The Grand Palais is an exhibition space of the monumental, usually meant for retrospectives of established names rather than new discoveries. While the momentous title “Mexico 1900-1950” promises headliners such as Diego Rivera or Frida Kahlo, it also allows for the opportunity to discover artists and works rarely seen in France, with a crystal-clear agenda: to re-establish the importance of modern Mexican art within an international, avant-garde movement in terms of content and style. The exhibition was made in collaboration with the Museo Nacional de Arte of Mexico and curated by Agustín Arteaga who used to be its director before being appointed this summer as the new director of the Dallas Museum of Art. His outlook mingles the local and the international, placing communities at the forefront of his concerns. This is what this exhibition communicates: the desire to reach out across oceans and reinterpret the way we consider “the avant-garde” as a Eurocentric phenomenon.
Paris itself, the historic centre of avant-garde activity, is both where this story is told once more and where this story began since it is revealed that the French capital was the centre of artistic production for not only European artists but overseas ones, as Mexican artists were encouraged to discover Old Master legacies and soak up avant-garde influences, leading to unexpected encounters and reinterpretations of romantic nudes and modernist city-scapes. Weaving in and out of the rooms allows us to witness experiments, hesitations and discoveries in style and content. Roberto Montenegro’s Parisian night skies and enigmatic portraits mingle with Angel Zárraga’s dark romanticism full of fateful beauties and cryptic symbols in stark black and white.
The curator artfully allows the Mexican revolution and its consequences to create parallels with the artistic production at the time, without turning the works into props to illustrate a history lesson. While Orozco documents the Revolution with razor sharp insight, Rivera focuses on ways of integrating vaster, cultural themes into his work while experimenting with modernist forms. Meanwhile, Siqueiros’ thick, dark painting focuses on self-portait and an amplified sense of identity and purpose in his massive figures. What’s missing from this are obviously the murals that were at the forefront of this movement and both required and inspired a simple, powerful style and a flat, vivid way of treating the surface. It is therefore strange that this crucial piece in the puzzle is relegated to a very small screen in a timeline, hardly given the same treatment as the giant screen on which Eisenstein’s “Viva Mexico!”is projected. It seems like a strange oversight to show this Russian viewpoint of the Revolution rather than its iconic murals on a vast screen (a solution that the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery had come across to show the artist’s in-situ works).
As we weave in between representation of native Mexicans and revolutionary fighters following individual ground-breaking artists within the Mexican society they represent, it is increasingly obvious that the exhibition embraces and lays bare the issues and contradictions that are inherent to its existence. Namely: what makes a particular artistic movement particularly “Mexican”? Would it be easier or harder to claim this label as a Mexican artist without relating your work so intimately to the culture and socio-political changes your country has gone through? It soon becomes apparent that the term “Mexican” art is as vague as “French” or “Spanish” art, and that placing artists like Rivera and Kahlo as the epitome of all things “Mexican” is neither possible nor desirable. Contemporary interventions are not always successful, but those within the exhibition manage to remain relevant to a changing sense of cultural identity. Gabriel Orozco’s work made from graphite transfers from Parisian metro walls resonate with the idea of Parisian influences within Mexican art; similarly, Wolfgang Paalen’s Genius of the species (bone forming a pistol) explores Mexican legacies, stories of death and violence and reinvention.
However, the exhibition does have its flaws, and the main one would be the writing, which was very academic and definitely more adapted to a scholarly audience than exhibition visitors. There’s something wrong when, as an art historian, you stumble more than once on a complicated sentence about, for instance “historicist racist undertones” in a portrayal of Native Indian Mexicans without explaining why or how: how is everyone else supposed to feel? Nobody wants to read a catalogue on exhibition walls, as interesting and compelling as that catalogue may be. And this has been a frequent flaw in Grand Palais exhibitions, made worse by small label text which is placed awkwardly low, making the average visitor stoop uncomfortably.
There is another flaw which was no doubt well-intended: the entire section of the exhibition devoted to “strong women”. The production spanned landscape, portraiture and still-life, in a range of subjects and themes so diverse that there only defining reason for their presence in the same room was, indeed, womanhood. The reason was allegedly to draw a parallel with the “soldaderas” of the Mexican revolution depicted for instance in Orozco’s work, and the fact that Mexican women artists partook in a new discovery of their inner selves through painting. However one fact has little relation to the other, and an artistic theme should be defined by the content of a work, not its maker’s gender identity. This problem isn’t new. I’m still waiting for the parody exhibition that will casually show only women artists and then shoehorn a few men in the same room regardless of content! That said, the display succeeded in highlighting women’s practices while escaping the temptation to overpower the display with Frida Kahlo works. I discover Nahui Olin’s fascinating, glittering socialite painting and Lola Álvarez Bravo’s stunning black and white photography, Rosa Rolanda and Maria Iziquierdo’s refreshing confessions through portraiture. This stunning company makes the small corner devoted to Kahlo all the more intense, with its jewel-like, intimate self-portraits, intense The Two Fridas and surrealist depictions of folklore.
This is an exhibition of experimentation and discovery within its content and for its audience. Taking in such a vast and complex legacy in a single exhibition is near impossible but gives a beautiful, vibrant and above all emotional response to the question “what is modern Mexican art?”. All the exhibition can do is use the ambiguous, ever-changing notion of “the modern” and its ties to a country’s artists to draw us in, compell us to find out more, and question our own assumptions.