Sunday, July 3, 2011

To 9/26: Phoenix Art Museum looks at 'Modern Mexican'

Emilio Baz Viaud Cuauhtemotzin Street by Emilio Baz Viaud, 1941. Part of the exhibit 'Modern Mexican Painting from the Andres Blaisten Collection' at the Phoenix Art Museum.

Modernism as a movement gave us Pablo Picasso, kidney-shaped swimming pools, Art Deco skyscrapers, and, in some ways, it gave us Mexico.

That's one of the lessons to learn from "Modern Mexican Painting From the Andres Blaisten Collection" at the Phoenix Art Museum.

The new show presents 80 paintings by 45 artists from the leading private collection of Mexican easel paintings, and it's complemented by 29 works from the museum's permanent collection.

All the big names are represented, from Diego Rivera to David Alfaro Siqueiros to José Clemente Orozco, but their familiar work is filled out by that of many others. Some are simply lesser known artists, and some, such as Rufino Tamayo, are artists who made their reputations later than the period represented in this show.

The big guns, of course, are best known for their political murals, and the muralist style remains the signature of Mexican art, but this show purposely looks past the murals to the easel paintings of these artists.

"The murals speak for the nation," says Andrés Blaisten, who was in Phoenix to watch the installation of his collection in the museum's large Steele Gallery, "but these smaller paintings allow the artists to speak for themselves."

The murals tend to be political and propagandistic; these paintings run from still lifes to portraits to nudes to street scenes. Yet, they all still speak of Mexican-ness. And Modernism is the unifying factor.

The collection covers work beginning at the earliest years of the 20th century, when the work was still influenced by the academic styles of the previous century - so you have work such as Julio Ruelas' "Portrait of Ruben M. Campos," which imitates the look of a Franz Hals or a Diego Velasquez - and continues into the 1960s.

In the early years, you can see the influence of a conservative tradition, but the big break comes in 1913, with Rivera's "San Martin Bridge," which Mexico's greatest artist painted not in Mexico, but in Spain, under the influence of Picasso's Cubism. It reminds you of the lines sung in Schoenberg's Second Quartet: "I feel the air from a different planet."

The world has opened up, and the stodginess of the academy has its doors torn down. There is no going back.

Like Rivera, many of Mexico's best artists were in Europe at the time, soaking up the influences, and when they returned home, they brought the new art with them, and at a critical time in Mexico's history.

"They were working with European artists at the same time there was revolution in Mexico," Blaisten says.

And it is impossible to make sense of Mexican art without recognizing Mexican history. They are hand-in-glove.

In the early years of the century, Mexico struggled to overcome centuries of colonial rule, strongman dictators and multiple coups d'etat. From 1911 to 1920, it went through what is called the Mexican Revolution, but was more accurately called a civil war. It dragged on. By the time the dust finally settled in 1929, nearly 1 million people had been killed.

The wars were fought mostly between conservative, entrenched interests, including the Catholic church, and disenfranchised members of the working classes and indigenous Indians. The U.S. vacillated between supporting American corporate interests and supporting democracy. It was a mess.

But it also was the crucible in which a national sense of Mexican identity could be forged. And artists played a role in this process and the "Renacimiento" or rebirth of Mexican culture.

It was a new art for a new national sense of itself.

"Modernity is essential in making the identity of Mexico," Blaisten says. "At the end of the Revolution, in 1920, they came back to Mexico and sought to find what is the heart of being Mexican. After the Mexican Revolution, the country consolidated its identity."

The recent past was tarnished. Modern art was fresh and shiny. The infusion of Modernism into Mexico at the time meant that Mexico could rise above provincialism and become part of the international art dialogue. Mexico could become a player on the scene. Many of the artists, of which Rivera was only one, traveled outside Mexico and brought their Mexican Modernism with them: They became international stars. Yet, although the art was new, it also was old: In the abstracted forms there was something of a reprise of Pre-Columbian designs.

All art looks back, in some way or other, either to a conservative steadying tradition or to an art earlier, before the reigning tradition corrupted the "purity."

T.S. Eliot built poetic edifices from the materials of that past. Igor Stravinsky reinvented Russian paganism for his 1913 "Rite of Spring." Picasso built a private mythology of bullfighting that has its roots as far back as cave painting.

And the Mexican artists used Modernism's "adaptive reuse" of the distant past to create for themselves pre-Columbian roots, and a sense of Mexicanness that leapfrogged back over the arrival of the Spaniards.

And you can see the Mexican pre-Colonial past in such works as Dr. Atl's "View of the Volcanoes From Cuautla" - volcanoes that once served as Aztec gods and goddesses - and Guillermo Meza Alvarez's "White Over Nopal," which is a subtle evocation of the Mexican flag, with its green, white and red, and the foundation myth of the eagle, the snake and the cactus.

It is the reawakening of this mythic past, seen through the lens of Modernism, that gave the young-old culture a new sense of its own validity, separate from its Colonial past and its Catholic faith, and so there is a burgeoning of both urban street scenes, such as Amador Lugo's "Fire in the Colonia de los Doctores," which appears to be a mass protest, or Emilio Baz Viaud's "Cuauhtemotzín Street," and its vatos and streetwalkers, but also a recognition of the dignity of the rural peasant. You look into the eyes of Fernando Castillo's painting of a campesino holding a cat, and you can see the humanity in his eyes.

It is as if the artists have given their country back to its citizens.

More on this topic

'Modern Mexican Painting'

Reviewed Tuesday, June 28. Continues through Sept. 25.

Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 N. Central Ave. 602-257-1222,

by Richard Nilsen The Arizona Republic Jul. 3, 2011 12:00 AM

To 9/26: Phoenix Art Museum looks at 'Modern Mexican'

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