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PHILADELPHIA — In an article titled “Paint the Revolution,” published in New Masses in March 1927, American novelist and artist John Dos Passos recorded his impressions of Mexico, where he had spent most of the past year. He described with awe the murals by José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, writing that their imagery proclaimed the ideals of popular struggle and communal life. This article is one of many early texts and exhibitions that have shaped our narrow definition of Mexican Modernism: they established mural painting as king and made artists Rivera, Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros giants among men. Even the rediscovery of Frida Kahlo in the 1980s did little to reshape our expectation that Mexican Modernism is predominately political, passionately nationalistic, and overtly masculine. Organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in partnership with the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City (where the show will travel in 2017), Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950 is the first major attempt in the United States in seven decades to present a more comprehensive view of the art produced in Mexico during this period, with all of its complexity and contradictions.
The exhibition begins in 1910, when an insurrection broke out against President Porfirio Díaz, who had been in power for 35 years. Over the next decade the country was wracked by bloody civil war and images produced at the time swing widely from escapist visions of rural idylls to apocalyptic scenes of the battlefield. In Saturnino Herrán’s “The Offering ” (1913), peasants paddle boats laden with Day of the Dead marigolds, while in Francisco Goitia’s “Zacatecas Landscape with Hanged Men I” (c. 1914), gaunt and wasted corpses of soldiers hang from skeletal trees — there is no blood, just ravaged bodies and barren earth.
Ironically, several artists who created celebrated images of the Mexican Revolution did not witness the conflict firsthand. A young Orozco never fought, but drew caustic political cartoons for the resurgent ideological press and later translated his noncombatant perceptions of the conflict’s savagery into paintings, such as “The White House” (1925–28), and a series of drawings, The Horrors of the Revolution (1926–28), which was published in the United States. In these paintings and stark pen-and-ink drawings, war is only a harbinger of horror and an act of senseless inhumanity. Rivera was even farther removed, living in Paris until 1921. The troubles back home and a sense of national pride do surface in his work, but as examples in the exhibition remind us, Rivera was a devoted Cubist and well connected with the European avant-garde, even providing illustrations for the Russian Ilya Ehrenburg’s book An Account of the Life of One Nadienka and of Certain Revelations She Had (1916).
In late 1920, after a revolt against President Venustiano Carranza, General Álvaro Obregón assumed the presidency and began the long process of nation building, with art as a central tool. José Vasconcelos was placed in charge of the Ministry of Public Education, and he assembled a network of painters to decorate public buildings with murals. These monumental works cannot travel, but in Philadelphia, Rivera’s two mural suites — “Ballad of the Agrarian Revolution” (1926–27) and “Ballad of the Proletarian Revolution” (1928–29) — are transported in digital form from along the top floor of the Courtyard of Fiestas at the Ministry of Public Education to the exhibition space in a wonderfully conceived large-scale projection. Always keen to promote himself abroad, Rivera took advantage of the increasing interest from the United States in Mexican art, even recreating (with modifications) some of the panels from the Ministry of Education as portable murals like “Liberation of the Peon” (1931). Made for his solo show in 1931 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the work now resides in Philadelphia’s collection.
Less well known is the Mexican government’s sponsorship of art education, in particular a countrywide, socially inclusive drawing program aimed at students in primary schools. The drawing method conceived by artist Adolfo Best Maugard sought to establish a truly “Mexican art” by reinterpreting the ornaments found on native pottery into seven basic design motifs. Works based on this method, like Emilio Amero’s image of a dancer from around 1922, also favor simplified, elongated human forms and have flat compositions, in which pattern and ornament supersede a realistic depiction of space, amounting to a bizarrely kitsch brand of primitivism. Taught until 1925, the Best Maugard Drawing Method was later harshly criticized for standardizing artistic expression and limiting it to folkloric subject matter.
Though short lived, many who learned this method, like Rufino Tamayo, were later associated with the loosely connected literary and art group known as Los Contemporáneos (the Contemporaries), who believed that art should remain unrestricted from any fixed agenda. Greatly influenced by the European avant-garde and the renewed interest in classicism, many artists associated with this group focused on portraiture, depicting Mexico City’s flappers and members of the homosexual community in a celebration of cosmopolitanism that ran counter to the mural painters’ disdain for bourgeois individualism. A second group, known collectively as Estridentistas, also cried out to be heard against the dominance of the muralists. Estridentismo (or “Stridentism”) embraced innovation and technology as utopian ideals linked to socialist politics and their most intriguing legacies are the art and literary magazines Irradiador (1923) and Horizonte (1926–27), through which they promoted their ideas and linked their vision to the international vanguards of Futurism and Purism.
Exhaustion sets in by the time the exhibition reaches the 1930s. The cultural output of the 1920s alone is a rich enough topic for a major show. Yet what this fatigue proves is how much we still don’t know about the full breadth of modern art in Mexico. Another equally rich topic for a future exhibition is the printed output of the Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists) and the Taller de Gráfica Popular (People’s Graphic Workshop; TGP), which produced propaganda for the government, labor unions, and other political organizations, as well as prints and artists’ books for the art market. As Mexican painting began to reflect the overwhelming influence of Surrealism in the late 1930s — a shift driven by the influx of European émigrés to the country — the TGP sought to preserve and extend the nationalist iconography championed by the muralists. In Philadelphia, the wall devoted to prints from the 1930s and 1940s is sublime. Despite their smaller scale, these graphic works hector and protest with fierce voices against the rise of fascism and imperialism.
The need to create a national mythology drives much of the art produced during this period in Mexico. While trying to establish a distinct cultural identity, peasants and indigenous people were often effectively marginalized as non-political members of the Mexican nation and recast as grateful recipients of a post-revolutionary social transformation. These problems are not unique to Mexican Modernism, but works that speak against this trend are rare or perhaps need to be sought out. Praise of Kahlo’s work has become cliché, but her complex canvases feel more poignant when seen among those of her contemporaries. In “Self-Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States” (1932), she mocks Mexico’s appropriation of indigenous cultures as emblems of national identity while deriding the United States’ obsession with industry. Wearing a pristine pink dress and thin white gloves, she crosses her arms in front of her body, holding a Mexican flag in one hand and a cigarette in the other. In so many ways she seems to embody the image of a non-threatening symbol, but her cigarette and traditional beaded necklace put a crack in the passive façade.
Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950 continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through January 8, 2017.