By Kathleen Vanesian
By Amy Silverman
By Robrt L. Pela
By Jim Louvau
By Kathleen Vanesian
By Benjamin Leatherman
By New Times
By Becky Bartkowski
And the folks back home could only surmise that Mexico must be a pretty dangerous place to be. A May 30, 1920, New York Times editorial summed up America's concept of the average Mexican at this time: "To the average American the Mexican of today is an insurgent or a bandit or, at any rate, a conspirator against his own Government."
@body:Not much art or tourism occurred in Mexico during the Revolutionary years. It was only after relative peace was established following the signing of the 1917 Constitution that American artists, writers, collectors and tourists began to stream across its borders again. Even D.H. Lawrence found his way to Oaxaca, writing a major part of his 1925 travel account, Mornings in Mexico, holed up in an old hotel off the town's central square.
Some travelers were lured by Mexico's easy accessibility, moderate climate, varied and virgin scenery, historic buildings and churches and, best of all, cheap cost. During Prohibition, many Americans crossed into border towns to drink, gamble and party at bars and elegant casinos, like Tijuana's Aguascaliente and Rosarito's Hotel Rosarito.
Other visitors were intrigued by what they perceived as the idyllic existence of rural Mexico unspoiled by the advances of modern technology, as well as the country's exotic pre-Columbian culture, then being unearthed daily. They also fell in love with its folk art, in which Mexicans themselves, especially artists, were showing newfound interest.
Of course, some might have been drawn to the wild Mexican art scene itself, like the flower children who flocked to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury in the late 1960s. Mexico City during this era rivaled Paris and the salons of glitterati like Gertrude Stein for avant-garde rowdiness.
In La Capital: The Biography of Mexico City, Jonathan Kandell, an American journalist who grew up in Mexico City, paints the boisterous scenario most American artists could find upon arriving in the 1920s: "Mexico City had never before witnessed the Bohemian society [the muralists] had created. They drew sketches on the walls and tablecloths of their favorite restaurants and cafes as payment for bills that mounted over weeks and months. They consumed enchiladas and pulque instead of European cuisine and wines; they danced the jarabe and sandunga rather than waltzes; shunned the established theaters in favor of crude street plays performed under tents; and praised pre-Columbian Indian idols--hitherto considered barbaric junk--as more worthy of collection than Old World paintings and sculptures. Affluent youths, rebelling against their parents' conservatism, flocked to the artists' hangouts, joined their parties, and occasionally spent a night in jail, assuming the blame for an unpaid restaurant bill or the streetlamps shot out by a pistol-wielding Rivera or Siqueiros."
Such names as Rivera and Siqueiros also attracted serious artists not so dedicated to partying, especially those of a more politically leftist bent. They were lured by the socialist rhetoric that flavored post-Revolutionary Mexican art, especially its public murals, which were unique to the country and not based on any foreign aesthetic models. Art in post-Revolutionary Mexico was being harnessed by the Mexican government for political and educational purposes. Officials nurtured the mural movement and its politically radical adherents, primarily los tres grandes, Diego Rivera, Jos‚ Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The mural movement involved, in Rivera's words, "an art that went hand in hand with revolution, more powerful than war, and more lasting than religion."
A number of American artists trekked to Mexico, some for extended periods of time, to work as assistants to the muralists; several, like Pablo O'Higgins and Isamu Noguchi, ended up with their own mural commissions from the Mexican government. Photographs of some of these murals executed by Americans appear in "South of the Border."
It was in the area of mural painting and printmaking, rather than easel painting, that American artists in Mexico seemed to excel, finding their own stylistic voices despite the profound influence of their incomparable Mexican counterparts. The public mural movement that flourished in the United States during the 1930s, much of which was underwritten by the government's Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, owes a large debt to its Mexican precursors. Unfortunately, with few notable exceptions, most American painters appear to have gone to Mexico harboring illusions of Shangri-la and the noble savage. Instead they found, but were artistically oblivious to, the harsh realities of bone-crushing poverty and disease that had plagued Mexican campesinos for centuries.
Maybe because of the colorless industrialization that had taken over their lives back home, many American artists eradicated from their work any trace of the grim conditions under which their rural Mexican subjects survived, producing only sappy, impersonal paintings. Maybe their vision of Mexico's people was filtered through the racism and cultural superiority most Americans harbored against Mexicans. Or maybe they were just in complete denial about the industrialization and poverty that scarred the face of their Mexican dream.
As evidenced by a roomful of paintings at PAM so mediocre that they equal or surpass those of the museum's recent cowboy exhibit, Americans sojourning in Mexico appeared capable of producing only anemic paintings of idealized Indian women effortlessly carrying water jugs on their heads, cactus-studded landscapes, bustling mercados and street scenes filled with faceless peons or hordes of frolicking children. Such images by artists like Lowell Houser, Everett Gee Jackson, Marsden Hartley, George Biddle and Henrietta Shore ignored the brutal existence of the rural poor, who were no better off after the Revolution than they were before.