NADA THIS EARTHGRINGO ART HITS THE CANVAS IN NEW "SOUTH OF THE BORDER" EXHIBITION
@body:After seeing the work in "South of the Border: Mexico in the American Imagination" at Phoenix Art Museum, if I knew nothing about Mexican art history, I would have to conclude that all American artists who traveled to Mexico between 1914 and 1947 were required to undergo frontal lobotomies before they crossed the border.
The show portrays America's romance with Mexico between World War I and World War II, throwing together paintings, prints, books, folk art, tourist guides and posters, Fiestaware and silver jewelry in an attempt to give us an idea of how Americans perceived Mexico during that time.
Unfortunately, the lack of organized and detailed historical context for the viewer leaves the average person confused as to what the show, which originated at the Yale University Art Gallery, is really about. Clayton Kirking, curator of Latin American Art at Phoenix Art Museum, was heir to the virtually impossible task of cramming almost 35 years' worth of complex Mexican art history and culture into a seamless, integrated whole.
He didn't entirely succeed. Consequently, the catalogue that accompanies "South of the Border" far outshines the show itself. That's because the catalogue provides the reader with intelligible, historical information with which to evaluate the art, and to explain why so much of it is so lackluster, so benign in a way that is almost malignant. If you are expecting to see walls filled with incredible paintings and photographs of museum quality produced by American artists who were influenced by their Mexican experiences in the 1920s and 1930s, you will be disappointed. "South of the Border" is a historical review, illustrated by work that's more documentary than artistic.
Teresa del Conde, the director of Mexico City's Museo de Arte Moderno, described the show best at a recent lecture she gave at Phoenix Art Museum, titled "Mexican Art Approaching the Next Millennium": "This is a past cultural exhibition. I have no quarrel with such shows. However, once the objects in the show leave the museum, they most often cease to be art objects. They serve a didactic purpose, but they are not necessarily art."
But even as a historical overview, "South of the Border" misses the mark of conveying how truly electrifying and culturally revolutionary this entire period was for both Mexico and the United States. In order to appreciate this fully, one has to examine the state of Mexican art and culture prior to the Mexican Revolution, which dragged on mercilessly from 1910 through 1917.
@body:Thirty-four years before the Revolution, Mexico's president-king Porfirio Daz came to power. In the fashion of all great despots, he ruled his emerging country with an iron fist. A poor Mixtec Indian from Oaxaca, Daz was responsible for industrializing Mexico with the aid of U.S. and European investment--amassing obscene wealth for himself and his cronies in the process--and was notorious for ruthlessly quelling any political resistance to his master plan for Mexico.
Culturally, Daz was also responsible for the Frenchification of the country. During the Porfiriato, as the period of his rule is called, Daz finished imposing the Parisian design Mexico's ill-fated Emperor Maximilian had initiated in the Mexican capital, decorating the Paseo de la Reforma, the city's main thoroughfare, to resemble the Champs élyses.
Wealthier inhabitants of Mexico City began to segregate themselves in neighborhoods reminiscent of Paris. Here, in ostentatious mansions with garrets and mansard roofs, adorned with velvet drapes, parquet floors, European statuettes and monstrous chandeliers, they could ignore the poverty-stricken masses of Indians and mestizos they despised.
The folk art of these indigenous people and their glorious artistic pre-Columbian past were disdained by these often-nouveau riche Mexican Francophiles, who preferred stiff portraits of family members and ormolu-encrusted furniture to the ancient cultural bounty of their own country.
This is not surprising, given Mexico's long history of racism against its indigenous population. For years following the Spanish Conquest, a person could not hold public office or work in any government capacity without proving "purity of blood" untainted by Indian alliance.
French taste was reinforced in the European-based painting and sculpture being cranked out at the Academy of San Carlos, Mexico City's official citadel of artistic production, by students who routinely studied classical models in Europe. Academic portraiture and historical genre paintings were standard output during the 1880s and 1890s.
