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Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940

Published 22 May 2013

The only thing matching the political turmoil of the Mexican Revolution was the creative outpouring that would inspire artists far beyond Mexico’s borders.

  • From the Summer 2013 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Soon after I moved to Mexico City in 1971, I interviewed David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), one of three larger-than-life painters who, decades earlier, had revisited the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution, and much of the country’s history, in creating his powerful political murals. By then, the other two “greats”, Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) were long dead, as were the ideals of the revolution, but Siqueiros had not given up the fight.

    At the age of 74, he was covering a large polygonal building, inside and out, with violent colours, shapes and figures representing The March of Humanity and the Earth towards the Cosmos. The march, he explained as he showed me around the so-called Polyforum Siqueiros, is one of misery and oppression, frustration and exploitation. This was his message for posterity. It went without saying that capitalism was to blame.

  • Marsden Hartley, Earth Warming

    Marsden Hartley, Earth Warming, 1932.

    Oil on paperboard. 83.8 x 64.1. Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, The Blount Collection. Photo Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.

  • Siqueiros clearly enjoyed political combat. Unlike Rivera and Orozco, he took up arms during the revolution. Then, feeling betrayed, he joined the Moscow-line Mexican Communist Party. He spent 1938 fighting with the republicans in the Spanish Civil War. And in May 1940, he tried, unsuccessfully, to assassinate the exiled Trotsky, who was killed three months later anyway. His rebelliousness earned him several jail terms, the last one ending only seven years before our meeting.

    Yet in the 1920s, no less than Rivera and Orozco, Siqueiros was happy to be commissioned by the government to glorify the revolution through murals in public buildings. In practice, all three went further. Siqueiros and Orozco often portrayed revolutionaries, such as Emiliano Zapata workers and peasants in the heroic light of socialist realism, while Rivera was given the privileged space of the National Palace in Mexico City to paint Mexican history, dating back to the Aztecs.

    So why did mural painting, an art form as old as cave paintings, suddenly reappear in post-revolutionary Mexico? One popular explanation points to a hidden memory of the multi-coloured pyramids of the country’s pre-Hispanic civilisations. Another recalls the Catholic tradition of using frescoes to convey the stories of the Bible to the masses. Mexico’s rich folk art, using bark paintings, textiles, ceramics or wood carvings, is also a form of storytelling.

    As propaganda tools, however, murals were hard to beat. Today, they can be found across Mexico, in schools, universities, hospitals, theatres and government buildings. And if some foreign eyes see them as puzzling messages from a distant era, they remain important symbols of how the revolution and its aftermath changed the country. Although the governments of the day were fast forgetting such revolutionary cries as “Land and Liberty”, the murals provided a new explanation of Mexico to the Mexicans.

  • José Guadalupe Posada, Farewell of a Maderista and his Sad Sweetheart (Despedida de un Maderista y su triste amada)

    José Guadalupe Posada, Farewell of a Maderista and his Sad Sweetheart (Despedida de un Maderista y su triste amada), 1911.

  • This clearly could not be done during the revolution itself, when factional warfare claimed as many as one million lives. One influential illustrator and engraver, José Guadalupe Posada, portrayed the peasant rebel Emiliano Zapata and other revolutionary scenes in penny prints, but he died early in the conflict. Otherwise, along with a handful of fearless filmmakers and the American journalists Ambrose Bierce and John Reed, it was left to photographers like Walter Horne, Hugo Brehme and Manuel Ramos to capture the chaos and cruelty of the combat.

    The revolution itself was largely ignored by Europeans who, from 1914, were consumed by their own war. Even the United States, which occupied Mexico City in 1847 and subsequently absorbed half of Mexico’s territory, acted cautiously until the revolutionary Pancho Villa raided a New Mexico town in March 1916. In response, Washington sent 10,000 troops to capture Villa, but after 11 months they returned home empty-handed. (It was left to Mexicans to murder Villa in 1923.)

  • Francisco Goitia, Man Seated on a Trash Heap

    Francisco Goitia, Man Seated on a Trash Heap, 1926-27.

    Oil on canvas. 57 x 52.5 cm. Museo Nacional de Arte, INBA. Photo © D.R. Museo Nacional de Arte / Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura, 2013..

  • Only after some stability was restored could politicians, intellectuals and artists try to make sense of it. And while the revolution promised a new future, it proved easier to rework the past, which is where the muralists came in. They romanticised Mexico’s pre-Columbian roots, they depicted the Spanish conquistadors and their religious enforcers as brutes, they denounced American and French intervention in the 19th century and they justified the 1910 revolt against the long dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz as a backlash against an avaricious elite.

