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The Revolution Was Painted — Mexican Modernism Comes to the MFAH

José Clemente Orozco, Barricade, 1931, oil on canvas, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, given anonymously.EXPAND
José Clemente Orozco, Barricade, 1931, oil on canvas, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, given anonymously.
Artwork courtesy of Museum of Modern Art, New York
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Mari Carmen Ramírez, the Wortham Curator of Latin American Art, says the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s newest exhibit, “Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950,” is “like a textbook of Mexican art,” one that shows a revolution not televised, but painted, printed, written, photographed and sculpted.

The exhibit, organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, showcases 175 works from a period Ramírez calls a cultural renaissance in Mexico.

“Everything we know about Mexico today, [everything] we associate with Mexico – arts and crafts, indigenous costumes, the indigenous cultures, all these representations of Indian people with flowers in their festivities – all of these things were recovered by the revolution,” says Ramírez. “Artists and writers and culture producers set out to recover the important elements of indigenous peoples in Mexico, as well as the peasants [and] the workers.”

The Mexican Revolution not only put an end to the pro-Europe, authoritarian regime of Porfirio Díaz, it attempted to consolidate the different cultures and ethnicities of Mexico into one unified, modern Mexican nation, represented by a unmistakably Mexican aesthetic called “mexicanidad.” Following the decade-long armed conflict, Álvaro Obregón emerged as president, and he named José Vasconcelos minister of public education. As reconstruction began in the 1920s, Vasconcelos called back artists working in Europe, like Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, to give them government jobs and, more important, public walls.

“They considered the mural a form of educating the masses about the new values of the Mexican nation,” says Ramírez. “The muralists set about this task of representing who Mexico was, what was this new nation. In their minds, it was made up of indigenous peoples, workers and peasants, as well as the soldiers who fought for the revolution.”

Diego Rivera, Dance in Tehuantepec, 1928, oil on canvas, collection of Eduardo F. Costantini, Buenos Aires.EXPAND
Diego Rivera, Dance in Tehuantepec, 1928, oil on canvas, collection of Eduardo F. Costantini, Buenos Aires.
Artwork courtesy of Eduardo F. Costantini, Buenos Aires

Rivera’s Ballad of the Agrarian and Proletarian Revolution (1928–29), Siqueiros’s Portrait of the Bourgeoisie (1939–40), and José Clemente Orozco’s Epic of American Civilization (1939–40) will be on display as part of the exhibit, even though two are located in Mexico City and one is in Hanover, New Hampshire.

“Obviously, murals cannot travel,” says Ramírez, but through the magic of digital representation, the central areas of the galleries will be covered with virtual murals. “It’s the closest that you can come. You can see it wall-size in front of you, and it’s a moving image, and you can interact with it.”

Though the work of Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco – collectively known as los tres grandes – features heavily, Ramírez says “the exhibition seeks to go beyond those figures to show the scope of artistic production [during] the period” from artists both known and unknown, like Rufino Tamayo, an avant-garde artist who preferred cosmopolitan subjects; Frida Kahlo, one of only a handful of women artists of the time and whose travels north, to the U.S., produced works such as Self-Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States (1932); and multiple printmakers of the 1930s, who Ramírez says became extremely politicized and joined in the worldwide fight against fascism.

The fight against fascism, and the end of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, continued to influence Mexican art, as artists like Siqueiros returned home from abroad and exiled European artists began to arrive. The exhibit includes Siqueiros’s War (1939) and works from those exiled artists, such as Wolfgang Paalen and Alice Rahon, to complete the comprehensive picture of Mexican modernism, the most comprehensive exhibit of Mexican art in 20 to 25 years, according to Ramírez.

“It’s an opportunity for people to see something that they’re not going to see [again] any time soon, because doing these kinds of exhibitions is very difficult, and it’s getting to be far more difficult given financial constraints and issues with loans,” says Ramírez. “This is the kind of exhibition that comes along every 15 to 20 years, [so] you’re not going to see it again soon.”

“Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950” runs June 25 through October 1 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, open Tuesdays and Wednesdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sundays 12:15 to 7 p.m. For more information, call 713-639-7300 or visit mfah.org. Free to $18.

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