About Olga Costa

  • Biography
  • Influences

Olga Costa was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1913, at the outset of World War I.  Her parents, Jacobo Kostakowsky and Ana Falvisant Bovglarevokeylandel, were immigrants who had fled czarist Russia to escape persecution of the Jews.  Costa and her younger sister Lya were raised in Berlin, where their father, a violinist and composer, exposed them to the arts at a young age.  But after the end of the war, her family, along with many other Russians, fled Germany.  In 1925 they set sail from the French port of Saint-Nazaire, arriving in Veracruz, Mexico later that year.  The Kostakowsky family was not equipped with the language or cultural skills to navigate their new surroundings.  Costa remembers how different Veracruz was from Berlin: “For me everything stood out: houses with wooden windows painted green, the appearance of the people, the movement of air at dusk, the sky sometimes became all black with vultures, the insects, the bread” (translated by Yulia Stakhnevich, from Olga Costa by Sergio Pitol, 9).

They settled in Mexico City, where Costa studied at the Academia de San Carlos, under Guatemalan Carlos Mérida.  Here she met José Chávez Morado, a Mexican artist and muralist, who she would eventually marry in 1935. Instead of taking her husband’s last name, she chose to keep her maiden name, Kostakowsky and change it to a more Spanish-sounding name, “Costa.” She was primarily a painter, and many of her paintings were of the costumbrista style, which displays the indigenous and mestizo elements of Mexican culture.  Her paintings depicted typical costumbrista subjects, such as portraits of indigenous women and children, landscapes, and still life. As a young artist, the colorful murals of Diego Rivera inspired her.  Costa’s first encounter with his paintings was at the Anfiteatro Simón Bolivar, in Mexico City, where he had painted a mural entitled La Creación.  Although not Mexican herself, her artwork engaged in the ongoing discussion of authentic Mexican identity.

There were many influential European and Mexican artists, musicians and thinkers who also resided in Mexico City during the 1940s and 1950s.  Some of Costa and Morado’s comrades included writer Andrés Henestrosa, sculptor Juan Soriano, and female surrealists Lola Álvarez Bravo and María Izquierdo.   Costa also formed an important relationship with Galería de Arte Mexicano owner Inés Amor.  His gallery held her first exhibit in 1945, and invited her back for many more individual showings. Like many of her female contemporaries, she dabbled in various disciplines, including set and wardrobe design, and muralismo.  Costa was not only a painter, but also an advocate for the arts.  She and her husband opened the Galería La Espiral in 1941, which also served as a meeting place for artists and foreign art dealers.

In 1955, Costa and Morado moved to a seventeenth century hacienda in Guanajuato, which became the place where she completed many of her most famous works.  It was during this time that her work became richer and her use of color more varied. While in Guanajuato, Costa and José became increasingly involved in the creation of museums.  They donated many of their personal belongings, and founded the Museo del Pueblo de Guanajuato from their 18th and 19th century art collection. Costa’s later paintings, from the 1970s on, became more abstract and she often painted landscapes of the Bajío region.  Before her death in 1993, Costa and her husband donated their home to create the Casa de Arte Olga Costa-José Chávez Morado museum, where a large collection of their art and artifacts are still housed today.


Many have claimed that Olga Costa was a self-taught artist.  Although she did receive some formal training at la Academia de San Carlosin 1933, much of her learning occurred through observing her husband, José Chávez Morado (1909-2002), a famous Mexican muralist.  It was not so much the content of his paintings that influenced her work, but his methodology, discipline, and craftsmanship.

Costa is commonly recognized as one of the great Mexican costumbristas, or coloristas.  This movement, with which Rufino Tamayo and Pedro Coronel were also affiliated, was characterized by the use of bright colors and folkloric imagery.  When Costa arrived in Veracruz, Mexico in 1925, she was immediately drawn to the bright colors of Mexican houses, markets and dress, which were a stark contrast to post-war Germany.  Although not Mexican herself, she became preoccupied with the question of Mexican identity, and her artwork reflected her observations and interpretations of indigenous Mexico. 

Muralism was a constant influence in her life and work, especially after she married Morado in 1935.  In 1946, Costa and Morado traveled to Japan.  This trip was influential to Costa’s artistic development, and upon her return to Mexico, she began to develop a repertoire that would characterize her life’s work: portraits, stilllifes and landscapes.

Her contemporaries were also very influential in her artistic development.   It is likely that she crossed paths with María Izquierdo, who worked in Mexico City around the same time as Costa.  The expressionism characteristic of Izquierdo’s work is founding in numerous Costa paintings, for example Cabeza arcaica (1948).  At the beginning of her career, she was very much influenced by Rivera, using lots of greens and oranges in her color palate; however, as she matured, Costa’s work was inspired more by the yellow, ochre, and purple hues that are common in Rufino Tamayo’s paintings.

Costa’s early paintings are characterized by a sense of humor, which she refered to as, “la ironía de lo cursi,” the irony of the corny.  Like her contemporaries, specifically María Izquierdo and Frida Kahlo, Costa’s works portray elements of everyday life that can be described as a grotesque reality.  Among the paintings that best represent her early style are La novia (1941), La venus marinera (1942), and El duelo (1942).  One finds a certain humor in her portraits, created by the juxtaposition of the real and the imaginary.

Around the middle of the 1940s, Costa’s work changed direction, away from the grotesque and towards a more realistic depiction of the Mexican life and culture.  La niña del gato, La niña del palmo (1944) and El niño muerto (1944) reflect a more serious subject matter, such as infant death.  By the 1950s Costa had developed the costumbrista style for which she is so well known.  Her most famous painting, Vendedora de fruta (1951) was produced during this period.  Depicting a Mexican woman at her fruit stand, it is an exploration of color and patterns, both imaginative and realistic.

By the 1960s Costa was painting was almost entirely still lifes and portraiture.  She concentrated more on technique and lighting, and used less variety of color.  As the decade progressed, she moved onto painting landscapes, especially closed spaces and gardens.  She tried to recreate her surrounding on her canvas.  Instead of dramatizing human existence, she dramatized nature, through the use of colors and geometric shapes; likewise, she shifted her gaze from the Mexican people to the natural world.  Elements of Impressionism and Expressionism are seen in her work, including the technique of applying small strokes of paint (see Sembradío, 1976, or El Quelite Colorado, 1980) and the use of Tamayo’s color palate, respectively.  By the end of her career, her paintings were almost exclusively of the Mexican landscape, a space that captured her infinite imagination.