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Lord of the Smoking Mirror

text by Robert Goethals, photography by Manuel Alvarez Bravo

Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Retrato de lo Enterno, 1931 JGS, Inc.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo was born February 4, 1902, at 20 Guatemala Street, directly behind the Metropolitan Cathedral, overlooking Mexico Citys zcalo. Behind the cathedral, said Manuel Alvarez Bravo, in the place where the temples of ancient Mexican gods must have been built. His grandfather, Manuel Alvarez Rivas, painted and photographed. His father, Manuel Alvarez Garcia, was a writer and painter, too. Art was breathed, recounted Alvarez Bravo, describing the heady atmosphere of his own personal Mexico City. With the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the country disintegrated into the feverish delirium of civil war, and the air Alvarez Bravo breathed became thick, too, with the smoke of cannon fire and the smell of dried blood on the bandages of the wounded.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Los Agachados 1934 JGS, Inc. Permanent Collection

After the Revolution dissolved into a funeral song, Mexico City was set ablaze again, this time during the 1920s, with the incandescent heat of painters like Rufino Tamayo, Jos Clemente Orozco, and Diego Rivera, poets like Octavio Paz, filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Luis Buuel, as well as Surrealisms Chief Theorist, Andr Breton. Mexico City was as hip and tight as Paris, the whole country pulsed with a spirit so dense, you could lay your head on it like a surrealistic pillow, decking out your most glittering and revolutionary dreams. And for all the Latin, European, and American luminaries and scenesters who arrived in the Land of Enchantment, the power of Manuel Alvarez Bravos imagery was so fierce, mysterious, and abiding, it was impossible not to feel a deep gratitude for its maker. The artist is led to his art by his experience, Alvarez Bravo would ruminate. He does not blow in the wind like a weathervane, but his experience colors how he sees the world. In my case, my experience includes music, literature, the plastic arts all part of being human.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo. La Buena fama durmiendo Museum of Modern Art, NYC.

Late into his 90s, not long before Mexico would explode in another corpse-ridden g-war with the sindicatos and cartels, Alvarez Bravo continued to walk the intricate mazes of his citys stone streets, lined with their delicate succulents and terracotta pots, passing through its hidden squares and tiny cantinas, where old men argued, dogs growled, and pretty girls held their faces to the sinking sun. In streaks of light and recessions of shadow, Alvarezs insuperable eye gives you the most vibrant of pleasures. Its strange to think how much the man affected the world with only the slightest movement of a muscle. The invisible is always contained and present in a work of art which recreates it, Manuel Bravo once said. If the invisible cannot be seen in it, then the work of art does not exist.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo. La Hija de los Danzantes. JGS, Inc.

~ Robert Goethals, December, 2010