Visual Arts


@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.

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Kathleen Vanesian