The selection of works is meant to reflect the search for an authentic Mexicanness and the way in which vanguard and revolutionary interests changed the course of the arts. It also shows the strength and solidity of the modern period in Mexico, in which the folkloric element – persisting from pre-Columbian eras, and an indissoluble part of the country's cultural life – became a hallmark of identity. The works on exhibit are a proof that the local avant-garde was no mere imitation of what was going on in Europe, but a re-elaboration which precisely incorporated elements of the local culture. Crucial in this process was the role of the city, raucous and cosmopolitan, rife with artists and intellectuals nurturing themselves on the native culture, on the popular and religious customs and festivals, on the themes of the indigenous, on class conflicts and on active social and political life.
Mexican art in the first half of the 20th century is recognized chiefly for its contributions to monumental painting, the muralism inspired and propelled by the triumph of the Revolution, which fostered a project for building the modern nation. “While muralism is a prime example in this period, and the exhibition includes some transportable specimens of monumental painting, we were also looking to examine the many mechanisms of interrelationship and synergy that obtained among the various cultural expressions of the era. For this reason, we're displaying what was newly being propounded in literature, music, film and culture in general, offerings which are vital for understanding in a broad context the visual arts of the period," says curator Victoria Giraudo.
The project seeks, in addition, to review and reflect on various assumptions that have hitherto organized art history, in order to revaluate the production and activity of women artists who were marginalized in the canonical account and, thereby reposition them as veritable protagonists in the cultural scene. The expressions of the quest for identity and the appreciation of what is one's own were not exclusively confined to the visual arts nor even to the Mexican setting. The pieces included in the exhibition – paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, popular objects, magazines, photographs and documentation – further underscore this last aspect, showing the relationships between the main exponents of Mexican culture and the advanced intelligentsia in the rest of the Southern Cone.
I. Cosmopolitan Modernity
At the beginning of the twentieth century, with the renovation of art academies, Mexican artists—like those from other parts of Latin America—began traveling, engaging in dialogue and forging ties with Europe, its intellectuals and artists, and its novel avant-garde movements. Modernity meant rejection of the past and adoration of progress, and the subsequent search for radical renovation. Bursting with technological advances, Mexico City became a vertiginous metropolis. A new cavalier and hedonist style ushered in proto-feminist liberation and an affected internationalist intelligentsia—all of which was central to modern representations in the visuals arts, including photography, and to literature, music, and film. This section contains examples of turn-of-the-century symbolism and works related to the configuration of cosmopolitan Mexican modernism with special emphasis on Stridentism—one of the most active, anti-institutional, and plural movements of the period. Stridentism saw itself as a “now avant-garde”; it adored the futurism of the metropolis. In the manifesto issued in 1921, the movement called on artists to “create and not copy” foreign models.
II. Social Revolution
No aspect of modern life in Mexico was untouched by the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917), the first revolution in the twentieth century with such far-reaching social implications. It was thanks to the Revolution that social guarantees were instituted, the right to collective bargaining recognized, and the figure of the Indian revalorized as the forgotten unconscious of the race blossomed and the impulse to learn the country’s history gained momentum. With the election of President Álvaro Obregón in 1920, Mexico began a period of reform and institutionalization that extended until 1940. Social struggles exercised great influence on the educational and cultural-artistic policy and strategy pursued by José Vasconcelos, Álvaro Obregón’s secretary of Education. Starting in 1921, his program was geared to a search for Mexican cultural identity. Thanks to his enthusiasm, Mexican mural paintings gained tremendous importance internationally. Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Roberto Montenegro, and Xavier Guerrero (from Mexico), Jean Charlot (from France), Carlos Mérida (from Guatemala), and Isamu Noguchi (from Japan) were among the Mexican and foreign painters commissioned to make works for the walls of the nation’s public buildings, thus going well beyond the confines of elitist museums. This gallery opens with work by one of muralism’s precursors, Francisco Goitia, who experienced the violence of the Revolution in the flesh and recounted it in drawings and photographs of murals. It continues with key works by master artists that address the period’s major political and social issues.
III. Traditional Popular
Culture Starting in 1921, with the aim of establishing and developing a program of authentic artistic education for the people, José Vasconcelos came up with a systematic plan for nationalist art based on traditional culture, a vision that also aspired to racial integration. Artist Adolfo Best Maugard was named director of the Office of Drawing and Manual Labors. From that post, he attempted to instill a national aesthetic and, in 1922, he developed a method for elementary art education based on the decorative motifs of pre-Columbian folk objects envisioned as genuinely Mexican art. In 1924, Best Maugard was replaced by painter Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, who renewed the method by including new points of reference, like votive offerings, and by making use of free composition, that is, work without reference to the photographic image, in a simpler approach akin to naïve painting. This gallery contains works related to the search for identity through folk objects and elements connected to Indigenismo. At stake is an idea of the authentic Mexican in an attempt to formulate a modernism that encompassed the entire country, not just the capital city. These works evidence religious syncretism, a mix of pagan and Catholic rituals with native roots, in popular festivities like carnivals; in worship of the dead, dances, folklore, masks, and the dress typical of different peoples as Mexican symbol; in earthly embodiments of the soul of ancestors; and in the “spirit” of the nation in relation to its cultural history.
IV. Surrealist Experiences
Surrealism—which means “beyond reality”—was a movement in literature and the visual arts that set out to revolutionize human experience by rejecting rational vision for the sake of authentic and automatic expression of the unconscious (including dreams), outside any aesthetic or moral concern. The movement began in Paris in 1924 with the publication of the First Surrealist Manifesto written by the movement’s leader, André Breton. It would become international in scope, with repercussions well beyond the French borders. But what Surrealism found in Mexico was different from what it found in other countries, since an authentic, unbridled—indeed, almost savage—form of expression had existed there since ancient times. The roots and traditions of the pre-Hispanic world were rich in mythical and totemic elements, fantastic animals and fruits, bold symbolic architectures governed by different worldviews. Those fused with colonial religious traditions in festivities, reredos, votive offerings, altars, and a vast folk iconography. Those elements, along with the symbolism of the beginning of the century, which—though bound to Europe—was beginning to suggest an emerging Mexican inclination for the macabre and the sexual, intensified in the thirties. They were coupled with the repositioning of the modern and overtly sensual woman evident in the surrealist experiments of artists like Agustín Lazo, Frida Kahlo, María Izquierdo, and others. In 1936, celebrated representatives of European surrealism like Antonin Artaud traveled to Mexico to experience in the flesh the magic spirit of indigenous art and to search for the origins of humanity in the country of the Tarahumara. In 1938, in Mexico, André Breton stated, “Don’t try to understand Mexico with reason; you’ll have more luck looking to the absurd—Mexico is the most surrealist country in the world.” Shortly thereafter, a group of surrealist artists and intellectuals fleeing the war in Europe would settle in Mexico: Remedios Varo and Benjamin Péret, Leonora Carrington (Max Ernst’s former wife), Wolfgang Paalen and Alice Rahon, José and Kati Horna, Gunther Gerszo, and others would discover in Mexico a surreal and delirious country that encouraged exploration of the unconscious, a place where a powerful and magic strain of art blossomed. The culmination of that movement was the Exposición surrealista internacional at the Galería de Arte Mexicano in 1940. In a fusion of the European and the native, then, Surrealism became an alternative to nationalist muralism.
Image: Frida Kahlo. Fulang-Chang y yo,1937.
© 2017 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.