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The Power and No Story

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

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.

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.

 

Thus, despite its naïve style, Mexican modernism was no product of political or artistic naïfs. They were all committed or at least convenient socialists, and, in any event, deeply immersed in the political intrigues of the day. They made obligatory pilgrimages to the artistic and intellectual capitals of the day: Paris and New York and Moscow. They toyed with European modernism, which they ultimately rejected in favor of a more indigenous style. Drawing on a tradition of political cartooning, on pre-Columbian sources, and on what Helm calls a "primitive and naturalistic strain of representational painting, itself independent, in a childlike way, of any tradition whatsoever," they forged a genuine Mexican modernism. Inspired by the ideas of Gerardo Murillo, a.k.a. "Dr. Atyl," a proto-revolutionary painter and patron of many young artists, they derived the notion of painting the surfaces of government buildings with frescoes illustrating the themes of the Revolution. Siqueiros set about composing a manifesto denouncing "so-called easel art" as "essentially aristocratic." Finally, in 1920, the painters found a government that was stable and liberal enough to pay the artists to undertake their project.

Thus was born the so-called Mexican muralist movement, genuinely nationalist art of heroic workers and Indian peasants. Widely hailed as a new socialist school of painting, it was celebrated by the strangest of bedfellows, from Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Edsel Ford. The movement inspired WPA artists and fascist dictators alike, who aspired to create something similar. Unlike these later imitators, however, the Mexican muralists were never isolationist or xenophobic; indeed, their art was nurtured on cosmopolitan concern with world events, on the artists' travels, and on a steady correspondence with European intellectuals. And, as Helm so insightfully points out, neither was it really socialist art. "The manifesto was posted, many walls were painted...revolutionary subject matter came eventually into use; but the painters themselves remained as individualistic, as inevitably anti-communist, as Mexicans, down in their hearts, must always be." For, in the end, Mexican communism is and always was "a local product, stemming not from Marx but from the Spanish legal tradition and the Indian way of life."


By the time Jacques Gelman arrived in Mexico on the eve of World War II, the mural paintings were for the most part completed, and the modernism of Siqueiros, Orozco, and Rivera was looking a bit long in the tooth.

Like the painters he would soon collect, Gelman was no stranger to political upheaval. The scion of a wealthy Russian Jewish family, Gelman fled St. Petersburg on the heels of the Bolshevik revolution; his father, who apparently understood how works of art can ease one's passage in troubled times, sent his son to Germany with a pocketful of Fabergé eggs. In Germany, Gelman studied photography and eventually made his way to France, where he learned the film trade. In 1938, on the eve of Hitler's conquest of Europe, he went to Mexico on business and an Ethiopian passport--the only one, he later told his wife, available for purchase at the time in Germany.

Once he arrived in Mexico City, Gelman found good reasons to stay. One reason was named Natalia "Natasha" Zahalka Krawak, an educated, adventurous Bohemian Jewess vacationing in Mexico City while Europe melted down. The other reason, whom Gelman also befriended in 1939, was the Mexican comic Mario Moreno, known to fans as "Cantinflas."

By the time Jacques and Natasha married in 1941, Gelman and Cantinflas had partnered in their own film production venture. Jacques produced, directed, and distributed, while Cantinflas acted. Born in Mexico City's slums, Moreno became the most popular comic in the Spanish-speaking world by playing the "peladito," a man of humble origins who gets by in life on his wits--in short, by playing himself. Born in Mexico City's slums, he worked as a prizefighter, as a circus emcee, and as a "toreador bufo"--literally, a bullfighting buffoon. In one famous gag, he would stroll into the middle of the bullring, casually reading a newspaper while the wickedly horned beast charged, moving only at the last possible moment. By the late '40s, he was so popular that the Mexican government used to close pawnshops on the days he performed to keep workers from hocking their boots for tickets.

 

Unfortunately, you'd never glean this--or indeed, much of the Gelmans' story--from the smattering of film stills displayed like society party pics near the entrance to the show. Nor would you know, from anything presented at the DMA, that Gelman and his partner were an important part of the "golden age" of Mexican cinema, a period that lasted from roughly 1936 until 1957, when the Mexican government imposed ticket-price controls. During the '40s--the height of Mexican cinema--Cantinflas' films flourished, shown to captive moviegoers at 5,000 theaters throughout Mexico. The partners turned out a picture a year, and it made them both rich. Known as the Mexican Charlie Chaplin, Cantinflas, by the '50s, had become the world's most highly paid actor. He was also a folk hero who gave away a good part of his income to charities, including the Catholic Church and orphanages.

The Gelmans, in turn, used their money to become among the greatest of private collectors. Unfortunately, here, too, the show woefully neglects the tale. Beginning in 1943, the Gelmans amassed three complete collections: European moderns, Mexican moderns, and pre-Columbian art. When Natasha Gelman died in 1998, her European collection, alone valued at more than $300 million, went to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was so thrilled that it announced it was opening a new wing in the couple's honor.

It would be nice to know how they formed each collection, what was collected first and why, how they educated themselves, who advised them, and what was discarded along the way; unfortunately, none of this information can be found in the exhibit or accompanying catalog. Instead, the organizers have thrown in all too typically vapid and uninformative statements praising the couple's collective "eye" and taste. If the 70-odd paintings in this exhibition are typical of their Mexican collection, the selections appear to be quite uneven. With the hubris of the young, rich, and beautiful, they began by commissioning portraits from the Mexican muralists, who had long since forgotten the qualms once professed about easel painting. Some of the results, like Rivera's portrait of Mrs. Gelman, are very bad pictures (even the catalog essay admits this). On the other hand, some of the portraits, notably Rufino Tamayo's portraits of Mrs. Gelman and of Cantinflas, are brilliant. At the same time, they also collected masterpieces, like Rivera's "Women Selling Calla-Lillies"--a picture that, for those of us who live near the border, is at least as familiar as stalwarts like Gainsborough's "Blue Boy" and Wyeth's "Christina's World."

The impression one gets is of two people who went about their collecting systematically, even mechanically, identifying Important Artists and periods, filling in gaps. This may be unfair; presumably, two people who spent this amount of time, energy, and wampum collecting and thinking about art had some relevant points of view. What guided their taste? What did they think about art, or politics, or modernism? Did Gelman's role in Mexican cinema lead him to any artistic opinions? Many of Cantinflas' films were highly political, filled with satire and caricature--and yet, in this collection, the Gelmans seem to have studiously avoided difficult or political pictures. ¿Por qué? What role, if any, did the couple play in Mexico's rich political life? Or did their experience as refugees, perhaps, bring home the importance of having no points of view? Unfortunately, we are given no clues except the paintings--catholic and inscrutable. For this exhibit is about diplomacy and box office--long on praise and myth, short on biography and historical context.


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