ART OVERSEAS - MEXICAN MODERNISM
Bulletin, July 3, 2001
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.