The Power and No Story

The DMA's Mexican masters exhibit schleps around the world in service to...Aetna?

If you're bucking for a spot in the annals of art history, you'd best be in the right metropolis at the right time. Certain cities at certain times seem to act as giant petri dishes, experimental laboratories producing remarkable achievements in the arts and sciences. Think Florence during the Renaissance, Paris from the mid-19th century up to the eve of World War II.

There are numerous explanations for this phenomenon. The romantic one is that great artists are born as much of currents in thought as of skill with brushes; it was Paris, not Life Drawing 101, that forged provincial painters from Picasso to Chagall into major artists. The skeptic will point out that the foundry of the city-state requires not only artists busily wielding chisels and paint knives, but the all-important machinery of history: politically tolerant régimes, wealthy patrons, writers and dealers and political drama and the occasional Gertrude Stein. To this list of ingredients one might add a final, crucial element: a product that later proves useful to someone's propaganda machine.

In the first decades of the 20th century, Mexico City fit the bill. Few norteamericanos realize that, by 1900, it was already a major population center, with more than a million souls. It had great wealth, in the hands of an educated, landed oligarchy. It had great poverty and class struggle. It had political intrigue. It had a tradition of (relative) intellectual freedom and strong folk art traditions, and an insipid, weak, academic painting style. It had corrupt authorities to rebel against, in the form not only of the official régime but of the shadow government, the Roman Catholic Church. It had, in short, all the necessary ingredients for political revolution--which came in 1910--but also an artistic one, which arrived, complete with government stipends, in 1920.

"Portrait of Mr. Jacques Gelman," a 1945 painting by Ángel Zárraga, now on view at the DMA.
"Portrait of Mr. Jacques Gelman," a 1945 painting by Ángel Zárraga, now on view at the DMA.

Details

Runs through January 28, 2001 (214) 922-1200
Dallas Museum of Art

The result was the "Mexican renaissance," a remarkable body of work and an equally remarkable historical tale that's never been properly presented to the gringos, though not for want of trying. The latest attempt, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Twentieth-Century Mexican Art: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, is at the Dallas Museum of Art, on view until January 28, 2001.

Thanks to early ties between the Mexican mural painters and American museums, especially New York's Museum of Modern Art, "Masters of Mexico" exhibitions have long been a museum staple. During the last two decades, they have become as common as rock-band reunions. In 1988, the DMA hosted Images of Mexico, a major production that also traveled to Vienna and Frankfurt. It was accompanied by a 486-page, five-pound catalog with no fewer than 33 essays on topics from the politics of the Cárdenas régime to death in Mexican art, most of them impenetrable. In the same year, The Bronx Museum of the Arts weighed in on the topic, in a show that traveled to El Paso; San Diego; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Vero Beach, Florida. Since then, a whole host of museums have likewise gotten into the act.

Most of these shows have included work from the Gelman collection, again on display. In the last half of the '90s, this group of paintings, or a selection quite like it, has been to Miami, San Francisco, San Diego, and London; from Dallas, it goes to Phoenix. A dedication in the front of the current exhibition contains clues to one reason behind the diaspora: "Throughout its 147-year history, Aetna has been...committed to celebrating and nurturing cultural diversity."

It's a shame that such art is schlepping around in the service of corporate race relations, when it ought to be schlepping in the service of art history. But there, in black and white, is the raison d'être, and not coincidentally, the central weakness in this show. It's one more missed opportunity for serious examination and intelligent presentation of one of the most intriguing chapters of 20th century art, an area in which much scholarly work remains to be done. If you want to get the most out of this exhibition, skip the slender exhibition catalog and opt instead for MacKinley Helm's pithy history of the period. Titled Mexican Painters: Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros and Other Artists of the Social Realist School, this 200-page classic--a quick and invaluable read--is happily available at the DMA's bookstore.

Helms, a contemporary of most of the artists in the collection, tackles what the exhibition's huge timeline only hints at: the decidedly intellectual and leftist genesis of Mexican modernism. As Helms suggests, it was a wholly reactionary art, a youthful and uniquely Mexican rebellion against authorities ranging from the Catholic Church to the regime of Porfirio Diaz, and from European modernism to unpopular teachers at the national painting school, the Academy of San Carlos. Came the Revolution, some of these painters were enrolled at San Carlos and of astonishingly tender age; as Helms points out, "they ripen young in Mexico." David Alfaro Siqueiros was just 14 when he and other art students were jailed for political agitation; at 15, he joined Emilio Zapata's gang of revolutionary thugs. José Clemente Orozco, who had trained as an architect, was, at 27, the old man of the group; he had recently returned from political exile in the United States. Diego Rivera was all of 23, freshly back from studies and assorted love affairs in Europe, to which he returned as the Revolution progressed. Although he later invented fantastic stories about his supposed time with Zapata and his involvement in a plot to assassinate then-President Diaz, his revolutionary epiphany seems to have come about in Paris following Diaz's overthrow; as recent historians have convincingly shown, he decamped for Europe in 1911 with the mistaken belief that Diaz's side would win.

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