The Royal Academy showcases a vital era in 20th-century modernism in Mexicoby Tom Streithorst / July 4, 2013 / Leave a comment
The schoolteacher sits primly on a chair, wearing a western suit that contrasts with his classic campesino features. On his lapel, the tricolour pin of the PRI, the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution, Mexico’s ruling party. The walls, that gorgeous blue plaster you see in Mexican rural homes, on the floor, a bone, which gives the painting its name, alluding to the bribe schoolteachers had to pay the party in order to get their job. This 1940 painting by Miguel Covarrubias reflects much that is magnificent in 20th century Mexican art: modernist technique, a concrete political message, and an obsession with the country’s downtrodden masses.
The Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910 with the overthrow of Portfirio Diaz, inspired a generation of Mexican painters and photographers. They abandoned the derivative, academic style of the Belle Epoch and created politically committed art that drew deeply from their country’s rich cultural heritage. Mexico a Revolution in Art 1910-1940 at the Royal Academy showcases this vital era in 20th century modernism with paintings and photographs by both Mexican and international artists. The foreigners, including Henri Cartier Bresson, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Philip Guston, and Robert Capa were drawn to Mexico both for the political ferment and for the inexpensive lifestyle.
Frieda Kahlo is represented by her tiniest self-portrait, a broach-sized gem she painted for a lover. Jose Clemente Orozco’s Barricade uses Christ-like imagery to celebrate the sacrifice of revolutionary soldiers. David Siqueiros’ hardcore communism is obvious in his 1931 portrait of peasant leader Emiliano Zapata. In massive close up, Zapata looks more than a little like Siqueiros’ hero, Joseph Stalin, without the soft eyes and rural garb we expect in paintings of Zapata. Paul Strand’s photograph of a Christ statue is simple, stark, and stunning. Antonio Ruiz’ El Verano shows a peasant couple, in rural garb, staring at lighter skinned mannequins in posh shop window, a message about the cultural and economic divide between Mexico’s peasantry and its urban elite.
Populist, post-colonial, and powerful, far from the salons of Paris and New York, Mexicans and foreigners together created some of the most visceral art of the early 20th century. With only 118 paintings and photographs, filling four rooms, this is not an exhaustive show but rather an excellent introduction to a special time and place.