Together with Reuben Kadish and Jules Langsner, he also created a powerful mural at the University of Morelia (it was later hidden behind a false wall and is only now being restored). The Greenwood sisters, Grace and Marion painted a mural in a Mexico City market. (The Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi made a concrete relief for the same market in 1936.) The young Jackson Pollock, on the other hand, absorbed Siqueiros’s influence without leaving the United States.
For many Americans and northern Europeans, however, Mexico’s main appeal was its sheer exoticism, the sense that beneath a thin veneer of westernism lay a country profoundly different from anything they had ever known. Here was a land peopled overwhelmingly by mestizos (people of mixed descent) and Indians, with dozens of pre-Columbian languages still spoken, syncretic religious beliefs and rituals reinforcing fatalism, with the dead seemingly more revered than the living.
Photographers were among the first to explore this world. And by good fortune, they included several of the great photographers of the 20th century, among them Edward Weston and his lover, Tina Modotti (1896-1942), as well as Paul Strand and Henri Cartier-Bresson. With the exception of Modotti, who was expelled in 1930 for leftist activism, they were more interested in Mexico’s social texture than in its politics.
Cartier-Bresson first probed the sleaze of the capital, with prostitutes among his favourite subjects, before travelling south to Juchitán, intrigued by its famed matriarchal society. He evidently savoured his time in Mexico. When I met him in Paris decades later, he illustrated his attachment to the country by gleefully reciting a small lexicon of Mexican curses.
Strand photographed scores of peasants and used the bright light of Mexico to create almost abstract images of village churches, while another American, Laura Gilpin, was drawn to the angles and shadows of the Maya ruins at Chichén-Itzá. Modotti and Cartier-Bresson, in turn, helped emerging Mexican photographers, such as Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Agustín Jiménez. Bravo’s photograph Striking Worker Murdered from 1934 is a reminder that political bloodshed did not end with the revolution.
Robert Capa (1913-1954) came into contact with Mexico more circuitously. When the Hungarian-born photographer’s American visa expired in 1940, Life magazine assigned him to cover Mexico’s presidential election. He captured the spirit of the campaign in a photograph of a truckload of supporters of Gen. Manuel Avila Camacho, the eventual winner. Another image, of a corpse, he simply captioned: “First fatality of the day of the presidential election, Mexico City, July 7, 1940.”
That election marked the end of the post-revolutionary era. Avila Camacho’s predecessor, Lázaro Cárdenas, had been left-leaning, distributing land to peasants, nationalizing the oil industry, welcoming first Trotsky and later thousands of Spanish republicans. But from 1940, Mexico’s single-party rule became increasingly conservative. By then, the political roar of the muralists was fading.
Like foreign painters, who preferred canvases to walls, Rufino Tamayo, Mexico’s best-known artist of the second half of the 20th century, had already turned to the fruits, vegetables and market life of his native Oaxaca in paintings such as Mandolins and Pineapples (1930). Occasional foreign visitors, such as the English painter Edward Burra (1905-1976) and the American painters Marsden Hartley and Henrietta Shore (1880-1963), examined village life and volcanic landscapes. Burra’s watercolour El Paseo (c.1938) and Shore’s Women of Oaxaca (c.1927) are fine examples in the show. And it was certainly not politics that attracted Josef and Anni Albers in 1939 in the first of their many visits. It was the colours and geometric forms they found in Mexico that inspired much of Josef Albers’s post-Bauhaus work.