THE former Mexican Embassy here, a mansion that once had a sitting room with 14-carat gold walls, now houses treasures of a cultural kind. The red, white, and green flag of Mexico flies over the new Mexican Cultural Institute, high above Meridian Hill here. The institute, formally opened by the Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, marks its premi`ere with a triple art exhibition.
``Masters of Mexican Art'' includes 50 paintings by such celebrated 20th-century painters as Diego Rivera, his wife Frida Kahlo, Rufino Tamayo, and Jos'e Clemente Orozco. A second exhibition, ``Five Contemporary Mexican Artists,'' includes works by Jos'e Fors, Roberto Marquez, Agustin Portillo, Remigio Valdes de Hoyos, and Luis Vatsoto. A third show focuses on an exhibition of photography by Lourdes Almeida.
Among the most memorable paintings are Rivera's ``The Girl Lupita Cruz,'' which shows a tawny, wide-eyed child whose tiny hand is holding an orange chair with a rush seat. She wears a long pink dress, orange ribbons in her black hair, and a quizzical expression. Rivera's tantalizing ``Study of Tina Modotti'' begins at the bridge of her nose, omits the eyes, but shows us the strong mouth, black curls, and brawny hands of his model. Kahlo's ``Sun and Life'' centers on a round, orange, smiling sun with human features and one blue eye staring out from its forehead, while around it fleshy green leaves and a tiny gray embryo spout tears.
The most ecstatic and vibrantly lovely painting in the collection may be Tamayo's ``Watermelons,'' in which curves of lush rose-pink color rimmed with green split open and become abstract ideas against an orange and red background. A far different Tamayo, ``Woman with a White Shaw,'' is subdued, pensive, serene.
This exhibition contains its share of mystic, sometimes eerie, paintings: Gonzalez Serrano's ``Still Life with Window and [heart-shaped] Padlock'' shows a blue windowsill, on which rest two huge peaches, a fruit pit, and some crawly vines, and a wooden door open to the desert and a five-story round tower in the distance. A companion piece, ``Fruits at the Window'' is no less mysterious. Remedioa Varo's ``Climbing the Analogue Mountain'' looks like a medieval scene: A figure swathed in saffron robes that billow up like angel's wings stands on a piece of bark in rippling waters.
Juan O'Gorman, the architect who built Rivera's house and went on to became a noted painter himself, is represented by his fierce ``History of Mexico,'' emblazoned with sun, moon, wooden cross, serpent, snail, eagle, pineapple, and skull.
The art is displayed on four floors of the Mexican Cultural Institute, where three levels of a vast oak staircase wall are painted with murals done between 1933 and 1941 by Mexican artist Roberto Cueva del Rio.
The building was built in 1911 by Mrs. Franklin MacVeagh as a Christmas gift for her husband, Secretary of the Treasury under President William Howard Taft. It was Mrs. MacVeagh who had the French Renaissance sitting room done in 14-carat gold foil paper worth a fortune. It was later replaced with gold brocade, but the original gilded Louis XV furniture remains.
The new institute is to be used as a sort of mother ship for exhibitions of Mexican arts, crafts, and culture, which will tour the 40 Mexican consulates scattered across the US.