About Nahui Olin

  • Biography
  • Themes and Analysis
  • Work and Imagery
  • Influences and Criticism

The famous Mexican model, painter, and poet Nahui Olin was born Carmen Mondragón on July 8, 1893, amid continuing aftershocks of the Mexican Revolution and the cultural crisis that coincided.  While the woman that she and others immortalized in photography and paintings would later be called erotic, sensuous, revolutionary, and nonconformist, she was already rebellious and highly inquisitive as a child.  Her education in France spanning eight years fed her keen and intelligent mind.  Her beauty even in her infancy and adolescence also captured much attention – those unmistakable piercing green eyes became the symbol of her mystique even as a girl.  Those eyes would continue to inspire painters and photographers many years later.

At twenty years old, Carmen married Manuel Rodriguez Lozano on August 6, 1913.  Although at first she exhibited a passionate affection for him, neither of them wed enthusiastically: his decision seems to have stemmed from a want to move ahead in his military career, while supposedly Carmen’s mother told her that she would either marry Lozano or go to a convent.  They had at least one child together, which died early in infancy; the truth behind rumors of the baby’s death is difficult to pin down.  The couple spent over half a decade in Europe, where they met painters like Pablo Picasso.  This encouraged Lozano to paint.  Upon their return to Mexico, the pair separated, though they probably never divorced because of social stigma of the time.

Shorty after this separation, Carmen made the acquaintance of the painter Dr. Atl at a party.  Originally named Gerardo Murillo, the artist took the name from Nahuatl origins and christened Carmen with her new name of Nahui Olin, an Aztec name having to do with the sun’s force behind the cyclic rhythm of the heavens.  Immediately after their encounter, Dr. Atl and Carmen fell into an ardent, all-consuming love affair that continually broke societal norms.  He was older than her by twenty years, and they lived together but never married.  Their highly erotic correspondence shows a bodily exploration that was incredibly scandalous for the 1920s.  Nahui knew very well the power of her beauty, and in this relationship she took charge of it, glorified it, and exulted in it.  With her various lovers she shared the conviction of the mystical power behind her green eyes.  Dr. Atl painted numerous portraits of her, always with those prominent emerald eyes.  Her huge eyes also give her away in several of Diego Rivera’s murals.  She is the muse of photography, painting, caricature, and poetry alike.  She capitalized on the attention, stirring much more controversy with the nude photographs for which she would pose.  With these photographs and with her own personal eroticism, she became an infamous symbol of sexual license.

While Olin surrounded herself with prolific painters, she maintained her own distinct style of painting.  Her style is sometimes called naïf painting, for its wide brushstrokes, vivid colors, and depictions of typical Mexican community life.  But like Frida Kahlo, self-portraiture was an essential means for Olin to investigate and cement her identity.  This perhaps was her way of solidifying a life that in many other respects was disintegrating.  After separating from Dr. Atl (both had lovers outside of their relationship), she had many short-lived sexual relationships and also had one lover, Eugenio Agacino, die on her.  In a time of life when relationships and reality must have felt gradually more ephemeral, painting was a way for Olin to anchor the external world to herself: like Frida’s one eyebrow, Nahui would superimpose her enormous eyes onto her subjects.

As Nahui Olin aged, she spent more time immersed in her fantasies and seemed to observers to be losing her mind.  She lived her last years in isolation, surviving on little food and sharing some with her many pet cats.  At almost eighty-five years, she died on January 23, 1978.

From a very early age, Nahui Olin showed a remarkable penchant for the written word, as the title of À Dix Ans Sur Mon Pupitre (At Ten Years Old from My Desk) indicates.  In the foreword to this volume, the writer portrays a girl that even at ten years old wrestled with the ideas of fate, destiny, and the isolation that comes with deep awareness of her surroundings: in it, she writes, “of love—brain and flesh I have been made—three indefinable things—incomprehensible for men—my nonconformity is the torment that isolates me and diverts me from the life in which mediocrity limits adaptation and encounters conformity.”  Although she had published several volumes of literature before the publication of À Dix Ans in 1924, this epigraph resonates with the pervading themes of most of her written works.  As in her artwork, Nahui Olin distinguished herself in her poetry as an unconventional, rebellious, and spiritual voice.

