PRINT December 1978

Coming to Terms with the “Treasures of Mexico”

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represented in the exhibition.

In the 19th century, Mexican artists followed French academic models. For example, the late 19th-century painting The Senate of Tlaxcala, by Rodrigo Gutiérrez, represents pre-Conquest Indians in the romantic manner as noble savages. Not surprisingly, the paintings furthest removed from academic conventions were the most arresting, such as a haunting Portrait of the Child Manuela Gutiérrez by José María Estrada, or the refreshing Banquet of General Antonio de León. José Guadalupe Posada, who anticipated the social concerns, and the interest in pre-Hispanic and popular imagery, of the 20th-century muralists, was represented by several fine engravings, including one of his calaveras.

The 20th-century section was devoted mainly to easel painting and prints by the “big three,” Orozco, Rivera, and Siquieros. Outstanding examples included Rivera’s early Zapatista Landscape, 1915, in which rifles, bullets and the Mexican sierra replace the studio concerns of the French Cubists, Siquieros’ Portrait of José Clemente Orozco, 1947, and Death to the Invader, 1956, where pre-Columbian motifs are used to good effect. Orozco’s Combat, 1920, depicts armed conflict in the Mexican Revolution, while The Tyrant, 1947, recalls the subject matter and style of the murals. Also present was a compelling double self-portrait by Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas, 1939.

By providing a broad range of objects the exhibition offered an occasion to reflect on the continuities and discontinuities of Mexican art. Thus juxtapositions of works from different periods effectively brought out similarities of theme and form. The feline figures in the show demonstrated one type of continuity. To compare an Aztec stone feline with a Classic Veracruz ceramic one was an instance not merely of continuity but of deliberate revival on the part of the Aztecs of a 1000-year-old Gulf Coast sculptural tradition. The jaguar, always associated with supernatural forces and special powers, was represented throughout all periods of Mesoamerican history, but the particular form of the Aztec jaguar is indebted to the earlier sculptures from Veracruz. The Aztecs regularly appropriated previous styles for their own purposes, especially by copying ceramic images from the past in stone in order to borrow some of the permanence and grandeur of legendary epochs. Actually, the Aztec sculptural tradition survived even the Conquest, as a further comparison between the Aztec Jaguar and the Viceregal Lion suggests.

Additional motif correspondences, also showing conscious revivals, were apparent in the skeletal imagery employed in pre-Hispanic times—in this case, the deity death mask on a Mixtec breastplate—and the late 19th-century calaveras of Posada. Similarly, the Mexican muralists deliberately employed pre-Columbian motifs, a good example being Siquieros’ use of Mexican highland representations of Xipe Totec and other deities, for his Death to the Invader. A righthand head with markings through its eyes may be compared with the Mixtec gold pendant or a Teotihuacan stone mask, which exhibit similar eye markings and features.

The survival or revival of particular techniques and materials also displays continuity. The affecting Christ without a Cross is modeled from a paste made of maize cane pith which is then gessoed and painted. According to the catalogue, this technique originated with the pre-Hispanic Tarascans of Michaocan, who used it for making lightweight, portable images of their gods. In the same way, the Aztecs used maize dough to make small idols of fertility deities for agricultural feast days. In modern times, the programmatic efforts of the Mexican revolutionary muralists to rediscover the common past and the popular present of their country led them, variously, to examples of pre-Columbian frescoes, to the Indian artists of Cholula who still employed fresco techniques, and to popular pulquería painters who decorated bars and liquor shops.

Octavio Paz enjoins us in his catalogue essay to ignore the content of these works and to concentrate on style—expressive power, plastic energy, strength; geometry, line, volume, etc.2 These formal traits are held to characterize the long tradition of Mexican art. In other words, a formalist approach is recommended, so that we can see clearly the essentially Mexican nature of this art.

However, in my opinion, the assumption of an unbroken tradition is erroneous. Mexico was not always a geographic, cultural, social and political unit. Before the Spanish Conquest it was part of Mesoamerica (an archaeological term signifying that culturally unified territory embracing most of Mexico and Yucatan, plus upper Central America, i.e. Guatemala, Belize and portions of Honduras and El Salvador). From c. 1200 B.C. to A. D. 1500, one can speak of a continuous tradition embodying shared cultural traits, including ceremonial centers, certain religious concepts, a calendar system, hieroglyphic writing, human sacrifice, a ritual ball game, a periodic market system, maize agriculture, a stone age technology, etc. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries Mexico was a Spanish colony, governed by representatives of the Spanish crown and church. Nothing is more revealing of this new state of affairs than the 18-century painting The Castes, which charts the different levels of status based on mixtures of Spanish, Indian and Negro blood, vital statistics for every civic and religious transaction in the colony. Even after achieving political independence in 1821, Mexico continued to be dominated by Spanish and French social and cultural standards, as the 19th-century paintings in the show attested. The Mexican muralists of the 20th century, so conscious of native artistic expression, were, at the same time, indebted to European art. Rivera, Siquieros and Orozco all studied in Europe, assimilating French, Spanish and German influences. Rivera’s student forays into Realism, Impressionism and Cubism were conspicuously evident in the examples of his early work in the show, for example, the Zapatista Landscape. Siquieros was attuned to Futurist concepts of dynamism, as his Portrait of José Clemente Orozco and his Death to the Invader reveal. Orozco was clearly familiar with Spanish baroque painting and Goya, as well as German expressionism. Thus, the notion of a cohesive Mexican tradition of over 3,000 years’ duration must be seen to be an ideological construct designed to support cultural nationalism. Reverence for the Indian past is a relatively recent phenomenon, having been initiated in the early 20th century by the Mexican Revolution, which required a redefinition of what was Mexican and a new visual image of the country. Now, it seems, present and past are conflated to support a more imposing notion of national cultural identity.

