New York

“Women in Mexico”

National Academy of Design

Though this ground-breaking survey of women artists active in Mexico during this century was organized by art-historian Edward Sullivan around theoretical issues of gender, identity, and nationalism, the work assembled offers, first and foremost, a riveting esthetic experience.

The 22 women featured spanned several generations, ranging from photographer Tina Modotti who was born in 1896 to Laura Anderson, a 32-year-old artist from Mexico City. Though many of the women were born in Mexico—painters Frida Kahlo and Maria Izquierdo and photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo among them—others, such as Remedios Varo from Spain and Leonora Carrington from England, Modotti from Italy, and the Russian-born Olga Costa—came to Mexico from elsewhere.

While painting and photography were the dominant mediums represented here, the show did include the fetishistic, stagesetlike constructions of the contemporary Mexican sculptor Lucero Isaac, as well as a lively group of poetic collages by another Mexican, Marie José Paz, among them a work dedicated to Joseph Cornell entitled Utopia Parkway, Homage to Joseph Cornell, 1975.

Though Kahlo was represented by the largest number of works (a total of ten pictures), and given her current celebrity status, was surely the major draw, her presence did not unequivocally overwhelm the work of the other figurative painters. Kahlo’s Self Portrait Dedicated to Dr. Eloesser, 1940, a painting she made for her physician, whom she described as her “best friend” in a written inscription on the work, was unusually powerful, with the artist’s eyes fixed with an intensity reminiscent of a Christ in a Byzantine icon. With her hair adorned with a floral piece, an earring in the shape of a hand dangling from one ear, and a necklace in the form of wreath of thorns drawing droplets of blood, Kahlo has situated herself in a lush junglelike setting that reflects the exotic beauty of the Mexican landscape.

The side of nature that faces death was captured in a visually stunning and startlingly poignant fashion by Costa in Dead Child, 1944. Realized in Costa’s emotionally charged realistic style, this painting of a little boy laid out amidst a gorgeous arrangement of mostly white and pink flowers, his mother gazing down on his body with her hand clutching her scarf in a pained gesture, is imbued with an animism achieved by simplifying surfaces and contours and by bringing out properties of volume and weight common to both animate and inanimate objects.

Varo also taps the inherent vitality of things, in a splendid selection of five paintings from the ’50s and early ’60s. The Call, 1961, portrays a woman dressed in ethereal flowing robes walking as if in a trance, through a courtyard the very walls of which secrete figurative presences.

Like Varo’s work, Carrington’s Temple of the Word, 1954, reveals a remarkable visionary imagination. This scene of a processional rite features a cast of fantastic creatures—part-human, part-animal, part-object—embodying terrifying unconscious contents.

Among the contemporary work Rocío Maldonado’s bold, expressionistic painting of her son, entitled Portrait of Raúl, 1988, and Elena Climent’s realistic painting of a corner of a wall decorated with the inexpensive, popular reproductions of religious subjects entitled Ice Cream Shop, 1988, suggest the varied concerns treated by women in Mexico today.

The photographic work is just as richly varied, ranging from Modotti’s platinum and silver prints of objects symbolic of Mexican life; to the portraits by Alvarez Bravo of both celebrities such as Kahlo and Diego Rivera and of the anonymous poor; to the work of contemporary talents like Graciela Iturbide whose photograph Angel Woman, 1979, is characterized by both mystery and humor, and Eugenia Rendon de Olazabal, who was represented here by a powerful multipartite Polaroid study of a cactus.

Accompanied by an informative catalogue with essays by art-historian Linda Nochlin as well as by curator Sullivan, this show served as an exemplary introduction to this remarkable and all-too-unfamiliar work.

Ronny Cohen