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A Stunning Collection of Latin American Masters at MFAH

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The summer after my freshman year of college I volunteered for two months on a work camp in a small village in Mexico. I had two extra weeks before setting sail for home to explore some parts of the country. In Mexico art is encouraged, and it is not uncommon to find yourself casually passing by a Diego Rivera mural on the street. Frida Kahlo's house is open to the public to explore the intimacies of her life and work. I felt charmed to be able to experience such masterpieces.

Houstonians now have the opportunity to be charmed by these two masters among a host of other brilliant and influential artists in the Museum of Fine Arts' newest exhibit, Modern and Contemporary Masterworks from Malba - Fundación Costantini. Art aficionados should be familiar with the name Costantini as the founder and chairman of Malba (El Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires). Malba is one of the premier collections of Latin American art in the world. Houstonians not entrenched in the art world may still be familiar with the name; MFAH has had an ongoing relationship with the museum dating back to 2005. The two cultural giants have exchanged works this year and last to celebrate Malba's decade of showcasing exquisite art.

The current exhibition, which opens to the public on April 22, features 39 pieces from Malba's collection, many of which have never before touched down in the United States. The collection is a combination of distinguished contemporary artists and lesser-known names that warrant the attention.

The showcase begins with a piece by Uruguayan artist Carlos Federico Saez that dates back to 1900. The work, entitled Madronos [Tassels], is an example of a piece of art ahead of its time. Thick red tassels surround a young woman's realistic profile. The tassels appear to emerge from her face and flow down her body and become a vagueness within the painting. The piece was considered revolutionary for its time due to the manner in which it mixes abstraction with realism.

The artists in the collection come from a range of South American countries; much of their work is primarily influenced by the European cubists and futurists. The artists took these fundamentals and combined them with more traditional Latin American concepts to "assimilate the styles into their culture."

Of course, there are fan favorites mixed into the collection. An intriguing piece by Diego Rivera entitled Rivera Retrato de Ramon Gomez de la Serna showcases the artist's unique combinations of cubism and realism. The painting is a portrait of the writer of the same name, his face deconstructed into blocks and angles. However, behind the portrait, real life exists. Seemingly random objects, a gun and a floating head, are juxtaposed against the nonfigurative. Needless to say, it is striking.

The cornerstone of the collection that will delight novices and enthusiasts is Frida Kahlo's Autorretrato con chango y loro [Self-portrait with Monkey and Parrot]. Kahlo's work, to some, has become the epitome of Latin American art. Tourists to Mexico will find her famous unibrow on everything from T-shirts to Zippos. The fame she has gotten over the past few decades should not detract, however, from the masterfulness of her skill. Kahlo painted to a beat of her own, and viewing her work alongside such obvious European influences highlights this fact even more.

The exhibit is saturated with gems, each one worthy of close examination visually and for its historic significance. The collection has six decades of masterpieces with many influences, styles and approaches. Additionally, there are several rare pieces that Malba was lucky enough to come across, including an Emilio Pettoruti charcoal piece presumed to be lost.

Whether you have been fortunate enough to visit some of these artists' work in their home countries or not, the collection being presented by MFAH is not to be missed.

Modern and Contemporary Masterworks from Malba - Fundación Costantini at the MFAH runs April 22-August 5. For more information, visit the museum's Web site.

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