Uncovering Identity

DMA hosts insightful view of 20th century Mexican art, culture

Rosa Rolanda “Self-Portrait” (Autorretrato)

To describe an all-encompassing exhibition in a few choice words is like describing a good meal as just being “tasty.” The Dallas Museum of Art’s “México 1900–1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, and the Avant-Garde” is worthy of several thousands of descriptions covering some of the most innovative and thought-provoking work to come out of a single country in modern times.

The exhibition, which runs until July 16, is a bit of a misnomer — what visitors will see is a history lesson born of revolution, hope, tragedy and a search for identity that has so infrequently been assembled in such an exhibition.

The show comes to Dallas via Paris, from its previous run at the Grand Palais in October, and presents a tornado of artistic movements that encompass Surrealism, Decadentism, Cubism, Neo-Impressionism, Realism (and many other isms I’ve failed to mention), Art Nouveau, along with Avant-Garde, and topped-off with bits of Old World Classical styles for good measure and is sure to pique the interest of any artist or admirer out there. If don’t find this exhibition of interest — you’re doing art wrong.

Tiburcio Sánchez de la Barquera_Escandón Arango “Family Portrait” (Retrato de la Familia Escandón Arango)

While the 200 or so works cover the 50-year period starting just before the Mexican Revolution to the era of the Mexican Renaissance, the history lesson that is frequently drawn out is the struggle for identity that began when Spanish conquistadors and indigenous peoples first came into contact, and later struggled to find itself in its own culture and a place in the world, and how that struggle manifested itself in the modern age.

An underlying component of the exhibit, and the artists, is the connection with Mexico’s art schools and institutions. The National School of Fine Arts, previously known as the Academy of San Carlos, underwent reform in 1897 and 1903, along with other educational institutions. Events such as the arrival of Antonio Rivas Mercado as its director and the creation of the Secretariat of Public Instruction and Fine Arts in 1905 fostered the Academy’s modernization and improved the education of promising young Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera, Saturnino Herrán, Roberto Montenegro, Ángel Zárrago and Dr. Atl. These artists renewed the iconographic and landscape motifs of the 19th century through vanguard movements such as Realism, Decadentism, Symbolism, Neo-Impressionism and Art Nouveau. The lessons of young teachers such as Julio Ruelos and Germán Gedovius were significant, bringing to the Academy their experiences at the heart of German Symbolism. In step with the rhythm of international Modernism, these Mexican artists sought to develop subjects that revolved around national archetypes.

Jorge González Camarena_”The Bathers” (Las Bañistas)

Several unique perspectives of the exhibit are intertwined, in particular the emphasis on common people and the depiction of women, which breaks with traditional interpretations by pushing visitors to reexamine social roles in culture and society in Mexican society, often referred to as costumbrismo — a genre preoccupied with presenting local and daily life. This aimed to provide legitimacy to all of Mexico’s populations and is a significant element throughout the exhibit.

Common people are not additive as backgrounds, but the focus for many of the artist’s work shown. The same can be said of the women depicted. They are not just relegated to subservience or typical gender roles but shown as beautiful, strong, sometimes tragic, tired, worn, foundational actors for the society and culture of everyday Mexican life.

Ángel Zárraga’s decadent, “The Woman and the Puppet,” 1909 oil on canvas, is a large, imposing painting that draws visitors into the first gallery of the exhibit much like a Siren to a rocky shore with its beauty and horror that would not seem out of place in a Rob Zombie horror flick.

Miguel Covarrubias_”Clark Gable vs. Edward, Prince of Wales”

Its glossy sheen poses a disconnection between the mysterious beauty of the Woman and the horror of a man/puppet that is both beautiful and grotesque at the same time. The visual is almost 3-D in appearance, yet carries the bearing of classical style painting of an old Dutch masterpiece with its brush strokes and technique.

Nahui Olin’s “Self-portrait as a school girl in Paris” is reminiscent of today’s anime, using bright showy colors to highlight her green eyes which are shown exaggerated even more. Olin was known more for her social associations (she was the muse and collaborator with Gerald Murillo also known as “Dr. Atl”) than her work, but much like Frida Kahlo, interest in her work grew after her death in 1978.

