Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 6, 2018
Agustín Arteaga México 1900–1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, and the Avant-Garde Exh. cat. Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 2017. 360 pp.; 209 color ills.; 87 b/w ills. Hardcover $50.00 (9780300229950)
Grand Palais, Paris, October 5, 2016–January 23, 2017; Dallas Museum of Art, March 12–July 16, 2017
Installation view, México 1900–1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, and the Avant-Garde, Dallas Museum of Art, March 12–July 16, 2017 (photograph © Ben Torres; provided by Dallas Museum of Art)

“The narrative of this exhibition is a journey that sheds new light and permits new reflections on what has come to be oversimplified in the figures of ‘The Big Three’—Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros—and in the ubiquitous phenomenon of Frida Kahlo” (20), writes Agustín Arteaga, the newly appointed Eugene McDermott Director of the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). In his introductory essay for the México 1900–1950 catalogue, Arteaga emphasizes how the exhibition—featuring more than two hundred works in a range of media including prints, paintings, drawings, and film—challenges the notion that the artistic repertory of Mexican art was solely a result of the Mexican Revolution. Formerly the director of the Museo Nacional de Arte (MUNAL) in Mexico City, Arteaga brings the exhibition to the DMA in a partnership with MUNAL, Mexico’s Secretaría de Cultura, and the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes. Originally presented in Paris, México 1900–1950 arrived in Dallas at a poignant political moment in the United States and in Texas more specifically, and marked the ongoing commitment of the DMA to its local community. Outreach plans preceding and accompanying the exhibition included a partnership with the nonprofit Latino Center for Leadership Development to create the community outreach program Yo Soy DMA. Advertisements and word-of-mouth efforts across the Latinx community in Dallas, along with a series of free family days on Sunday, were some of the strategies used to build a bridge between the museum and its diverse audiences. The DMA’s collection already had the potential to foster these relationships; among its greatest features are the fifty-seven-foot-long mosaic mural Genesis, by Miguel Covarrubias, mounted on its north entrance, as well as its distinguished Precolumbian collection. But México 1900–1950 pushed these efforts beyond collecting to a larger-scale attempt to bring people into a museum they can identify with and become passionate about. It furthermore points to a gap in the museum’s collecting efforts so far in modern and contemporary Latin American and Latinx art. Bolstering an excellent collection of Euro-American art from this period, the DMA’s recent investment in works by African American and women artists can only be strengthened by the collecting of art from other countries in the Americas.

Occupying the first and fourth floors of the museum, México 1900–1950 was built around the work of Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros, and Kahlo; yet, rather than just celebrate these iconic names, it highlighted the transnational network of artists, patrons, and intellectuals that shaped Mexican art before and after the revolution. The exhibition was organized chronologically, beginning at the end of the nineteenth century and ending with the death of Orozco and the arrival of the Abstract Expressionist Mathias Goeritz to Mexico. It was Rivera’s work that threaded a continuous line throughout the exhibition, running from the early influences of the European avant-garde and the artist’s experience in Paris, to his return to Mexico and his role in the muralist movement, to his involvement with Kahlo and his later career in the United States. Orozco and Siqueiros appeared as disruptions in this canonical narrative, challenging oversimplified understandings of the Mexican renaissance that celebrate the revolution’s idealization of indigenous culture and overlook the atrocities of the colonization process as well as those of the postrevolutionary period.

The exemplary works by the most famous figures of Mexican art in this period were a clear highlight of the show. Nevertheless, it was undeniably in the juxtapositions, the interplay between diverse works and how they were arranged in the exhibition space, that México 1900–1950 was at its best. The transition from the first large room, labeled “Art before the Revolution” (featuring Portrait of Ilya Ehrenburg, a Cubist painting Rivera made in France in 1915, and Ángel Zárraga’s extraordinary Symbolist-inspired painting The Woman and the Puppet, 1909), to the second space, titled “México and the Revolution” (which showcased works by Rivera, Siqueiros, and Ramón Cano Manilla, among others) provided a case in point. While the initial space was centered on the search for an aesthetic repertory in Europe, the second showcased the ideal of miscegenation—or “cosmic race,” as championed by José Vasconcelos, head of the Ministry of Public Education in postrevolutionary Mexico—as characteristic of the country’s search for identity, evoked particularly through the representation of Amerindian bodies. The left panel of Saturnino Herrán’s Our Gods (1918), a large oil on canvas, hung on the main wall of this second exhibition area, a massive manifestation of this ideal of the noble savage. However, it was in the small alcove that divided these large spaces that the canonical narrative of the birth of muralism and indigenism was nuanced. There, representations of the revolution, exalting fear rather than hope and evoking the suffering and chaotic nature of this period, were brought to the fore. Francisco Arturo Marín’s black marble sculpture Mourning for Zapata (1957) imposed its tectonic dominance on the small space, manifesting the angst of its characters. This affective quality was further amplified by Francisco Goitia’s oil painting Tata Jesucristo (ca. 1925–27) on the wall across the room. Again, figures appeared too large for the space they were in, jailed and confined by anguish and fear. The alcove also included, on its adjacent wall, the central piece of Herrán’s Our Gods ensemble, entitled Coatlicue. A composite of native and Christian deities, it prefigures the left panel placed in the much larger and more colorful room beyond. Coatlicue’s intricacy and opaque color scheme—in bluish-gray crayon and watercolor on paper—is exacerbated by comparison with the balanced, warm-colored, oil-on-canvas composition of adoring bodies on the larger panel. This relationship punctuates the complex realities of the revolution and the myth of miscegenation, which include the chaos resulting from the struggle to create a national identity in Mexico.

