Measuring 7’6” by 5’6”, Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros’s painting Portrait of George Gershwin in a Concert Hall is the largest work in the Mexico Modern exhibition. It also encapsulates the show’s theme of artistic dialogue between Mexico and the United States, doing so with a distinctive backstory.
During a trip to Mexico City in 1935, George Gershwin—famous for Broadway standards such as “I Got Rhythm” and the opera Porgy and Bess—befriended the equally accomplished Siqueiros.
The two men quickly realized that they had more in common than artistic greatness. Both were reportedly synesthetes: people who when experiencing one sensation, automatically experience another. Sounds stimulate them to see colors, and colors sounds.
At the time of Gershwin’s Mexican trip, he and his well-connected fellow travelers—Chicago department-store heir Marshall Field and New York-based arts patron Edward M. M. Warburg, among others—all purchased the artist’s work, increasing his fame in the United States.
The following year, when Siqueiros went to New York to teach an experimental painting workshop, Gershwin commissioned him to paint his portrait, ultimately deciding that he wanted to be shown playing the piano in concert.
Siqueiros painted a concert hall reminiscent of the Metropolitan Opera House where Gershwin had performed four years earlier. He designed the imaginary hall in the fashionable streamlined style of Art Deco Manhattan masterpieces such as Radio City Music Hall.
Upon seeing the completed work, Gershwin requested a change: he wanted Siqueiros to portray friends and family members, seated in the front row. The artist, who [according to George Gershwin: His Life and Work by Howard Pollack (University of California, 2006)], considered Gershwin the biggest “nuisance” he had encountered, nonetheless obliged him. Across the bottom edge of the frame, which Siqueiros also painted, small pieces of paper list some of the attendees at this mythical concert.
Who owned the painting before it came to the Harry Ransom Center—what museums and auction houses call a work’s provenance—adds to its luster. After Gershwin’s death in 1937, at the age of 38, the painting went to his brother, the celebrated lyricist Ira Gershwin, who bequeathed it to the Center in 1961.
Portrait of George Gershwin in a Concert Hall is on view in the exhibition Mexico Modern: Art, Commerce, and Cultural Exchange, 1920–1945 through January 1, 2018.
Donald Albrecht is co-curator, with Thomas Mellins, of the exhibition Mexico Modern: Art, Commerce, and Cultural Exchange, 1920–1945.