Mexico City

Reproduction of a poster by L. Mendoza for the film Macario, 1960, written by B. Traven.

Reproduction of a poster by L. Mendoza for the film Macario, 1960, written by B. Traven.

B. Traven

Reproduction of a poster by L. Mendoza for the film Macario, 1960, written by B. Traven.

More than forty years before Roland Barthes famously announced the death of the author, the writer who came to be known as B. Traven stated, “The creative person should have no other biography than his works.” In London he embarked on a ship as Ret Marut, quietly making his way to Mexico, which he entered in 1924 as Traven Torsvan. That same year, he announced his own passing in a diary entry: “The Bavarian of Munich is dead.” After that, Traven continued to change cities, identities, and nationalities as he navigated between literature, anthropology, photography, and scriptwriting.

This exhibition, curated by Natalia de la Rosa, related a story divided into three chronological episodes, limning, respectively, Ret Marut’s anarchist beginnings as editor of the magazine The Brick Maker (1917–21) and his early writings as B. Traven after disembarking in Mexico; Torsvan’s numerous trips—mostly to the state of Chiapas—between 1926 and 1932, resulting in thousands of photographs; and the successful film adaptations of his books on which he collaborated undercover as Hal Croves, who, starting in 1941, signed as B. Traven’s “agent.” In his will, made public after his death in 1969, he stated that his real name was Traven Torsvan Corves, and that he had been born in Chicago in 1890. But shortly thereafter, his widow publicly declared that best-selling author B. Traven was in fact Ret Marut, the self-exiled German actor and writer who, always loyal to his anarchist past, wished to avoid the press and escape fame. Who Ret Marut really was remains an enigma. As if working against Traven’s lifetime project, the exhibition ends by clearing up some of the mystery of his many identities with research carried out by journalist Luis Spota starting in 1948 and spurred by the publication of Traven’s will.

His early commitment to the proletarian revolution was evident in the copies of The Brick Maker included in the first section of the exhibition. These were presented along with drawings and prints by the magazine’s illustrator, Franz Wilhelm Seiwert. The latter’s mechanical aesthetic, influenced by Fernand Léger, echoes Marut’s concern for the oppression and exploitation of workers and his disdain for authority and bureaucracy—themes also traceable in B. Traven’s early novels The Cotton-Pickers and The Death Ship, both from 1926 and partly inspired by his trip to Mexico. These subjects soon gave way to a deep interest in Mexico’s indigenous population. As Traven Torsvan he documented the life of the Chamulas, the Stzotzil, and the Lacandon through a rather unconventional anthropological approach, and later, as B. Traven, published Land of Springtime (1928), a book about the local customs and vernacular architecture of the indigenous peoples of the Mayan region.

Despite being influenced by the aestheticized photographs of his contemporaries Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, Torsvan’s gaze was as harsh as his descriptions were concise, and he frequently portrayed the landscape as another rough character. This is also palpable in Traven’s hand-edited typescripts, particularly in the 1934 English translation of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1928), in which he strives to simplify his writing without smoothing it too much, or in the document “Music and Sound Suggestions” authored years later by Hal Croves for John Huston’s 1948 film adaptation of the book, in which he rejects instrumental music, stating that there should be no other sound “than that which is intimately connected with the actual happenings.”

The sheer amount of material displayed, often insufficiently labeled or seemingly arbitrarily arranged, made for a potentially confusing experience. But one of the exhibition’s particular strengths was in revealing connections with the work of Traven’s peers in various disciplines—for instance through the inclusion of Leopoldo Méndez’s sharp linocuts crudely depicting the abuse of the indigenous population during Porfirio Díaz’s dictatorship. This contextualization of the Traven/Torsvan/Croves films, photographs, manuscripts, books, official documents, and ephemera uncovers their ensemble as Marut’s ultimate performative act, revealing not exactly who he was, but what an elusive and spirited character he was.

Magali Arriola