Sunday 14 July 2013

Mexico - a revolution in art 1910 - 1940

The current exhibition at the Royal Academy looks at the role played by art in the Mexican revolution of 1910 and the subsequent turbulent years to 1940. It includes the work of a number of Mexican artists  including Diego Rivera, Roberto Montenegro and photographer Agustin Jimenez. Alongside these is the work of artists who spent time in the country and were inspired by its people and politics.

The exhibition charts developments in Mexico following the armed uprising of 1911 after the fraudulent election victory of President de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz - his seventh victory since 1876. His chief opposition, Francisco Madero was conveniently arrested the day before the election, but escaped, fled to the USA and returned in 1911 to lead the uprising that saw him sworn in as president before the year was out. His victory was short lived as he was assassinated in 1913 and Mexico descended into chaos and civil war for a decade. During this period, a number of folk heroes emerged, including Emiliano Zapata and Francisco "Pancho" Villa, both heroes of the poor. Zapata was a small scale farmer and community official whilst Villa briefly assumed wider political authority. Neither lived to old age as Zapata was assassinated in 1919 and Villa in 1923.

Following the end of the revolution in 1920, Mexican artists began to develop new approaches and ideas, moving away from earlier preferences for academic historical and allegorical painting. This was assisted by the appointment of liberal politician Jose Vasconcelos as Minister of Public Education. Vasconcelos persuaded Diego Rivera, already known internationally, to return to Mexico from Paris and to lead a new programme of public art. This resulted in the many murals for which Rivera and artists such as David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco are  known.

Roberto Montenegro. Maya Women. 1926
Robert Montenegro - Maya Women
Whilst the muralists produced overtly political work, other artists chose a different, more nationalist approach that included references to the culture of Mexico's indigenous peoples. An example of this is Roberto Montenegro's Maya Women of 1926. It shows four Maya women in profile against the red and yellow Mexican earth with their single storey homes on the background, reflecting on the nobility and beauty of the people and showing their unbroken link to the land.

The exhibition also includes a major work from Rivera himself. His Dance in Tehuantepec from 1928, is the highlight of the exhibition for me. Framed by the door leading from the first to the second galleries of the exhibition, its greens, oranges and yellows and its graceful dancers stopped me in my tracks. It is only possible to see the features of the dancers in the foreground - the man serious, the woman thoughtful, but the setting of the dance amongst the trees and on the bare earth, the dancers without shoes, again emphasises the continuing link between Mexico's indigenous peoples and the earth. This theme is further developed in the exhibition through a series of landscapes and works referencing the Mayan past. Rivera might be best known in the UK for having been Frida Kahlo's longtime partner. Kahlo has just one work in the exhibition - a tiny self portrait from 1938.

Rivera, Diego - Dance of Tehuantepec - Mexican Realism - Oil on canvas - Genre
Diego Rivera - Dance in Tehuantepec
There is a strong photographic dimension to the exhibition with pictures from some of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century, including Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Martin Munkacsi, just three of many photographers, painters and writers who spent time in Mexico during the first few decades of the twentieth century. Some were attracted by the landscape including Josef and Anni Albers of Bauhaus fame, refugees from Germany who had moved to the USA and visited Mexico regularly. Others were passing through. Hungarian born Capa spent five months in Mexico in 1940 whilst waiting for his US citizenship to come through. He happened to be there throughout yet another bloody election and captured some of the carnage on film. Be warned, some of this makes for distressing viewing.

Cartier-Bresson was in Mexico in 1934 as part of an expedition tasked with touring Latin America and masking a documentary film set to music in each of the countries visited. The film was to cover the history, art, architecture, culture and nature of each country. Rather unfortunately when the crew arrived in Mexico City in July 1934, they found that no funds existed and the project was abandoned. The young Cartier-Bresson stayed on, sent for his younger sister Jacqueline and proceeded to record Mexican street life, warts and all including markets, slums, ruined buildings and brothels. His photographs of the prostitutes of Calle Cuauhtemoctzin are striking for the expressions of the women, their huge eyes and the little attempts at glamour with ornate ear-rings and carefully arranged curls. Like Capa, Cartier-Bresson captures the harshest side of life in Mexico in the 1930s.

Henri Cartier-Bresson - Prostitute, Calle Cuauhtemoctzin, Mexico, 1934
Several women were amongst the photographers working in Mexico during the period covered by the exhibition. One of the most prolific was Italian born Tina Modotti who came to Mexico in 1922. A committed anti-fascist she recorded the lives of the workers and eventually became the photographer of choice of the Mexican mural movement. Always active in politics, she was briefly expelled from Mexico in 1930 but later returned, dying there in 1942. My favourite work of hers here, is Workers reading El Machete from 1929 which shows a group of workers studying a newspaper, sheltering from the sun under their wide brimmed hats so that their features are not visible to the onlooker, but the angle of the hats communicates their interest. Perhaps the worker holding the newspaper is reading it to them.

Mexico - a revolution in art 1910 - 1940 demonstrates the very significant contribution that country made to the development of modern art in the first half of the twentieth century - both through its own, native born artists and through inspiring the work of others from around the world. It is a contribution less well known than it should be and one I will be exploring when I visit Mexico City in December this year. I can hardly wait. The exhibition runs until 29th September and is accompanied by an excellent catalogue and a programme of events - details of which are on the Royal Academy website. For me, this is the exhibition of the summer.
Tina Modotti - Workers reading El Machete c1929

1 comment:

  1. I managed to see this exhibition the other day. Whilst I loved the photographs and somewhat agreed with you on the Diogo Rivera the absolute highlight for me was the Frida Kahlo. This is the last piece in the exhibition and we kept wondering where an offering from her would be. They saved the best for last! It is a delight in that I only know her work on a larger scale and this tiny miniature portrait of approx the size of a £2 coin is exquisite. So much so I bought the postcard!