Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 5, 2017
Matthew Affron, Mark A. Castro, Dafne Cruz Porchini, and Renato González Mello, eds. Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950 Exh. cat. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2016. 432 pp.; 350 color ills.; 20 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300215229)
Exhibition schedule: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, October 25, 2016–January 8, 2017; Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, February 3–April 30, 2017; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, June 25–October 1, 2017
Installation view, Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950, Philadelphia Museum of Art, October 25, 2016–January 8, 2017 (photograph © 2016; provided by the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Marking the centenary of the Mexican Constitution (and some argue the end of the Mexican Revolution), the year 2017 is the occasion for many celebrations of Mexican art and culture. Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950 offers a rare opportunity to see numerous exceptional examples of Mexican modern art, many loaned from private collections. The exhibition and its accompanying lavishly illustrated catalogue are collaborations between the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) and the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Curators Matthew Affron, Mark A. Castro, Dafne Cruz Porchini, and Renato González Mello’s welcome transnational perspective succeeds in balancing a popular demand for los tres grandes—with a gallery more or less devoted to Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros each—and Frida Kahlo (represented by five paintings), while expanding the understanding of Mexican modernism in the United States beyond these relatively well-known figures to include works by the vanguard Estridentistas and Contemporáneos, among others like Rufino Tamayo and the Dyn Circle. The accompanying exhibition catalogue brings together recent scholarship by leading academics (roughly half from the United States and half from Mexico) representing a new emphasis in the field on the plurality of Mexican modernisms. In the context of the PMA exhibition, their research is reflected in a panoply of formal strategies, media, and subjects. Overall, the exhibition seems particularly concerned to situate Mexican modernism outside of a traditional focus on nationalism and instead relate the artworks to other international avant-gardes such as Symbolism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Expressionism, together with other non-nation-specific contexts and themes.

Given Paint the Revolution’s dual US and Mexican heritage, it is useful to consider its relation to the historiography both of exhibitions of Mexican modern art in the United States and of more recent exhibitions of Mexican modernism in Mexico. The former category constitutes a genre unto itself, with different installations representing shifting diplomatic relationships, sociopolitical commitments, and cultural tastes. Joseph J. Rishel’s catalogue essay ably maps these precedents to Paint the Revolution, but withholds judgment on the present exhibition’s ideological relationship to its predecessors. Paint the Revolution addresses head-on two issues that have burdened exhibitions of Mexican modernism in the United States since their inception: What role should popular art, so integral to the vibrancy of Mexico’s cultural renaissance, play in relation to an exhibition of fine art? And how to display monumental, site-specific mural programs in museums?

In 1930, the exhibition Mexican Arts opened in Mexico City under the auspices of the Mexican government before traveling to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Initiated by Ambassador Dwight W. Morrow, financed by the Carnegie Corporation (which had mining interests in Mexico), and presented with the support of the American Federation of Arts, the exhibition included both fine and applied arts. Despite some pushback within the Met regarding curator René d’Harnoncourt’s inclusion of crafts, Mexican Arts was a blockbuster: 25,000 saw it in New York before it traveled on to 13 other cities.

A decade later, in 1940, the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA), presented Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art in collaboration with the Mexican government. Occupying most of the museum, Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art was divided into four sections: pre-Columbian, Colonial, Folk Art, and Modern. Although facilitated by various MoMA representatives, including its president, Nelson Rockefeller, Mexican scholars now seized the task of assembling works and writing the associated catalogue essays themselves. The inclusion of folk art was less fraught than it had been at the Met a decade earlier, but the problem of displaying murals remained, an issue that Anna Indych-López has addressed in various contexts (for Paint the Revolution’s catalogue, she contextualizes the Mexican muralists’ realism relative to international trends, from Jacob Lawrence’s 1941 Migration Series to Germany’s New Objectivity). MoMA had prior experience with the matter in its 1931 monographic Rivera exhibition (reprised in 2011–12 at the museum), for which the artist created eight “portable frescos” in situ.

Notably for Paint the Revolution, the PMA was the last US museum to produce a major survey of Mexican modernism with Mexican Art Today of 1943, after which the so-called “enormous vogue of things Mexican” began to fade in the United States with involvement in the Second World War and an accompanying rejection of social realism. Like Paint the Revolution, Mexican Art Today was an international collaboration, in this case between curator Henry Clifford and Galería de Arte Mexicano director Inés Amor. Unlike Twenty Centuries, with its long historical scope, Mexican Art Today was insistently contemporary, promoting easel painting and many lesser-known artists like Carlos Mérida, Antonio Ruiz, and Juan Soriano. Here, too, there were glimpses of Surrealism and abstraction in dialogue with international trends, an important precedent to Paint the Revolution’s deemphasis of nationalism.