Mexican history paintings could be especially mirth-provoking; Jose Obregon's "Discovery of Pulque," a figment of the artist's neoclassical imagination, depicts a nubile young Indian maiden offering a bowl of the alcoholic brew to a mythical Indian king ensconced on a throne that looks like something out of an old Hollywood Biblical epic.
With the advent of modernism at the beginning of the 20th century, characterized by its distaste for traditional middle-class values and a spiritual uneasiness spawned by industrialization and its inevitable materialism, young Mexican artists flocked to Paris to complete their studies. There they cherry-picked elements from a number of European art movements, including Symbolism, Impressionism, Naturalism, Art Nouveau and even Oriental art. Evidence of all of these movements is still a highly visible part of Mexico City's architecture, including its Palacio de Bellas Artes.
But not all art produced during the Porfiriato was so Eurocentric. Provincial painters uninfluenced by academic painting of the era produced environmental portraits, Mexican landscapes and beautiful still lifes using exotic tropical fruits, everyday ceramics and picturesque native birds and flowers as subjects.
Anonymous artists created ex-votos, several of which are displayed in "South of the Border," albeit without any explanation. These small tin paintings were dedicated to various saints to give thanks for miraculous cures or intervention. Throughout the 19th and into the early 20th century, the walls of most churches throughout Mexico were covered with these tin tributes. And, most important, during the 1890s, Jose Guadalupe Posada, along with other less-well-known printmakers, was producing bawdy broadsides for the Day of the Dead, political caricatures satirizing both rich and poor, and cheap illustrated novellas and religious tracts. Posada's work eventually provided inspiration to a number of post-Revolutionary painters, including Diego Rivera, Jos Clemente Orozco and Jean Charlot, who venerated Posada for being what Charlot claimed was the first truly Mexican artist. It was against this backdrop that Mexico entered one of the bloodiest periods of its history. When the smoke cleared and the last political shots had been fired, it was 1921. Daz had been dethroned, Alvaro Obregn was president, and a new generation of Mexican artists profoundly influenced by the revolutionary experience and the discovery of their own indigenous culture would make an indelible mark on art history.
The very presence of these artists, as well as the newly discovered treasures of Mexico's pre-Conquest past and its centuries-old folk-art tradition, lured many Americans south of the border.
@body:For years Americans had been discovering Mexico and the mysterious cultures of its ancient past through books and newspapers. The imaginations of America's armchair travelers were kindled by the absorbing, but often inflammatory and racially biased, accounts of this exotic destination. Literary treatment of Mexico's masses ranged from indulgent paternalism to outright bigotry.
Fanny Caldern de la Barca, the feisty Scottish wife of the first Spanish envoy to Mexico since its independence from Spain, delighted reading audiences with Life in Mexico, published in both London and Boston in 1842. Her colorful account of life in both urban and rural Mexico during her two-year tenure between 1839 and 1841 was an instant success.
In 1841, John Lloyd Stephens published his archaeological accounts in Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatn, which was painstakingly illustrated with exotic drawings of abandoned Mayan ruins by Frederick Catherwood. William Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico soon followed in 1843, stoking the American imagination even further.
Unknown Mexico: Explorations in the Sierra Madre and Other Regions, 1890-1898, by Carl Lumholtz, the father of American archaeology, appeared in 1898. Lumholtz mesmerized his American readers with his perilous experiences among the cave-dwelling Tarahumara tribe of northern Mexico (illustrated with photographs of bare-breasted Tarahumara women), the Huichols of Jalisco and the Tarascos (now known by the Indian name of Purepecha) of Michoacn. Armed with a passport personally issued by Porfirio Daz, Lumholtz had no compunction against taking pre-Columbian artifacts home with him, sometimes against the will of the indigenous people he was studying.
Travel books about Mexico and attractive tourism literature whetted the American appetite for the country's charms even more. But the "ugly American," whether resident alien or tourist, did not escape the critical glare of fellow countrymen living in Mexico during the Porfiriato, nor of post-Revolutionary Mexican artists. Mexico's Jos Clemente Orozco and American artists Ren d'Harnoncourt and Caroline Durieux would unleash their brushes against the invading American tourist hordes on a regular basis.
