PHILADELPHIA — In 1910, the Mexican people overthrew the corrupt and sclerotic dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, who had ruled the country for decades with authoritarian rigor. Years of violence, civil war and assassinations ensued before the country stabilized under an “institutional” revolutionary party, which grew progressively more hierarchical and autocratic.
Outside Mexico, the revolution is remembered in large part through the mural style of Diego Rivera. It seems a colorful event, dense and teeming with people, yet rigidly choreographed, like theatrical spectacle. But look a little closer, and Rivera’s stolid and statuesque rural peasants, industrial workers and revolutionary fighters don’t really have much character. Their faces, if we can see them at all, are blank and expressionless, more a collection of racial and ethnographic types than actual people. And there is little in his static pageantry to suggest the violence of revolution, or much more than a caricature of the things that caused it.
An engrossing exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910-1950,” includes an ample cross section of Rivera’s work and several iconic pieces by his wife, Frida Kahlo, who was a more emotionally searching painter. And it includes the work of the other great muralists and artists who captured the spirit of the moment — and the imagination of the world — including José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. But it goes well beyond these international art stars of the era, exploring the work of modernist artists who were not overtly political — painters who never fell into political lockstep with the often ugly and parochial nationalism that was the dark side of the revolution — and movements and countermovements of artists who looked to Europe and the wider art world for inspiration. If nothing else, this exhibition puts a face, often literally, on the human figures who gather all too obediently and orderly in the great murals of Rivera and his visually muscular confreres.
In “The Labyrinth of Solitude,” the Mexican poet Octavio Paz described his country’s revolution as an existential event, liberating and channeling enormous energies of self-discovery. It wasn’t just a political project, and the ideology driving it was at best confused and disorganized. But there was, at least, an emergence from cultural stasis and solipsism into self-consciousness. “The revolutionary explosion is a prodigious fiesta in which the Mexican, drunk with his own self, is aware at last, in a mortal embrace, of his fellow Mexican.”
The art made during the period of the revolution, from the late years of the Díaz regime through the decades of efforts to “institutionalize” the revolution from the 1920s to 1940s, encompasses a vast range of styles and techniques. The first rooms of the Philadelphia exhibition, which closes on Jan. 8, begin with artists struggling to create a distinctively Mexican identity while simultaneously engaging with the innovation of the leading art movements in Europe. Rivera is already a presence — and clearly a bit of sponge when it comes to the riches on offer in Paris. But the Mexican elements are superficial, often just a bit of color or spice mixed into the standard avant-garde recipe. Rivera’s portrait of Martín Luis Guzmán, from 1915, is typical: a fluent cubist work with the brightly colored pattern of a decorative serape fitted into one of its flat, quadrilateral planes.
With the revolution, and the chaos that followed, the formation of a Mexican identity wasn’t just an aesthetic project; artists struggled to take in hand the larger political definition of what it meant to be Mexican and what Mexico would become as a nation. Among the larger tensions that organize the prodigious outpouring of creative energy during this period is one between self-discovery as psychological project and self-discovery as social or ethnographic project. With the revolution, people were seeing themselves in a new light, and seeing other people around them for the first time. So there are works such as Roberto Montenegro’s 1926 “Maya Women,” in which ethnic facial features are exaggerated and the women are arrayed against a flat background of peasant huts; and then there is the powerful self-portrait of one of the seminal figures of the revolutionary period, Gerardo Murillo, who went by the name Dr. Atl.
Murillo depicted himself with an oversize and commanding head, reminiscent of a Byzantine saint, set against a volcano in blue, a color with deep religious significance. Behind Murillo’s furrowed brow and intense gaze are forces waiting to erupt, psychological energies with volcanic power.
Self-discovery also led to smaller revolutions of identity, in the relations between men and women, and a new sexual liberation within urban enclaves. Two portraits from the early 1920s, one of the young painter Abraham Ángel by Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, the other of Rodríguez Lozano painted by Ángel, are refreshing after rooms full of often depersonalized art. The two men were lovers, and their images have a rare psychological intimacy in an exhibition often given over to stark symbolism and confrontational icons of suffering and injustice. Ángel and Rodríguez Lozano were associated with an arts group known as the Contemporáneos, who were inspired by European art trends, admired the decadence and dandyism of writers such as André Gide and Oscar Wilde, and sought aesthetic distinction in personal expression rather than the grand themes of political struggle and national identity.
The Contemporáneos, however, were seen as regressive by more politically minded left-wing artists (Rivera called them “maricónes,” a slur toward gay men, in a 1934 article), and in a 1941 painting by Antonio Ruiz, “The Paranoids,” they are ridiculed as bourgeois and effeminate. The relatively open sexuality of some of the group’s members made them an easy target, but so, too, did their independence and commitment to a larger sense of artistic individuality. No surprise, the art they produced is among the best material in the exhibition — and two exquisite paintings by Rodríguez Lozano appear near the end of the exhibition, confirming the power of his artistry in the 1940s.
Also appearing late in this 40-year survey of Mexican art are two animal paintings by another painter associated with the Contemporáneos, Rufino Tamayo. Both the 1942 “Lion and Horse” and “The Mad Dog” from 1943 seem at first like beasts that have wandered out of the tormented menagerie of Picasso’s “Guernica.” They are tragic images and, despite their subject matter, are very much about human suffering. Far away from the revolution, the larger world was engaged in a brutal struggle. Mexican artists who identified strongly with the values of the revolution took up the anti-Fascist cause in posters, graphic design and paintings. But Tamayo in his animal portraits, and Rodríguez Lozano in a haunting (and hauntingly prescient) 1944 painting “The Holocaust,” underscored the suffering, the human dimension of the conflict and the appalling cultural toll of ideology.
These late works are powerful but lack the cultural-icon status of the more populist style cultivated by the muralists. They aren’t instantly recognizable as Mexican paintings, or political paintings, or revolutionary works. But one senses in them a quality easily lost in the tumult of revolution and political struggle, and a quality hardly detectable in much of the work of the muralists: the direct, spontaneous power of empathy.
Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910-1950, is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Jan. 8. For more information, visit philamuseum.org.