Monday, 8 July 2013
Art and the Mexican Revolution
Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910 - 1940 - review
The Royal Academy, London
Sunday 7 July 2013
Four Zapatistas in sombreros sit astride the cow-catcher on the front of a steam train. One has no boots, two have no bullets and all are darkened by the blazing heat and dust. But these nameless fighters cock their rifles at the future, fearlessly facing whatever fate awaits them down the line. They are literally the revolutionary vanguard.
The Mexican revolution began in 1910 with an armed charge against the long-term dictator Porfirio Díaz, and continued to convulse the country with massive loss of life and many changes of president for almost 10 years. You can see this happening before your very eyes in the terrific time-lapse sequence of paintings, prints and photographs assembled at the Royal Academy. This classic photograph was taken in 1911 by the German emigré Hugo Brehme. It's a tremendous image, and it generated others, including a famous print by Jesús Escobedo in which the same train hurtles forward, dogs barking, women waving, steam pouring from this great engine of modernity, which now carries not just the original band of brothers but several hundred others.
Chandeliers shiver in the shoot-out. Newspaper offices are blown to smithereens. Firing squads work their way through the countryside.Walter Horne's photographs of street executions show the victims are still momentarily upright, pale and ghostly as the bullets enter their bodies in the unfurling chaos of smoke. Life echoes art, and vice versa, for these pictures immediately recall Manet's paintings of The Execution of Emperor Maximilian some 40 years earlier.
The Mexican painter Francisco Goitia, who spent his 20s studying El Greco and Goya in Spain, was so shocked by the political situation on his return that he offered himself as a war artist to the revolutionary general Pancho Villa. His paintings of decomposing bodies hanging from the trees of Zacatecas as the vultures circle have something of the Spanish influence but are wholly Mexican in their arid and thorn-pricked landscape.
It was a revolution captured in images as no other before it. Villa struck a deal with the Mutual Film Corporation, giving them the motion rights to his battles in return for cash and propaganda. He timed his onslaughts so that they began during the daylight that was crucial for the cameras. An anonymous photograph shows him in moustache and bandolier, momentarily still while others move in rapid blurs around him: shrewd, watchful and reserved, quite different from the exhibitionist portrayed by the American Horne.
Photography didn't just capture the hero, it became the source for more popular icons. Brehme's famous portrait of Emiliano Zapata with sabre, sash and sombrero* was transformed by the great print-maker José Posada into a darkly imposing warrior, inspiring even at the size of a stamp and a haunting figurehead after his assassination in 1919. Diego Rivera's painted version of the hero looks like a daintily picturesque bandito by comparison.
Posada also satirised corrupt politicians and plutocrats as calaveras, or skeletons, a device picked up by Rivera and other painters that remains embedded in Mexican culture.
Goitia's parched man on his parched rock seems to become one with the ancient landscape, a vision enhanced by the cracks that have developed in the cheap paint subjected to a century of Mexican heat. Ancient gods awaken and dance in cubist frenzies. Mexican women process in profile, silent and shapely, bearing urns on their heads. They look like characters in a Greek frieze, except that the mountains of Oaxaca are rising high and rocky behind them.And this complex relationship between painting and graphic art becomes a subtle theme of the show. The revolution had its counterpart in art, specifically in the gigantic murals of "los tres grandes": Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Clearly their major works cannot travel, but each painter is represented, Rivera by one of his folksy friezes of swaying Mexican dancers, Siqueiros by a yet more potent image of Zapata walled into a cell and hieratic as an Aztec statue. One has a strong sense, even on this modest scale, of the new wave of Mexican art emerging out of a strange fusion of modernism and pre-Columbian art.
Mexico drew left-leaning artists from all over the world in the wake of the revolution. Its red lands and mountain peaks appear bizarrely reprised as geometric abstracts in the paintings of the Bauhaus artist Josef Albers, and in the blockish landscapes of the American modernist Marsden Hartley, who turns the Popocatépetl volcano into a massive blue diamond.
The show has a rarity, too, in one of Philip Guston's arduous socialist allegories of civil war and strife played out by street children with wooden swords. Guston visited Mexico in 1934, where he was given an immense wall of Emperor Maximilian's former summer palace to paint his huge anti-fascist mural The Struggle Against War and Terror. Look closely at the picture in the Royal Academy and you see hints of the hoods and hands that figure in his late, great works.
But the prints and photographs are the true stars of the show. Cartier-Bresson travelled through the country recording the street life of Mexico: itinerant musicians, cripples picking their way through the markets, prostitutes appearing like puppets above the half-doors of brothels. Tina Modotti's celebrated Hands of the Puppeteer, massive and tangled in fine strings like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians, shows her gift for capturing the sensual materiality of life.
Her lover, the American photographer Edward Weston, portrays DH Lawrence hot under the collar and sly-eyed in Mexico. Like so many of the writers who passed through – Malcolm Lowry, Hart Crane, Graham Greene – Lawrence's fascination with the country curdled into disillusion, which in turn yielded one of his most pungent novels, The Plumed Serpent.
One looks into these small images to find a vast country convulsed and ever changing, in triumph and lament, bleeding and resurgent. The gringos come and go – Weston abandoned Modotti and returned with a different love to California; Modotti was deported; Hartley left suffering from serious depression. Rivera, in turn, went to work for the capitalists in New York.
But one great legacy of all this internationalism was the encouragement given by Modotti and Rivera to a young tax inspector called Manuel Alvarez Bravo who had been too young to photograph the revolution but took up the camera Modotti gave him. His images – of miners as monumental as standing stones, of masked dancers in a doorway that seems to echo the shape of Zapata's moustache – show another world, almost inconceivably remote. Alvarez Bravo is the revelation of this show.
*There is evidence to suggest that Brehme was NOT the photographer. See http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Mystery-of-Zapata-photo-Who-took-it-3207092.php#photo-2032768