pach would come to his friend's defense time and again. When in 1932, Rivera's Detroit Institute of Arts murals were unveiled to unbridled criticism--The Detroit News editorial declared "the best thing to do would be to whitewash the entire work completely"--Pach ferociously wired from New York: "If these paintings are whitewashed, nothing can ever be done to whitewash America." Again, Pach proved faithful in May 1933 when Rivera's Rockefeller Center mural, Man at the Crossroads, was boarded up. As a leading voice of the art community, he initiated a correspondence with Mrs. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, with whom he had a friendly, working relationship, asking her to intercede on Rivera's behalf, pleading to at least allow him to finish the mural and leave it covered for later generations to decide its fate. It was unimaginable to Pach that the mural's fate was sealed and its destruction unavoidable. Remaining loyal to Rivera, he reiterated to a friend: "Diego is simply great--and his painting is immense."
Julien Levy decided on the title Survivor based on "The surviver" (sic) and "El superviviente," the English and Spanish titles provided by Kahlo. Although not immediately apparent, Survivor is an ex-voto, painted in gratitude after having being granted a miracle. Kahlo had survived her first separation from Rivera in 1935, his affair with her youngest sister, his request for a divorce, her decision to commit suicide, and after all that, his return home: a mixed blessing, for sure. Survivor shares a similar emotional content with other works also shaped around these events: Self-Portrait with Curly Hair (1935), Me Alone (1937; lost), Memory (1937), I Belong to My Owner (1937; lost), and She Plays Alone (1938). The circumstances that generated the Survivor image clarify Kahlo's earlier description of the painting as mirroring her personal situation, her loneliness and survival in her own shaky world. The gateway of a ruinous dwelling stands abandoned on the horizon line of an empty plain; it reflects Kahlo's alienation. Long ago, this was the entrance to someplace; now, it is the threshold to nowhere. Kahlo's resilience is represented by a pre-Columbian vessel in the shape of a standing warrior from a burial site in Colima, the western region of Mexico. A crested helmet with ear flaps surrounds the spout projecting from the top of the figure's head into which Kahlo has placed an array of blue-green Quetzal feathers as a headdress. One can only guess why she chose feathers from this solitary bird known for not surviving in captivity. Generally, such warriors are depicted in a frozen pose holding a club with both hands; but this one is different. Although unarmed, he is not completely vulnerable; he stands in a threatening pose, right fist raised at an enemy that only he can see.
Kahlo's choice of frame for Survivor poses a clever paradox. She used a tin frame made in Oaxaca, like those used to frame testimonies of devotion such as votive paintings. Religious objects of the poorest order-- such as crosses, milagritos, and other religious objects--made of this inexpensive metal are acquired by those who cannot afford costly silver. Although the painting's emotional content is about survival, tin is about destruction. Tin corrodes, tarnishes, is not resistant to time, and its symbolic value is its fleeting shine. It gives the false impression of being enduring like silver. Maybe that is why the warrior retains his threatening stance. Although he has survived, as a warrior he knows that conflict never really ends and he must continue protecting himself. He survived one battle but the war continues.
It is known that after showing her work in New York, Kahlo traveled to Paris to present an exhibition. It is also known that on arrival she learned, much to her chagrin, that André Breton had neither collected her paintings from customs nor secured a gallery. What is not known is that Walter Pach saved the day when he contacted his old friend Marcel Duchamp, asking him to help Kahlo retrieve her paintings and find a gallery to exhibit them. From this show one of Frida Kahlo's self- portraits, The Frame, was acquired by the Louvre.
March 25, 2010
Walter Pach (1883-1958) was among the earliest and one of the most passionate promoters of Mexican and Latin American art and artists, in the United States. In the 1910s Pach saw works by Diego Rivera in exhibitions in New York, some of which Pach himself participated in, such as the 1917 and 1918 shows of the Society of Independent Artists--an organization that Pach helped found. However, the two did not meet until the summer of 1922, when Pach traveled to Mexico City to teach a course on Modern art at the National University of Mexico. Rivera, as well as José Clemente Orozco and other artists, attended these classes which had a profound impact on them. Rivera and his wife Guadalupe Marín became close friends with Pach and his first wife, Magdalene. Back in New York in the fall of 1922, Pach organized the first show of contemporary Mexican art in America for the 1923 Society of Independent Artists exhibition. From this point through the 1950s, Pach promoted Mexican and Latin American artists by introducing them to dealers and organizing exhibitions, and in articles, books, and lectures.
The first opportunity Walter Pach had to meet Frida Kahlo was in Detroit early in 1933, where Rivera was at work on his murals for the Detroit Institute of Arts. When Rivera and Kahlo traveled to New York that spring for Diego's next commission--the Rockefeller Center murals--they enjoyed many convivial evenings with the Pachs at their Manhattan apartment which had become a gathering place for artists from all over the world. The friendship between the couples continued for two decades and was especially strong when the Pachs returned to Mexico City in 1942-1943, when Walter again taught at the National University of Mexico.
In the fall of 1938, when Kahlo came to Manhattan for her first one-person show at the Julien Levy Gallery, she again found a warm reception from the Pachs. Not only did the Pachs attend the opening of her exhibition but Walter Pach was also the first to buy a painting--Survivor--which became one of his prized possessions. Pach also wrote a glowing review of her work, "Frida Rivera: Gifted Canvases by an Unselfconscious Surrealist," for the November issue of Art News.
This tiny jewel of a painting then disappeared from view--never having been reproduced--and remained in the Pach family for over seventy years.
Laurette E. McCarthy, Ph.D.