If anything has been constant over the past three millennia in Mexico it is the life-style of Indian peasants, whose subsistence agriculture (maize, beans and squash), religious beliefs and practices, and, in some cases, social organization, were essentially unaffected by changes on other levels of society. However, with the exception of a few very early pre-Hispanic ceramic figurines, the art in the show did not reflect the work of these peasants. Nor were there examples of their rich and varied craft production. The objects displayed for the most part expressed the needs and outlooks of the ruling elites.

Only by ignoring the discontinuities and overlooking the differences among the works could the art in this show be seen to represent an unbroken cultural tradition. For example, the technical revival of frescoes on the part of the modern mural movement was an attempt also to revive a monumental art form, paintings on public walls, that would have a social and political impact on masses of people. Monumental pre-Columbian art functioned in this way. During certain times of the year, the entire population gathered in regional civic-religious centers in broad plazas and avenues fronting grand public structures—temples, palaces, ball courts—decorated with three-dimensional and relief sculptures and frescoed paintings. Here, the masses witnessed elaborate religious ceremonies keyed to a complex ritual calendar. And the monumental art adorning these centers was a means of social control: it exalted the aristocracy and insured the submission of the populace by showing that its life was fixed in the cosmic order regulated by the gods and their priestly intermediaries.3 Rather than exalting the rulers of society, the modern Mexican muralists wanted their art to celebrate the common people. They wanted to enlighten the peasants and workers, and to stir them to struggle for a new social order. Another significant difference centers on the fact that, although in theory the muralists strove for a collective expression of anonymous craftsmen as had been the case in pre-Columbian times, they never succeeded in divesting themselves of the profound individualism which is at the core of modernist art: the personal idiom of each painter is readily apparent in all the works.

The presumption of a cultural continuity of over 3,000 years determined the manner in which the material was presented in the exhibition. A chronological sequence immediately evokes the idea of a cohesive tradition. The mounting of the New York show roughly followed such a chronological scheme, with the pre-Hispanic, Viceregal and Independence sections displayed at the Knoedler Gallery, while works from the Revolutionary period were shown at the Hammer Gallery. This separation was fortunate, since at least the paintings and lithographs of the modern muralists could be seen without the distraction of unrelated material, although the Knoedler installation gave a general impression of incoherence. Space was cramped, lighting was poor and the cases and pedestals were inappropriate. Viewer orientation was restricted to wall labels with fragmentary information—sometimes focusing on iconography, sometimes on historical or cultural background for particular objects. The presentation of the objects was uneven. If the selection was meant to be representative of the range of material in a given epoch, then there were curious omissions, such as examples of mosaic or wooden objects, Olmec jade and codices in the pre-Columbian section. Surprisingly, Teotihuacan, the major Mexican highland civilization of the Classic period, ancestor of the Toltecs and Aztecs, was meagerly represented, with a fresco, some tripod cylinder pots, a few masks and a plaque. On the other hand, more peripheral cultures, such as Xochicalco, the Huastec and West Mexico, were well represented. Undistinguished ceramics, stucco pieces and jewelry were treated with the same weight as unique masterworks, suggesting that all of the objects were equivalent to one another in cultural importance, whatever their scale, medium, function or quality. Thus, easel paintings and cabinet sculptures of the Colonial period, objects of private devotion or personal contemplation, were not differentiated from great monuments of the pre-Columbian period, designed for public spaces and viewing at a distance.

