Modern Art Miniseries: 12/20
“Nowhere else in the world, not even in Victorian England, had bad taste in art and decoration been every so carefully nurtured as in Mexico during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.” — Mackinley Helm
Mexican Modernism was a Molotov cocktail blend of art that included works from surrealism, social realism, and the so-called primitism of traditional Mexican muralism that took place in early-to-mid-twentieth century Mexico. Themes of struggle and hardship were very common in art from this period, particularly rebellion against colonial Spanish rule. In order to fully appreciate Mexican Modernism, we need to first take a look at nineteenth century Mexico. Although Mexico had achieved its independence from Spain in 1821 after a decade-long war with its colonial master, the racially-based hierarchical tradition remained with Mexico. People of pure Spanish descent, the peninsulares, were at the top of the political pecking order, followed by criollos (or creoles), people of pure Spanish ancestry born in Mexico, and then mestizos (people of mixed indigenous and European heritage), and lastly, indigenous peoples, who were subjected to brutal treatment at the hands of the Spanish. Of particular interest is the legacy of Father Miguel Hidalgo, a Catholic priest who advocated for humane treatment of the indigenous peoples and lower classes, who was later turned into a revolutionary leader in the early Mexican rebellion against Spain. He was later executed in 1811 after a defeat on the way to the state of Coahuila, but his liberal thinking and kindness towards his largely-indigenous parishioners was popular with twentieth century Mexican muralists, who lived to see Mexico fight yet another war against corruption and power in their own lifetime (x).
In the years 1910-1920, Mexico underwent another revolution, this time to break away from the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, in order to address some much needed agrarian reforms. Following the revolution, the new leaders of Mexico decided to reclaim some of their country’s artistic heritage. The modern art movement in Mexico helped it break away from its traditional ties with Europe and form its own distinctive artistic style with pre-Columbian elements as well as Spanish-influenced Mexican ones. Art became a huge factor in social movements, and three major Mexican muralists, known as “los tres grandes” (the Big Three—Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros), fought to bring art to the people of Mexico. These three men, particularly Rivera, became quite popular in the United States in the 1930’s as well (x)
Another important artist from this time period is, of course, Frida Kahlo. Hailed as one of history’s greatest female artists—in my opinion, one of history’s greatest artists, period—Frida Kahlo was a Mexican woman with a troubled life from the start. Born into an unstable home, she contracted polio at only six years old, a disease which created uneven growth in her legs. As an adult, she was hit by a bus and suffered several broken bones, including her spine and collarbone, and had to undergo extensive surgeries. She was later diagnosed with minor depression, and suffered two suicide attempts within her lifetime. In addition to these ailments, she was also bisexual. Although she appears to have been fairly open about her sexual identity, having relationships with other women and not bothering to hide it, that no doubt put an additional burden on her, as homophobia was very strong during the early twentieth century and still remains so for many today.
Her paintings, much more Surrealist in tone (although she personally never identified with the Surrealist movement), portray her emotional as well as physical trauma in such a raw manner, that it is often painful to behold. Her figures, often self-portraits, are frequently horribly distorted, suffering gaping wounds, with placid, patient expressions. At twenty three years old, she married fellow painter Diego Rivera, divorced him after a severe depressive episode, and remarried him again in 1940. Despite all of this, she was a very spirited woman who loved to dance, gossip, and make friends, and she managed to create over a hundred powerful, evocative paintings. She frequently dressed in the traditional female clothing of the Tehuana tribe, no matter where she happened to be; she treated her servants like her family; and she believed in being honest to oneself. She once remarked, “Really, I do not know whether my paintings are surrealist or not, but I do know that they are the frankest expression of myself. Since my subjects have always been my sensations, my states of mind and the profound reactions that life has been producing in me, I have frequently objectified all this in figures of myself, which were the most sincere and real thing that I could do in order to express what I felt inside and outside of myself.” (x) (x)Pictured:Liberation of the Peon, Diego Rivera. 1931.Zapatista’s Marching, Jose Clemente Orozco, 1931.Struggle for Emancipation, David Alfaro Siqueiros. 1961.Mural, Diego Rivera, 1931.The Broken Column, Frida Kahlo. 1944.