Defining Modernity


An enormous exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art examines the many dimensions of Mexican Modernism.

Diego Rivera, Dance in Tehuantepec (Baile in Tehuantepec), 1928

Diego Rivera, Dance in Tehuantepec (Baile in Tehuantepec), 1928

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From the ashes of the Mexican Revolution rose a strident phoenix. The 10 years of civil war, which began with an insurrection against President Porfirio Díaz in 1910 and ended with revolutionary general Álvaro Obregón taking presidential office in 1920, led to an outpouring of artistic expression. The newly instated government responded by bolstering the arts in Mexico with support and encouragement. Obregón placed José Vasconcelos, a prominent intellectual at the head of the new Ministry of Public Education (Secretaría de Educación Pública [SEP]). Vasconcelos enlisted a contingent of artists to paint murals on public buildings—a means of disseminating the ideals of the revolution to as many people as possible. Just as the frescoes commissioned by the Catholic Church during the Italian Renaissance glorified Christ and the saints and lamented sin and worldliness, so did the murals of modern Mexico lionize leftist politics and depict the plight of the worker while condemning capitalism and imperialism. Through the murals of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros (often referred to as los tres grandes) and their contemporaries, there emerged a style of social realism that defined Mexico both in ethos and aesthetic.

But murals were not the only art form the Mexican government supported, nor were they the only medium to flourish in Mexico in the first half of the 20th century. Open-Air Painting Schools (Escuelas de Pintura al Aire Libre), which nurtured future members of the Mexican avant-garde such as Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, Ramón Alva de la Canal, and Leopoldo Méndez, eschewed the exclusivity of traditional private art schools. Adolfo Best Maugard, a prominent modern Mexican painter and the eventual head of the government’s prints program, developed and instituted a drawing method made up of seven fundamental principles (thought to be based on Pre-Columbian art) that was taught in Mexico’s primary schools. Printmaking—often highly political in nature—was an important and potent form of expression for many of Mexico’s leading artists, such as Emilio Amero and Jesús Escobedo, and print workshops, such as the Taller de Gráfica Popular, flourished during this period. International artists, too, such as Elizabeth Catlett and Jean Charlot, made prints in Mexico, and the Weyhe Gallery in New York published Mexican modern prints throughout the ’20s and ’30s. Lola Álvarez Bravo, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, and Amero, along with international artists such as Edward Weston and Henri Cartier-Bresson, cemented the legacy of modernist photography in Mexico.

In 1943, the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) staged the groundbreaking exhibition “Mexican Art Today.” By the ’40s, commissions of work by Siqueiros and Rivera in the United States had familiarized an American audience with Mexican muralism. “Mexican Art Today,” which traveled to seven locations in the U.S. and Canada, broadened its audience’s understanding of Mexican painting on canvas. Henry Clifford, the chief curator of the museum at the time, co-organized the show with Inez Amor, a leading figure in 20th-century Mexican art. Amor founded the Mexican Art Gallery (Galería de Arte Mexicano) with her sister in 1935 and put works by Mexico’s most celebrated artists—Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros, as well as Frida Kahlo and Rufino Tamayo—on view. “Mexican Art Today” was not only instrumental in defining Mexican painting’s international legacy; it also helped establish the PMA’s cache of Mexican modernist artworks, a collection that includes some 45 paintings and sculptures and over 500 works on paper. In fact, in the United States, only the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago rival the PMA’s holdings.

“Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950,” a new exhibition at the PMA (through January 8), revisits the museum’s history with Mexican modernism, while expanding further on the movement than ever before. The show is the most comprehensive exhibition of Mexican modernism in the United States in more than seven decades. Many of the works in the museum’s collection will go on view alongside loans from international institutions, most notably from the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, the exhibition’s co-organizer (the show will travel to the Palacio after it closes in Philadelphia). Through painting, sculpture, works on paper, photography, and digital recreations of murals, viewers will be given an in-depth look into one of the most important periods in the history of modern art.