Exhibitions, such as this one, that bring so many artists together often struggle by trying to confine art to specific themes or content. What I think viewers will really like about this exhibit is the frenetic examples curated of so many styles that come together uniquely, but so complementary of each other.

Olin’s work in the exhibit are joined by others such as Maria Izquierdo, Tina Modotti and Kahlo, who all, in the 1920s and 1930s, used their activism and creativity to form Mexican political and artistic movements.

Kahlo’s largest canvas, and one of her best-known works, “Los Dos Fridas” — “The Two Fridas” — has a wall dedicated almost to itself. Painted in 1939, the same year she divorced Diego Rivera, it shows the pain that would often symbolize her work and personal life.

The Victorian Frida on the left is juxtaposed with the Tehuana-Mexican Frida on the right. Mexican Frida holds a locket with a child-Rivera picture in one hand. The other figure holds surgical clamps holding a bleeding artery or vein. So much has been made of the symbolism of this painting and what they represent to Kahlo and her life would reappear throughout her work over her lifetime.

José Clemente Orozco_”The Soldaderas” (Las soldaderas)

Los tres grandes — the big three: Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco feature prominently throughout the show. Muralism and muralists are central to any discussion regarding Mexican art and all three have several works throughout the exhibition. Rivera is perhaps the most widely known of the three and my familiarity with him drew me more to the works of Siqueiros and Orozco.

Siqueiros’s 1931 “Woman with Stone Mortar” depicting a dark and earthly frontal view of semi-nude indigenous woman toiling over a stone mortar is simplistic, yet powerful in conveying the daily work of women in Mexico in times past.

This is contrasted by his surrealist, almost 3D, 1945 “Self-Portrait” on celotex, that if you glance at it with your peripheral vision appears to move as it reaches its stretching arms outward with cracked, ripping fingernails and looks as if was completed yesterday.

Ever since middle school, muralist José Clemente Orozco has hung in my mind because he illustrated that edition of John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl” I had to read for class. And throughout my time at the DMA I kept finding myself draw to certain works that when I would look at the placard, would inevitably be one of Orozco’s works.

For example, his 1943 “Landscape with Peaks” showing a harsh, gnashing, twisted environment that is dark and stark as if some part of Seussian world gone bad, drew me in from one side of the gallery to the other. Orozco’s strong political beliefs objecting to human suffering and mass uniformity show through in a haze a tiny stream of marching people who appear to be going to some hellish destination under a gaze of sharp eyes coming out of the jagged and twisted peaks. You can almost hear and feel a howling wind when you look at it.

Luis Ortiz Monasterio “The Wounded Soldier” (El soldado herido)

Elsewhere in the exhibit, Saturino Herrán’s 1918 “Our Gods” (left panel only) is presented in its muralistic, massive scale (a wood panel at least six feet tall by 20 feet in length) showing indigenous priests or shamans supplicating to some unseen god with gifts of incense and offerings. The depiction of kneeling and bowing of these people upon some unknown altar shows a completeness to their devotion and intensity of their spiritual conviction. Herrán was able to convey a sharpness, a realism to the panel that makes a visitor feel they could walk into the panel and be transported to a different time and place.

One of the most striking sculptures is Francisco Zúniga’s “Group of Women,” a black, life-size cast bronze of four women standing apart and all facing outward in different directions contrasting women in stages of life — young and old, pregnant and tired. They are all solemn as if holding back some great secret of life or perhaps waiting to give a warning of something that lies ahead.

There is so much to see and if you’re headed up north to the Dallas area, make time to see this. Besides, the DMA is in a great area, easy to access and park with a surrounding area that is also great to find a good nosh and a toddy (My fav is Zenna, 300 N. Akard — $4 mini sushi rolls and $4 potent Long Island Iced Teas during happy hour — say what? — you heard me).

The Edward Larrabee Barnes-designed Dallas Museum of Art is located the downtown Arts District at 1717 N. Harwood and can be found on the web at www.dma.org.

It is open Tuesday –Sunday and closed on Mondays. A special “Thank You” goes out to Maria Lociano, DMA visitor services, for her assistance with my visit.

Story by Stephan Malick, ISSUE staff writer

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