Artists for the revolution
By Corinna Lotz
The revolutionary decades that swept Mexico in the first half of the 20th century spring to life at the British Museum and reveal a new aesthetic and social order entering the scene.
Diego Rivera’s fairytale image of legendary peasant leader Emiliano Zapata leading his white horse graces the entrance of this show, which is remarkable for the variety of styles and techniques enlisted in aid of political messages. Zapata joined with Pancho Villa to conduct a revolutionary war against the landowning classes led by Venustiana Carranza whose forces assassinated Zapata in 1919.
The British Museum's print display space has been opened out and now looks more welcoming, with wide-angle views embracing prints ranging from street posters, magazine covers, illustrated books and a few more private images, such as Diego Rivera’s portrait of Frida Kahlo, Nude with Beads.
Kahlo’s fame has transcended that of her muralist painter husband in recent years, but here we can appreciate the way in which revolution transformed Mexico over five decades. The museum has laid on an unmissable (and reasonably priced) programme of performances, talks, lectures and films showing the international impact of the first social revolution of the 20th century.
Curator Mark McDonald sees the formation by artists of independent print making collectives as crucial in creating a “great print-making furnace and a forum for artists”. He perceives a powerful common thread uniting these artists – the desire to express social concerns.
“The revolutionary upsurge in Mexico between 1910 and 1920 and later, World War II, inspired print making of great intensity. Revolutionary hero, Emiliano Zapata, became a subject which started off a print-making furnace,” McDonald notes.
Popular engraver, José Guadalupe Posada’s dancing skeletons illustrating satirical magazines tapped into popular culture and became popular in the 1880s. He was rediscovered in 1925 and inspired a new generation of artists.
Also in the 1920s artists formed avant-garde movements like El Stridentismo and the !30-30! Protest of Independent Artists group, which opposed fine art traditions, preferring to work with cheap materials. In 1934, the election of Lázaro Cárdenas as President led to land redistribution to peasants. There was a new impulse which saw the foundation of the League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists (LEAR).
It was Cárdenas who provided political asylum to Russian revolutionary leader, Leon Trotsky in 1937, much to the fury of the Stalinists in Mexico’s Communist Party. In the same year, artists founded the Taller del Gráfica Popular (TGP) in Mexico City, with support from the Cárdenas government.
As Alison McClean notes*: “Many artists on the Left were compelled to look towards the international sphere and, in particular the emergence of Fascism in Europe and the growing conflict between the Soviet Comintern and Trotsky’s Fourth International – a conflict which in Mexico was mirrored in the ongoing and increasingly political and artistic rivalry between David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera.”
Rivera provided a home for Trotsky in Coyoacán, near Mexico City and it was here that Trotsky was assassinated by Stalin’s hired killers, after a failed attempt by the artist and Communist Party member Siqueiros in May 1940. Siqueiros’ attempt on Trotsky’s life used the TGP as a rendezvous point, causing a crisis in its ranks.
Prints by the “Big Three” Mexican mural painters, Rivera, Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco can be seen not as isolated individuals but against the background of a wide spectrum of high quality talents. McLean’s essay traces the international influence of the TGP.
During the war years and afterwards, strong connections built up between German exiles from Nazism. The TGP exhibited in the USA around 70 times and American artists like Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White were guest members in the TGP workshops. A poster from 1953 by Angel Bracho champions the cause of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed by the US government on espionage charges, at the height of the McCarthy witch-hunts.
A wide range of talents arose from Mexico’s print studios – ranging from direct political propaganda to social and personal themes. Many, like Rufino Tamayo, extended the scope of print making. Tamayo, who is better known in Mexico than here, developed a new side to print making, in which the technique became part of the subject. His unique way of using wood is both abstract and highly emotional. McDonald notes that these artists broke through boundaries and were experimental and adventurous, using both caricature and biting satire in their work.
This is a uniquely inspiring display of politically motivated art, rooted in its age. At the same time, many of its themes remain totally relevant today. Alfredo Zalce’s ironic “Mexico transforms itself into a great city” (1947), could be about any global metropolis today. Skyscrapers shoot up, while an emaciated child stalks the streets and the poor queue up for handouts or pick through dustbins.
2 November 2009