Mexico’s search for an artistic identity

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

What kind of art would best represent a rapidly developing country coming out of the social upheaval of a violent revolution — especially when it had, only a century before that, just thrown off the yoke of colonial rule? Twentieth-century Mexico faced just this question — how it attempted to answer it can be seen in the exhibition “Camino A La Modernidad (The Road to Modernism)” at the Setagaya Art Museum. Staged to commemorate the 400th anniversary of relations between Mexico and Japan, the exhibition brings together 70 works, the largest-ever collection of modern Mexican art to be shown in Japan.

The Spanish conquests of the early 16th century led to Spain suppressing Mexico’s indigenous peoples and imposing its cultural as well as political authority. As a result, art in the “New Spain” was strongly European-led, with a predominant hybrid Mexican-Baroque style that persisted even after the country became independent in 1810. By the turn of the 20th century, however, many Mexican artists had set out to discover or create a national artistic identity.

Some artists looked to the country’s Indian population as a source of inspiration. Saturnino Herran’s “La Cosecha” depicts Indian farmers loading hay — strong sunlight dividing the picture into contrasting areas of light and shade and sculpting the peasants’ bodies. Diego Rivera’s portrayal of children in a tree in “Paisaje Nocturno” suggests that if the artist’s personal folk-art style is a kind of primitivism, it is of a kind seen through the prism of European primitivist artists — the sombreros and shawls loudly shout “Mexico,” but the colors, brushwork and style are pure Gaugin.

Rivera, along with his wife Frida Kahlo, are perhaps Mexico’s most celebrated artists, so the small number of paintings by these two may disappoint. Viewers, however, are rewarded with the inclusion of one of the most well-known examples of Mexican modern art — Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait with Medallion,” on loan from a private collection.

For obvious reasons, Rivera’s famous well-known Communist-inspired murals are not included in the show, but there are several of his paintings, created after the death of Frida and in the last years of his own life. One is “Paisaje Urbano o Colectando Nieve,” the snow of which, as you’d expect, is not falling on Mexico. In 1956, Riviera went to Moscow to receive cancer treatment, and inspired by the sight of the women workers shoveling snow there, he started the painting, finishing it on his return to Mexico.

Mexico’s rapid modernization is expressed in a handful of works by two of Rivera’s colleagues, both part of the Mexican Muralist movement — Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Siqueiros’ “Alegoria del Progreso” depicts a farmer plowing Mexico’s golden and fertile land while airplanes and a locomotive speed by above him.

Not all artists’ shared this Soviet propaganda-style celebration of progress — a homeless man with his tiny cart of bric-a-brac is dwarfed under the towering girders of an overpass in “El Puente y el Tilichero” by Angel Bracho, while beggars, thieves and starving babies fill the out-of-kilter cityscape of Alfredo Zalce’s “Mexico se Transforma en una Gran Ciudad.”

A number of artists preferred to focus on Mexico’s bountiful nature — Angel Zarraga’s “Paisaje de Bretan~a” depicts youngsters playing in a garden idyll and a number of Joaquin Clausell’s paintings illustrate a rustic coexistence of man, beast and nature. Others looked to the heroism of the revolutionary period, such as Fernando Leal’s fine depiction of the lean figure of revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata on horseback.

Most impressive is the range of styles attempted by the Mexican artists in their search for a fitting visual language for Mexico. Gabriel Fernandez Ledesma’s picture of a mother clutching her baby as fire spreads around her recalls the nightmarish scenes of the German Expressionists, while Carlos Orozco Romero’s eerie landscape recalls the dream imagery of the Surrealists. From Socialist Realism through Cubism to pure Abstraction, the experiments continue. But contradictions abound and a clearly identifiable Mexican artistic style remains elusive.

We might think we can see such a style in Angelina Beloff’s “La Alameda de Santa Maria” — colorful and vibrant, with a touch of naivity — but then we discover that Beloff was in fact a Russian who settled in Mexico, as did a few Japanese artists (Tamiji Kitagawa and Kishio Murata, for example) and the French-born Jean Charlot.

Perhaps a definitive artistic style for modern Mexico remains open-ended, but the experiments and diversions on display in this show are intriguing. It is, as they say, the journey, not the destination, that counts.

“Carmino A La Modernidad: Masterpieces of Modern Mexican Painting” is showing till Aug. 30 at the Setagaya Museum in Tokyo; admission ¥1,200; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (closed Sun.). For information call 3415- 6011 or visit