Revolution: AHA alum Helena Roy looks at the RA’s latest exhibition and Mexican culture’s growing presence in London…

Mexico fever has taken hold of London. In July it celebrated MexFest – a three-day event offering tasters in Mexican film, architecture and music. The modish La Bodega Negra is being chased by its edgier sister, Casa Negra; whilst Wahaca has become the go-to restaurant for anyone looking for a great last-minute evening. One of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies, Mexico has a culture backdrop to match: its daring and colourful art, architecture, food, film and music may just prove its most successful export yet.

Evidence may be the Royal Academy’s ‘Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940’ – an exhibition showing the artistic reaction to a thirty-year period of political and social change, which gave Mexican art a place on the world stage. Revolution in 1910 brought years of instability, and flowered a cultural renaissance that included some of the seminal figures of the 20th century.

'Man Seated on a Trash Heap' (1926-7) by Francisco Goitia

Mariano Azuela said ‘How beautiful revolution is, even in its savagery!’ The exhibition shows that euphoria. Unlike the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, there was little state interference in the arts. Yet every inch is political – containing a unique social interpretation. It was a time of mass destruction and death, but exciting and intense reform. The artistic outpouring the revolution inspired is passionate to behold.

Nor was the movement populated solely by Mexican artists. Many foreigners were intoxicated with its lifestyle. Henri Cartier-Bresson said Mexico ‘is not a curiosity to be visited, but a life to be lived’. Josef Albers pronounced it ‘truly the promised land of abstract art.’ D. H. Lawrence and Malcolm Lowry were both attracted there. Englishman Edward Burra painted watercolour and gouache masterpieces. ‘El Paseo’ (c. 1938) has a sense of film noir, and exposes the huge tension between light and dark in Mexico. ‘Mexican Church’ (c. 1938) displays a pained, organic body in ornate surroundings. It is a faintly pagan depiction of a Catholic scene.

‘El Paseo’ (c. 1938) by Edward Burra

Mexico’s Aztec and natural heritage also inspired artists. The movement is streaked with native elements – more exotic and untouched than American art. Tertiary colours are drawn from its landscape, sometimes slyly blending into spiced shots of primaries. For example, Marsden Hartley’s ‘Earth Warming’ (1932), or Dr Atl (Gerardo Murillo)’s ‘Landscape with Iztaccihuatl’ (1932). Block shapes, clear curves and colour exude the fertility and diversity of Mexico. Forms are larger – hair flows in strands and locks; trees blow in ropes, not leaves.

'Earth Warming' (1932) by Marsden Hartley

Mexico mixes the macabre and the carnival-esque. Its imagery is at once bright and violent: bombastic, nationalist and brutally realistic. Francisco Goitia’s ‘Zacatecan Landscape with Hanged Men II’ (c. 1914) shows branching trees lowering bodies to the ground. The ferocious image is utterly organic, and the sun-bleached desert has its own deathly beauty. The motif of a grimacing (often dancing, moustached or sombrero-ed) skull is peppered everywhere – even in José Chávez Morado’s lively ‘Carnival in Huejotzingo’ (1939).

‘Zacatecan Landscape with Hanged Men II’ (c. 1914) by Francisco Goitia
‘Carnival in Huejotzingo’ (1939) by José Chávez Morado

Revolution brought a sense of realism in art – propaganda was out, toil and poverty was in. Thus, photography is just as important a medium as paint. A brutal triple execution is laid out stage-by-stage in picture postcard form. Journalism is mixed with art as freedom of speech was a thrilling novelty.

'Workers Reading El Machete' (c. 1929) by Tina Modotti

Heavy socialist views permeate the works in this exhibition. Many portraits have faceless subjects – either blurred by paint or hidden by shadow. They are the unidentifiable worker who props up the country. José Clemente Orozco’s ‘Barricade’ (1931) shows hard, physical work in earthy colours, juxtaposed to the silver of a knife and the red of a revolutionary flag. Bullets blend into muscle and flesh, and contorted shapes hint at the artist’s time as a political cartoonist.

‘Barricade’ (1931) by José Clemente Orozco

A reward at the end of the exhibition is a tiny self-portrait by Frida Kahlo. André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, was the first foreigner to recognize Kahlo’s talent. He labelled her a surrealist, and though she disliked the tag, it brought her prominence. Married to the equally talented Diego Rivera, she had an affair with Trotsky, and her introspective, Mona-Lisa-like portraits became iconic.

But, the artistic epitome of this period are murals in Mexico, particularly those by Rivera. His epic depiction of Mexican history on the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City is a masterpiece. This is what the RA’s exhibition lacks. Murals were the people’s medium. They were a way to communicate with the largely illiterate population – much as biblical works in Renaissance churches. Firstly political, secondly artistic, they culturally embody their time. The mural movement in the US, (especially in Chicago in the 1960s) was inspired by what had happened in Mexico.

'Dance in Tehuantepec' (1928) by Diego Rivera
'Dance in Tehuantepec' (1928) by Diego Rivera

Tensions between earth and humanity, nature and industry, concrete and the organic, the religious and the pagan, all expose Mexico’s varied chaos. There is a saying that we should ‘pity Mexico, so close to the USA and so far from God’. This view is not only changing economically, but culturally. The RA’s exhibition shows the power with which Mexico inspired art in the past, and the creative energy it has to offer the world in the future.

With thanks to the Royal Academy and the Guardian for photos.

‘Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940’ is on at the Royal Academy until 29 September 2013. Details can be found at http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/mexico/.

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