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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."


Mexican Modernism & Populism: "Paint the Revolution" at the Philadelphia Museum

Diego Rivera, Dance in Tehuantepec, 1928. Oil on canvas, 6 feet 6-3/8 inches x 63-3/4 inches (199 x 162 cm). Private Collection. © Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Folks, if you want a grand way to spend New Year’s, may I recommend you go to see “Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910-1950,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This gargantuan exhibition of hundreds of easel paintings, watercolors, murals, photographs, and graphics grandly demonstrates how a radical, though not highly-industrialized, society in the first half of the 20th century managed to unite two movements often seen as antitheses—modernism and populism. The museum is open on New Year’s Day, and this show will end its run there on January 8 (you can still see it from February to April at the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City)..

The original publicity for this show suggested that in order to be truly “contemporary”, it would downplay the accomplishments of the three titans of the period—Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco & David Alfaro Siqueiros —and play up all the subordinate figures surrounding them, starting (of course) with Frida Kahlo, (less dogmatically) Rufino Tamayo, and so on down to little nobodies whose primary claim to fame was that they were women, minorities, political activists, etc. I feared that in the rush to accommodate all these lesser figures, the work of the biggies would be shortchanged.

I needn’t have worried.

Certainly, there are a plenitude of works by lesser figures, but Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros are all accorded the equivalent of mini-retrospectives within this larger framework. In particular, there is a generous selection of warm, moving, and very avant-garde works from Rivera’s early period in Paris when he was close to the Parisian cubists, especially Robert Delaunay.

The earlier works of Siqueiros and Tamayo on view are also revelatory for those of us who have only seen later work, and show why the reputations of these artists is well deserved, far better than does their later work.

I didn't see any minor figures that measured up to the major ones, but at the same time, I found that the work by many of the lesser figures was imaginative and stimulating.

At the very least, it serves admirably to create a temporal context, from the two large 1910 Art Nouveau-like murals by Saturnino Herrán that begin the show to the rise of surrealism in the 1930s and 1940s. If there was a Leonora Carrington here, I missed it, but I was spellbound by Kahlo’s famous rendition of “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale” (1938-39).

This definitely surrealist painting shows the corpse of a socialite/actress who had jumped out the window of her apartment. The painting had been commissioned by Clare Boothe Luce, playwright and wife of Henry Luce, as a memorial portrait, but when she saw it, she was shocked and didn’t want it. It languished for decades in storage until she gave it to the Phoenix Art Museum – but it is rarely at home there as it travels so much to Kahlo exhibitions..

There are a number of fine, mostly black-and-white photographs from the period, by Americans like Edward Weston and Europeans like Henri Cartier-Bresson as well as Mexicans.

However -- and this is definitely a first for me --- the photographs that really wowed me were two of the three sets of huge color moving pictures documenting the most famous mural cycles of the three leading artists of the period. The images are maybe 12 to 16 feet high, and show the murals in situ, with all the furniture and architectural detail that surrounds them in the course of their daily lives..

The Riveras are “The Ballad of the Agricultural Revolution” and “The Ballad of the Proletarian Revolution” at the Ministry of Public Education in Mexico City (1922-28). The Orozco is “The Epic of American Civilization” at Baker Library in Dartmouth College in New Hampshire (1932-34). Both of these I found completely absorbing.

There is so much to see in all of them, from the capitalist and conquistador heavies (among them, a bird-like, wizened John D. Rockefeller) to the good guys (among them, the beloved bird-god Quetzalcoatl and the heroic workers and peasants). I could have spent hours examining them – and hope at least some of my readers will get the chance to do the same.

The third photographed mural, designed by Siqueiros but executed by assistants, I found less gripping. This wasn’t necessarily the fault of the painting—it may have been the photography. The mural is entitled “Portrait of the Bourgeoisie” (1939), and was done in pyroxylin, a synthetic lacquer paint. Siqueiros in his later years seems to have been fond of experimenting with industrial paints and I suspect they have not worn well.

Several smaller, semi-abstract paintings by Siqueiros hang on the wall facing “The Bourgeoisie” -- all done with experimental paints and definitely murky. But a large 1935 Siqueiros oil showing George Gershwin, the composer, in an imaginary concert hall, is a mellow, rich black, brown and yellow delight.

Looking up this painting on the web, I find that one of the people Siqueiros portrayed in the audience was a woman named Mabel Schirmer, who was a good friend of Gershwin’s – and a good friend of my mother’s! What a pleasant surprise.

All of the murals are so full of detail that reproducing them on a web page would reduce them to obscurity. However, this show also has any number of handsome easel paintings, and one of the best larger ones that combines a faintly modernist style with a fervent appeal to the masses is Rivera’s “Dance on Tehuantepec” (1928).

The vivid reds of the women’s dresses contrast with the ghostly whitish greens of the men’s costumes—and the green of the overhanging tree.

This exhibition was curated by Matthew Affron & Mark A. Castro, both of the Philadelphia Museum; Dafne Cruz Porchini, of the Colegio de México, Mexico City; and Renato González Mello, of the Institute for Aesthetic Investigation, National Autonomous University of Mexico.
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