On Nahui Olin (Artist, Poet, And Muse Of The Mexican Avant-Garde)
One of the most courageous, talented, and least well-known artists of the Mexican 20th Century...
The feline, nearly empty, eyes of Nahui Olin (1894-1978) shine from the Diego Rivera mural La creación, “The Creation.” An intense green, disturbing, they’re found in the paintings of some of the greatest 20th-century Mexican artists. Many will recognize the face, but very few know who this woman was, nor that her beauty was but a fraction of who and what she was: an artist in the word’s most vital sense.
Her real name was María del Carmen Mondragón Valseca and her unusual story led her through painting and poetry, before establishing her as one of the most interesting and talented women of the Mexican avant-garde. Olin’s approach to femininity well exceeded the standards of her time, and she enjoyed tremendous sexual and artistic freedom.
The daughter of a diplomat, Olin was born to an upper class Mexican family. She spent her adolescence in France where her father was working, and there she met the man who would be her husband, Manuel Rodríguez Lozano. With him, she had a daughter who died shortly after birth. In 1921, she returned to Mexico and, during the 1920s and 30s, she became well known as an artists’ model within the intellectual circles of the Mexican avant-garde, including that of the great Diego Rivera.
During these years, she met Gerardo Murillo, better known as Dr. Atl —an activist, academic, volcanologist, and painter— and with whom she enjoyed a lively affair. The two survived a considerable scandal (she, a young divorcee and he, a much older man). Shortly after they met, they moved in together in an old building in the center of Mexico City, where they founded an art school. It was Dr. Atl who coined the name she would use for the rest of her life, Nahui Olin —a concept from the indigenous Mexica culture referring to the fourth regenerative movement within the cycle of the cosmos.
While Atl painted his landscapes, volcanoes and portraits of Olin, she composed poetry and painted scenes of weddings, cemeteries, circuses, and bullfights. Their stormy relationship was tormented by jealousy and infidelity. At the time, women were not meant to respond to their husbands’ infidelities, but Olin did, and this triggered still further violent encounters and denunciations with the result that the couple endured still more scandal and gossip.
Eventually, Olin departed to live alone, and she worked for the rest of her life as an art teacher in a public school, although she never stopped modeling and painting. Many of her paintings depicted herself with varying couples and lovers (men and women), often nude. With the passage of time, she moved still further from public life, always retaining her strong personality and the spirit of youth that never ceased to inspire gossip.
Olin shocked the world not only for her relationship with Atl and so many others. She shocked the world for the freedom she possessed, and which operated on many levels within her life, from the purely personal to the artistic. She wrote erotic poetry and painted throughout her life, without fear of social judgement. At a time when physical beauty was one of the principle attributes of women, she redeemed her mind, her talent, and her creativity above all else, becoming eventually both a brilliant visionary and a feminist.
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