Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910–1940

Untitled (Nacional de México), c1911

Gelatin silver print, 12.2 x 17 cm, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, Dallas
Photo DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas

Covering a 30-year period during which Mexico saw enormous political, social and economic change, the RA’s show focuses on how art was used to communicate the country’s transformation and create dialogue with the wider world. Brehme’s photograph of Zapatistas perched on the cow-catcher of a train was taken around 1911, a year after the start of the Mexican Revolution, but remained in the popular imagination long after the revolution ended in 1920.

'Dance in Tehuantepec', 1928

Oil on canvas, 200.7 x 163.8 cm. Collection of Clarissa and Edgar Bronfman Jr
Photo Collection of Clarissa and Edgar Brontman Jr, courtesy of Sotheby's,
New York / © 2013 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums
Trust, Mexico, D.F. / DACS. All rights reserved

Having left Mexico in 1907 to study in Europe, Diego Rivera had already made a name for himself when in 1920 he was invited back to his home country by José Vasconcelos, the minister of public education, to spearhead a programme of public art. Rivera and fellow artists José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros became known as ‘los tres grandes’ for their sociopolitical murals. Each is represented in this show by smaller works like Rivera’s ‘Dance in Tehuantepec’ (1928).

'Workers Reading El Machete', c1929

Platinum print, 7.92 x 10.46 cm, Throckmorton Fine Art, Inc. Photo courtesy by Throckmorton Fine Art Inc., New York

Among the first artists to arrive after the revolution were Tina Modotti and her lover, Edward Weston, who sailed from California in 1923. While Weston took formal photographs of everyday objects, Modotti became known for grittier, more politically charged images like ‘Workers Reading El Machete’ (c1929). It could explain why, in 1930, she was expelled from Mexico amid an anti-communist campaign by the Mexican government. On the eve of her departure, Modotti gave her camera to Manuel Alvarez Bravo, a young tax inspector who would go on to become a titan of Latin American photography.

'Lords of the Dance', 1931

Platinum print, 30.5 x 25.7 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, given by Dorothy Bohm, © Colette Urbajtel, Archivo Manuel Alvarez Bravo SC

'Gladiators', 1940

Oil and pencil on canvas, 62.2 x 71.4 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Edward R Broida, 2005. Photo © 2013. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence

'El Paseo', c1938

Watercolour on paper, 133.3 x 111.8 cm. Private collection. Photo Private collection / © Estate of the artist, c/o Lefevre Fine Art Ltd

The British painter Edward Burra was one of scores of left-leaning European artists to visit Mexico in the 1930s. Unfortunately, hating the incessant rain, loathing the diet and suffering from dysentery, Burra lasted just a month, returning home to Rye, East Sussex to paint works like ‘El Paseo’ (1938).

'Carnival in Huejotzingo', 1939

Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 96.5 cm. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, Gift of Dr. & Mrs. Loyal Davis. Photo Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Loyal Davis. © DACS 2012, all rights reserved.

'Mantic', 1940

Oil on composition board, 71 x 89 cm. The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. Photo courtesy of  The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2013

Albers, who taught alongside Paul Klee at the Bauhaus, fled Nazi Germany for the US in 1933. Two years later he made the first of 13 trips to Mexico, drawing influence from the light, colour and architecture of the country in works like ‘Mantic’ (1940). It shows the influence of Mexico on his famous ‘Homage to the Square’ paintings, which have become icons of international modernism.

'Self-Portrait (Autorretrato)', c1938

Oil on board with painted tin border, 5.08 x 4.32 cm. Courtesy Sotheby's. Photo Private collection, courtesy of Sotheby's, New York / © 2013. Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D. / DACS. All rights reserved.

Royal Academy of Arts , Mayfair Saturday July 27 2013 10:00 - 18:00
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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.

Martin Coomer

Venue name: Royal Academy of Arts
Address: Burlington House, Piccadilly
Opening hours: Mon-Thu, Sat, Sun 10am-6pm; Fri 10am-10pm
Transport: Tube: Piccadilly Circus
Price: Admission charge
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