The PMA made several acquisitions from Mexican Art Today, many of which are present in Paint the Revolution. For example, donors purchased two of Rivera’s portable frescos, Sugar Cane and Liberation of the Peon (originally made for MoMA in 1931), on behalf of the PMA in 1943. Representing one more in a series of attempts to transport murals across national borders, a problem acknowledged in lead curator Affron’s catalogue essay, perhaps the most striking aspect of Paint the Revolution is two scrolling digital projections of murals, each accompanied by interactive panels. Inevitably, the moving projection fails to give a sense of what it is like to be at the Ministry of Public Education (SEP) in Mexico City immersed in Rivera’s murals, and the motivated museumgoer is well-advised to travel to Dartmouth College to experience Orozco’s Epic of American Civilization (1932–34) for oneself.

In addition to mural projections and paintings, Paint the Revolution includes examples of sculpture, photography, and printmaking. Woodcuts and other popular prints from the likes of Xavier Guerrero, Leopoldo Méndez, and members of the League of Revolutionary Artists and Writers and the Peoples’ Graphic Workshop are exhibited in a dynamic arrangement at the PMA. Of course, modernism is not solely visual, but includes film, architecture, literature, and music. The former two media are discussed in catalogue essays by Juan Solís and Daniel Garza Usabiaga, but absent from the exhibition. Regarding literature, both Mireida Velázquez’s and co-curator Castro’s essays focus on the close-knit Contemporáneos, while Lynda Klich’s emphasizes the contributions of the Estridentistas. Both literary groups are represented in the galleries: intimate portraits of the Contemporáneos appear alongside the more brazen, multi-media objects of the Estridentistas under the rubric “In the City.” Finally, influential composer Carlos Chávez’s instrumental music for The Call: Proletarian Symphony (1934) is audible over the projection of Rivera’s murals for the SEP. Rivera transcribed the texts of corridos (Mexican popular ballads) in a red banner running along the top of his panels, which inspired Chávez’s orchestral composition.

Significantly, the curators chose to include Chávez’s modernist take on folk music rather a popular rendition of a corrido. Indeed, Paint the Revolution generally eschews popular art, following Mexican Art Today’s turn away from the Met’s and MoMA’s earlier model of exhibiting Mexican folk art alongside fine art. An entire gallery is devoted to works on paper created using the Best Maugard Drawing Method and at the Open-Air Painting Schools (both incidentally top-down initiatives), but there are few works by unknown artists—and no examples at all of the various ceramics, textiles, toys, vernacular paintings, and other folk objects that influenced many Mexican modernists and were enthusiastically promoted by Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo Cornado) and others.

Although two of co-curator González Mello’s exhibitions at the Museo Nacional de Arte (MUNAL), Mexico City—Los pinceles de la historia: La arqueología del regímen, 1910–1955 (2003) and Vanguardia en México: 1915–1940 (2013)—paved the way for Paint the Revolution, the closest large-scale precedent appeared twenty-five years ago at MUNAL: Modernidad y modernización en el arte mexicano, 1920–1960 (1991). Curated by Olivier Debroise, the exhibition and its multi-authored catalogue presented an international vision of Mexican modernism. Looking beyond the “Mexican School,” Debroise and his collaborators highlighted a plurality of artists creating work in dialogue with US and European modernists.

There is significant conceptual overlap between Modernidad y modernización and Paint the Revolution. For example, Rita Eder contributed an essay on muralism to the former’s catalogue and one on Surrealism for the latter’s, both relating to European encounters. Now another generation of US and Mexican scholars, many of them students or proponents of the senior cohort, have inherited and grappled with Modernidad y modernización’s legacy, which is deeply felt in Paint the Revolution. Both exhibitions, furthermore, highlight Tamayo’s and Siqueiros’s transcendence of nationalism. Works by Ramón Alva de la Canal, Juan O’Gorman, Rivera, and others appear in both, although a great many objects from Modernidad y modernización are traveling with a concurrent anniversary exhibition—Méxique: 1900–1950, co-organized between MUNAL and the Grand Palais in Paris.

Museumgoers and readers of the Paint the Revolution catalogue will benefit from the project’s cosmopolitan perspective, which builds on a long history of exhibiting Mexican modern art in the United States and on critical research associated with more contemporary exhibitions from Mexico. Perhaps Paint the Revolution’s greatest achievement, however, is in bringing together scholarship and curatorial expertise from the United States and Mexico. Transnational collaboration, particularly between these two nations, is needed now more than ever.

Monica Bravo
Lecturer, History of Art Department and Program in Ethnicity, Race, and Migration, Yale University