Self-Portrait with Popocatepetl, a 1928 painting by Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo), is a highlight of the exhibition, as well as a cornerstone of the PMA’s collection. It was gifted to the museum in 1949 by Dr. Mackinley Helm, a friend of Amor and Clifford’s and an intellectual who wrote multiple books about Mexican art. The piece, which is painted with “Atl color”—a mix of oil, wax, dry resin, and gasoline—depicts the artist in front of Popocatepetl, a 17,877-foot active volcano, which is among the mountains that surround Mexico City. There are several prints in the exhibition by Dr. Atl that also feature volcanoes, a favorite motif of the artist and a distinctive feature of the landscape just outside Mexico’s urban center. Matthew Affron, the Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art at the PMA and one of the lead curators of the show, says, “Atl had an obsession with volcanoes. He became a volcanologist and even lost part of his leg in a volcano.” Atl, who was an associate of Vasconcelos and a prominent figure in the Mexican avant-garde before, during, and after the revolution, was outspoken in his opinion that Mexican art should bear a distinct Mexican spirit culled from its own landscape, symbols, and history. “He was a great cultural agitator,” says Affron, “who knew Mexican folklore and saw no conflict between Mexican traditions and modern art.” Dr. Atl, Affron adds, was “one of the first to jockey for traditional pottery to be seen as fine art—he saw it as a way of getting outside of the European tradition.”

During the decades that “Paint the Revolution” examines, it was a major question among Mexican artists whether to look to Europe or to express purely national, Mexican ideas. For artists such as Julio Castellanos, who studied engraving in the United States (where he met Rodríguez Lozano, a major influence on his work) and European art in Paris, after matriculating at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes and the Open-Air Painting Schools in Mexico City, European tropes held an allure. Three Nudes (The Aunts), a 1930 oil on canvas that entered the PMA’s collection in 1943, features two women and a child lounging at a table. Affron describes the painting as “Picasso-like” and concerned with “the heroic nude and a new classicism. It’s working hard to create connections with Europe.” Castellanos, Affron explains, was “part of the Mexican avant-garde that didn’t think art had to be political but could be about the individual and express issues through that.”

Other artists of this period vacillated between work that was political or more formal. Rufino Tamayo, who studied with Castellanos at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes, didn’t completely turn away from political topics but instead expressed them through a humanist perspective. Man and Woman (1926), a piece that became part of the PMA’s collection in 1957, depicts a man and woman with indigenous-looking features standing—much like Dr. Atl’s self-portrait—in front of a group of mountains. A later piece, The Mad Dog, which was painted in 1943 and gifted to the PMA in 1945, shows a panting, sick dog stumbling among cactuses in front of a blood-red background. The painting, part of Tamayo’s series of animals in distress, was painted in reaction to the trauma of war, which was raging throughout the world at the time.

For Siqueiros, the situation was more cut and dried. Affron says, “Siqueiros believed one should be an activist artist, a citizen artist.” A Marxist-Leninist and a member of the Mexican Communist Party, he advocated art that held a “constructive spirit”—that championed the proletariat and avoided meaningless decorative or fantastical flourishes. He painted War in 1939, after having fought in the Spanish Civil War. The piece, which was given to the PMA by Amor in 1944, was painted with Duco paint, which is usually used on automobiles. “Siqueiros believed that materials should reflect one’s beliefs,” says Affron. “He used spray guns and other normal tools and used overlays to suggest angularity.” The piece, which is an allegory of the horrors of war, features a bulbous, contorted nude that is brutal and suffering. “It’s supposed to be disturbing,” Affron says.

One of the three murals that “Paint the Revolution” will digitally recreate is Siqueiros’ Portrait of the Bourgeoisie (1939–40). Commissioned by the Mexican Electricians’ Syndicate (Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas [SME]), Siqueiros painted the mural in a staircase at the headquarters of the labor union in Mexico City. In the decade leading up to this project, Siqueiros had been vocal about Rivera’s “bourgeois individualism” as well as his readiness to paint within corporate and federal buildings and within the confines of state or commercial commissions. Inspired by mass media, particularly film and the theories of Sergei Eisenstein, Siqueiros assembled a team to create a mural that uses a montage-like composition and extreme juxtapositions in style and size to create a fractured narrative and elicit an active emotional reaction in its viewers. Siqueiros’ commitment to industrial technique and materials led to the use of spray guns, nitrocellulose pigments, and photo-projectors. Spanish-artist Josep Renau (who eventually finished the project after the team collapsed) created a photomontage of references for the mural from his extensive archive of negatives. In the mural, capitalism is a giant machine that mints coinage from the blood of the working class.

