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The third and last iteration of Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950 on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2017, is just one of the several exhibitions over the last five years that has sought to examine and complicate the story about the development of avant-garde movements in Mexico and their impact on the cultural and social life of the country. This latest surge of interest in modern Mexican art started with Vanguardia en México 1915–1930, organized by the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City in 2013, and continued with the exhibition Modern Mexico Avant-Garde and Revolution at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (November 11, 2017–February 19, 2018). Exhibitions organized as part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA also delved into the rich history of Latin America, ranging from the pre-Hispanic era to modern and contemporary art.
For its part, Paint the Revolution set out to chart the singular development of art in Mexico’s revolutionary and postrevolutionary periods, a time of deep political crisis, incalculable human loss, and the eventual rebirth of the nation. The exhibition was organized as a collaboration between the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, its main lenders and the first two stops for the exhibition. This international collaboration parallels that of the Grand Palais in Paris and the Dallas Museum of Art, which earlier hosted the similar thematic exhibition México 1900–1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, and the Avant-Garde. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) the exhibition was smaller, likely due to its late addition to the tour, yet it still featured an impressive amount of work; 180 easel paintings, murals, photographs, prints, ephemera, and a film were on display in the upper gallery of the Law Building. The participation of Mexican governmental institutions in each of these exhibitions signaled the firm hold the state still has over its national treasures, yet it also showed their openness to international collaboration in order to showcase these important works.
Paint the Revolution was refreshing in that it assumed the audience has a certain level of familiarity with Mexico and its history, a noteworthy premise. The exhibition developed chronologically; each section was introduced with a bilingual timeline that provides a backstory for the works on display. Although many well-known works by “los tres grandes” were on display, the curators also included pieces that delight and surprise: a pastel from David Alfaro Siqueiros’s time as a student, a selection of perverse Demuth-esque watercolors by José Clemente Orozco, and a remarkable self-portrait by Diego Rivera from a Houston private collection. Works by Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Julio Castellanos, Saturnino Herrán, Carlos Mérida, Roberto Montenegro, Gerardo Murillo (Dr. Atl), Alfredo Ramos Martínez, and Manuel Rodríguez Lozano augment the roster of artists. As a result, the smart selection informs a less superficial vision of the diversity of styles, techniques, and subjects developed in this forty-year period.
A special treat of the show was the inclusion of works by less popular figures. For instance, three large works by Saturnino Herrán, a prominent painter yet hardly known in the United States, represented the Symbolist style as it developed in Mexico, a singular mix of the academicism taught at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes and more nationalist tendencies. A group of four stenciled “Katunes” prints by Dr. Atl depict the mountains and rivers of Mexico, but, unlike his paintings with large swaths of brushy strokes, look much like Japanese woodblock prints. Another standout was the work of Francisco Goitia, whose macabre Zacatecas Landscape with Hanged Men I (ca. 1914) painted when he was a staff artist in the army of Pancho Villa’s resistance, is a riveting prelude to the violence that was to come. José Chávez Morado’s Troubled Waters painting from 1949, little known even to connoisseurs, illustrates the capacity of Mexican artists to mock their own corrupt government, a motif echoed in the exhibition.
A recurring theme throughout the show was the element of mexicanidad, or Mexicanness, that led to mixing Precolumbian, colonial, and modern elements of culture in art. Cubist works by Ángel Zárraga and Rivera exemplify the trend of introducing calculated markers of Mexican culture. For example, Rivera’s Portrait of Martín Luis Guzmán (1915) depicts the Mexican writer with a serape and wicker armchair, motifs he continued to use in later portraits. Another section focused on Surrealism in Mexico and featured the abstract works of émigrés such as Gordon Onslow Ford, Wolfgang Paalen, and Alice Rahon, with more dreamlike and colorful paintings that depict local symbols and traditions by Mexicans Gunther Gerzso, Frida Kahlo, and Juan Soriano.
