Where else between the wars would you have found the novelist D.H. Lawrence, the film director Sergei Eisenstein, the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, the “pope” of Surrealism Andre Breton, plus Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky?
In the 1920s and ’30s, Mexico was a destination of great allure. It was, like Russia, a revolutionary country -- emerging from a bloody, decade-long civil war which, viewed from the outside, seemed rather glamorous. Mexico was also the home of ancient and mysterious cultures, land of the Aztecs and Mayans, the Olmecs and the Toltecs.
Add to that low living costs, and it’s no surprise that so many were tempted to make the trip. As a result, the show has a lot of juicy ingredients. What it adds up to, however, is an indigestible mixture of excellent photographs and (with the exception of a tiny Frida Kahlo) bad paintings.
Mexico seemed to bring out the best in photographers. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Robert Capa and the Hungarian Martin Munkacsi all did remarkable work there. Tina Modotti began to use a camera with distinctive brilliance after arriving in Mexico as Weston’s lover, model and studio assistant in 1923. A remarkable group of Mexican photographers included Agustín Jimenez and Manuel Alvarez Bravo.
Mexico made a terrific subject for the same reason that Breton declared it the surrealist country par excellence. Sex and death were conspicuously on view, as was the bizarre beauty of pre-Columbian sculpture and Hispanic baroque. Some of Cartier-Bresson’s most striking Mexican images brought two of those attributes together: Mexican prostitutes looking a little like Aztec gods.
Everything was illuminated by a powerful light. Otherwise, the country’s appeal faded. “Without sun,” complained the painter Marsden Hartley, “Mexico is one colossal gloom.”
All in all, Mexico did not agree with Hartley, one of the most impressive American modernists of his time: Neither his stomach nor his palette reacted well to the place. He ate at a German pension -- “the food here is simply paralyzing to one not born to it,” he said -- and produced pictures that, on the evidence of the ones in the exhibition, were garish failures.
British painter Edward Burra delivered somewhat better results, visually speaking. He then retired back across the border after a month suffering from dysentery. All too often, subjects that look great in photographs seem labored and kitschy when translated into paint.
One of the great dead ends in 20th-century art was the Mexican muralist movement of the ’20s and ’30s, headed by Diego Rivera (Kahlo’s husband), David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco. This group aimed to produce grand, figurative wall paintings on patriotic and revolutionary themes.
In retrospect, they look like a bombastic mix of Italian-Renaissance revival and socialist realism. Yet at the time, they influenced other artists, including a future Abstract Expressionist: Philip Guston made the journey south and produced overwrought works crammed with muscular nudes.
Of all the painters, only the marvelous Kahlo pulled it off. She made herself, not her country, the subject. The lesson seems to be that Mexico did not really suit too many of these visitors artistically. There was often too much travelogue and, photographers excepted, not enough truth.
Lawrence produced a stinker of a novel (“The Plumed Serpent”), and Eisenstein never completed his Mexican film. As for Trotsky, after an affair with Kahlo, he famously ended up with an ice-pick in his head.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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