In 1922, Olin wrote her Óptica cerebral: Poemas dinámicos.  In this volume, divided into twenty-three parts and with an introductory poem by Dr. Atl, Olin contemplates nature, solitude, the rhythms of the universe, and the cyclic nature of life.  The “dynamic poems” are most frequently written as micro-essays of one to three paragraphs.  In them, she praises the independent nature of the spirit, the importance of the Self, and the evil she sees in conformity to the conventions of society.  To her, this is nothing less than slavery and cowardice; the spirit has no room to expand within those confines.  Over and over she advocates the removal of all limits to the spirit’s expansion, because she sees the spirit as an evolving, growing entity.  However, this emphasis on the spirit does not indicate a type of Gnosticism disconnected from the physical realm.  On the contrary, she achieves in Óptica cerebral a rare blend of science and spiritualism.  She discusses electricity, geology, oncology, and chemistry.  She also delves into political science, lamenting the tyranny of governors hungry for gold, who deprive the poor of their rights.  The blend of spiritual and physical elements helps to define Olin’s worldview as cohesive, exalted, and roiling with the struggle for freedom.  Her allusion to pre-Colombian beliefs in “Bajo la mortaja de nieve duerme la Iztatzihuatl en su inercia de muerte” (“Under the shroud of snow sleeps the Iztatzihuatl en her inertia of death”) symbolizes this union through pre-Colombian spirituality’s inextricable link between the earth and the divine.  The lucid physicality of these esoteric and lofty musings hint largely at the sensuality that would come to define Olin.  However, in comparison with her later works, her Poemas dinámicos stay true to the titular cerebral tone.

About a year after the publication of Óptica cerebral, Olin published a new collection of poetry written in French titled Câlinement je suis dedans (I Am Tender Inside) in 1923.  In contrast with her Óptica cerebral, this collection ventures into dramatic syntactical experimentation.  Each poem has a distinct shape, and does not fall easily into stanzas.  She emphasizes particular words by writing them in capitals, and also moves the action of the poem forward with this technique.  Through these structural experiments, she communicates playfulness and lust for life.  The pervasive eroticism of Câlinement also contrasts with the Óptica.  Olin fills these verses with highly corporeal and close images.  The physical beauty of the body—especially of the eyes, as in Olin’s artwork—acts as a foundation for enticement, for change, and for excitement.  The body of the poetic voice is almost an entire planet, a stage where dramatic action develops.  The poetic voice, often blatantly stated to be Olin herself, drips with sexual desire and also thrives off of the desire that her beauty induces in others.  This eroticism clashes with the general social conservatism in the Mexico of Olin’s epoch, once again defining her as a true cultural rebel.  The concept of newness and permanence also prevails in this collection.  The poetic voice consistently views herself as continually new and unchanged.  She sees herself as an almost fairylike light to those around her; she grants the gift of her beauty wherever she goes, thus making her surroundings new.  Câlinement presents an image of the poetic voice as a collage of extremes: wild, vulnerable, yet diamond-hard and hungry.

Nahui Olin published her Energía Cósmica (Cosmic Energy) in 1937.  She begins the collection of essays with this epigraph: “Everything is that exists and nothing is that does not exist. / Everything has merely an accidental contact in the Universe. / Everything depends on a general movement, the totality of diverse movements.”  This prefaces the scientific-mystical tone of the collection.  The tome consisted of numerous short essays summarizing the author’s ideas on the scientific theories behind the universe’s structure.  In these essays, she sees the universe as a vast totality working in harmony, propelled at the most minute level by the movements of atoms.  To the author, the universe thrums with energy as a unified whole, and the cooperation of movements begun at the lowest level results in beauty.  The content of the collection presented a radical step away from Câlinement and a nod back to the Óptica, but did not depart from the Olin’s exaltation of the forces of nature in all of her work.

In her literature, Nahui Olin demonstrated astonishing flexibility and a broad repertoire of ideas.  Perhaps this resulted from her deep fervor for the expansion of the spirit: in the outward movement of her spirit, she explored science, sex, beauty, and destiny.  In all of her explorations, as in her artwork, she proved herself immovable to the forces of social conventions, literary criticism, and popular science.  She established herself as a mysterious but playful autonomous entity, but continually enticed the world to dare to know her.

As an artist roughly falling into the naïf classification of art, Carmen Mondragón—and then Nahui Olin—concerned herself with social rituals and reproductions of autobiographical scenes.  The magic in quotidian moments seems to be what interested her the most of all themes.  She produces tableaus of family life in rural Mexico.  Unlike many artists, Nahui does not usually highlight a focal point in her social tableaus.  Instead, the crowded canvas conveys a sense of community and of joyful togetherness in events such as baptism, working in the orchards, or having a rendezvous with a novio in the flowers.  These pieces of civil art are akin to folk art, but Olin maximizes the potential of this art when she separates different social settings into separate strands of human interconnectedness.  Even in her sprawling social scenes, Olin presents several distinct microcosms of familial or public life.  She satirizes decorum, emphasizes the strangeness of the juxtaposition of so many different people, and above all, she conveys the mad desire to love and be loved.  Underlying all of Olin’s work is this understanding of humans as beings interwoven with each other.  Even in her depictions of individual characters, the artist hints at interdependence between people.

Given Olin’s frequently discussed and exploited sexuality within the conservative Mexican context, it should come as no surprise that eroticism and beauty jointly play a key role in her artwork—especially her later paintings.  One may see this eroticism as a controversial and dramatic extension of her mental framework of human interconnectedness.  Many of Olin’s paintings depict naked lovers entangled with each other, almost melting into each other’s embrace.  The bright colors and overemphasized shapes in these paintings hint at the importance of these encounters to the artist.  For her, these encounters present the most magical and existentially involving slices of life.  This magic can also be observed in the expressions of the subjects’ bodies.  Their eyes glow with excitement, their skin flushes and seems to radiate heat, and their limbs clutch at each other in a hungry frenzy.  Their watery-looking eyes even seem to gaze heavenward, as if the sexual encounter were the closest thing to sublimity that they have known.  Furthermore, the dynamic movement of the subjects on the canvas indicates a certain feeling of momentousness.  It is clear that Olin did not think for one moment that these encounters were in any way trivial or mundane.  For her, they were the highest expression of grandeur—the epitome of being.  As always, the bright, wide eyes of the subjects draw much attention with their dramatic lines and colors.  The artist saw the eyes as vehicles for attraction, for pulling people into each other.  She knew and owned that her own eyes could lure almost anyone into wondering about her and lusting after her.  For this reason, the eyes of her subjects act as points of connection between people.  Olin also uses the eyes in many of her paintings to draw her audience into the work and also to create webs of connectedness between her subjects.

Not surprisingly, another prominent theme underlying much of Olin’s art is that of exposure.  As evidenced by the amount of nude modeling Olin did for various photographers, this artist did not see boundaries where most of the rest of the world did.  In her depictions of nude figures, the city—a symbol of public life—hangs in the background, free to look on at the nudity in the foreground of the painting.  For the artist, there exists almost no distinction between private and public life.  For this reason, she can expose herself literally and figuratively to anyone who would like to watch.  In this way, she represented a mindset that radically contradicted the reserved, decorous, and conservative mindset of immediately post-Revolution Mexico.  For Olin, relationships and thoughts could not be confined to certain appropriates situations, but consisted in the spontaneous spilling out of body and soul.

Nahui Olin’s self-portraits seem to counterbalance the sense of public interaction and flirtatiousness that pervade her other paintings.  For example, the self-portrait at the port of Veracruz depicts the artist by herself at a point, gazing almost despondently at the portrait’s observer.  The brightness of the facial expression has all but vanished, and shadows underneath the eyes give the impression of tear tracks.  The audience cannot be sure if the ship in the background is departing from her or approaching her, but her despondency seems to indicate the former.  The wide green eyes persevere, but they droop just slightly and seem somewhat empty.  This self-portrait confirms what Nahui conveyed in her community-focused paintings: that the artist exists and is even defined by her relationship with others.  When the sprawling, blue loneliness approaches, she pleads for the connectedness that once caused her to thrive.  This painting came out of her later work, and presented a drastic change from some of her earlier portraits of herself alone.  Her self-portrait in the Versailles gardens, for example, depicts the central figure almost as a sculpture, as an artifact meant for admiration and adoration.  The strange beauty of the gemlike eyes is still there, in contrast with the subtler, more ordinary appearance of the woman at the port.  This self-representation dares her observers to be inspired by her and awed by her, while the later self-portrait seems to plead for warmth.

The concept of vibrant, integrated, and uninhibited human relationships is absolutely essential to understanding the paintings of Nahui Olin.  This controversial artist created her ideal world, where relationships were dramatic, public, and exciting.  The falling apart of that ideal surfaces later, and the stark contrast with her earlier work poignantly illustrates the bewildering loneliness that comes after years of admiration and adoration.

