I just managed to catch Philadelphia’s Mexican Modernism show before it closed in early January. When I saw it I was mostly struck by the way it illustrates the development of a Mexican national identity—my notes are all about this process and the way that artists experimented in multiple styles and subjects as they developed what mexicanismo meant and looked like.
However, writing this post a month later put me a few weeks past inauguration day and into a completely different state of mind. I expected to be writing about the development of a certain look. Instead what I remembered most about the show was how quickly and strongly the Mexican artistic identity expressed itself as anti-fascist and anti-colonialist.
Mexican artists embraced an indigeneity where the peasants and the poor are now Indians being used and abused by urbanists, capitalists, and internationalists. In so many of the paintings and murals, modern society is a huge, military-industrial complex which uses the people as the literal raw material for making money. They’re busy and dark in how they blend flesh and machine, and labor and technology as components of the new way of things.
Where fascism is “colonialist procedures…applied to Europe,” Mexico has had a mixture of both power-hungry leadership and international interference which is disturbingly relevant now. That its artists have chosen to self-identify as “Indian” in order to frame and fight this dynamic is extremely interesting compared to the way that resistance in the United States still struggles with recognizing the nature of oppression that Indians and Slavery have suffered here.*
*Comparing the Mexican appropriation of either generic or Aztec indigeneity to the way Indian Nations work in the United States is something which is so far out of my area of expertise that I’m a little uncomfortable even mentioning it at all. But I feel like it’s important to acknowledge that I can’t help but see that the entire system in each country has to be different.
US resistance often feels like protesting because “if we don’t protest now it could happen to us too”—where “we” and “us” are the white middle class. It’s protesting because of something “unprecedented” happening—where the only thing unprecedented is in the who it happened to this time. There’s a disconnect where only certain protesters and victims count.
Looking at the Mexican art shows no such problems. The people are the natives whose land has been stolen and whose labor built the country. There’s no question about who the correct victims should be. The poor people. The laborers. The ones doing the most work for the least pay in the hardest conditions. They‘re all worth fighting for. All of them.
And the bad guys. Fascists are overseas trying to spread fascism across the globe. Fascists are at home killing or jailing anyone who threatens their power. Colonialists are trying to interfere in Mexican affairs so as to procure better trade relations or industrial positions. Capitalists and industrialist are getting rich by squeezing their workers as much as they can. They’re all bad and they’re all worth fighting against. All of them.
It’s a shame that the show closed right when we, as a country, can use all the references about fighting this crap that we can get. While seeing the full-size projections of the Rivera, Orozco, and Siquieros murals is impressive and there’s a ton of drama in the paintings, what I loved most was all the prints and ephemera with their multitude of pro-worker, anti-fascist messages on display.
Over and over again we see variations on the themes of fighting fascism abroad, staying educated at home, and decrying oppressions carried out by the government. That they’re on yellowing fragile paper shows how these messages were intended to be available for everyone in a way that paintings and murals, even when accessible to the public, can never be. Print is the democratic medium here and it’s exciting to see so much of it on display.
The sheer volume and variety of the prints demonstrate how deep Mexico’s visual culture is—to the point where it became obvious how Princeton’s Itinerant Languages of Photography show just scratched the surface of Mexico’s visual literacy in constantly remixing, repurposing, and recontextualizing imagery.
On the development of a National identity
The blog post I was originally going to write is dead but it’s still worth expanding on the notes I took. A lot of the pre 1920s work is trying different things. This is especially obvious in Diego Rivera’s work—most of which looks nothing like what he is associated with—but with all the artists there’s a lot of working within European techniques and esthetics but applying them to Mexican subjects and landscapes.
We get to see artists like Adolfo Best Maugard and Dr. Atl* develop more Mexican-specific techniques and styles. That these styles also involve appropriating pre-colonial design elements only encouraged the development of the national identity to be one which understands how colonialism is still at work everywhere in the country.
*I especially liked that Atl Color is considered a distinct medium in and of itself.
I was struck by how many of the paintings were under glass. This made sense with the pastels but I didn’t see the point of having that extra layer with many of the other works. I really liked how many of the paintings are on cardboard or other “cheap” materials.* This gave a certain vitality to the work since it suggested that the creation and the image was more important than the object itself.
*Like in the case of Alfredo Ramos Martínez, on pages of the Los Angeles Times.
I enjoyed seeing and thinking about how photography interacted with the painting and printmaking. While there were many non-Mexican photographers working in Mexico in the 1920s, their work doesn’t suggest that there’s a revolution going on. I couldn’t help but look at José Clemente Orozco’s Beneath the Maguey and not think of Weston’s Maguey—especially since both images are from the same time period. While that Weston image wasn’t in the show, I was pleased to see other images of his there and I was especially excited to see a lot of Tina Modotti as well.