By: Jonathan Lopez
“I should be photographing more steel mills or paper factories,” Edward Weston wrote in his daybook on Sept. 13, 1923, “but here I am in romantic Mexico … There are sunlit walls of fascinating surface textures, and there are clouds!”
Unlike his politically committed colleague Paul Strand, who went to Mexico in the wake of the revolution to document the lives of campesinos in projects underwritten by the government of President Lázaro Cárdenas del Río, Weston had no particular interest in class struggle, socialism or societal upheaval. He had opted to leave his California home and head south of the border mostly to take a break from one woman, his wife, while in pursuit of another, the beautiful Italian-American actress Tina Modotti. She would become his studio assistant, model and lover. They lived and worked together, on and off, from 1923 to 1926 in a house on Mexico City’s fashionable Calle Lucerna.
A sampling of Weston’s photographs from this period, including his earliest forays into still life, landscape and cloud studies, can be seen in the current show Viva Mexico! Edward Weston and His Contemporaries, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It has been mounted as a companion to Vida y Drama, also at the MFA, an exhibition of Mexican prints from the same period, most of them with strong political and propagandistic overtones. The pairing of these two exhibitions (both of which will be on view through Nov. 2) makes clear that, revolutionary though Weston was for introducing the modernist vocabulary of abstraction into American photography, he was not a revolutionary in a political sense.
“I feel a little defensive about it,” says curator Karen Haas of Weston’s disengagement from current events during his stay in Mexico. Emphasizing that the photographer felt a tremendous respect for Mexican culture, apparent in his frequent use of craft objects as motifs for his still lifes and Aztec ruins for his landscapes, she says that he was simply not inclined to compromise the integrity of his work by weighing it down with an overt message or by committing it to the service of a cause.
Indeed, contemplating an image like Revolución, in which Weston arranges a series of straw figurines in a farcical echo of Pancho Villa’s army of bandidos, one senses a jibe at the engagement of art with politics prized by many of Weston’s closest friends in Mexico, among them Modotti. Under Weston’s tutelage Modotti developed into a skilled photographer in her own right, indebted to her mentor for much of her formal repertoire but fully capable of expressing her own interests. Her Worker’s Hands, Mexico, for instance, was printed in the pages of New Masses after she joined the Communist party in 1927. She would stay in Mexico long after Weston departed, traveling in a circle of left-leaning artists—including Diego Rivera, for whom she occasionally modeled, as well as José Clemente Orozco—and courting trouble with the authorities for her political activities.
The notion that Weston’s aesthetic, despite its originality, might have involved retreating from the world as much as confronting it could dismay those who equate modernism with all things progressive. But in assessing this pivotal period in Weston’s career, when his signature style was just beginning to take shape in the bright Mexican sunlight, one might want to take a closer look at the passions of that historical moment and ask whether the Mexican Revolution was actually something worth celebrating. Although it might have supported the production of the greatest murals of the 20th century—and some excellent posters, several of which are now on view at the MFA—Mexico’s “institutional” revolutionary party ultimately presided over decades of corrupt and sclerotic government that served the interests of no one except insiders.
And what about the lefter-than-left appeal of Communism? Seductive though it might have been to bohemian artists of the 1920s and ’30s, the movement was an international lie of epic proportions. While Weston’s indifference to it probably had more to do with temperament than with intellectual analysis, his instincts seem here, as elsewhere in his art, to have served him well.
Haas also poses insightful questions about the work of more “committed” artists of the era, such as Strand. His iconic Día de Fiesta is ostensibly a celebration of the common man—but Haas points out that Strand printed this haunting image on costly platinum paper in a limited edition intended for wealthy collectors in New York. “There are a lot of ambiguities here,” she says. While Strand undoubtedly believed in the causes he supported, he also exploited and commercialized them.
Purity, of course, is as hard to come by in art as it is in life. This holds true for the modernist Weston, trying to sublimate his libido in the almost abstract nude studies that he produced of Modotti during the course of their affair, and for the activist Strand, capitalizing on his conscience. Both went to Mexico in search of subject matter and, one suspects, a measure of adventure. Each found his muse.