Viva Mexico, by Charles Macomb Flandrau, an American writer and Mexican coffee-plantation owner, was one of the few books to honestly describe the rather ugly nature of Americans in Mexico, including the American tourist, during the heyday of heavy U.S. investment in Mexico encouraged by the Porfirian regime.
"There are said to be about thirty thousand American residents in the Mexican Republic," writes Flandrau in the 1908 volume, "and the men pursue vocations ranging from that of tramp to that of president of great and successful business ventures. There are American doctors and dentists, brakemen, locomotive engineers, Pullman-car conductors, civil engineers, mining engineers, 'promoters,' grocers, hotel keepers, dealers in curios; there are American barkeepers, lawyers, stenographers, photographers, artists, clerks, electricians, and owners of ranches of one kind or another who grow cattle or coffee or vanilla or sugar or rubber. . . .
"An always interesting phase of the American in Mexico," Flandrau continues, "is the annual invasion of the country, from January to March, by immense parties of 'personally conducted' tourists from the United States . . . when on a tour to Mexico, [they] go out of their way to do things that make the very peons blush. . . . The least of their crimes is their suddenly acquired mania for being conspicuous. . . . "The effect that [American female tourists wearing sombreros and serapes, both usually only worn by rural Mexican men] produced upon the local mind was somewhat analogous to that which a party of Mexican ladies would produce upon the mind of New York should they decide to drive up Fifth Avenue wearing policemen's helmets and variegated trousers. Only Mexican women would never do the one, while American women frequently, from motives I am at a loss to account for, do the other."
After 1910, these genteel tourist forays into Mexico came to an abrupt halt because of fighting aimed at overthrowing the Daz government. American newspapers and magazines fed stories and gruesome photographs to the American public about various Revolutionary personalities and skirmishes. At one point, American photographers were selling these grisly photographs as postcards to American soldiers stationed at the borders and in Veracruz, who in turn sent them to the folks back home in the States.
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.
For whatever reason, most of the American painters whose work hangs in this show were apparently unaffected by their Mexican experience in any substantial way, preferring to direct their attention to sleep-inducing subjects that even the average American tourist might have found tiresome.
@body:In the 1920s and 1930s, Americans played a critical role in resurrecting, preserving and fostering many of Mexico's traditional folk arts and crafts, long neglected by all but a few Mexicans until well after the Revolution. Surprisingly, "South of the Border" captures none of the passion and almost religious zeal of the small, incestuous group of American and Mexican artists and collectors who brought the folk arts and crafts of our neighbor to the south into the national spotlight during this time. The few pieces of folk art appearing in the show are, for the most part, moribund specimens uncharacteristic of this very spirited area of traditional Mexican art.
In 1910, Frederick Davis, a Chicago medical student, dropped out of school and took a position in Mexico as assistant manager with the Sonora News Company, the news agency for American railroads in Mexico. In the 1920s, he became manager of the company's shop in the Palacio Iturbide on Avenida Madero near Mexico City's Zocalo (at that time, it was a hotel), where he indulged his obsession for Mexican folk art by selling it along with Spanish colonial antiques in the shop. Davis hired as his assistant Ren d'Harnoncourt, a young, penniless Austrian count who arrived in Mexico speaking neither English nor Spanish. D'Harnoncourt, who eventually became the director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, beat the bushes for Davis, collecting folk art and antiques for the shop. He and Mexican artist Roberto Montenegro, underwritten by Fred Davis, revived the old art of lacquerware in Olinala, Guerrero and attempted to do the same for the feather painting that was being done by the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish Conquest.
Fred Davis' shop became a hangout for young artists, including Rivera and Rufino Tamayo, who themselves collected folk art and pre-Columbian artifacts. In 1927, d'Harnoncourt even organized a show for these artists at the shop, whose clientele included William Randolph Hearst and oil baron Edward Doheny, both inveterate antique collectors.
