Mexique 1900 - 1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco and the avant-garde

Grand Palais
3, Avenue du Général Eisenhower
October 5th 2016 - January 23rd 2017
Published at Hyperallergic as The Mexican Modernists Who Found Success in Decadence

Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov, ¡Que viva México! (1932) 2 single frames
photographed by the author
In Mexique 1900 – 1950, the Mexican avant-garde art of the first half of the 20th century offers a
disorientating paradox. Many of the 200 works in the show were derived from the Parisian avantgarde and are as exciting as a reggae version of Hey Jude. But sometimes the Mexican art manages
to present a dark, gnarly, and fierce mysticism that challenges and extends French secular tastes in
aesthetic experimentation.
Mexican artists and other artists under the influence Mexican history often took up the grand theme
of life and death in a way that could culminate in the double game of celebrating and mocking

death. For French poet and leader of the Surrealist movement, André Breton, this mind-boggling,
death-defying Mexico was almost the physical incarnation of Surrealist theory. Surrealist-related
Antonin Artaud famously lived there with the Rarámuri people in the mid-1930s where he
experimented with peyote; notating his experiences which were later released in a volume called
The Peyote Dance. As inspired by his and Breton’s Mexican-Parisian painter friend Federico
Cantú Garza (excluded from the show) Artaud sought to find in Mexico a spirit of magical
nondualist vision and psyche.
I agree with them both that being in Mexico can certainly sur-astonish in certain fierce places. At
Teotihuacan, a pre-Columbian Aztec site in central Mexico, I once walked along the Avenue of
the Dead and climbed to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, the largest pyramid in Teotihuacan and
one of the largest in Mesoamerica, just as a huge black thunder-storm came rolling in around me.
That scary and sublime experience opened up a freaked-out electrical understanding of Aztec life
and artifacts to me in a way that no museum or book had. I experienced an immense sliding of
Mexico into electrified wet darkness as elevated crescendo upon crescendo rang out around me.
One moment form appeared solid and firm, and the next fleetingly cloud-like and darkly fugitive.
Transmitting something of the searing intensity of this conquest of the psyche are extracts of ¡Que
viva México! (1932) projected large in the second gallery. It is a black and white film about Mexico
by Grigori Aleksandrov and Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet film director theorist who pioneered
montage. Like many Leftists, Eisenstein was enthralled by the Mexican socialist revolution in
1910 and in 1927 he had the opportunity to meet the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera who was
visiting Moscow for the celebrations of the Russian revolution’s tenth anniversary. Rivera had
seen Eisenstein’s film The Battleship Potemkin (1925), and praised it by comparing it to his own
work as a painter in service of the Mexican revolution.
Unsurprisingly, the Paris exhibition does not quite reward either fierce mystical musings or
revolutionary expectations with the paintings and sculptures presented. However, there are
satisfactory works to enjoy by Frida Kahlo and los tres grandes Mexican muralists Rivera, David
Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco. Such as Rivera’s Neoclassical Picasso-inspired “La
Molendera” (Woman Grinding Maize, 1924), Kahlo’s “Tanto Frida” (Both Fridas, 1939) and

“Autorretrato con el pelo corto” (Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940) (painted shortly after
divorcing her unfaithful husband, Rivera), Siqueiros’s pretentious self-portrait “Autorretrato (Le
Grand Colonel)” (1945) and Orozco’s quite beautiful rendering “Les Femmes des soldats”
(Women of Soldiers, 1926). Tina Modotti’s photograph “Guitarra, bandolera y la hoz” (Guitar,
Bandolier and Sickle, 1929) and Lola Álvarez Bravo’s “Retrato de Lola” (Portrait of Lola, vers
1930) are clearly excellent in the Constructivist style.

Wolfgang Paalen, “El genio de la especie (formación de hueso una pistola)” (1938) arranged
bones, Colección Fundación Wolfgang e Isabel Paalen Comodato en Franz Mayer © Museo
Franz Mayer, Mexico
But it is the German-Austrian-Mexican artist and art philosopher Wolfgang Paalen who picks up
the mortality mockery mood I so enjoy with his boxed assemblage “El genio de la especie
(formación de hueso una pistola)” (The Genius of the Species [Bone Formation Gun], 1938).
Paalen, of Jewish parvenu nobility, was a member of the Abstraction-Création group and Surrealist
movement in the mid-1930s while in exile from the Nazis in Mexico. Other Surrealist types in the
show include Kahlo, Antonio M. Ruíz (nicknamed El Corcito due to his resemblance to the then
popular matador Torero El Corcito), the Guatemalan artist Carlos Mérida, José Horna, Leonora
Carrington (also a founding member of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico during the
1970s), and Alice Rahon, but Paalen was unique in founding his own counter-Surrealist art

magazine, DYN, in which he tried to reconcile diverging materialist and occult tendencies in
Surrealism with his philosophy of contingency. His boney gun and the excerpts from ¡Que viva
México! transmit better than the paintings featured here the mood of simultaneously honoring and
mocking death typical of the Day of the Dead celebrations that I have experienced in Mexico.
Perhaps that is why I found the paintings in Mexique 1900 – 1950 at first a bit disappointing, until
I placed some of them within the larger context of the mysticism of the Mexican Baroque tradition
that spanned from the mid-17th century through the late exuberant period of the 18th century.
Unlike the early 20th century Mexican avant-garde’s rather straightforward adaptation of the
Parisian avant-garde, the Mexican Baroque was neither an acceptance or negation of European
aesthetics so much as a fine and decadent abuse of them, when we consider how this highly colorful
Baroque took gilded European conventions and whipped them rapturously into a glazed colored
frenzy. The Mexican Baroque can teem with the all-over symmetrical complexities of shiny
throbbing flowers, twisting leaves, spinning clouds, and dazzling embedded figures that I detected
in the excessive flourishes of Kahlo “Le Cadre” (The Frame, 1938) and Ramón Cano Manilla’s
“Indienne d’Oaxaca” (Oaxaca Indian, 1928), with its Henri Rousseau style of over-doing the naïve

Ramón Cano Manilla “Indienne d’Oaxaca” (1928) Oil on canvas, Mexico, INBA, Museo
Nacional de Arte Patrimoine culturel, 1982 © Museo Nacional de Arte

During one of my visits to Mexico I found a good example of this all-over mystic saturating
tendency in the late-baroque Catholic church in the tiny Mexican village of Santa Maria
Tonantzintla. Here an excessive talavera decorative web danced around me in unrestrained
profusion and forms seemed to explode with pleasure as everywhere foliage glistened, leaves
shined, angels hovered, and carved fruit exuded thick drops of dark honey. Such syncretistic excess
is typical of the Late-Hispanic-Baroque, which is also called the Churrigueresque, after the
Spanish architect José de Churriguera. This period has been called an exaggeration or
overdetermination of the Baroque to such an extent that it concluded it.
This decadent Mexican exaggeration of European style explains a lot in this exhibition to me,
particularly as it took off with Rivera’s “Retrato de Adolfo Best Maugard” (Portrait of Adolfo Best
Maugard, 1913) and Ángel Zárraga’s decadent “La Femme et le Pantin” (Woman and Puppet,
1909). Zárraga’s is clearly a work heavily influenced by Décadent French theory, which is almost
equivalent to the Fin-de-Siècle Symbolist theory. In my estimation, the foremost visual décadent
artist, whose masterpiece “Pornokratès, La dame au cochon” (Pornokratès, Lady and Pig, 1989) I
suppose particularly registered well with Zárraga, was the extraordinary Félicien Rops. Like with
“Pornokratès,” in the Zárraga puppet painting there is detectable a taste for the Symbolist theory
of French poets Jean Moréas and Stéphane Mallarmé as influenced by Charles Baudelaire’s
collection Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857).
I agree with Lucy Lippard’s assessment in The Lure of the Local that “space combined with
memory defines place.” By looking backward into my memories of Mexican architecture while
looking at Mexique 1900–1950, the show took on for me some of the added symbolist benefits to
the imagination that mystical decadence offers. Mixing that with formal experimentation based in
excess and political revolution make for a heady brew. Just the libation called for in our time of
right-wing demagogic populism.

Joseph Nechvatal