This fine line between the erasure of contradictions engendered by idealization and the necessity for transcendence in the face of trauma was a repeated theme throughout the show and provided for the most fruitful encounters. The placement of Orozco’s painting Communal Grave (1926–28) next to Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s remarkable photograph Striking Worker Murdered (1934), as well as the positioning of Orozco’s Landscape with Peaks (1943) and Bravo’s The Washerwomen (1932) opposite a clip of Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva México, offered truly inspired moments that resonated with both specialized audiences and the general public. Colors, forms, and the affectivity evoked by each of these pieces opened the space for different experiences of Mexican identity and history. The thoughtful curation of small clips from key Mexican films also spoke to this diversified experience. Many of the included films, projected on an array of large screens, featured strong female characters and indexed some of the most emblematic moments in the history of Mexico. As such, they created an opportunity for the audience to consider how intricate, advanced, and diverse the artistic field was in the first half of the twentieth century  and to what extent the issues concerning these artist and directors are still relevant today. Nevertheless, because all the projections were but small clips of the larger motion pictures, they were not given the opportunity to speak as artworks in and of themselves.

The exhibition’s highlight was three rooms focused on the work of women artists in Mexico, featuring large-scale paintings, such as Kahlo’s The Two Fridas (1939), Olga Costa’s The Fruit Seller (1951), and Rosa Rolanda’s Self-Portrait (1952), as well as works that depict iconic women of the time, including the pseudonymous Dr. Atl’s painting Nahui Olin and the photographs of Tina Modotti by Edward Weston and of Lola Álvarez Bravo by her husband, Manuel. These helpfully expanded conventional narratives centered on Kahlo and her work, as well as the chauvinistic blind spot of much of Modernism’s canon, even if it did not point to the complicated power dynamics between the women and the male artists picturing them. Nevertheless, after this section, which ended in a smaller room presenting an exceptional wall arrangement of photographs by Modotti and Lola Álvarez Bravo, the narrative thread weakened. Despite excellent pieces by Jorge González Camarena such as The Bathers (1937), highlighted against a purple wall, and Roberto Montenegro’s Portrait of Gabriel Fernandez Ledesma (1921), an outstanding oil on canvas with an intricately decorated frame, the “others” of modern Mexico were grouped together rather awkwardly. This carried through to the next section, which featured the abstract work Siqueiros did in the 1930s, the portrait drawings of Marius de Zayas, Miguel Covarrubias’s caricatures, and even Rivera’s American murals.

The problem was caused by the simultaneous organizing of the works chronologically and in thematic clusters, which led to moments when the central narrative was lost. The space dedicated to US–Mexico relations exemplified this difficulty. Rivera’s Siege of Tenochtitlán (1929–30) was chosen to anchor the space, but other works found throughout the exhibition would have more clearly shaped this theme. Ángel Zárraga’s The Northern Border of Mexico (1927) is one of these pieces. This incredibly thoughtful work, found in the first room of the exhibition and completely disconnected from the US–Mexico cluster because of its position in the chronology, would have served well the desired narrative, privileging questions of the two neighboring countries that are still pressing today. The chronological approach also resulted in an abrupt ending to the exhibition. Although the works of Leonora Carrington, Wolfgang Paalen, Alice Rahon, and Mathias Goeritz conveyed well the importance of the legacy of the Mexican renaissance, the exhibition lost its breath toward the end, as the chosen breaking point in the narrative remained somewhat obscure for a general audience.

In its most successful moments, México 1900–1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, and the Avant-Garde showcased Mexico as a fertile ground of aesthetic renovation rather than just another port of European Modernism. The exhibition design, inspired by the architecture of Luis Barragán, adds another layer to this discussion. Exhibition designers Jessica Harden and Skye Malish-Olson created a connection between the two floors of the exhibition by focusing on a visual narrative inspired by Barragán’s strong colors and clean lines. The brightly colored walls placed along the exhibition highlighted specific works and created a path that carried the audience through the space. What the exhibition design also showcased was the continuing influence of the Mexican renaissance on later movements.

In the current political moment, the staging of México 1900–1950 in Dallas and the DMA’s attempts to reach its Latinx community, as well as the concurrent opening of Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, show the relevance of the topic and the potential of art as an agent of change in the struggle to assert Latin America and the Latinx community’s importance in a shared history of the Americas. 

Alice Heeren
PhD candidate, Department of Art History, Southern Methodist University