Those attuned to the Philadelphia art scene, and most likely anyone who was in Philadelphia between October 25th and January 8th, is well aware of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism” exhibition.
City-wide advertisements for the exhibition, coupled with international attention in the art world have made for an art event that will have profound impacts on Philadelphia’s identity as a multi-cultural metropolis with a progressive and thought-provoking art scene.
The broader socio-political implications of an exhibition that specifically celebrates Mexican culture and history are significant: in an age where our elected officials misguidedly spew anti-Mexican rhetoric, the exhibition sends a powerful message. It asks us to make an attempt to humanize our southern neighbors by taking a look at their history, rich culture, and unique artistic tradition.
True to its name, the “Paint the Revolution” exhibition starts at the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and moves chronologically, giving viewers a firm understanding of the political, historical, and artistic environment during and after the Revolution.
I spoke with Matthew Affron, a curator of Paint the Revolution, who explained what he hoped viewers learned from the exhibition: “The exhibition tells us that Mexico and the U.S., Mexico and Europe, Mexico and the world were very connected in the early 20th century in terms of modern art and aesthetics. That, by itself, may have been surprising to some viewers.” Said Affron, “That sense of international connection was a very important driving force for the whole project.”
In the exhibition, it’s easy to trace the various chapters of the Mexican modern art movement and how connected they were with the global modern art movement.
In the early 20th century, Mexican artists began to engage with European modern art, while still integrating Mexican landscapes, themes, and traditions. By the 1920s and 1930s, Mexican art began influencing (and being influenced by) the modern art movement in the United States. Industrialization in the 1940s added a new element to the Mexican modern art movement, producing art and themes that resembled those during the American and European industrial period.
Paintings in the early 1900s depicting indigenous customs, such as Saturnino Herran’s 1913 painting Mexican, slowly begin to transform into paintings depicting industrialization, such as Juan O’Gorman’s Mexico City, 1949, a panorama of Mexico featuring two light-skinned hands holding a map of the ancient Aztec city, Tenochtitlan, and a dark-skinned bricklayer in the background. Though the painting is intense, O’Gorman captures the simple dilemma of modernization: how to advance while preserving Mexico’s landscape and culture.
The idea of revolution also undergoes a unique and visual transformation throughout the exhibition. The glory of the Revolution and its goal of creating an equal society that is true to Mexican identity can be seen in Julio Castellano’s 1930 painting Three Nudes, which seeks to represent a typically Mexican scene with dark-complexioned women in a room of white plaster walls. The painting shows the potential for the Revolution to affirm Mexican tradition while representing all Mexican people. On the other hand, further along in the gallery, viewers come across Jose Clemente Orzco’s paintings Combat, The Rape, and Barricade, as well as other artists who represented the horrors of war. The result is a gallery of conflicting views regarding the Revolution, portraying the clash of revolutionary fervor with a deep reflection on the human cost of war.
The last few rooms in the gallery tell a bit of a different narrative, as the exhibition moves chronologically into the 1930s and 40s, during which Mexico is becoming a player in international relations despite its internal conflict. Frida Kahlo steals the show in this era of art, with paintings like My Dress Hangs There that challenge everything from patriarchy to corruption and American greed.
The exhibition shows viewers that Mexico occupies an important space in the archives of the international modern art movement. Though the planning of the exhibition began a few years ago, it was presented during the peak of the 2016 elections. The exhibition’s theme of highlighting Mexico’s contributions to modern art and modern society at large, especially in the United States, thus became more politically relevant. “In this exhibition, what you will not see is a stereotypical view of Mexico and Mexicans. And I think that that is a fairly powerful message in the current climate in the United States,” said Affron.
The exhibition asks us to challenge our conceptions of Mexican culture and history, and instead take a visual stroll through the decades of struggle and perseverance that have shaped Mexico as a country. It asks us to open our minds to the Mexican narrative, and respect its culture and traditions.
I remember one particular moment during my visit to the museum. I was standing in front of a Maria Izquierdo painting and I overheard a viewer next to me say: “I would love to go to Mexico. I just wish it wasn’t so dangerous.” Mexico enjoys more stability now than it did from 1910-1950 but a crippling and invasive drug trade, widespread poverty, and the exploitation of workers by foreign corporations creates the same dilemma that Mexicans faced during the years of the Revolution: how to preserve Mexico in the face of conflict and strife. But as the exhibition shows, Mexico is not dangerous: it is a nation of individuals who demand to be treated like humans. The danger lies in refusing to listen to the voices that shout those demands.