This summer the Royal Academy of Arts in the centre of London is hosting an exhibition of Art and Revolution in Mexico 1910-1940. But the show fails to get to grips either with Mexico or what was revolutionary about the art produced by a new generation of painters and photographers keen to depict the momentous events going on around them.
One of the most striking paintings in the exhibition greets the visitor at the start. Woman from Tehuantepec (1914) by Saturnino Herrán suggests that in the grip of revolutionary upheaval, Mexican artists were keen to throw off the academic good taste typical of the years of the Porfiriato in the early 20th century.
Herrán and his contemporaries not only chose the brightest colours they could find, but chose models that scarcely corresponded to classical European views of the beautiful. The most vivid expression of this is in Roberto Montenegro’s portrayal of Mayan Women.
Here as elsewhere in the exhibition though it is the photographers who get the closest to the tumultuous events taking place in the streets of Mexico.
Their images- whether it is the anonymous photographer who captures the death of the revolutionary leader Pancho Villa, his body dangling gruesomely out of the car he has been assassinated in, while curious passersby simply look on, or photographs of soldiers draped from the front of railway locomotives- retain an immediate impact.
And yet the exhibition lacks any photographs from the incredible Casasola archive, which more than any other collection has helped document the trials and tribulations endured by ordinary Mexicans through these turbulent years.
The only challenge to this photographic immediacy comes from the prints and ballads of the popular engraver José Guadalupe Posada. In one of them, the grandly moustachioed skull of the other great guerrilla leader, Emiliano Zapata, triumphantly rides his horse through the skies; in another, a similar figure is seen celebrating the birth of a son.
Zapata makes a re-appearance in a forceful portrait by David Siqueiros, while Diego Rivera also visits Tehuantepec and portrays a Dance there, with the hieratic silhouettes, flattened forms and bright colours suggesting how he wishes to raise the lives of ordinary Mexican people to the level of myth.
By the 1920s, the revolution in Mexico was attracting foreign painters, writers, and photographers, and these latter take up much of the space in other rooms of the exhibition. Internationally-renowned photographers such as Edward Weston and Henri Cartier-Bresson came to investigate, as did artists such as the British painter Edward Burra (who produced large watercolours such as El Paseo on his return to England).
Many of these foreign artists hoped to find in Mexico a primitive force and intuitive way of life that they found missing in the more ‘developed’ countries of Europe or the United States.
Some were dismissive. The British novelist Aldous Huxley, who visited Mexico in the early 1930s and wrote Beyond the Mexique Bay as a record, were not always convinced by the new art being produced.
Huxley wrote of Rivera’s murals in the Ministry of Education: ‘they are chiefly remarkable for their quantity; there must be five or six acres of them’; while concluding that in general, the revolutionary Mexicans had ‘not yet reached the spiritual and mental stage of consciousness.’
It was this supposedly more ‘primitive’ worldview that also attracted the leader of the Surrealist movement, André Breton. During a prolonged stay in 1938, he declared that painters such as Juan Soriano or Frida Kahlo made Mexico a ‘naturally surrealist paradise’- to which Tina Modotti (here represented only with a tiny self-portrait) tartly replied how grateful she was for Señor Breton to have come all the way from France to tell her what she was doing.
While Breton, together with the exiled Russian revolutionary León Trotsky and Diego Rivera, produced their manifesto for ‘An Independent Revolutionary Art’, Mexican painters and photographers busily continued to explore the new realities around them. Manuel Alvarez Bravo and his wife Lola took their cameras into the streets and villages where it often seems the revolution has passed by a million miles away, while Agustín Jiménez allied formal experimentation with a sympathetic vision of everyday life in Mexico during the 1920s.
The last room in the exhibition deals with the aftermath of the revolution, from 1930 to 1940. After all the dramatic events and thousands of deaths, the revolution has become institutionalised’.
By now, conflict is reduced to sporting challenges, as in María Izquierdo’s The Racket (1938), or Antonio Ruiz shows in the Bicycle Race of 1938 painted by Antonio Ruíz.t
Miguel Covarrubias’ The Bone (1940) sets the seal on this return to a kind of normality. His painting is the portrait of a school teacher in rural Mexico. In the place of Zapata’s flowing moustache, he has a neatly clipped one; he wears a suit and smart hat, and has a rolled-up umbrella between his knees, with a bare bone alongside him. The revolution is well and truly over.