    The muralists were not alone. Until the revolution, exploration of Mexico’s ancient cultures, such as the Maya, as seen in Mayan Women (1926) by Roberto Montenegro (1885-1968) and Olmec, was usually carried out by Europeans. But from the 1920s, with the national narrative now starting long before Cortés landed in Veracruz four centuries earlier, Mexican archaeologists and anthropologists assumed an important role in unlocking the secrets of long-hidden ruins.

    Many artists, notably Diego Rivera, also collected pre-Columbian art, while images of pyramids or temples often appeared in murals and paintings. In a country that had known centuries of defeats, highlighting the splendour of the past became something of an ongoing national mission, reinforced over the past half-century by the magnificent National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. By the mid-1920s, interest in Mexico was also growing abroad among artists, photographers and writers. A few were curious to study the consequences of the revolution. Others wanted to join the exciting new art scene. Rivera, large in body and personality, was easily the most dominant figure. He had earned his international stripes as a Cubist in Paris a decade earlier. Now, through the historical reach and political punch of his murals, he was reinventing himself as the high priest of nationalist art. The fame of the muralists spread north. Orozco painted murals at universities in New York and New Hampshire, while Rivera and Siqueiros were hired by wealthy Americans. Their radical imagery was not always welcomed: Rivera’s mural for the Rockefeller Center in New York was destroyed and Siqueiros’s América Tropical (1932) in Los Angeles was painted over, although last year saw the completion of its restoration. But they left their mark on American artists. Some moved to Mexico for a while, among them Philip Guston (1913-1980), who painted Gladiators (1940).

  • Tina Modotti, Workers Reading El Machete

    Tina Modotti, Workers Reading El Machete, c. 1929.

    Platinum print. 10.5 x 7.9 cm. Throckmorton Fine Art, Inc. Photo Courtesy by Throckmorton Fine Art Inc., New York..

  • 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.

  • Edward Burra, El Paseo

    Edward Burra, El Paseo, c. 1938.

  • One artist, Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), Rivera’s wife, created a world of her own. After being seriously injured in a streetcar accident, Kahlo underwent numerous operations and was often in pain. In fact, many of her 55 self-portraits record her suffering. At the same time, Mexico was always present in Kahlo’s oil paintings, both in the embroidered Indian costumes she wore and the often-bizarre symbols she added.

    André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, was the first foreigner to recognize her talent. They met in 1938 when he travelled to Mexico to meet Trotsky, who was a guest in Kahlo’s family house, and Breton pronounced her a surrealist. She disliked the tag, but was flattered when he included 18 of her paintings in a Paris show in 1939. (Only in 1953 was Kahlo given her first solo show in Mexico.) However, Breton’s broader observation that “Mexico is the most surrealist country in the world” was more a confession that he found the country incomprehensible, a conclusion often shared by foreign visitors. Certainly, four English authors who wrote books about Mexico between the 1920s and 1940s – D.H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Malcolm Lowry – never got beyond what Octavio Paz called the “masks” hiding the soul of the country and its people.

    Much the same could be said of the foreigners who came to paint or photograph Mexico’s people and places – with perhaps one exception. Almost unnoticed, a decade before Breton proclaimed Mexico surrealist, one English artist, Leon Underwood (1890-1975), explored the mysticism of Mexico in a series of quasi-surreal watercolours. Among them is Moctezuma’s Voices (1930), in which the Aztec ruler, dismayed by the arrival of the Spanish, is consulting the spirits. Underwood also painted a version of Chaac-mool, the distinctive stone reclining figure from the Toltec era, which inspired the sculpture of Underwood’s one-time student, Henry Moore.

    Yet, for all the fascination that foreign artists felt for Mexico between 1910 and 1940, their influence on the country was minimal. Forever outsiders, they took away far more than they brought. They were welcome to observe, to admire, even to participate, but never to belong. Rather, it was left to Mexico’s muralists and other artists to capture a country that was looking back in the hope of moving forward. After all, the past was an experience that only Mexicans could know – a pain that only Mexicans could feel. And it still holds the key to understanding Mexico today.

  • Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940, *Sackler Wing, 6 July–29 September, 2013. 2009-2013 Season supported by JTI

    Alan Riding is an author and former foreign corresopondent for ‘The New York Times’.

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