Mexico City

“Homenaje Los Nacional A Contemporáneos”

Galerias Del Palacio De Belles Artes

The Mexican avant-garde movement of the ’20s and ’30s known as the “contemporáneos” is a relatively neglected interlude in 20th-century culture, deserving of wider exposure. This exhibition, organized by Carlos Monsiváis, was an attractively designed didactic display that brought to life the aspirations of this small but distinguished group of writers and artists. Fraught with accusations of elitism and radicalism, the controversial history of the movement was detailed through documentary photographs and printed materials as well as books, magazines, paintings, and theater designs. The manifold activities of the “contemporáneos” listed several firsts for Mexico—from the first serious art criticism to the first theatre and cinema clubs devoted to avant-garde productions. Another first was the so-called “little magazines,” like Dial, international and educatory in outlook, and seeking to make available the provocative expression of the day. Under the direction of the poets and critics Salvador Novo and Gilberto Owens, Ulises and Contemporáneos, two of the major reviews, published such Modernist writers as Max Jacob, Jean Cocteau, and Eugene O’Neill.

But the open and progressive cultural ambitions of the “contemporáneos” is most strikingly conveyed in the paintings of artists associated with the Galeria Iturbe, an important Mexico City showcase for the new Mexican art in the early ’30s. The paintings shown there reflect a clear-cut avant-garde sensibility, indicated by various references to Western Modernism from Cézanne through Surrealism. Work by such artists as David Alfonso Siquieros and Rufino Tamayo, along with that of less well-known but fascinating colleagues such as Robert Montenegro and Abraham Angel, reveal the high quality and seriousness of their pictorial endeavors. Siquieros’ Explosion in the City, no date, is a small, powerful painting featuring a passage in painted plaster in high relief. Using uneasy juxtapositions of shapes and colors in a decidedly Surrealist vein, the piece evokes strong feelings of anxiety and tumult.

Abraham Angel, who died in 1924 at the age of 19, stole the show with several portraits from the early ’20s. His vision is a compelling combination of elusively poetical imagery and synthetically concrete execution, and falls somewhere between Amedeo Modigliani and the New Realism of the mid and late ’20s. Finally, this show vividly illustrated the far-reaching, international allure of the avant-garde and its concomitant desire “to be Modern,” as popularized and mythicized in the pre-World War I School of Paris.

Ronny H. Cohen