The exhibition will also digitally recreate the two suites of images—Ballad of the Agrarian Revolution (1926–27) and Ballad of the Proletarian Revolution (1928–29)—that Rivera painted on the courtyard walls of the SEP building. The building, a three-tiered structure that takes up two city blocks in length and one in width, also contains work by Siqueiros, Charlot, and Amado de la Cueva. Rivera had returned to Mexico in 1922, after a 14-year absence during which he witnessed the advent of Cubism and became infatuated by the work of Cézanne in Paris and studied frescoes in Italy. Though he painted his first important mural, Creation, at the Bolívar Auditorium of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City before he began working in the SEP building, it was the series in the Education building that he believed captured the spirit and story of Mexico.

For Rivera, it became increasingly important to create work that was essentially Mexican and not simply an interpretation of the European tradition. A trip to the Yucatán to study Mayan ruins captivated Rivera, and he made countless sketches of Mexico’s indigenous people and their artwork. Rivera begins his fleet of frescoes with Mexico’s pre-colonial history, tracing his country’s folklore, cultural traditions, strife, and revolution. Among the series of 124 frescoes is one of the most celebrated self-portraits by the artist, as well as an image of Kahlo passing out arms to revolutionaries. Pride of place is also given to the robber barons of Mexico’s northern neighbor, whose avarice Rivera portrays with cartoonish disdain. Technology and industrialization, themes that are present in many of Rivera’s murals thereafter, make appearances, as well.

Though Rivera painted hundreds of frescoes in Mexico, his fame as a leading figure in his native country would eventually lead him to become a known—and, for a period, a frequently commissioned—artist in the U.S. In 1931, Rivera was given the second single-artist exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. On view at the PMA will be two of the portable frescoes Rivera made for the show, which were given to the PMA in the ’40s. Between 1930 and 1933, Rivera painted murals in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York with Kahlo in tow. (Kahlo, it should be noted, was highly critical of Americans and American life. A 1926 painting, Self-Portrait in Velvet, is in the exhibition, but she did not become the pop-culture figure we now know her as until the 1980s). Notably, Detroit Industry (1932–33) in the Garden Court of the Detroit Institute of Arts was made possible in part by the patronage of Edsel Ford, and Rivera’s mural in Rockefeller Center, Man at the Crossroads (1933), was removed due to its inclusion of a portrait of Vladimir Lenin.

Orozco moved to New York in 1927, three years after he painted a series of murals at the National Preparatory School (now known as the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso) that were partially destroyed by conservative students and the artist himself (he later repainted many of them). In the U.S., Orozco painted three major murals in private colleges. The first, Prometheus (1930), was painted in the dining hall of Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and has been called the first modern fresco in the United States. The second, a cycle depicting revolutionary politics, was painted in New York at the New School for Social Research (1930–31). The third, The Epic of American Civilization (1932–34), was painted at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and is the third mural the PMA will digitally reproduce in the exhibition. Made up of 24 panels, it is a retelling of North America’s history, beginning with its Mesoamerican, rather than colonial origins. Orozco defended the series as an “AMERICAN idea developed into American forms, American feeling, and, as a consequence, into American style.”

The exhibition will also feature work by two leading avant-garde groups working outside the concerns of the tres grandes but very much in service of modern art in Mexico. In 1921 Manuel Maples Arce, a young poet, plastered a broadside called Actual No. 1 all over the walls of Mexico City. It read, “Let us become more cosmopolitan,” and thus Estridentismo (Stridentism) was born. A response to international movements such as Dada, Italian Futurism, and Spanish Ultraísmo, Stridentism bulldozed through what it saw as the constraints of nationalism in favor of the chaotic, multidisciplinary utopianism grounded in socialist politics. Visually, the Stridentist philosophy manifested in many ways, such as Alva de la Canal’s Cubist café scenes, Charlot’s depictions of trains and factories, and Germán Cueto’s terracotta and acrylic masks.

The Contemporáneos, another group that began in the early 1920s, was more like a social network. In fact, it was only named after the publication of the literary journal Contemporáneos some years later (1928–31). Tamayo, Castellanos, María Izquierdo, and Rodríguez Lozano, among others, banded together over an interest in French painting and international art movements. The group placed individual and aesthetic aims above the collective or politicized message. Though they were often criticized by the Stridentists and muralists for their lack of a political agenda, the Contemporáneos chose instead to look both internationally and within themselves for inspiration—a thoroughly modern approach to art-making.


By Sarah E. Fensom

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: October 2016