Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 27, 2014
Tatiana Flores Mexico's Revolutionary Avant-Gardes: From Estridentismo to ¡30–30! New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. 376 pp.; 48 color ills.; 122 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300184488)

In 1990, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries—a blockbuster show that, for U.S. audiences, more or less defined the state of the field of Mexican art history—barely acknowledged that Mexican artists had wrestled with the avant-garde. Five of Diego Rivera’s Cubist pictures were included, but, having been done in Europe, they stood apart; only Frida Kahlo’s (misleadingly named) La Adelita, Pancho Villa, and Frida (1927) gave any sense that artists in the post-revolutionary period were interested in something other than rappel à l’ordre classicism, hyper-nationalist or not.

In her new and beautiful monograph, Mexico’s Revolutionary Avant-Gardes, Tatiana Flores focuses on Estridentismo, a spirited literary and artistic movement of the 1920s that was not even mentioned in Splendors, and that, more problematically, was not discussed in Mari Carmen Ramírez and Héctor Olea’s influential Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America (Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2004) (click here for review). One can argue that Estridentismo, like many other Latin American topics, has been overlooked by the “mainstream,” though Flores overstates her case (278, 304). Estridentismo has been fundamental to mainstream histories of post-revolutionary Mexican art at least since Modernidad y modernización en el arte mexicano, a team-curated project of 1991 for the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City that launched a new phase in Mexican art history, and placed Mexico’s homegrown avant-garde movements of the 1920s front and center, including for specialists abroad. If Rivera and Kahlo dominate the imagination of publishers and the public, they no longer overshadow scholarship focused on this dynamic period.

Estridentismo was launched by poet (and law student) Manuel Maples Arce in December 1921, in the immediate post-revolutionary period, a time of tremendous intellectual ferment. In her first chapter, Flores analyzes Maples Arce’s rebellious and anti-nationalist first Estridentista manifesto, and demonstrates how it differed from David Alfaro Siqueiros’s more famous manifesto, published in Barcelona in May 1921. Inspired by Italian Futurism and Spanish Ultraísmo, but a servile copy of neither, Estridentismo was not the first or only avant-garde gesture in the Mexico City art world (Carlos Mérida’s 1920 exhibition of “Constructivist” canvases was earlier), but it was the loudest (or most strident). And that is why it is known as “Estridentismo” and not “Actualismo” or “Presentismo” (both alternatives, which mean “now-ism,” were proposed at the time), even if these accurately underscored the group’s dedication to their moment, rather than comfortable histories or quixotic futures.

Flores shows how this irreverent group became increasingly concerned with political and social problems, seeking wider audiences and fighting—like the more famous muralists—to create an art that would benefit the working class. Casting her net widely, looking not only at autonomous works of art but also at illustrations in mainstream and literary magazines, Flores helpfully explores the group’s relationship to the government’s populist and anti-academic open-air painting schools and the early murals in the National Preparatory School (chapter 2). She discusses how the movement incorporated an expanding field of artists, including Edward Weston and Tina Modotti (chapter 3); reexamines some aspects of Estridentista writing (chapter 4); and interrogates issues of primitivism (chapter 5). In early 1925, Maples Arce shifted the movement to the provincial capital of Jalapa, Veracruz; but by mid-1927, Estridentismo’s short-lived storm had passed (chapter 6).

In her final chapter, Flores explores the extension of Estridentista ideas in a collective anti-academic movement known as ¡30-30! (named for the rifle gauge), which emerged in 1928 in response to threats to the open-air schools. Although less known to those outside the field than Estridentismo itself, ¡30-30! was the subject of a major catalogue entitled ¡30-30! Contra la Academia de Pintura, 1928 (Mexico City: Museo Nacional de Arte, 1993), which included facsimiles of almost all ¡30-30! publications. Though conservative in terms of their imagery, the treintatrentistas, Flores rightly argues, prepared the field for the more radical artists’ collectives of the 1930s, like the Taller de Gráfica Popular.

Mexico’s Revolutionary Avant-Gardes is elegantly designed, with color throughout (though don’t judge the book by its folkloric cover). Although most of the images have been previously published in Mexico, Flores’s book brings together a rich iconographic treasury that ranges from (very) late Postimpressionist canvases to typographic experiments, from manifestos to masks, to murals. Modernists of all stripes will profit from reading this book, which contributes to our ongoing understanding of the avant-garde as a transcontinental, rather than exclusively Eurocentric, phenomenon. But however packed with facts and analysis, the book offers no major theoretical innovations beyond arguing against Peter Bürger’s restricted and shopworn definition of the avant-garde and challenging David Craven’s “alternative modernisms” or any other terms that preserve a sense of center versus periphery (303). Who couldn’t agree, though by this point, isn’t Eurocentrism itself a bit of a straw man? A movement like Estridentismo was, in its own time, and is, today, central and peripheral, primary and secondary, international and local, derivative and innovative: it all depends on where you are standing and what you are looking for.

Because many readers may be unfamiliar with previous scholarship on this topic, it is disconcerting to find the historiography of Estridentismo confined to a brief footnote, and to discover that there is no bibliography (whether the decision of the author or her academic press). Although Flores’s book is the first to provide a sustained analysis of Estridentista imagery, and will certainly garner the lion’s share of attention, it is not the first major treatment of this material. Although Lynda Klich’s 2008 Institute of Fine Arts dissertation (“Revolution and Utopia: Estridentismo and the Visual Arts, 1921–27”) is yet to be transformed into a book, Elissa J. Rashkin’s excellent The Stridentist Movement in Mexico: The Avant-Garde and Cultural Change in the 1920s, which also explores Estridentismo as a multifaceted cultural movement, though with more focus on literature, was published by Lexington Books in 2009. In terms of production values, Mexico’s Revolutionary Avant-Gardes far outshines this previous publication, which has only nineteen poorly scanned images (most with no historic value). Flores’s book will also be more widely distributed and reviewed, but interested readers will want to read it in conjunction with Rashkin’s equally well-researched account (and hopefully, in the future, with Klich’s as well).