This focus on identity and mexicanidad takes on further, different forms. Rufino Tamayo’s playful Portrait of María Izquierdo (1932) depicts the artist with very dark skin yet also as a modern cosmopolitan woman, while Siqueiros’s Self-Portrait (1921) harkens back to a more classical style of portraiture. The most successful grouping, however, was one that focused on highlighting the identity of the individual amid the many portrayals of the collective. Manuel Rodríguez Lozano’s canvas Girls in Profile (1929), on loan from the Museo de Aguascalientes, hung next to Roberto Montenegro’s painting Maya Women (1926), while a stone sculpture of a female head by an unknown artist sat on a pedestal in front of the two paintings. All works featured women in profile or frontally, their faces and bodies detailed and chiseled perfectly. Although these women are unnamed, the artists have depicted each one with singular features, a nod to the importance of recognizing difference even when the exercise is to unite the nation through a shared modern identity that traces back to an indigenous past.
To represent the muralist movement, the curators took advantage of innovations in exhibition design. First, Siqueiros’s Portrait of the Bourgeoisie (1939–40) was reproduced in true scale in an immense, three-paneled model that replicated the original, which is painted on the walls of a stairwell in the Electrical Workers Union building (SME) in Mexico City. The complicated history of the mural commission and the efforts made by the embattled SME to keep it intact through restorations was, however, not addressed in the wall label or the accompanying video. Behind this model, Orozco’s mural commission for Dartmouth College’s Baker Library, The Epic of American Civilization (1932–34) is projected onto a massive wall and illustrated in touchscreens with detailed explanatory texts that elucidate the narrative associations Orozco developed within it. It was unfortunate that some of the mural sketches were not displayed in the galleries at the MFAH, as they were in other venues. Lastly, Rivera’s Ballad of the Proletarian Revolution (1928–29) at the Ministry of Public Education in Mexico City, was projected on a wall and recreated in an interactive digital application with a bilingual interface equally entertaining and informative to children and adults.
Photographs by Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Tina Modotti, and Henri Cartier-Bresson represent the formal, poetic, and technical approaches developed in the medium. However, two photographs by Emilio Amero, mostly known as a printmaker, are a rarity in the group. While the selection of photographs was rich and visually provocative, they were not highlighted enough in the galleries, which shared the same space as the mural projections. The same can be said of the two sections devoted to printmaking, cartoons, magazines, and other forms of visual propaganda, crucial to understanding the visual culture of the period. Arranged on the exterior walls of the galleries, they received little attention, and seemed like addenda to the exhibition. The positive aspect of their placement was that they framed the exhibition historically. At the entrance, an array of prints and newspapers from the 1910s to the early 1930s included a selection of covers from El Ahuizote where Orozco published cartoons of political satire. Another selection positioned at the end of the exhibition focused on works produced during the late 1930s to the mid-1940s, addressing topics such as labor union struggles, antifascist messages, and the work still to be done to educate the masses plagued by illiteracy. A significant contribution to the exhibition in Houston were two interactive screens showcasing relevant documents from the International Center for the Arts of the Americas, or ICAA, the research institute of the Latin American Art Department at the MFAH, founded and headed by Mari Carmen Ramírez, the museum’s Wortham Curator of Latin American Art.
Overall, Paint the Revolution offered ample opportunity for viewers to explore the evolution and diversity of the artistic production of Mexico’s modern period. Even when the exhibition lacked an innovative curatorial approach, the selection was notable and it was evident that an effort was made to include rarely seen works from smaller museums in Mexico such as Rivera’s Still life with Bottle of Anise (1918) from the Museo Casa Diego Rivera in Guanajuato. The exhibition catalogue reflects the thematic organization in the galleries and offers fourteen discerning essays by experts in the field, including some from a younger generation of scholars of Mexican art such as Daniel Garza Usabiaga and Dafne Cruz Porchini. In bringing together multifaceted portrayals of Mexican identity in art and the political activism that defined this era of cultural production, this exhibition was an important lesson in today’s climate of political intolerance in the Americas. In Houston, a rapidly expanding city with one of the most significant Hispanic populations in the country, this message is as urgent as ever. Fittingly, the exhibition’s title is at once a look back and a call to action for contemporary art historians and artists to become active viewers and cultural producers.