A Critic's View
Born in Mexico, ANITA BRENNER got a Ph.D. in anthropology at Columbia University was the art critic for I he Brooklyn EAGLE, and wrote for ART NEWS. She is the author of several books, including IDOLS BEHIND ALTARS and THE WIND THAT SWEPT MEXICO, and in recent years has been the editor of MEXICO/THIS MONTH.
As THE Italians sing and Frenchmen cook, Mexicans relish making things. The universal yen for beauty in visual form is taken for granted to be a need as natural as love and as ancient and accessible as frijoles. It proliferates in everything: from the carefully made arrangements of color and form in the fruit and vegetable markets to the daring of entire buildings covered with mosaic murals.
The story of human existence in Mexico can be traced, in fact, through its persistent expression in form and color and their profound at-oneness with it. Everywhere the plow turns up carved and painted fragments, and road building or any heavy excavation almost invariably uncovers major finds of sculpture, temples, ball courts, observatories. The range of expression, moreover, gets into every phase of living: toys, caricatures, portraits, reportages of ceremonies, dancing girls and death masks, animals and bugs, and in all the plastic “styles” mankind has discovered.
Several deeply marked and unmistakable characteristics emerge over and over again in Mexican ari throughout many thousand years of history, of which the most enviable, in modern terms — and the secret of its vitality - is its instinctive identification with day-to-day living and human use. After the destruction of the old cultures and the implantation of sixteenth-century Spain, builders, artists, and artisans took over the making of Spanish churches and palaces, while they also continued to produce their usual supply of household wares. They happily absorbed European and Chinese ideas and techniques from colonial imports, and recasting them in their own outlook, maintained and continued the position of art in Mexican life as a staple.
And yet, the complete identification ol the artist with his community was gone. While delighting in the beautiful range of new possibilities opened up to him via European artisanship, the artist was nevertheless also struggling with alien concepts and customs in art. This split in concept (paralleling the traumatic cleavage between Indian and European that is still unhealed in the Mexican psyche) marks Mexican art through three hundred years of colonial rule and another hundred years of stormy struggles for independence, integration, and stance. It is reflected in the sugary uneasiness of what could be called “official” art, and in its almost uniform weakness, as well as in the vigor and gaiety of folkcrafts, so that one can almost say that genuine creativeness rises in degree as the mercantile value drops.
The lostness that is the cry of artists everywhere in our time started to be heard in Mexico, also, at the beginning of the twentieth century, and is expressed in the familiar gamut of romantic yearning and despair. Typical of that period’s mood are heroic-size paintings epically describing Moctezuma’s court, and the fantasies of such painters as Julio Ruelas, a sort of Mexican counterpart of Aubrey Beardsley.
In the year 1910 the Díaz dictatorship was suddenly disintegrated, and a blur of rebel yells, dynamited trains, dust clouds of guerrillas, fire, chaos, desolation, and high exhilaration became ten years of utter and complete upheaval. And there emerged a nation almost as definitely new as the Spanish flooring on the charred ruins of Indian Mexico was in 1 520. Its cry, articulated with high, ferocious joy by the artists, poets, and philosophers of the first post-revolutionary years, was, Let’s all now be Mexican! But what this meant precisely had to be searched for, and, in fact, not only discovered but created. The Indian past, the colonial takeover and reshaping, the play of fantasy and laughter in the popular arts (priced like throwaways) were explored and seized upon, taken home, and imbibed attentively — with love.
Presently the art world of New York and Europe discovered Mexico, and the by-products of many murals became oils, watercolors, drawings, with steadily rising dollar value. First one gallery opened in Mexico City, and then another and another. The benefits of increasing security and scope for artists in the rise of a buying public, both national and foreign. were accompanied by the discomforts of business competition. Publicity became prized, cultivated, fought over, as elsew here. The natural jealousies of sensitive people, hardened into militant groups, little armies with banners, similar to those in every cosmopolitan center today, were aggravated by a nationalism that had curdled from the affirmative, enormously creative Let’s be Mexican to Down with aliens!
The most fervent search through Mexico City’s galleries and studios today is likely to give a very fragmented and confusing picture of what goes on. One is likely to see the artists or practitioners who have managed to cop the best showcases or who command the publicity systems that make “ins”; and one will most certainly miss quite a number of very serious and gifted people who tend to withdraw from the brassy, jostling push of business or even the more dignified forms of what is disquietingly known as “selling oneself.”
Let us take an Olympian look, with a skeleton blueprint of who, what, where. First in time, and mostly in quality, too. comes the Heroic Wave of the twenties. Of the Heroic Wave, Orozco and Rivera are dead. Rivera’s close friend and artistic follower Juan O’Gorman is both architect and painter, who oscillates between a Le Corbusier approach in architecture and socialist realism in painting, but who sometimes magnificently fuses the two arts and produces such items as the famous library of University City, a building done entirely in stone mosaic murals. Working also mostly in architectural settings, Carlos Merida pioneers and elaborates what can be done with indestructible media for outdoor building use and has greatly influenced the look of modern Mexico City.
Two other artists of the Heroic Wave have remained more closely identified with architecture (“public property”) than with personal portables. They are German Cueto and Federico Cantu. Cueto works directly with architects. Cantu has been pre-empted by the national Social Security Institute to decorate hospitals, housing units, and social-welfare centers with insistently poetic and symbolic sculpture and bas-relief. The facade of the theater unit at the Independence housing unit in Mexico City is probably his best job to date.
