Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910–1940

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Hugo Brehme (Untitled (Nacional de México), c1911)
Untitled (Nacional de México), c1911Gelatin silver print, 12.2 x 17 cm, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, DallasPhoto 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.
Diego Rivera  ('Dance in Tehuantepec', 1928)
'Dance in Tehuantepec', 1928Oil on canvas, 200.7 x 163.8 cm. Collection of Clarissa and Edgar Bronfman JrPhoto 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).
Tina Modotti  ('Workers Reading El Machete', c1929 )
'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.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo  ('Lords of the Dance', 1931 )
'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
Philip Guston ('Gladiators', 1940)
'Gladiators', 1940Oil 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
Edward Burra ('El Paseo', c1938 )
'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).
Jose Chavez Morado ('Carnival in Huejotzingo', 1939 )
'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.
Josef Albers ('Mantic', 1940)
'Mantic', 1940Oil 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.
Frida Kahlo ('Self-Portrait (Autorretrato)', c1938)
'Self-Portrait (Autorretrato)', c1938Oil 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.

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


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I'm a big fan of Frida Kahlo and Mexican art in general. So, I was really looking forward to this exhibition. I must say I was extremely disappointed. The only painting by Frida Kahlo was little bigger than a 2 pence piece. Diego's piece was also not one of his best. While the paintings did invoke the mood of the times and of Mexico in general. It seemed a bit lacking. With no context for the work or background as to what was going on in Mexico at the time. I assume this was provided by the audio guides to accompany the exhibition. But I really did not want to fork out an extra £4 on top of the £10 I had already paid to get in. Many of the paintings were accompanied by the sentence "The artist did not return/visit Mexico again". But there was no reason or context behind this. Was it because they did not enjoy Mexico? Was it because conditions in Mexico were horrific at the time? Was it because they could not afford to travel there? Was it because they just fancied visiting other places? Or, did they just fall in love, get married, have kids, and never travel again? Now the answer to these questions intrigues me. Also, I would love to have seen a mini documentary of life in Mexico around this time. Maybe a few recordings of everyday people describing life then or even an expert in Mexican art of this era. Failing that, just a simple documentary on the history of Mexico, focusing on Guadelajara. As many of the artist seem to come from Guadelajara, or maybe that was my imagination. Perhaps a video of the landscape around Guadelajara would be appreciated. As a sandy and desert landscape is featured in one of the photos. Or, maybe, I am just being far too picky here. I just think I need to book a trip to Mexico to see more of Frida's work and larger scale pieces. The only think I will miss is the nice air con of the Royal Academy.