Sky’s the Limit

Nick Pinkerton on “Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film”

Emilio Fernández, La perla, 1947, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 85 minutes.

THE ROLE OF CINEMATOGRAPHER has its perks, not unlike those of any of the ancillary creative roles in filmmaking. Once you’ve shown that you know your business, you generally won’t lack for work until you’re ready to retire, and you’ll likely have a longer and busier career than a director starting out at the same time, for directors are more celebrated and, at the same time, more liable. The downside, if you consider it one, is that you’ll rarely be taken as seriously as an artist. Writing about the Spanish-Cuban director of photography Nestor Almendros, David Thomson delivered an ultimatum which encapsulates accepted wisdom: “Few cinematographers have demonstrated what I would call a single creative character.”

An intermediary and a buffer, the cinematographer helps keep the mystique of the director intact. While the director is allowed to play the role of conjuror who summons his art from thin air, the cinematographer seems decidedly earthbound, limited to recording the things that are. The cinematographer, as a result, may be connected to a place in a way that directors rarely are. As much as the body of work produced by the late Gordon Willis, subject of a memorial tribute at the Museum of the Moving Image which has only just ended, is inextricably tied to the New York in which he lived and worked, so too does Gabriel Figueroa’s cinema belong to Mexico.

In “Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film,” a show at El Museo del Barrio, the question of whether or not Figueroa is the “author” of the 200+ movies on which he worked in a fifty-year career is almost beside the point. Instead, Figueroa’s career in imagemaking is placed within a broader cultural context, alongside parallel historical developments, new ways of representing Mexico which had been emerging in the graphic arts, and the changing image of Mexico that the country broadcast to itself before, during, and after its “Golden Age” of studio filmmaking in the 1940s and ’50s.

First conceived in 2007 on the centennial of Figueroa’s birth, “Under the Mexican Sky” toured Mexico before appearing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in late 2013. Its appearance at the Museo, for whom this is the first film-themed gallery exhibition, is its premiere East Coast appearance. The experience begins with an immersion in images from Figueroa-shot films beamed onto the wall by six ceiling-mounted projectors. I’ve seen variations on this ta-da “splash-panel” effect in cinema-related gallery installations before, as in MoMA’s 2013 “Dante Ferretti: Design and Construction for the Cinema,” though there is a greater method evident here, as certain reemerging locations and visual motifs ripple through simultaneously projected scenes: images of neon urbanity and chic nightclubs; the desolate Nonoalco-Tlateloco railroad zone; or votive candles, an ocean of light in Roberto Gavaldón’s Macario (1959).

In the galleries ahead, these motifs are given not as the personal expressions of an obsessive individualist but as a network of symbols that were struck upon as icons of mexicanidad (Mexicanness)—“part of the network of appropriation, interchange, and reinterpretation that generated twentieth century Mexican visual identity and culture,” per one piece of wall text, in the years following the 1910–1920 revolution.

After passing through a gallery which addresses Figueroa’s apprenticeship as a still photographer, illustrated with glamour shots of Mexico City celebrities taken in something like the style of Cecil Beaton, one proceeds through a series of rooms in which Figueroa’s images of Mexico are put into dialogue with those by other artists, both foreign and domestic. Of the former, particular weight is given to the work of Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, whose photographs for Anita Brenner’s book Idols Behind Altars drew Sergei Eisenstein to Mexico to begin his ultimately uncompleted but hugely influential project ¡Que viva México! (1932)

In a gallery dedicated to “Clouds,” heavenward-looking excerpts from Figueroa-shot films are projected in between scenes from ¡Que viva México! and Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gómez Muriel’s The Wave (1936). The walls of the room are decorated with works by the Mexican landscape painter Dr. Atl, whose “curvilinear perspective” is cited as an influence on Figueroa, famed for his canopies of dark sky fleeced with blindingly white clouds which, we read, were achieved by using infrared filters “to counteract the layer of the atmosphere.”

Figueroa’s motifs, including those skies, are given as belonging to a common cultural heritage built from a shared stock of images connoting mexicanidad. Another of these symbols is the spiny maguey, or agave, plant, which is to Mexico what the longhorn is to Texas—one nook of the exhibit places enlargements depicting the maguey from Figueroa’s films next to similar photographs and a sketch, Under the Maguey, by Jose Clemente Orozco. Other recurring images include the bandolier ammunition belt and the calaveras Day of the Dead skeleton, iconographic tropes that are consigned to subsections dedicated to “Revolution” and “Requiem,” respectively.

In historical hindsight, the quest for mexicanidad has in some eyes taken on the character of an aesthetic conspiracy pursued with government connivance, a legacy to be rejected or at least reacted against. And the argument can be made that Figueroa did his best work when pushed outside of his comfort zone, as in his collaborations with Luis Buñuel during the Spanish filmmaker’s long, on-again-off-again stretch working in the Mexican film industry, beginning with Los olvidados (1950). The modest section dedicated to the Buñuel-Figueroa films cites a telling excerpt from the director’s memoir: “[Figueroa] had prepared an aesthetically irreproachable frame, with the Popocatépetl volcano in the background plus the indispensable white clouds. What I did was to simply turn the camera around and focus on a landscape that was quite commonplace but that seemed to be more realistic, more true to life. I have never been fond of prefabricated beauty.”

Far more than the Buñuel films, the works best represented here are the twenty-three movies that Figueroa shot for Emilio “El Indio” Fernández, including Maria Candelaria (1943), La perla (1945), and Río Escondido (1947). (Maria Candelaria, which contains a character based on Diego Rivera, is another instance of the close connection in Mexico between filmmakers like Fernández and Figueroa and those in the plastic arts like Orozco, Rivera, and Leopoldo Méndez, whose engraving illustrations for the title cards of Figueroa-shot films are on display here.) Fernández, probably most familiar to English-speaking audiences from his roles in various Sam Peckinpah films, was a director of unsurpassed renown in his homeland, so certain of his contribution to mexicanidad that he once claimed “There only exists one Mexico: the one I invented.”

Figueroa’s images are the fulcrum around which the exhibition turns, while the focus only returns to the man himself in its final galleries. In a room which also contains altars to Figueroa’s work in Mexican “new wave” cinema and his colorful feature-film adaptations of telenovela soap operas—both rather vaguely filled out—one finds a biographical time line of Figueroa’s “Life in Film,” which refers to his apprenticeship with cinematographer Gregg Toland in 1930s Hollywood as well as the fact that he was named by Robert Rossen and Elia Kazan to the House Un-American Activities Committee, presumably one reason that his ventures into American movies were only brief and fitful.

This precedes a concluding “visual biography” that lines both walls of the hallway leading out of the exhibition space, comprising two chronologically arranged collections of photographs showing Figueroa on set. One wall features close-ups of Figueroa, who, as you head toward the exit, can be seen to grow older, though always trim and dapper, and usually with his eye screwed into a camera viewfinder. On the other wall are pictures with Figueroa as one figure among many in the teeming crew. It is the defining dichotomy of an exhibition that describes filmmaking, like all cultural production, as an effort at once individual and collective.

“Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film” is on view through June 27 at El Museo del Barrio in New York.