What Happened to the Revolution? Mexican Art at the Royal Academy

During my second year as an undergraduate at UCL, I wrote an essay about Mexico’s famous trio of revolutionary muralists: Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco. It began an interest in Mexico which has since lasted 15 years, and shows no signs of abating. Such are the dangers of undergraduate essays. The murals initially reminded me of Renaissance frescos; during a baking hot summer in Tuscany, my parents had shown my sisters and I dozens of frescos, coaxing us along with historical anecdotes and gelato.  The Mexican murals seemed far more colourful and urgent, injected with heavy doses of modern abstraction, folk art, and political radicalism.  I was captivated by the way they dramatised Mexican history, and history in general, and made it seem vitally important; they opened a window onto the fascinating (and sometimes bewildering) drama of the twentieth century’s first social revolution.

I’d been looking forward to the Royal Academy’s exhibition “A Revolution in Art: Mexico, 1910-1940″, and last week I went along. A friendly staff member cautioned me that an audio guide was advisable for this exhibition because “there was an awful lot of context,” so I nodded and picked one up.  I enjoyed the exhibition, saw some thrilling imagery, but I don’t think the curators got the context quite right. Anyone hoping to learn about what Mexico’s revolution amounted to – its successes, failures, and ambiguous legacy – is likely to be disappointed.

The murals are, of course, immovable, but are only part of the revolution’s extraordinary visual record. Satirical broadsheets, caricature, popular folk and religious art, photography, painting, and film all flowered and cross-pollinated in a hotbed of revolutionary tumult. The exhibition is small – it takes up four rooms in the Sackler Wing – but gathers some wonderful pieces of this interconnected tradition. We see how early press photographs of Emiliano Zapata inspired the broadsheets of José Guadalupe Posada, which were a lot more critical of Zapata than the audio guide, or Posada’s posthumous reputation, suggests. We also see how the art made in Mexico was simultaneously nationalist and cosmopolitan, inward and outward looking. In photography, visitors and Mexicans constantly traded ideas, inspiration and, sometimes, camera equipment. The three muralists accepted commissions in the USA, and inspired and trained dozens of imitators. Rivera and Siqueiros melded nationalism with a commitment international socialism.  To get a sense of the excitement, it is still worth reading the works of Anita Brenner, a Mexican-born, US-educated daughter of Latvian Jewish immigrants, who lived in Texas, New York City and Mexico City, and helped popularize and interpret Mexican art to the world.

Some products of these cross-border encounters are more compelling than others. The photographs of Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo move seamlessly between abstraction, deeply weird scenes of everyday life, and biting social satire, and more than hold their own against the works of renowned foreigners like Edward Weston and Henri Cartier-Bresson. When it comes to paint on canvas, Mexicans eclipse anything offered by foreign visitors. The exhibition shows Rivera’s mesmeric “Dance in Tehuantepec” and Siqueiros’s chilling, claustrophobic portrait of a Zapata hemmed in by city walls. The works of British artists Edward Burra and Leon Underwood come over as hopelessly diluted and dilettantish in comparison.

The problem with the exhibition is not its international focus, or its moderate size, but how it loses the thread of Mexican history (and the revolution) halfway through. The first two sections makes sense: one covers the rebellions and civil war from 1910-20, another the officially-sponsored indigenismo in the early 1920s. Thereafter, the Mexican context evaporates. This imprecision seems to have filtered into press coverage of the exhibition. Historians disagree about what to call the 1920s to the 1940s.  Were these decades revolutionary or postrevolutionary?  Whatever we call them, these years are crucial to any understanding of what the revolution was about. After 1920, a victorious faction of northern revolutionaries found themselves precariously in control of Mexico City, and gradually began to rebuild Mexican society and government. The dust had settled on the great battles of 1910-20, but Mexicans continued to struggle over how the new Constitution of 1917- a loose blueprint for a kind of sui generis social democracy- would be implemented. In the 1920s, hundreds of political parties sprang into existence; peasants mobilised in leagues to demand land, whilst others rebelled by the thousands against revolutionary anticlericalism; industrial labor grew, organised itself and flexed political muscles. The mid-1930s saw a final surge of radicalism and institution building, a huge land reform, and an audacious nationalisation of US and British oil companies. At the same time, roads, radio, public schools and consumer culture gradually transformed the rhythms and sounds of everyday life. I am no uncritical booster for the new regime, but stopping the clock in the early 1920s deprives the revolution of much of its political vibrancy and constructive accomplishments.

