Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 2, 2018
Donald Albrecht and Thomas Mellins, eds. Mexico Modern: Art, Commerce, and Cultural Exchange Exh. cat. Munich: Hirmer Publishers, 2017. 160 pp.; 200 color ills. Hardcover $39.95 (9783777428567)
Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, September 11, 2017–January 1, 2018; Museum of the City of New York, New York, June 22–October 28, 2018

On the occasion of the milestone exhibition Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art, organized by MoMA in 1940, critic, anthropologist, and cultural promoter Anita Brenner stated that the brilliant artistic scene that arose in Mexico in the early 1920s had reached its eclipse. For Brenner, as well as other influential voices from the arts field, the show at MoMA did not embody the true richness and complexity of two decades of intense artistic exploration in Mexico. Instead, it demonstrated how a series of avant-garde movements had become part of an institutional discourse. Other voices were less critical. Painter and anthropologist Miguel Covarrubias, for instance, thought that “the art of Mexico has reached a turbulent maturity, attained only after a dogged struggle against the bonds that held it fast to the decaying cultures of Europe” (Covarrubias, in Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art, exh. cat. [New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1940], 141). Whatever the critical differences, Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art marked a watershed for exhibitions of modern Mexican art in the United States. It represented the use of a curatorial model that highlighted postrevolutionary art as a result of Mexico’s ancient artistic tradition. By exhibiting art from Precolumbian times to the present, Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art posited a narrative in which the so-called Mexican Renaissance of the 1920s was intrinsically connected to the artistic spirit of the ancient civilizations. The “modern” was marked thus by recognizing ancient artistic roots as a lived force present in the work of contemporary artists, especially those who painted monumental murals inside public buildings. Indeed, the exhibition’s comprehensive narrative of Mexican art privileged the art produced by the group of painters associated with the Muralist Movement, a well-established generation known for creating official national art.

Revisiting Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art, and other comprehensive exhibitions on Mexican art (such as Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1990), curators Thomas Mellins and Donald Albrecht organized Mexico Modern: Art, Commerce, and Cultural Exchange, 1920–1945 at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center. Mellins and Albrecht considered those earlier shows as a basis for the curatorial narrative of their exhibition, buttressing a productive and original curatorial proposal. The show traces a nonchronological curatorial narrative of the multiple, fruitful artistic connections between Mexico and the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. To both intervene in the established narrative of Mexican modern art and achieve the goal of tracing transnational dialogues, the curators introduced the motif of commerce. The wide implications of commerce allowed them to expand the field of artistic connections, and thus consider the role that economics and politics played in the formation of a new cultural landscape. As an artistic subject matter, commerce was represented in the show through materials such as posters and ephemera that promoted the idea of Mexico as a product that Americans could consume. Once visitors entered the galleries, for example, they could see propaganda printed by Mexico’s Ministry of Tourism, which performed a significant role in making the country an alluring destination, hiring painters such as Covarrubias to create a specific image of Mexico abroad.

As the show demonstrated in its two main galleries, beginning in the early 1920s, a plethora of authors and institutions attached to the Mexican government shaped the image of a promising country. Indeed, in the first part of the show, one encountered an issue of Survey Graphic from 1924 entitled “Mexico: A Promise.” The magazine compiled articles written by pivotal postrevolutionary ideological figures including president Plutarco Elías Calles, writer and statesman José Vasconcelos, anthropologist Manuel Gamio, and painters Dr. Atl and Diego Rivera, among others. As members of the state apparatus, these figures examined the cultural panorama that distinguished the Mexican cultural scene as unique within the Latin American context. New state policies on indigenous populations, art patronage, urban planning, cultural patrimony, administration, and education were some of the topics signaled by these authors. Walking through the galleries, visitors to the exhibition could appreciate publications and works related to those topics that elaborated in various ways notions of a modern Mexico. Other magazines on display in the exhibition, such as Mexican Folkways, contributed to establishing ideas held by the official intelligentsia from the 1920s, especially by the group associated with Rivera.

Another high point of the show and its catalogue was the exploration of how Mexican art was introduced to American cities through the efforts of editors, art critics, and collectors. For this, the network established by art critic and anthropologist Anita Brenner was crucial. Brenner became a central figure in a series of transnational connections by promoting the work of Mexican artists in US institutions and writing illuminating books such as Idols Behind Altars: Modern Mexican Art and Its Cultural Roots (1929), which analyzed the resonances of ancient art in the Mexican Renaissance. Navigating among art, anthropology, and archaeology, Brenner shaped a complex image of Mexico’s cultural legacies and the modern artistic scene. Being at the forefront of US-Mexican artistic relations, Brenner was a figure one expected to be included in Mexico Modern. And given that Brenner’s papers are part of the immense collection of books and manuscripts housed at the Harry Ransom Center, this was a unique opportunity to study Brenner’s work alongside the great network that she helped created in the early 1920s and that prevailed until the postwar era.

The catalogue essays complemented the show’s narrative, critically examining the transnational cultural and artistic conversations between Mexico and the United States. In his essay, George Flaherty, a specialist in Mexican art at the University of Texas at Austin, discusses the key role that economic speculation had in the formation of a Mexican art market in New York. Flaherty points out that although economic speculation on Mexican art emerged in the 1920s and crystallized in the 1930s, the repertoire of works enthusiastically consumed by US elites did not compose a distinctive panorama that can be addressed as lo mexicano. As with any other emergent market, there was not a clear and definite consumption line around lo mexicano, but rather a series of works that interpreted this cultural construction in many ways.  

Different political and economic factors contributed to the commodification of the idea of Mexico during the years of the Great Depression (1929–39), a period when the Mexican government successfully embraced socialist welfare policies and the notion of progress became a reality for working classes. The US public may have perceived Mexico as the crystallization of a social dream that its own country had failed to pursue. The launch of programs by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, such as the Good Neighbor Policy, which attempted to improve diplomatic and economic relations with Latin American countries, may also explain why postrevolutionary Mexico took center stage in American culture at the time.

Another avenue for Mexican culture’s influence in the US arena was the phenomenon of immigration that occurred in the wake of the turmoil years of the Revolution (1910­–20). In their essay, curators and catalogue editors Thomas Mellins and Donald Albrecht examine the case of the Hull House neighborhood in Chicago and its annual festival of Mexican culture. Organized by Mexican immigrants in the 1930s and 1940s, the festival brought Mexico’s traditions to Chicago, a cosmopolitan capital shaped by waves of immigration from many different cities throughout the United States and Europe. As the authors point out, the festival contributed to the rich and dynamic cultural development of Chicago while helping to maintain a notion of authentic identity for Mexican immigrants. Works produced by immigrant artists in the Hull House neighborhood often resonated with topics depicted in Mexican murals, such as historical episodes, class conflict, and proletarian struggles. Highlighting artistic expressions by Mexican immigrants, Mellins and Albrecht reinforce the show’s main argument: the construction of the “modern” in Mexican art was not exclusive to a national territory but a deeply binational process.

By examining Mexican modern art through the lens of transnational connections, Mexico Modern: Art, Commerce, and Cultural Exchange not only explores a conversation between two countries and their vibrant artistic scenes but also contributes to a complicated and refined narrative about the grandeur of Mexican art. While this grandiosity is commonly presented in official exhibitions as the result of a supportive state apparatus, the truth is that artistic networks operate alongside the work of cultural authorities. Considering a binational territory and both independent and official artistic initiatives, Mexico Modern offers a broader perspective, revealing artistic networks from a more illuminating global perspective. 

Cristóbal Jácome-Moreno
PhD candidate, Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin