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New on View in Crystal Bridges at 10: Rosa Rolanda’s Autorretrato (Self-Portrait)

Portrait of woman hanging on gallery wall with label beside it
Rosa Rolanda, Autorretratro (Self-Portrait), 1939, oil on canvas, 15 3/4 × 11 3/4 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2021.4. Seen in Crystal Bridges at 10.

The museum’s newest temporary exhibition Crystal Bridges at 10 is a celebration of the museum’s collection and community. In addition to displaying crowd-favorite artworks in new ways, the exhibition also features a number of works that have never before been on view at Crystal Bridges. One of these “new-on-view” works is a new acquisition to the collection: Autorretrato (Self-Portrait) (1939) by artist Rosa Rolanda (1895-1970). In this blog, Havner Curatorial Intern Colton Klein explores the imagery and symbolism in this self-portrait, offering context from the artist’s life.

This bust-length self-portrait shows Rolanda—the American-born, Mexican female artist—with elegantly coiffed hair and contoured makeup before a lush and fantastical landscape. Her gaze is self-assured, yet subtly ambiguous: is she engaging the viewer directly or looking slightly off-center? Rolanda’s purposeful inclusion of two white flowers in her hair and the floating butterfly at her neckline suggest an intimate relationship between the sitter and her surrounding natural environment. The dreamlike placement of the butterfly—possibly a magnificent swallowtail native to Mexico—may symbolize Rolanda’s own creative metamorphosis from her early years as a professional dancer to her later career as a painter, photographer, and key cultural figure of the Mexican Modernist and Surrealist movements.

Rosa Rolanda was born Rosemonde Cowan outside of Los Angeles, to parents of Scottish and Mexican descent. She demonstrated early talent as a dancer and left California for New York, where she performed on Broadway with Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revue, a popular and well-received series that featured the foremost performers of the early 1920s. In New York, Rolanda met Miquel Covarrubias (1904–1957), the Mexican caricaturist, illustrator, painter, and anthropologist, whom she later married. In the 1930s, Rolanda and Covarrubias moved to Mexico City where they joined a leading group of Mexican Modernists including Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, with whom they shared a political allegiance to progressive causes and a strong interest in pre-Hispanic and Mexican popular art.

Autorretrato (Self-Portrait) bears a strong visual and iconographic relationship to Rolanda’s early photograms, especially Self-Portrait (Fig. 1) (Davis Museum, Wellesley, Massachusetts), which similarly combine self-portraiture with disparate, yet meaningful, personal symbols like the butterfly. A photogram is a type of photographic print made by placing objects onto photosensitive paper and exposing them to light. Rolanda first experimented with the medium in the late 1920s while traveling in Europe with the Ziegfeld Follies dance company. In Paris, she met and was photographed by Man Ray (1890–1976), the avant-garde artist associated with the Dada and Surrealist movements. Under his influence, Rolanda began to explore the artistic possibilities of photography with emphasis on Surrealist self-portraiture. Autorretrato (Self-Portrait) resembles these early photograms with their three-quarter portrait views, stylized facial features, landscape elements, and symbolic flora and fauna.

Photogram of Rosa Rolanda's self-portrait
Fig. 1. Rosa Rolanda, Self-Portrait, ca. 1930, gelatin silver print photogram, 8  1/2 in. × 6 1/2 in. Davis Museum, Wellesley, Massachusetts.

See Rolanda’s Autorretrato (Self-Portrait) in Crystal Bridges at 10, open now through September 27. Get tickets here.


Written by Colton Klein, Havner curatorial intern, Crystal Bridges.