Magnificent Mexico-20 century Mexican art at EPMA

I finally got a chance last week to see the important Magnificent Mexico show at the El Paso Museum of Art. Collected from a number of important museums in Mexico, it is actually three separate shows, Seven Diego Rivera pieces from his cubist period fill the small De Wetter gallery; one half of the large Woody and Fayle Hunt Family Gallery used for travelling exhibitions is given over to an exploration of drawings giving an overview of this discipline as practiced through the 20th century in Mexico, and the other half a show in various media by some of the most influential Mexican artists during the 20th century, as well as work by some who, while they may have been well-known in Mexico are pretty much unknown here.
The show of drawings, Dibujos Divinos, seems by far the best-quiet but beautiful- showing the breadth and ability of artists working with this medium. Drawing was, in fact, considered a fundamental skill for artists to have, and schools were established to create a rigorous program of development. The result is evident in these strong, mostly black and white pencil drawings, though there are also a number of watercolors as well. Also evident is the exchange with European trends. One watercolor calls to mind Lautrec, while another echoes Leger. This beautifully curated show was first seen in Paris, and then came directly here. It has not even been seen in this form in Mexico yet.
The seven cubist drawings by Diego Rivera highlight this important step in his career. In November I happened upon a book Diego en Montparnasse written in 1979 and doing a superb job of not only detailing Rivera’s life and work during these years in Paris, but also evoking that incredibly creative period of time not only in art but in science and other arts as well. (So having read about the period, I was excited to see what he had been creating. They are larger than I thought they would be, and illustrate various stages Rivera went through in exploring cubist theories. Though they are a far cry from the themes he would later explore in his murals, they helped him develop an ability to handle volume, space, movement and multiple points of focus, all of which would prove crucial to his later mural work. (The book in Spanish only is for sale at the museum shop.)
I found the largest of the shows, Magnitud Mexicana, Visions of Artnot nearly as satisfying as the other two, even though it contains some excellent work. Like the others it was curated in Mexico, but seems a bit disjointed. The idea according to a printed wall explanation was not only to show an overview of 20th century Mexican art but to somehow do so from the point of view of those living outside of Mexico, of the view of the”other” and the outsider view of defining Mexicanness. I’m not sure what any of this means, but the result is that while the works are fine, the show as a show seems a bit of a hodge-podge, and a bit jangly.
Although one looked for works by the best known artists like Orozco and Siquieros, the delight was in finding beautiful works by lesser known-to me at least artists. I’m thinking particularly of a deceptively simple painting by Raul Arruiendo called The Annunciation. This artist was apparently considered enormously important in Mexico, but I have to say I hadn’t ever heard of him. In any case, here we have a painting of a young, woman, one imagines from the country sitting and filling the middle of the painting against an all yellow (gold) background. Beautifully rendered it ennobles a woman who one wouldn’t normally look at twice on the street. That is, of course, the point since from the title we see that this ordinary looking woman is destined to be one of the most important women in history. One thinks of the Italian Renaissance, which transformed the distant icon figures of the Virgin Mary and child into that of an everyday Italian woman and baby, trying to humanize, to bring to earth. Here we have something of the same but with the opposite desire, to humanize, yes, but also to ennoble, to uplift, someone who, in the society at large would probably be completely ignored and even shunned.
Among other delights are the drawings of political satire. It was a time of political ferment and revolutionary thought which was strongly encouraged, and much of the work reflects strong political views of the artists working at the time.
All in all a satisfying show, despite some reservations and if, in looking at some of the oils by some of the most famous muralists, one can’t help but ask if this with any other name would be hung upon a wall.
The museum has worked long and hard to create a close relationship with their counterparts in Mexican government which enabled them to bring such a show to El Paso. The change of government this year, even if the same party stays in power, will mean a change of personnel and so the museum might well have to start all over again, but one hopes that the past work in this regard will be taken into account and that more shows from Mexico, hopefully showing some of the more contemporary work going on in the Capital will be put on view here.
By the way. for those of you going to New York between now and May14th, MoMa is currently having an exhibition of portable murals that Rivera created for his 1931 show there, as well as a slew of related drawings, etc. More info can be found at their website
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