The violent opening images of this exhibition offer an eye-popping illustration of Mexican history at the beginning of the twentieth century. The 1910 revolution (which brought to an end the long rule of Porfirio Díaz) and the turbulent decade that followed (during which ten presidents took office) are chronicled in the kind of photographs you rarely see in an art exhibition, let alone in the genteel surroundings of the RA.
In pictures like ‘Another Wreck of a Newspaper Office, Mexico City’ (1913) and ‘Another Result’ (1913), showing the shattered remains of a once-grand interior, the press photographer Manuel Ramos ensured that the enduring conflict was captured on camera and shared with the world. The entrepreneur-turned-photographer Walter H Horne went one stage further, making many of his gory images into postcards – his ‘Triple Execution’ series was a bestseller.
The show never quite lives up to its wild beginnings. While artists like Francisco Goitia, the only official war artist of the revolution, started to challenge the academic painting championed during Porfirio Díaz’s government with stark canvases like ‘Zacatecan Landscape with Hanged Men II’ (c1914), Mexico’s real artistic revolution took place on the kind of grand scale the RA’s modest Sackler Wing could never hope to accommodate.
Diego Rivera, having left Mexico in 1907 to study in Europe, had already made a name for himself when, in 1920, he was invited back by the liberal, intellectual Minister of Public Education, José Vasconcelos, to spearhead a public art programme. He and fellow artists José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, known as ‘los tres grandes’ for their socio-political murals, are the lynchpins of this show. But murals can’t travel, so instead of being overawed by their greatest works, we have to make do with a handful of smaller paintings, like Rivera’s rhythmic, glowing ‘Dance in Tehuantepec’ (1928) and the Siqueiros’s glowering portrait of the revolutionary leader ‘Zapata’ (1931).
What the exhibition concentrates on is the procession of left-leaning artists – ranging from the photographers Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, two of the first to arrive after the revolution (Modotti was expelled in 1930 during an anti-communist campaign by the Mexican government), to the British painter Edward Burra who, suffering from dysentery, stayed for just a month. It’s a revelation to see the influence of Mexican light, colour and architecture on Josef Albers’s abstractions in paintings like ‘Mantic’ (1940), which predates his first ‘Homage to the Square’ paintings by a decade. Wonderful too to see in ‘Gladiators’ (1940) how, as a young man, Philip Guston developed his painterly lexicon of hoods, hands and trashcan shields during a trip to Mexico. The evolution of these major names in twentieth-century art is as much the show’s subject as the revolution that kicks it off.