PRINT December 1963

Masterworks of Mexican Art: Modern

THE ESSENCE OF MODERN Mexican art, as well as its handicap, is a preoccupation with history—art history, ancient history, Mexican history, and world history. The result is a blinding national pride that is as limiting to the contemporary Mexican artist as any didactic academy or political formalism. For ever since José Guadalupe Posada destroyed the neo­classicism of the 19th century, ever since Rivera, Si­queiros and Orozco scratched the cry of revolution on the walls of the “patria,” succeeding artists have found themselves in the awkward position of being obligated to continue a creative tradition under the oppressive scepter of the past.

And, indeed, this ghost is formidable. The monu­mentality of the ancient cultures—thirty centuries of it—as well as the violent force of a revolution that destroyed ten million lives set the stage for an art that, at its very least, would have had a certain sensationally. Yet, if the contemporary artist should feel this burden, let him recall that aside from muralism there has not been one innovation, inven­tion or original contribution inherent in the art of the Republic. As a matter of fact many of the most important names deteriorate into second rate adapta­tions of cubism, decoration or absurdly unimportant experiments.

At the termination of the revolution, the liberal policies of Education Minister José Vasconcelos cre­ated an atmosphere of “manifestos” and federally promoted “renaissance” that paid every second-rate painter in town a daily wage based on the square footage of mural completed each day. Needless to say Europe saw an exodus of Mexicans, among them Rivera and Siqueiros. Like most institutions of this kind, the Syndicate of Painters and Sculptors degen­erated into a club for political intrigue, and ironically José Clemente Orozco found himself without a wall.

The modern section of “Masterworks of Mexican Art” has two disadvantages that plagued another comprehensive exhibit, given at the Museum of Mod­ern Art in 1940. Because of the sheer scope, the modern movement is allotted too small a space to provide any more than a sampling. The other, and more important disadvantage, rests in the fact that the finest Mexican art is mural rather than easel painting. Subtract the emotional charge of the revo­lution and the quaintness of Mexicana, main subject matter for the murals, and there is surprisingly little left.

The contemporary artist, then, finds himself revo­lutionless, somewhat causeless, without wall space for murals, yet obligated to produce important works. This may well account for his decades of floundering in a stagnant sea of formalism, imitation, and some­thing ingeniously called vanguard academicism—a phony invention that may have temporarily rescued the national pride, but has done little for the na­tional art.

The format of the exhibit creates an invisible yet definite dividing line between the neo-classical and modern sections. Yet the line is not a thin wedge that separates opposites, rather it is José Guadalupe Posada himself. Posada, along with José Clemente Orozco decades later, established the main tenets for the painting we call Mexican. The elements that bind them are paradoxical combinations of the traditional and the new, a love of caricature, quick baroque curves, and an uncompromising compassion for the peasant.

Although Orozco is unquestionably the most power­ful figure of them all, it would be difficult to tell it from his easel painting. Occasionally lapsing into shocking laziness, poorly drafted and arbitrarily ren­dered canvases such as Maguey Plant painted in 1930, it is readily seen that the painter required the monumentality of the mural environment. The Hand, rendered in Duco a year before his death in 1949 experiments with a drip technique not unlike Jack­son Pollock’s. Although the catalog hints he may have influenced Pollock, it is more likely the opposite is true. Pollock’s experiments antedate Orozco’s by five years.

On Diego Rivera’s return to Mexico in 1921 he threw himself into the revolution as though it were still going on. As a result he became one of the most profound influences in the mural movement. From 1911 to 1921 he had lived in Paris where his friends were Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris. Many of his canvases in the exhibit bear such a strong resembl­ance to Gris and Picasso, that it is barely possible to discern whether they may be imitations, copies, or studies. A 1915 painting entitled Zapata Landscape is an interesting document to the new interest in collage. Before materials had been actually glued upon the canvas, they had been painted in a sort of pre-collage trompe-l’oeil, which is exactly what Rivera had done with this painting. But upon his re­turn, he incorporated all that he had learned of Cubism, Fauvism and Cézanne into the Mexican en­vironment with such relentless tenacity that they became an entirely unique expression. Very often, it was the catalyst of Mexico that made the work im­portant, with a unique freshness that, coupled with his inherent love of his homeland, resulted in a sympathetic, gentle beauty in such works as Seated Girl and Flower Sellers. In these and in the bitter caricatures of his murals, Rivera is at his best, yet without this impetus he was capable of falling into inconsequential banalities, silly fantasies as exemplified by Night of the Radishes.

Of the important revolutionary muralists only David Siqueiros remains and his imprisonment for the crime of “social dissolution” undoubtedly signed the death warrant for the mural movement.

Only one mural has been completed in recent years by Arnold Belkin, a friend of Sequeiros’ who along with other members of the Nueva Presencia were not included in the exhibit. This group, lacking the vio­lence of a revolution, has contented itself to rebel against “academicism, oppression, formalism and ‘taste’ in art.” They could even be called second­-generation revolutionaries, with a manifesto, skill, and profound intentions—but, unfortunately, no revo­lution. In essence Mexico is waiting for their new art. Movements come and go, manifestos are printed and forgotten, but a nation’s art must rest upon its courageous individuals—their creativity, their candor, and their willingness to break from the past. What will come in the future remains to be seen, and in the meantime the astute Mexican critic is reduced to writing books about the grandeur of an art that hasn’t happened yet. Like all things Mexican, it exaggerates the essence.

Clair Wolfe is the Art Editor of the Beverly Hills Times and has an extensive acquaintance with con­temporary Mexican art.