Harry Ransom Center’s ‘Mexico Modern’ Looks at Post-Revolutionary Mexico

In the sketch, ragged strokes outline a young Frida Kahlo, her head tilting sideways while she holds hands with her husband, muralist Diego Rivera. It was December of 1930, and Kahlo and Rivera had just arrived in San Francisco, marking her first trip to the United States. Rivera, who was more than 20 years her elder, had been commissioned to paint a series of murals at what is now known as the San Francisco Art Institute. An artist just getting her start, Kahlo took charcoal and ink to paper and memorialized her marriage in the rough portrait, titling it “Diego y Yo.”

The sketch is one of more than 200 items by Kahlo, Rivera, and other Mexican artists that make up the Harry Ransom Center’s newest exhibit, Mexico Modern. The display, which runs from Sept. 11-Jan. 1, highlights the period between the 1920s-40s when there was a vivid cultural exchange between a newly-revolutionized Mexico and the U.S. From Miguel Covarrubias’ paintings to publications and letters from journalists like Anita Brenner, who wrote extensively about Mexican culture, Mexico Modern is divided into two parts: the artists, and the patrons who helped bring their work to light.

“Some of these individuals were famous in their lifetimes,” guest curator Donald Albrecht said in a news release. “Others will be discoveries for some people visiting the show. One of the great pleasures of organizing Mexico Modern has been to give these highly creative, though sometimes overlooked, people their due.”

The exhibit’s story begins around the year 1920, following a long and bitter revolution in Mexico, which rose against the regime of former president Porfirio Diaz. It explores the following two decades of contemporary Mexican art that wound its way into the U.S. mainstream by the 1940s. Although many of the artists of the time were part of an elite class of people who could afford to travel between countries, their art reflects a nation in reform, documenting Mexican life post-revolution.

On display there are snapshots from the time of the revolution, including a photo of Pancho Villa in 1910 and the Insurrectos—or, the insurgents—crossing a body of water on their way to battle. Black-and-white photos taken by German-born photographer Fritz Henle capture the daily tasks of Mexicans, women walking to work in the mill in Tehuantepec, and a fisherman on Lake Patzcuaro in Central Mexico. Posters meant to attract tourists to the country in the ’40s appear in vivid colors, depicting Mexico in idealized caricatures like a festive cactus wearing a sombrero, a pancho, and a guitar. In the merging of cultures, the exhibit features a painting by Mexican socialist realist painter David Alfaro Siquieros of American composer George Gershwin in a concert hall.

“So little is often understood about this period,” says UT Latin American and U.S.-Latin American art history professor George Flaherty, who served as a research consultant on the exhibit. “It’s usually thought of as monochromatic or closed-off. But it was much more complex and cosmopolitan—a sort of Mexican Renaissance with all kinds of people involved.”

Accompanying the opening of Mexico Modern is the release of a book with the same name, a joint collaboration between the Ransom Center and the Museum of the City of New York, where the exhibit will move in January. The book features profiles and essays detailing the era’s art movement and many of the artists featured in the exhibit, with an introductory essay by Flaherty detailing the social, political, and economic contexts of the era, which he says has plenty to teach our world today.

“As the aftermath of the revolution in Mexico continues, we can observe how democracy resonated in Mexico and in our own country,” he says. “The exhibit is about how to build and improve and reconstruct a society, and how art plays a major role in that.”

From top: “Diego y Yo” by Frida Kahlo (1930); an untitled piece by Miguel Covarrubias (1925); Fritz Henle (American, b. Germany, 1909-93), Tehuanas (1936)

Photos courtesy of Harry Ransom Center


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