Mexican Modernism
Bulletin, July 3, 2001

“Magic Realism” has become the cliché for recent Latin American literature although the genre has a longer lineage in both fiction and the visual arts. A selection of the latter will be on show at the National Gallery of Australia from July 13.  “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism” is on tour from the New York Metropolitan, a donation by Jacques and Natasha Gelman, film producers who met Kahlo and Rivera in Mexico City. Kahlo (1907–54) and Rivera (1886-1957) proved tempestuous lovers and histrionic revolutionaries.

Mexico had raised hope for a world fit for poor peasants before the 1917 Bolshevik insurrection in Russia, and kept alive that vision after its prospects had been extinguished by blood in the Soviet Union and Spain. Rivera’s art is emblematic of that tumult. Where Parisian Cubism dealt in fractured guitars, he pictured a rifle. That spirit of refusal surged again in 1994 when the Zapatistas took up arms against globalisation.

The carnage of Mexico’s civil war from 1910 to the late 1920s reverberated with the ritual sacrifices of the Aztecs. In art, Mexican Modernists entangled the horrors of martyrdom depicted in their churches with a pagan delight in death as a quotidian yet comic presence. Mexican children suck on sweets shaped like the skeletons that dance through their nation’s visual culture.

A promise of savagery drew refugees and creators to Mexico to have their prejudices confirmed. D. H. Lawrence pursued his obsession with blood and Antonin Artaud found precedence for his theatre of cruelty. Sergei Eisenstein and Luis Bunuel filmed the damned. In the 1960s, Clifton Pugh was but one of the Australians to have made the pilgrimage. Mexico remains a cynosure for muralists who wish art to be public, not another commodity.

Like Surrealism, Magic Realism blends a photographic naturalism with fantastical tales. Few lives were more improbable than that of Rivera, who inspired the 1922 novel Julio Jurenito, in which he is at first mistaken for the devil but soon recognised as “the teacher”, though he never gives a formal lesson. Biographer Bertram Wolfe entitled his account The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera because of the fables that his subject spun about himself as much as for the theatricality of his fresco-making, to which he went armed to fend off clerical fascists.

In Paris during the Great War, Rivera was one of the few to achieve more than copy the surfaces of a Picasso. The multiple perspectives in Rivera’s early easel pictures underlie the frescos that he designed in the stairwells of the National Palace in Mexico City. Illustrations of that architectural triumph allow no awareness of his integration of shifting patterns of colour, shape and history. Not since the Sistine Chapel had an artist ventured so cosmic a conceit. In Detroit, Rivera’s fecundity celebrated the machine age. At the Rockefeller Centre, his failure to paint over Lenin’s face gave his patrons the chance to expose their barbarism by demolishing the commission.

Kahlo’s reputation did not go global until the early 1980s when a retrospective in London and New York coincided with publication of a biography by Hayden Herrera. By then, feminist academics had created a space for Old Mistress painters, a call answered more often by conceptualising their absence, or by digging up of deservedly neglected women daubers, than by quality canvases. As a teenager, Kahlo had been injured in a tram smash so that throughout the rest of her life she was in and out of hospitals and braces. These restraints and wounds supplied metaphors of repression and abuse. In theorising ‘the body’, femioticians sliced up her iconography as remorselessly as surgeons had her flesh and bone.

Kahlo puts her votaries to the test. She proclaimed her desire to have Diego’s baby and to be a good Communist. To treat these ambitions as proof of male dominance is to strip her art and life of their tenacity. The surer, yet no less perilous course is to embrace the contraries in her and Diego’s relationships. Contrast, for instance, the flamboyance of her narcissism with the modesty of her home - or both with the temple that he erected for his studio. She did not need to have Diego’s baby because he was always her Pantagruel. Her debts to “the teacher” are set forth in her 1943 self-portrait, sub-titled “Diego on my mind”, which cameoed her lover as a third eye of enlightenment. Her worship of Stalin did not prevent her taking Trotsky to bed.

Irrespective of their political allegiances, this generation of Mexican painters collected indigenous pottery, its contours figuring throughout their Modernist creativity. As sophisticates, they prized the folk art known as retablo, in which a miracle cure is sought, or acknowledged. Kahlo’s portrayals of her tortured frame can be read as prayers to release her from suffering.

In addition, the exhibition the restraint of Rufino Tamayo, the plasticity of Jose Clemente Orozco and the kinetics of David Alfaro Siqueiros. Ten other male artists are represented, as are two lesser-known women painters. The 68 works include 29 portraits, with eight of the donors. This idiosyncrasy is rounded out with a score of photographs by Lola Alvarez Bravo.

Any Mexican show is welcome, and not only as an emetic after Impressionist blockbusters. The regret is that the National Gallery could have acquired first-class examples of this movement before it was again fashionable. Last year, a Kahlo self-portrait sold for US$5 million. The obstacle in the 1970s was that the founding director, James Mollison, could not buy a major picture which had not made him swoon. The political and sexual power of the Mexicans induced the vapours. This reaction was doubly inappropriate given that Siqueiros had taught Jackson Pollock, and the New York Expressionism aspired to the condition of murals. Mexican Modernism would have enriched the context for “Blue Poles”. Similarly, a suite of Tamayo prints based on native pottery would have complemented the NGA’s accumulation of Pre-Columbian artefacts – not always of impeccable provenance. Woeful curatorial choices in Canberra did not begin with Brian Kennedy.