I'm always somewhat leery of museum exhibitions based on work collected by one person. Many times, these shows are less than stellar, with an unsuspecting viewing audience ending up a prisoner of the collector's particular aesthetic and vision, which can, on occasion, be brutally banal and screamingly self-absorbed.
I'm glad to report that "Modern Mexican Painting," now showing at Phoenix Art Museum through September 28, does not fall into that category. It's a traveling exhibition of work carefully hand-picked from the more than 8,000-piece collection of Andrés Blaisten, permanently housed in Mexico City. Though not without a few faults, "Modern Mexican Painting" offers a plausible overview of the prodigious amount and quality of painting being produced in Mexico from the turn of the 20th century through the early 1960s.
I'm even happier to unrepentantly report that this show is not about Mexico's muralistas or, gracias a Dios, Frida Kahlo, whose work in recent years has been so overexposed and repetitively promoted that, upon their mere mention, I go into a narcotized coma. It's a relief to see work by lesser-known Mexican artists whose work is just as important to Mexican modernism as that of those high-profile artists with infinitely better P.R. machines.
The scope of this show does seem overly ambitious, given the fact that during the period covered, Mexico saw enormous political and social changes that explosively impacted the art created there. Between 1900 and 1960, the "slumbering giant" would see, among other events, the demise of the oppressive 30-year reign of dictator Porfirio Díaz, known as the Porfiriato, and a bloody 10-year revolution that promised land reform and greater personal freedoms for millions of starving campesinos, not to mention a second World War.
Curious Mexican artists traveling to Europe in the early 1900s would bring back a variety of avant-garde painting movements to supplant the warmed-over, neo-classical fare — so glorified during the Porfiriato — being dished up by Mexico City's Frenchified Academy of San Carlos. Artists from outside the country would also flock to Mexico in droves to learn about the boiling artistic ferment occasioned by the Mexican Revolution and a new spirit of pride in Mexico's indigenous past and present, encouraged by the new government headed by Alvaro Obregón and directed by his visionary secretary of education, José Vasconcelos.
So between 1900 and 1960 in Mexico, you'll see, painting-wise, post-Impressionism, plein aire landscape painting, Cubism, Symbolism, Constructivism, Futurism, Dadaism, abstraction, Streamline Moderne (so much a part of Art Deco), and just about every other art "ism" spawned during those years. With the influx of European artists fleeing the horrors of Hitler — including writer and poet André Breton — came surrealism in full force. But Mexican artists didn't adopt any of these movements wholesale; rather, they gave these artistic approaches a unique, immediately recognizable spin filtered through centuries-old Mexican cultural experience. Abandoned were the typical subjects of landed gentry, European historical events, and idyllic, romanticized landscapes in favor of scenes and subjects directly related to the common man in modern Mexico and his pre-Columbian cultural history and folk art. Mexican painting in this period fairly bristles with strong nationalistic sentiment and a profound respect for Mexico's pre-colonial heritage.
To say the least, that's a boatload of art history to present in an intelligent fashion, but the curators of this show, with input from the collector, seem to make sense of this mixcla overall — though the portraiture section of the exhibition definitely could have been chopped down. One of the high points of the show is the entrance to the show gallery. On a large freestanding wall, film footage of Mexico City in the bustling 1920s is projected side by side with clips from Sergei Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico, shot all over Mexico in the 1930s. The mood is definitively set as we see the crush of people and traffic in Mexico's Centro Historico, juxtaposed with images of elegant Tehuanas from Oaxaca's Isthmus of Tejuantepec, wearing what appear to be white, pleated crinolines on their heads. The Tehuana, after the Mexican Revolution, according to Oriana Baddely, "came to represent an assertively post-colonial culture, the fertile unbowed body," in contrast to the pre-Revolutionary brutalized Indian woman.
The strength of "Modern Mexican Painting" lies in its inclusion of paintings by artists virtually unknown to the public. In particular, I was thrilled to see work by Roberto Montenegro, a vastly under-appreciated artist in Mexico who is often dismissed as a footnote. Especially disturbing is his Desesperación (Despair) (1949), a painting that conjures up Picasso's haunting Guernica. At center is a terrified horse surrounded by a crumbling cemetery; skulls peer up at him from a pile on the ground, with ripe fruit in the foreground a stark counterpoint to the skulls' utter lifelessness.
I was also impressed by work executed by artists I had not been exposed to previously, like Antonio Xavier Peña, whose two large horizontal oils on canvas, Recolección de flores (Collecting Flowers) (c. 1938) and Mercado (Market) (c. 1938), stand as one of the major focal points of the exhibition. Another artist completely new to me was Emilio Baz Viaud, a very notable addition to the pantheon of Mexican modernists. Baz Viaud's Self-Portrait with Blue Shirt (1941), an exquisitely rendered watercolor and drybrush on cardboard, is unforgettable, as are his two paintings memorializing the seedier side of Mexican city life.