Of the so-called Big Three, only Siqueiros is still living. He is in jail because of politics. Though he is in poor health, he paints, and brutal as it sounds, the enforced isolation has rescued him as an artist, so that now, turned in upon himself, he is drawing upon the reserves of tremendous talent and depth of feeling that he had in his youth. His most recent work — small oils, watercolors, drawings — is very beautiful indeed and enlarges his claim to the title of the Big One.
Irrelevant as comparisons are, this is a title that can also be claimed by Tamayo on purely artistic grounds, and from the other end of the political rainbow. For years Tamayo has been the target for barrages of political attack from the Communist circles, because he has maintained himself severely, doggedly aloof from the politicking and trafficking that go on in art circles everywhere, but somewhat more virulently in Mexico. Instead, day in, day out he works, having gained bit by bit his audience and his market, which is very lucrative indeed.
Other artists belonging to the Heroic Wave are rather scattered. Jean Chariot lives in Hawaii and works in the same rich vein of tenderness and gaiety that he introduced into the mood of the twenties. Carlos Orozco Romero, whose work always comes as a surprise to people who hear only the currently fashionable names, has gone along much the same basic path as Tamayo, working steadily and growing in purity and sensitivity as well as strength. Alfredo Zalce lives in the provincial city of Morelia, where he runs a workshop. Although more reportorial in style than either Tamayo or Orozco Romero, fundamentally he follows the same road: he paints; and if it’s something very Mexican you want, and yet good modern, then Zalce is more than likely your man.
There are several younger artists who descend from the artistic line of the Heroic Wave, among whom the most considerable is probably Guillermo Meza. At the same time that he goes directly to his country’s scene for his material, he also works in the path opened by Tamayo: color, and yet more refinement of color, in which he accomplishes, sometimes, sheer magic. Also spun off the Heroic Wave are such engravers and draftsmen as Leopoldo Mendez, Hector Xavier, Diaz de Léon, and Dosamantes. They work in graphic black and whites, a medium that was a favorite in the twenties for its cheapness and its punch in newspapers and posters.
Following World War II, the jolt of industrialization and the increasingly closer connections with other lands gradually forced some of Mexico’s attention outward, in the art world, the self-absorption was disrupted by the sudden arrival of refugees, among whom there were a high proportion of very gifted people. There has also grown up a vigorous and productive group of artists of mixed origin whose work belongs to the art trends of Europe, but who have been changed and vitalized by thenconnection with this volcanic land.
Oi these artists, there are three who are of major importance: Leonora Carrington, Vlady, and Mathias Goeritz. Miss Carrington, a Celtic aristocrat who matured as an artist in the surrealist school ol Paris, is in painting what the great Isak Dinesen was in writing: Gothic in mood and imagery, magical in color, projecting a world of fantasy at once medieval and very ancient. Vlady is the son of the very considerable Russian novelist Victor Serge. He arrived in Mexico about twenty years ago — with his lather, who died here by way oi Siberia, France, Spain, and Santo Domingo. He is a painter ol no school or style, ranging from portraits done realistically, with great penetration and delicacy, to what could be called fugues and symphonies of color, stenographic and with colossal emotional impact, which convey his great experiences and loves: the sea. the jungle, horses.
Goeritz, who by now is quite well known in New York and Europe, is a refugee who was born in Danzig and grew up in the Dada and Bauhaus groups. Technically a sculptor, in Mexico he has become a sculptor-in-architecture, inventing forms and solutions to architectural problems, such as the towered entrance to Satellite City and the wroughtiron and hand-blown-glass windows in the Cathedral and other metropolitan churches. A master technician and an enormously imaginative artist, as well as a fine, unforgettable teacher (in the School of Architecture at the National University), his dramatic, provocative work has made its mark on many of the younger artists especially, but on his contemporaries also. Of all the refugee artists, Goeritz and Vlady are remarkable for the farreaching value and depth of their discoveries and explorations, for many of the younger men. For example, Jose Luis Cuevas was in his beginnings encouraged and assisted on his way up by both these artists. Cuevas is definitely the most interesting among the youngest group, but having got his cape and sword in magnificent black and whites, he has not quite dared so far to meet the challenge of color.
Very unlike him, but also enormously talented, is the witty Pedro Friedeberg, inventor of continuous forms and formulas of enchanting satire both in art and in the norms usually called “social criticism.” He is the sort of humorist who is not satisfied with tongue in cheek; the Friedeberg method is tongue in chcek-within-cheek-withincheek, so preposterous that even when his wildly schizophrenic dream palaces make you a bit nervous, you end happily hypnotized by them.
The world of art in Mexico City — the styles, the people, the preoccupations and problems and achievements — is rapidly becoming a counterpart of the world of art in any twentieth-century metropolis. As is only natural, this means increasing contact with other art centers. There has been resistance to this necessary and healthy push, so that artists of other countries meet obstacles to the showing of their work, and the great names of modern art today in all the world are almost never exhibited in Mexico.
Part of the reason is commercial: these arlists are dangerous competition. But there is a positive reason, too, in that Mexico is still young and unsure of itself, from centuries of colonial domination, and it therefore needs to solidify and affirm its own identity to the point where inner security is strong enough to match talents with anybody, without the protective tariffs of nationality or passport. This point is being very rapidly approached. And as development goes on, one begins to see the outlines of the ancient, perennial, and powerful characteristics of Mexican expression in the arts emerge in modern form. Once again, as in the days of the Toltecs, Mexicans iind themselves irresistibly drawn to building, on a huge sweeping scale, with a boldness and lack of inhibition that stagger visiting architects. Once again there is a profound need to integrate art with daily living, giving it human proportion and accessibility.