By: Darby Kendall
Art movements don't exist in vacuums—In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. But it’s often difficult to envision the interconnected relationships between artists and promoters when viewing gallery works only described by the classic brief placard. To combat that norm, the curators of the Harry Ransom Center's latest exhibition “Mexico Modern: Art, Commerce, and Cultural Exchange, 1920–1945,” made sure the countless connections from the period are obvious to the viewer through the unique setup of the exhibit. Visitors at the Ransom Center cannot help but notice the cultural collaboration, social mixing and the aid of influencers that was imperative for the success of the artists during the decades between the Mexican Revolution and World War II.
Guest curators Donald Albrecht and Thomas Mellins of New York selected over 200 items to feature in the exhibit, which showcases works ranging from photography, painting and design to literature and publishing. The exhibition opens with a contrast between the beginning and end of the period, placing small black and white photographs from the Mexican Revolution up against bright, larger-than-life travel posters commissioned by Mexico’s Tourism Board in the 1940s. A walk through the space soon reveals several household names—Included are famous muralists Los Tres Grandes (Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Siqueiros), Miguel Covarrubias, Paul Strand, Nickolas Muray, Fritz Henle and Frida Kahlo.
The immediate underlining of this movement's placement in Mexico's historical timeline is essential to the understanding of the show as a whole, explains Mellins. “The exhibit presented an opportunity to go beyond a traditional art show, and to become in a sense, a hybrid of an art show and a history show,” he says. In the exhibition’s layout, artists’ works line the outer walls of the Ransom Center's first floor, while pieces related to the era's influencers make up a smaller section in the middle, within another set of walls. Every piece out of the hundreds of works displayed contributes to the story of how this movement came to be.
Amongst the many works, one in particular stands out to both Albrecht and myself: a painting measuring 6 by 8 feet depicting George Gershwin playing to a packed concert hall, done by muralist David Siqueiros after the two met in 1935. The work spans out beyond classic canvas borders and onto the thick wooden frame; faces by the stage are distinguishable, but the mass of people soon turns into simple dots in the background. One of the discernable audience members sitting front row is the artist himself. According to Albrecht, Siqueiros painted himself in after becoming annoyed with Gershwin’s request to include the faces of his friends and family. So there Siqueiros sits, with his left arm propped up against the stage Gershwin and his piano occupy, eternally poking fun at the musician’s giant portrait.
A tour of the exhibit quickly makes clear just how deeply the members of this artistic period interacted with one another, both formally and romantically. One tour guide likened the exhibit to “watching a soap opera, with everyone falling in and out of love with each other.” Social circles are bound to merge the personal and professional, and the Modernism movement was no exception. Artists painted photographers, photographers took images of painters, influencers documented the works and they often had affairs with one another.
Some examples of these relationships are shown in the works both made by and featuring Frida Kahlo. Her intimate relationships with muralist Diego Rivera and photographer Nickolas Murray are displayed through several pieces, made by Kahlo and her lovers. One simple sketch done by Kahlo features her holding hands with Rivera, drawn during her first trip to the United States with the man over 20 years her senior, titled simply “Diego y Yo.” On the same wall is a contrastingly bright-colored, iconic photo of Kahlo, taken by Murray at the height of their affair, showing her as she is often portrayed today with colorful dress and red-hued flowers in her hair. “We put Frida next to Nickolas [because] not only were they lovers, but he makes her iconographic,” Albrecht explains. “Interestingly, one of the unique things about her is her use of color, and her colorful dress, and Murray happened to be an early innovator of color photography.”
In addition to Kahlo, other women such as author Frances Toor, anthropologist Anita Brenner and publisher Blanche Knopf, were also highly influential when compared to the relative social power women had at the time. A portrait of Knopf, painted by Miguel Covarrubias, lies at the center of the exhibit as a physical example of the relationships between men and women, artists and influencers and the United States and Mexico at the time. Albrecht explains how women were able to play such important roles in the movement, saying “Modernism was a new field, and you didn't have an 'Old Boys' network yet. Women were able to advance more because there weren't the male strictures that you find in other fields.”
“I don't think it's unique for the time, but it has been less known or documented than in other artistic circles, like the Parisian circle,” Mellins adds. “Nobody talks about Mexican art of that moment and says 'Gosh, it was an incredible moment because of people like Blanche Knopf.' They say it was an incredible moment because of people like Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo. But nonetheless, if it hadn't been for Blanche Knopf, the Mexican moment wouldn’t have evolved the way that it did.”
Another facet of the exhibit one cannot overlook is it's indirect commentary on Mexico's relationship with the United States. Albrecht and Mellins began curating the exhibit in 2013, so the political timing is purely incidental, but they welcome the show's contemporary relevance. “While the show is not intended to be politically calamitous, it is interesting to have an example of cultural exchange that stands in contrast to the kind of political issues we're focusing on now,” says Mellins. “To understand that it's not just about politics, but that exchanges between countries can be about culture and personal expression as well, it's a good reminder.”
“You know, you need more bridges than walls. It's cliche, but it's quite true,” adds Albrecht. “We live in a deeply interconnected world and to deny that is ruinous. This is an exhibit that shows that there can be great products from that relationship between two countries”
“Mexico Modern: Art, Commerce, and Cultural Exchange 1920-45” is on display in the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin until Jan. 1.