U.S. ambassador to Mexico Dwight Morrow and his wife, Elizabeth, were also among the shop's clients. In the late 1920s, the Morrows became fast friends with William Spratling, an American architect who in 1929 had moved to Taxco, an enchanting colonial town nestled on a mountaintop near a silver mine that is still being worked today. He single-handedly created the Mexican silver jewelry industry in Taxco.
In 1931, Spratling opened Taller de las Delicias and staffed it with goldsmiths from the nearby town of Iguala. Many young artisans who worked for Spratling eventually opened their own workshops and became famous for their own silver work. A devoted collector of both pre-Columbian and folk art, Spratling created designs using stylized pre-Columbian motifs; his jewelry and tea services found their way into high-end U.S. department stores, especially during World War II. Spratling's home/workshop and a museum housing his pre-Columbian collection are still open in Taxco to this day.
American artist James Metcalf, who at one point illustrated books for Robert Graves, also landed in Mexico in the late 1920s after leaving Philadelphia. He eventually opened a blacksmithing and coppersmithing school called "Tia Muri" in the small mountain village of Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacn, where he still lives, works and teaches students from the town the old metal arts with the aid of bellows of pre-Columbian design.
American anthropologist Frances Toor stoked the folk-art fires further with her bilingual magazine, Mexican Folkways, published between 1925 and 1937 in Mexico City. Articles on everything from pottery to traditional dances filled the popular periodical. Contributors to this sophisticated publication included the likes of Rivera, its editor from 1926, photographer Tina Modotti, archaeologist Alfonso Caso and artist Jean Charlot.
Interested Americans also encouraged the revival of Mexican folk art through a series of important exhibitions in this country. A groundbreaking show of more than 5,000 pieces of Mexican folk art--the first of its kind anywhere--had been organized by Dr. Atl (the pseudonym of Gerardo Murillo), Roberto Montenegro and Jorge Enciso and traveled to Los Angeles in 1922. Writer Katherine Anne Porter provided a guide to this major exhibition, which traced the history of Mexican arts and crafts from pre-Columbian times to the present.
It was followed by another in 1928 at New York's Art Center, and by an even bigger exhibition in 1930 at the Metropolitan Museum. Ren d'Harnoncourt collected folk-art objects and contemporary paintings for this huge display, called "Mexican Arts," which was underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation and eventually traveled to 12 U.S. cities. The organizer of the 1928 show was Frances Flynn Paine, who acted as a personal tour guide for Nelson Rockefeller's first Mexican folk-art trip five years later. Nelson Rockefeller's buying trips in Mexico are legendary. The museum-quality objects he collected over the years became part of one of the most prestigious Mexican folk-art collections in the world, now split between the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Mexican Museum in San Francisco.
Rockefeller's Mexican mania culminated in his organizing "20 Centuries of Mexican Art," which opened in New York at the Museum of Modern Art in 1940. The show included pre-Columbian art, colonial art and contemporary Mexican art, unified by a wide variety of folk art. "20 Centuries" was the last major Mexican art exhibition to be mounted in the United States until the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 1991 blockbuster, "Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries."
@body:In spite of its breadth and girth, or maybe because of it, "South of the Border" is a disappointing historical overview that does more to confound than elucidate the average viewer.
Not only does it slough over many areas it purports to cover, but also completely disregards areas most people could actually relate to in their everyday lives, like the Mexico-inspired Mayan Revival and Spanish-style architecture prevalent in the American Southwest during the 1920s and 1930s (Phoenix's Arizona Biltmore, built in 1929, is a great example of Mayan Revival style).
In fact, the most cogent part of the exhibition is "Al Aire Libre: The Open Air Painting Schools of Mexico," an ancillary exhibition that PAM's Clayton Kirking put together from the museum's own collection. The little show is accompanied by a well-written brochure that explains the history of these charming plein-air paintings by indigenous working-class students from the suburbs of Mexico City between 1920 and 1935.
All in all, "South of the Border: Mexico in the American Imagination" is like a giant bowl of gumbo, but without a trace of the spicy flavor you'd expect. @pq:American artists eradicated from their work any trace of the grim conditions under which their rural Mexican subjects lived.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.