Mexico’s Revolutionary Avant-Gardes should also be read in conjunction with two recent catalogues published in Mexico City: Vanguardia estridentista (Museo Estudio Diego Rivera, 2010), to which Flores contributed, and a more eccentric volume (edited by Renato González Mello) that accompanied the exhibition Vanguardia en México, 1915–1940 (Museo Nacional de Arte, 2013). This latter publication reveals that while scholars in the United States are catching up, those in Mexico are leaping forward to explore all sorts of funky things, from Dr. Atl’s Futurist drawings of 1914 to Germán List Arzubide’s 1939 novel about robots.

As a historian of art rather than literature, Flores devotes much of the book to close readings of Estridentista “classics,” such as Ramón Alva de la Canal’s Cubo-Futurist painting-collage Nobody’s Café (1926), as well as works unfamiliar even to specialists. But those less well versed in Mexican culture should take many of her interpretations with caution. Some of these misreadings are inconsequential (a “strange-looking horned animal resembling a moose” on a serape is a deer (66)) but others lead to unsubstantiated or speculative arguments that should not be seen as definitive. There are iconographic missteps that matter (a “fancy china tea seat” is Mexican folk pottery (65); “thatched” roofs are instead tiled (224, 229)), unfortunate errors (Rufino Tamayo was not raised in “abject poverty” (291)), and an over-emphasis on Pre-Columbian “sources,” when there is little or no evidence the artists themselves were sensitive to these connections. In her speculative analysis of an unpublished caricature by Leal on page 163, I wonder whether Flores has overly relied on interpretations suggested by the artist’s highly opinionated son. (As copyright holders, descendants are essential allies, but need to be interrogated critically, whatever the risks.) There are also two works ascribed to Fermín Revueltas that I would question (figures 40 and 55); they may be real, but as the field is plagued by fakes of all sorts (as well as images modified or recreated by the artists themselves late in life), it is essential that scholars approach unpublished objects with caution.

Perhaps the most troublesome example of building an argument on a misreading of the subject appears in Flores’s identification of one of the indigenous dancers in Fernando Leal’s 1922 mural in the National Preparatory School as a self-portrait, though it is so distorted as to be unrecognizable as such (76). This identification is apparently based on an idea first proposed by Laurence Schmeckebier (Modern Mexican Art, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1939, 138), and it allows Flores to argue that the mural includes a “commentary on the impossibility of representing other cultures” (80), though she too easily absolves Leal of the sins of racial prejudice. Several of Leal’s works (as well as others by Jean Charlot) depict Indians with horribly distorted faces complete with thick lips, dull expressions, and empty eyes. No matter their intent, such images reveal a lingering and deleterious primitivism, perhaps “inspired” by Cubist and Expressionist works of the 1910s. Artists like Leal were Mexican by birth, but were culturally distant from the nation’s Indians: if they were more familiar with these folks than Pablo Picasso was with Africans, it was only by a matter of degree.

In her book, Flores frequently invokes Édouard Manet (more than Picasso, surprisingly), but what seems absent in Mexico’s Revolutionary Avant-Gardes is the question of how Estridentismo fits within a wider history of art. Notwithstanding the broad title, the book does not include all avant-garde imagery of the period nor does it flesh out the careers of leading Estridentistas like Germán Cueto or Fermín Revueltas. The result is that Estridentismo seems a lone island, rather than part of a complex cultural archipelago, which made Mexico City in the 1920s (and beyond) one of the most fascinating cities anywhere.

Rather than quarrels with Bürger about narrow definitions, surely the more interesting story here is how Estridentista artists triggered or echoed conversations about modernism that were taking place across Mexico City, as well as in cafés elsewhere, from many points of view. If scholars are now attuned to the risks of making Latin American art seem derivative by too many comparisons with “originals,” surely there is no danger in highlighting dialogues (direct or indirect) with what was happening in other American or European capitals. After all, as Flores (like Klich) recognizes, the Estridentistas engaged in international exchanges (Filippo Tommaso Marinetti received Estridentista publications, and Robert Desnos wrote about Jalapa in 1928), and the Mexican intellectual elite was well informed about avant-garde developments abroad. But while Flores discusses some specific connections to Futurism and Ultraísmo, there is no visual sense of the network whose existence she is trying to prove, or even of a shared sensibility.

In my mind, the book would have benefitted from more of the time-honored “compare and contrast” approach, outmoded though it may seem. To mention just one example, Cueto’s polychromed terra-cotta and plaster masks are much closer to Oscar Kokoschka’s Self-Portrait as a Warrior (1909) than to Mexican mask-making traditions, ancient or modern. Future studies, hopefully, will explore such echoes, exchanges, and connections in detail: after all, we need to bring these Latin American avant-garde artists to the front table, not just give them a separate room in the back. The Mexican “Noise-Makers”—to use Carleton Beals’s 1931 term for the group—should have no problem making themselves heard.

James Oles
Senior Lecturer, Art Department, Wellesley College