Such an arrangement is only possible when artworks are presented out of context, divorced from the social conditions in which they were created. It accords with Paz’s catalogue injunction to consider the art in the show only with regard to form and without reference to its original meaning (which would include consideration of the intentions of patrons and artists, as well as function). A conspicuous, and not atypical, example of this dislocation of objects from their cultural milieu was the presentation of the pre-Hispanic Stele 3 from Xochicalco, carved in high relief on all four sides with figurative and glyphic forms. Identified in a label as the god Quetzalcoatl, who was extremely important in the late stages of Teotihuacan and the flourishing days of Tula, this sculpture was placed alone at the center of a gallery room crowded with a dozen culturally unrelated artifacts. Missing was such vital information as the fact that the stela is one of a set of three matched sculptures that were found buried together, probably deliberately, in a palace at Xochicalco. No indication was given of their historic significance or of the fact that the style and iconography are highly eclectic (indicating widespread artistic and trading contacts in Mesoamerica). Nor was there any reference to the current scholarly dispute about dating, the identification of the three deities and the meaning of the associated glyphs.4

In this exhibition, the clutter of objects, their jumbled display and the absence of basic data discouraged independent assessment, thus virtually forcing the viewer to accept the exhibition’s nationalistic premise.

Even on its own terms the exhibition must be faulted. Real instances of Mexican cultural continuity were claimed rather than demonstrated. Thus, no example of the pre-Hispanic Tarascan technique of modeling sculpture from a paste of maize cane pith supported the catalogue entry. Similarly, Posada’s adaptation of pre-Hispanic imagery might have been brought out vividly by including an example of pre-Columbian graphic representations, such as a page from a codex (or an illustration of one) or a painted pot.

The revival of mural technique is perhaps the most significant historical link. Yet the only example of a mural in the show was a fragment of a fresco from Teotihuacan. Shown by itself, the fragment distorts the nature of pre-Columbian frescoes. Photographs of the many extant and restored frescoes could have forcefully related them to contemporary murals. Moreover, although Rivera, Orozco and Siquieros were primarily muralists, they were represented only by easel paintings and lithographs. Accordingly, only the viewer with specialized knowledge of pre-Hispanic and modern mural traditions could have made the connection between them.

The Mexican government encouraged this exhibition in every possible way. President Lopez-Portillo sent his three sisters to attend the New York opening, which was held as a benefit for the Center for Inter-American Relations, a Rockefeller-funded, New York-based organization for furthering good relations between North and South America. The presence in the show of such major monuments as the Olmec Wrestler, the Maya Chac Mool, the Mixtec Breastplate and the Aztec Tlatecuhtli, as well as paintings by the “big three” muralists testified to the show’s importance. The tour of the show through several official institutions in major U.S. cities indicates a desire on the part of the Mexican government to be taken into account as a cultural force in the U.S., and appears to mark the government’s new internationalist outlook, also evidenced by stepped-up diplomatic relations with various world powers.

Recent events suggest, in fact, that this show is only part of a broad coordinated effort. Despite the fact that the exhibition never appeared in London, the British magazine Apollo recently featured (August 1978) a copiously illustrated article by Olga Hammer, entitled “Continuity and Change in the Art of Mexico,” which drew all of its material from this show, without making any direct reference to it. Currently, the Center for Inter-American Relations, in conjunction with Meridian House International and the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program, funded by the N.E.A. and N.E.H., is sponsoring “Mexico Today: A National Celebration of Our Neighboring Country’s People, Life and Creativity.” Begun in October 1978 with a keynote lecture by Octavio Paz, it is scheduled to continue through summer 1979, and features a “national symposium of exhibitions, seminars, films, performing arts, and courses on contemporary Mexico.”

This campaign to promote Mexico’s cultural heritage and contemporary culture raises certain questions. What prompts this sudden interest in Mexican culture? Could it perhaps be related to the recent discovery of vast oil reserves in the Gulf Coast area of Mexico?5 Or, as usual, are we simply to regard this show as yet another disinterested presentation of culture?

Barbara Braun



1. A statement by Armand Hammer in the opening pages of the catalogue reads: “I have long felt that art is a universal emissary speaking to each one of us, enabling us better to understand and communicate individually, nationally and internationally. In this spirit I should like to greet you, bid you welcome, and earnestly hope that we shall share the visions and joys of the artists who created the thirty-nine centuries of art represented here in our era of peace and prosperity.” Treasures of Mexico (the Armand Hammer Foundation, 1978), p. 7; a similar statement by the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Lic. Santiago Roel Garcia, appears on p. 9.

2. Octavio Paz, “The Art of Mexico: Subject Matter and Meaning,” in Treasures of Mexico, pp. 12–23.

3. Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, “Introduction to the Prehispanic Art of Mexico,” in Treasures of Mexico, pp. 53–54

4. A more successful effort at presentation of cultural context was a massive exposition of 4,000 years of Mesoamerican sculpture, Before Cortes, held at the Metropolitan Museum in 1970. In this case the material was organized primarily on a regional basis. The show was accompanied by an informative and scholarly catalogue we providing a well-considered historical context based on the latest archaeological knowledge. But that show dealt with a single cohesive tradition.

5. Production of crude oil (and derivatives) is already well over one million barrels daily; proven reserves are 20 billion barrels, with the probability of considerably more.