Visual Arts

Prints and the Revolution

I've always been a sucker for the graphic print.

Today, printmaking is considered a valid process used by high-end visual artists. But the medium hasn't always been held in such regard. Because they could be produced quickly and in mass volume, prints were often considered throwaway street art. But if you toss off the art-snob thing and really consider the incredible skill — both creative and technical — it's easy to fall in love and respect the talent and the work it takes to create them. Well done, prints are gorgeous. And because of their humble beginnings, they have an appeal to the everyday person. That's what I love about them. I'm not alone. Even respected artists who gained success in painting have been wooed to the point where they can't resist working with the medium.

At "Mexico and Modern Printmaking: A Revolution in the Graphic Arts, 1920-1950," Phoenix Art Museum offers an incredible lineup of prints by Mexican artists of the early 20th century. Organized by Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, many of the pieces included illustrate the key characters, events, and ideals revolving around the Mexican Revolution. And, much like that revolution's aim to elevate the social rights of the poor, major artists of the time picked up printmaking and elevated its status to a place well above mere street art.

Case in point: As soon as I entered the exhibited, I was greeted by Diego Rivera's 1932 lithograph Zapata. Here, the rigid figure of the revolutionary leader stands holding a curved knife in one hand; the other arm outstretched to grasp the saddle of a gleaming white horse. The beautiful animal tramples its fallen master as Zapata leads it and his army of peasant fighters. Rendered in the classic Rivera style, the figures are almost geometric and masterfully organized to fill the composition. Though it's a small work, the piece showcases the skill with which Rivera arranges his visual space, as seen in his gigantic murals.

Normally, it's a joy to see just one Rivera print, so it was a thrill to discover 10 more along the way. And, as a special treat, a Frida Kahlo lithograph was thrown in the mix. Titled The Miscarriage, Frida's naked body rests in the center of the composition. Cels divide and multiply along her right side, showing the stages of a fetus' growth and ending in a fully formed baby. Still attached to her exposed internal organs by a cord, the blood and two large tears on her cheeks reveal the loss. Her surrealistic and brutal imagery works as well in print as in her paintings.

The show offers so much. It's a definite challenge to focus on only a few here. It's even tougher to offer any criticism because, as a whole, the pieces are gorgeous and complement each other as a collection. One piece I particularly enjoyed was a surviving poster for the exhibition of the first 34 prints of the series called Prints of the Mexican Revolution. Above the text, an old, scaly female creature rides a carriage, whipping her skeletal horses. Her expression is maniacal as she pulls a load of headstones. Two skeleton arms poke through, grasping a crucifix. Bones litter her path as an anthropomorphic mariachi band plays on the street. It's pure death and mayhem and it makes me wish I could've seen the rest of the prints for that show.

Another favorite is a set of eight color stencil prints created in the 1910s and 1920s by Dr. Atl (Gerard Murillo). The prints are small landscapes rendered in simple, bold slabs of bright color. Ocean tides with volcanoes smoking in the background and mountain sunset scenes are all rendered with a sinewy, almost tribal tattoo-looking style. They are unlike any of the other prints in the show, but they are simply gorgeous — a nice break from the revolutionary images.

The 13 prints by David Alfaro Siquieros were presented so beautifully I wanted to rip them off the wall and take them home. These postcard-sized woodcuts are all in one frame and matted. The images show snippets of everyday life. One shows nuns by the train tracks, another shows two men fighting. With simple black ink on bright orange paper, the prints aren't perfect — the ink is splotchy and each small image is unique. After so many technically intricate works, this was another refreshing change of pace.

Jose Clemente Orozco's lithograph The Lynching isn't something I'd want to take with me, but of all the dramatic imagery in the show, it's the most searing. Orozco's line style is jagged, rough, and visceral — and it screams violence. He uses it to render charred corpses hanging by their necks from trees. The legs of these pour souls have begun to bow and curl as a fire from below licks at their feet. This, along with an entire wall of Orozco prints done with the same fervor, causes an immediate emotional response, and it's easy to understand why he was one of the most influential Mexican artists of the period.

Even if the works mentioned in this review were the only ones shown, the exhibition would be a raging success. But this is only a glimpse of what's offered among the abundance of gorgeous and historically significant works that adorn the walls. My advice? Set aside a good two hours and gear up on your Mexican history, because this show is more than worth a serious perusal.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi