Category Archives: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Paint the Revolution

Troubled Waters, 1949 José Chávez Morado, Mexican, 1909–2002

Troubled Waters, 1949
José Chávez Morado, Mexican, 1909–2002

Leopoldo Méndez, Mexican, 1902 - 1969

Leopoldo Méndez, Mexican, 1902 – 1969

Cloud of Lies. José Chávez Morado, Mexican, 1909 - 2002.

Cloud of Lies.
José Chávez Morado, Mexican, 1909 – 2002.

Retrato de la burguesía. David Alfaro Siqueiros. 1939.

Retrato de la burguesía. 1939.
David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Deportation to Death. Leopoldo Méndez, Mexican, 1902 - 1969.

Deportation to Death.
Leopoldo Méndez, Mexican, 1902 – 1969.

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

Man and Woman Rufino Tamayo, Mexican, 1899 - 1991

Man and Woman
Rufino Tamayo, Mexican, 1899 – 1991

Portrait of Mrs. J. Stogdell Stokes José Diego María Rivera, Mexican, 1886 - 1957

Portrait of Mrs. J. Stogdell Stokes
José Diego María Rivera, Mexican, 1886 – 1957

Self-Portrait with Popocatépetl Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo), Mexican, 1875 - 1964

Self-Portrait with Popocatépetl
Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo), Mexican, 1875 – 1964

Untitled (Dancer) Emilio Amero, Mexican, 1901 - 1976

Untitled (Dancer)
Emilio Amero, Mexican, 1901 – 1976

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.

Other notes

Pottery Vendors, 1934 Alfredo Ramos Martínez, Mexican, 1871–1946

Pottery Vendors, 1934
Alfredo Ramos Martínez, Mexican, 1871–1946

Beneath the Maguey. José Clemente Orozco

Beneath the Maguey, 1927
José Clemente Orozco

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.

Vitra

Untitled

I went to Philadelphia to see Paul Strand but I couldn’t help but be excited by their Vitra Exhibition too. For the same reason I would always hit the design rooms at SFMOMA, I never ignore a design exhibition at a museum I’m visiting. It’s not just because of my background, I enjoy seeing items which make me think about the things I use, how I use them, and how they’re made.

The Vitra show offered exactly that in addition to reminding me of SFMOMA’s chair obsession. While it’s interesting to see all the information about how Vitra works and designs things, it’s being able to see the objects—in particularly the chairs—that’s really fun.

Most of the objects on display are furniture. Most of the furniture is seating. Which is great since seating is one of those universal things that we all understand. I used to side-eye SFMOMA’s seating infatuation but I get it now. This isn’t like looking at a DWR showroom.* Instead, there are designs which push the concept of usability. Maybe they’re not comfortable. Maybe they’re not practical. But they’re playful and expand the concept of what a chair could be.

*I’m beginning to be convinced that the Ikea Nesting Instinct is really the affordable DWR Nesting Instinct.

And that’s kind of the point, Vitra doesn’t play it safe. Yes, there’s a heavy emphasis on usability. But you can’t be truly innovative without playing and being willing to put something crazy together. What the hell, let’s make a chair out of wood laminate. What the hell, let’s make a chair out of sheet steel. What the hell, let’s make a chair out of corrugated cardboard. What the hell, let’s make a chair out of iron mesh. Some of those work. Other’s don’t. You learn from what doesn’t and enjoy the result as an object anyway.

Paul Strand

Paul Strand. Wall Street, New York.

The Paul Strand show turned out to be the motivation I needed to finally make the trip to Philadelphia. I’m glad I went. Strand—like Weston was for a long time—is one of those photographers whose work I’ve absorbed but never really looked at in a specific, comprehensive way before. Sure, some of the images are extremely well-known, but many of the rest I’ve never seen before yet have sensibilities which feel just as familiar to me.

Needless to say, I really like his work—especially his precise framing and composition. He’s able to find the order within the type of scenes that often catch my eye but which challenge me when it comes to finding the photograph in them—door hardware, a clump of plants, items which I can’t abstract to pure texture or sculpture because they contain both an interesting structure as well as their real-world function.

Strand’s work is also very interesting because he was right there at the beginning of photography as an art form. From his early work consisting of “fuzzy” pictorial contact prints to portraits and street photography to urban abstractions and still lifes to contrasty enlargements to finally combining photos and text together in book form, his journey as an artist parallels a lot of the medium’s journey as he learns to embrace what the medium does well and address things it doesn’t. The result of this is that many of his photos remind me of other photographers’ work. Not in a rip off way, just that looking at Strand’s work made me realize how much of an influence he had on other photographers. He’s not someone to ape. He’s someone to study and learn from and take what he learned and apply it to whatever I’m interested in.

What most struck me was realizing that while Strand’s most-famous images—those that you’re supposed to know and recognize—came from his early work, this doesn’t mean that that work is better. Instead it reflects on how his sensibilities shifted and he went from producing individually great photos to collections and books that, while consisting of great photos, are more about the way the photos work together to describe a place.

Paul Strand. The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis)

It’s his later work which has stuck with me after seeing this show. Strand would spend a long time in a location, photographing details, buildings, people, etc. all of which together form a portrait of the area. His images though don’t try and explain the area to us but rather provide a sense of how it was when Strand was there. They’re documentary without feeling anthropological or journalistic. They’re positive and empathic without being propaganda, Looking at them is like looking through an exceptionally high-quality photo album and offers a lot of food for thought as I think about making my own photo albums and books.

The exhibition itself is also noteworthy for having a lot of technical detail about the different printing methods Strand used. It does a great job at demonstrating how they differ—both on the production side and in the final product—but especially the final product. There are examples of copy negatives and interpositives and information about how they were modified before contact printing. There are also displays of the same images, or similar images from the same shoot, reproduced as platinum, silver gelatin, and photogravure prints set up so we can compare the differences in detail and contrast each method allows for. Mixed with these comparisons are discussions about how his cameras impacted his working methods and different printing methods impacted distribution.

It was nice to see an exhibition which realized and explained how much the tools of photographic capture and print production impact the art. It’s even nicer to see an exhibition discuss issues of distribution and display. While his prints are great, that Strand eventually settled on books as the ideal form for his photography puts a very different frame regarding the intended audience of the artwork. Most things we see in museums are elite objects for elite people. Strand’s work is more populist. It’s only fitting that I’ll be aware of his influence everywhere I look now.