It is a complicated and controversial story, but Mexican art cannot be evaluated without it, cosmopolitanism and all. The landscape, indigenous heritage, and events of the 1910s inspired artists, but so did the political and social struggles that were still unfolding in front of them. It is odd to see Tina Modotti’s “Men Reading El Machete,” and Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s “Striking Worker, Assassinated” floating free of any discussion of the birth of mass politics; it hardly does justice to what they thought they were doing capturing and publishing such images. Religious imagery pervades the works of Orozco and Paul Strand, but is likewise unencumbered by any mention of the violent conflicts between church and state. A curious visitor would be forgiven for concluding that the revolution was mainly about toppling a corrupt dictator, and praising indigenous culture. Of course, there’s rather more context in the exhibition’s book, but that costs 25 pounds.

The revolution that emerges in the exhibition also lacks much of a political legacy. The final room contains some hints of disillusionment. We see Robert Capa’s photographs of the bloody presidential election of 1940, Antonio Ruiz’s bitter portrayal of consumer culture and urban poverty, and Miguel Covarrubias’s complacent public schoolteacher. But these pieces are not connected to any coherent account of how popular revolution eventually morphed into an authoritarian party that ruled the country until the year 2000, a party which Mexicans have just elected back into power.  The visual culture produced from 1910-1940 left a deep imprint on the Mexican imagination, but we get little sense of this. The official party adorned school textbooks with imagery inspired by the muralists, and sponsored collections of photographs and films which implicitly legitimised their rule. Dissidents also used these images in continuing struggles for citizenship. One of my favorite posters in my office is a 2006 advert for a carnival organised by Mexico City’s sex workers to protest official harassment, which uses an iconic photograph of a soldadera from the 1910s. I like it because it reminds me of a happy afternoon spent chatting to protesters and eating molletes, and illustrates the ongoing power and appropriation of revolutionary imagery.

Of course, there is no one reason why Mexican art is interesting. I wanted more on Mexican politics and society, but then I am a historian who studies these things. The Royal Academy show aims to demonstrate that Mexico produced visual art of great aesthetic power and cultural significance, which inspired and earned the respect of artists around the world. This is fair enough, although it might have helped if there were fewer errors in Spanish littering the exhibition.  Even so, I left wondering if this is really the best way to engage the public. The final room mentions the massive 1940 exhibition of Mexican art in New York City, which was intended to finally put Mexicans’ “genuine understanding and appreciation of beauty” on the international map. The 2013 exhibition ends with much the same plea for metropolitan recognition. In 50 years, will another exhibition be required to make the same point? Will Mexican art always be stuck in this defensive posture? Mexican history in the first half of twentieth century is, in part, about striking accomplishments in the visual arts. It is also about how the citizens of a racist and deeply unequal society struggled to create a more responsive government and a measure of peace and social justice, and the achievements and (ample) frustrations which followed. Is this story really so alien and passé? Perhaps Mexico would do better grabbing universal attention if it embraced, rather than skirted, the particulars of its contentious political history.

Dr Thomas Rath

Dr Thomas Rath is Lecturer in Latin American History at UCL. He was educated at UCL, Oxford and Columbia and works on the political, social and cultural history of modern Latin America, particularly Mexico. Thomas is the author of Myths of Demilitarization in Postrevolutionary Mexico, 1920-1960

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