The public figure of Nahui Olin has generated much controversy, often to the disadvantage of her perception as a serious artist.  Criticism of both her literary and visual work at times tends to tangle itself up with the mystique of the woman, rather than her work itself.  She is often viewed solely in relation to the artistically influential Dr. Atl: following this unfortunate view, she can be a monster, a muse, or a mystery.  As a subject of photography by prolific artists such as Edward Weston, her participation in art is sometimes bizarrely deemed as passive rather than active.  Her public persona of a revolutionary sexual symbol in Mexico typically garners much more attention than her artwork.  For these reasons, layers of psychoanalysis and myth surrounding her art pose obstacles to fair and objective analyses of it.  Those that wish to grasp at the woman in the artwork rather than in the public sphere must choose to let her work speak for itself.

Although his interpretation of her life, art, and poetry can at times hinder the criticism of Olin’s artwork, the photographer, painter, and writer Dr. Atl had an undeniably massive influence on her art.  The love affair between the two commenced shortly after Olin (then known as Carmen Mondragón) returned to Mexico from Europe with her husband.  Their encounter happened while Carmen’s artistic talent was in its infancy, and she hungered for collaboration and for the expansion of her work.  Meanwhile, Mexico found itself in the middle of a cultural revival: photography as an art form gained rapid popularity, and artistic movements such as Muralism and Stridentism flourished and became key elements of social life.  During her time in Europe, Carmen and her husband had mingled with many artists, including Mexican muralist Diego Rivera; back in Mexico, more of the most definitive artists of the age – including Roberto Montenegro, Xavier Guerrero, Manuel Iturbide, and Romano Guillemín – surrounded her.  Dr. Atl was also part of this group, and in this time of curiosity and artistic hunger he became a point of access to this world for Olin.  Because their romance spanned this crucial period for her, and because he became an essential collaborator in most of her artistic endeavors, he left an indelible mark on her work.

During the presidency of Obregón after the Mexican Revolution, many artists explored mexicanidad, or Mexicanity, as a core theme of their work.  A strong sense of nationalism pervaded this theme, of which Dr. Atl and Nahui Olin were dedicated proponents.  In their artwork, experimentation with forms reminiscent of popular art, like retablos and ex-votos signaled a glorification of the country’s culture, including celebrations, entertainment, and rituals.  Olin paints these in urban and rural contexts, and her depictions of social life have a distinctly regional feel to them.

The deeply regional themes in Olin’s artwork combined with Olin’s style of painting have sometimes caused critics to dismiss her visual art.  Her style of painting falls under the classification of naïf art, a style often looked down upon in critical circles for its apparent disregard for technique; however, the category is very broad and therefore difficult to define.  It usually, but not always, indicates little or no emphasis on the realistic treatment of physical elements and the use of bright and variegated colors, but does not prescribe much more than that.  Many of Nahui’s paintings demonstrate excitement and boldness of expression.  In general, she uses broad brushstrokes, little or no shading, and depicts characters with extremely expressive faces.  In her landscapes and sprawling social scenes, there is seldom one focus on the canvas.  In this way, she displays a similarity with fellow Mexican painter and friend Diego Rivera, whose murals teem with people.  In her portraits and self-portraits, however, the subject commands the majority of the space on the canvas while the background shrinks behind him or her.  Her contradiction of many artistic norms proves her dedication to popular art, because her paintings demonstrate accessibility to the greater community rather than to a select few elite artists.  Furthermore, her refusal to conform to accepted artistic techniques demonstrates her deeply autonomous and intuitive nature.  She would not allow her style to adhere closely to that of other popular artists, including that of Dr. Atl.

In her tendency to rely upon herself as her greatest source of material and inspiration for her artwork, Olin aligns herself with her contemporary Frida Kahlo.  Just as Kahlo achieved her own brand of mystical and satirical syncretism that defied social norms, Olin created a characteristic effervescence and bright joie de vivre that defied the realism of some of her contemporaries, including Dr. Atl.  Perhaps the same confidence that oozed out of her and led her to pose for various painters and photographers is what caused that distinctive boldness on the canvas.  Observers of her artwork can also see the shared inside-out tendency of Olin and Kahlo in the use of their trademarked physical characteristics.  Above all, Olin’s striking green eyes drew attention far and wide, and gained her the title of one of Mexico’s most beautiful women.  They were windows of her life, and she embraced the beauty that she knew emanated from them.  As Kahlo superimposed her iconic unified eyebrow on many of her subjects, so also Olin placed her green eyes on her subjects.  She also exaggerated the eyes of many of the characters in her paintings.

Although Olin’s artwork is often dismissed as secondary to her literature, her painting was an essential mode of self-discovery, experimentation, and community with the external world.  Although her image was and is continually regenerated and modified in the public sphere, her paintings reveal a figure who kept her own internal world remarkably intact amid strong influences and voices.