Mexican Art Meets Europe at The Phoenix Art Museum
When the French poet and writer André Breton declared Frida Kahlo a surrealist, he was aware of the artistic connection between Mexico and Europe. That tie becomes apparent when viewing The Phoenix Art Museum’s “Modern Mexican Painting from the Andre Blaistén Collection.”
Organized by The Phoenix Art Museum, The San Diego Museum of Art, the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University, and the Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelelco at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, where the Blaistén collection is permanently housed, this showing is the first of a three-city touring exhibition. Focusing on works created between the years 1910 to 1950, the 80 works composed by 45 artists represents something of a sampler of Mexican fine art during the period.
As one might expect, the more recognized talents of Mexican art of that time frame is Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who gained huge posthumous fame. Also included are names that would perhaps be better known among art historians specifically acquainted with Mexico’s visual and cultural life.
Ángel Zárraga doesn’t have the instant name recognition of the well-known names in Mexican art, never the less, his work and contributions are substantial. As a founding member of the cultural organization El Ateneo de la Juventud, the support of his family permitted him a trip to Europe in 1904. By 1906 his talent allowed him to exhibit his works in the Museo del Prado in Madrid followed by exhibitions in Italy. By 1911 Europe became his permanent home.
With influences from Paul Cézanne and Giotto di Bondone , it is also clear that the specter of other European masters, like Degas, or even Ingres, exert an influence. These influences become apparent in the large-scale painting representing him the in exhibition, “The Nude Dancer.” Something of a mystery, the depiction of nude female figure juxtaposed with an older women placed near is as arresting as it is ambiguous in meaning. What is not in question about the work is that the artist has a full mastery of the painting medium. With details, surface and color, Zárraga has a confident style. He exploits it to maximum effect in this bravura work.
Even equipped with just a basic understanding of art and art history, it doesn’t take long to see that Mexico was at that time a place where imagination was running at a high pace. The assimilation of contemporary European concepts was certainly helping to fuel creative engines a continent away.
What becomes clear is that many artists, Rivera included, made the pilgrimage to Europe and apparently took copious notes on what their counterparts were doing. Rather than mimic European art, Mexican art was utilizing the techniques, ideas and expressions created there and applying them towards subject matter that was distinctively Mexican.
If art is a reflection of the social and political climate in which it is made, Mexico was a perfect example of how the real world influences the world of the imagination. The work created during the early and mid-parts of the 20th Century was the product of a country in search of a more equitable social and economic system. The nation was also being shaped by a balancing act between a Mexican identity formed by European colonization mixed with the indigenous roots of Mexico. It is from this conflict that emerges something that is both unique and yet familiar, if you are acquainted with the concepts shaping Europe’s artistic and socio-political directions.
Without debate, one of the touring figures in Mexican art– if not art in general– is José David Alfaro Siqueiros. No comprehensive showing of work from the region would be complete without his inclusion. Known as a Social Realist painter, his large-scale murals and frescos helped establish the Mexican Mural Renaissance. Sharing political sympathies with Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, Siqueiros work in the political arena were so closely tied to his art that they become part of each other.
Interestingly enough, he manages to bring a sense of depth and understanding to the art of portraiture that is intriguing, slightly unsettling and amazingly contemporary. Represented by a portrait of a young blonde girl, Maria Ramón Nora Patricia Beteta, this painting of the daughter of the Ministry of Finance during the government of Miguel Alemán showcases how well Siqueiros is able to elicit complex feelings on the part of the viewer. What also becomes apparent is how well this work would fit within the world of contemporary European art of the period.
While charged imagery and social political messages are inherent in Mexican Art, less weighty material can found as well. Fernando Castillo’s oil on canvas painting “ El Gato Negro,” from 1929 depicts a young man holding a black cat. Looking at the viewer with wide-open eyes and a blank expression, the young man presents a cool look toward the viewer. Connected to a folk art sensibility, the panting shows a more raw edge approach that runs counter to the more artistically ambitious works shown.
On the flip side to Castillo’s approach, Alfredo Ramos Martínez handles similar subject matter, but in a far more enigmatic way. Considered the father of Mexican Modernism, Martínez’ “Mancacoyota,” 1930 demonstrates how his perspective of portraying traditional Mexican subject matter in a portrait format that merges very different worlds. When he arrived in Paris, post-impressionism was making an impression. Martínez was quick to take note of artists like Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Monet, Seurat and even Odilon Redon. The connections to Gauguin are instantly recognizable in his work shown here. He has also managed to filter a decidedly Mexican experience through the lens of a European artist who found his artistic identity in the South Pacific.
While The United States was forging its own artistic path, sometimes far removed from Europe, Mexico was performing an ambitious mix of traditional indigenous elements thrown into a heady mix of intellectual exploration that even American artists, and incidentally collectors, were quick to notice. Ultimately this show is as much a remembrance of the past as it is a reminder that multiculturalism can often lead to hybrid art forms that have substantive concepts to communicate.
The Phoenix Art Museum
1625 N. Central Avenue, Phoenix, Arizona 85004-1685, (602) 257-1222
Modern Mexican Painting from the Andrés Blaisten Collection
July 1 – September 25, 2011
Hours: Closed Mondays, Tuesdays and Major Holidays
Open: Wednesday: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Thursday through Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sunday: Noon to 5 p.m.
First Friday’s of the Month 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Also free admission, First Fridays and Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. , though some specific exhibitions may charge
Written By Kurt von Behrmann