SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 171 September 2013

Artists in revolt

Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940

Royal Academy of Arts, London

Admission £10 – to 29 September

Reviewed by David Beale

Revolution often generates new, spectacular developments in art. So it was with Mexico. The legendary workers’ murals of Diego Rivera, the intensely personal paintings of Frido Kahlo, the explicitly revolutionary photographs by Tina Modotti – these all give a very strong taste of the new cultural movement that swept Mexico in the 1920s and 30s.

The work of these three alone raises many important issues for all those interested in the relationship between art, photography and the battle for a socialist society. This current Royal Academy exhibition forms a good introduction to the subject and shows that these artists were part of a much broader cultural movement.

The Mexican revolution was a protracted and inconclusive affair from 1910 to 1920, beginning with the overthrow of the hated dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. It took on the character of a bloody and complex civil war, with both the northern and central/southern armies of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata waging a peasants’ campaign against the landlords.

The outcome meant some reforms, but not land redistribution, let alone the end of capitalism. After 1920, elected but generally autocratic regimes emerged that paid varying degrees of lip service – as well as some partial and occasional substantive concessions – to Mexico’s revolutionary experience and ideals. For example, the more progressive presidency of Lázaro Cardenas agreed to Rivera and Kahlo’s petition to secure Leon Trotsky’s exile there from 1936.

José Vasconcelos, a minister in Álvaro Obregón’s 1920-24 government, commissioned murals on public buildings as an expression of Mexican national identity. However, the leading painters involved – Rivera, David Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco – had other revolutionary ideas in leading what became a new muralist movement in public art. Kahlo’s quite different paintings on canvas emerged a bit later, and did not gain significant public acclaim until surrealist André Breton promoted her work in 1940.

Mexico had also been attracting a large and diverse contingency of radicals, intellectuals, artists, photographers and writers from North America and Europe, especially after 1920. A close network developed between these visitors and Mexican artists, creating a radical cultural community. This exhibition makes an important contribution to our understanding of its output.

Rivera’s great canvas of a dance at Tehuantepec of confident Mexican women facing hesitant men, Orozco’s dramatic painting of fighters at the barricade, and Siqueiros’s haunting close-up image of Zapata are great inclusions in the exhibition. There are also some of Modotti’s well-known photographs: a worker’s hands clasping a shovel handle, workers’ heads covered by their sombreros and reading El Machete, the newspaper of the Mexican Communist Party, and two workers carrying a massive stone block on a building site.

There is a powerful painting of Mexican women by Roberto Montenegro, another of the early muralists, as well as two interesting watercolours by Edward Burra. Images of the acclaimed Mexican photographer, Álvarez Bravo, are here. Elsewhere in the exhibition are a few prints by legendary French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, by the American radical photographer, Paul Strand, and three superb examples of Robert Capa’s photojournalism. However, this exhibition is also an eye-opener in terms of the misconceptions and patronising view of Mexico as the ‘exotic’ that at least some European and North American visiting artists and intellectuals held.

Important as it is, the exhibition does have some problems. An inevitable one is that the great murals are missing – obviously, still on the walls of the many public buildings in Mexico, with a few in the USA. One solution might have been to display large photographs of the murals or, better still maybe, a documentary film showing them in their settings. Another problem seems to be that, in conveying breadth and diversity, some significant aspects are lost: the amount of work by each artist, detail about the artistic movement, and political, social and historical context and explanation.

Although her work has been shown previously in Britain, it is frustrating that there is only one painting by Kahlo. Similarly, it would have been good to see more of the canvasses by Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco. Some of Modotti’s best-known photographs are missing. And more textual explanation about each artist and photographer might have been helpful. In fairness to the Royal Academy, however, its intention was only to dip its toe in the water to see what the response might be to this, the first exhibition of its kind in Britain, with a view to a possible future exhibition.

Nevertheless, more could have been said. Discussions between Rivera, Breton and Trotsky produced the ‘Manifesto: For a Free Revolutionary Art’, a fundamental document for anyone interested in the relationship between art and the struggle for a socialist society. It is a short piece that could have been displayed, yet it is absent from the exhibition. Its presence could have been a valuable focal point for considering and interpreting the exhibits.

Rivera is referred to as a Trotskyist by the exhibition guide but this needs qualifying. Rivera became sympathetic to Trotskyist ideas and gave invaluable support to Trotsky at a critical time, when he was seeking political asylum, but his political perspective (and Kahlo’s apparently) was inconsistent and frequently waivered. They both rejoined the Mexican Communist Party later.

Siqueiros was always staunchly loyal to Stalin, working closely with the Comintern (the international organisation controlled by Stalin and the Russian Communist Party) in its treacherous role in the Spanish civil war. Siqueiros participated in a failed attempt to assassinate Trotsky in May 1940.

Additionally, the exhibition fails to provide a clear enough account and assessment of the 1910-20 Mexican revolution and how its outcome came to favour the developing bourgeoisie on the basis of a strong, autocratic state that incorporated the trade union leadership, and that crushed the peasants’ demands for land redistribution.

The Royal Academy might reply that art is its first concern. However, there is much to say that art and politics are inseparable, especially in the Mexican case. Three of the seven-person executive of the Mexican Communist Party were artists. The leading muralists prided themselves in being treated as skilled tradesmen on workers’ wages, setting up their own trade union, even though some suggest their work served in part to legitimise successive Mexican governments.

Modotti’s photographs were a direct expression of her increasing political involvement, standing out as wonderful propagandist icons, and yet she stopped working as a photographer around 1930. Her reasons for doing so are difficult to establish with certainty but, from this time onwards, she became a committed agent of the Comintern, which was engaged in the Spanish civil war in the bloody oppression of left opponents of Stalinism.

And there are very important political debates to be had about the adoption of Modotti and Kahlo as feminist icons. In short, the whole art movement in Mexico was riddled with political aspects and issues that were fundamentally related to both the revolutionary experience of the 1910-20 years and to post-1920 Mexican politics and class struggle.

In spite of these criticisms, the Royal Academy’s exhibition is a valuable introduction to the great artistic developments in post-revolutionary Mexico. Hopefully, it will promote debate about the nature of Mexican art and photography in the 1910-40 period – and how this might be perceived in Marxist terms. Wittingly or otherwise, it points to the broader, fundamental questions of the nature of revolutionary art, and the relationship between art and the struggle for a socialist society.

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