Mexico Modern: Art, Commerce, and Cultural Exchange, 1920-1945 at the Harry Ransom Center, September 11, 2017–January 1, 2018
written by Maryhelen Murray
Employing several collections within the Harry Ransom Center archives as their vehicle, exhibition curators Donald Albrecht and Thomas Mellins give an account of a two-decade, transnational set of dialogues between Mexico and the United States in their exhibition Mexico Modern: Art, Commerce, and Cultural Exchange, 1920–1945. The exhibition contains nearly 250 objects, including personal correspondence, journals, both photojournalism and fine art photographs, literature, commercial posters, brochures, paintings, and drawings, 95% of which come from the Ransom Center archives. The museum goer encounters an educational experience of the time and place by viewing traditional art objects surrounded by cultural ephemera, which, combined, create a robust historical narrative of a moment in history.
By 1920, Mexico was launched into a process of forming a new national identity, which, simply put, took form in fusion between ancient traditions and Western modern influence.
The storytelling achievement of Mexico Modern is predominantly twofold. First, Albrecht and Mellins exhibit a facet of the dialogue between two nations during the 1920s–1940s. By delving into multiple Ransom Center collections, rather than just one or two, visitors are provided with a rich account of this historical moment. Second, by situating artworks buttressed by objects from the material culture of the time, a spotlight is shone on how an archive, specifically how the Ransom Center, can be used to reveal that art movements are given pulse through collaborative networks of individuals. While Mexican artists are a mainstay in the exhibition, much of the indication of background society, the evidence of transmission of artworks through culture—such as exhibition brochures, gallery opening invitations, etc.—are from the United States. These objects are used to communicate the role an archive plays in providing context for the broader perspective. Therefore, the inclusion of additional background objects from Mexico would achieve a more thorough account. Thomas Mellins said in interview with the author, “It is an art show, but also a history show. So, how do we maintain that balance in a way that is compelling? We don’t want to lose our audience with too many letters […]” This challenge is apparent; however, it is precisely the surrounding of the art that allows the exhibition to tell an admirably holistic story by displaying the deep interconnection between individuals featured in the exhibition.
Mexico Modern begins as the armed phase of the decade-long Mexican Revolution ends in 1920. The Revolution was one of the most photographed conflicts of the time, providing a primary means of communicating the conflict to Americans in the United States, who were captivated by the physicalized class struggle. By 1920, Mexico was launched into a process of forming a new national identity, which, simply put, took form in fusion between ancient traditions and Western modern influence. For a variety of circumstantial motivations, intellectuals, artists, curators, writers, etc, both in the United States and in Mexico, led a force aimed to fashion this new identity, thus instigating a dialogue between the two countries out of which this art movement was born. Over these two decades, a dense, connective network of facilitators and artists formed. Albrecht and Mellins bring this interconnection to life in their exhibition, delving into creative collaborations, streams of facilitation, business dealings, romantic affairs, bonds of friendship and other illuminations of the cultural exchange. Mexico Modern ends with the 1940 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art. Containing roughly 5,000 objects arranged throughout the entire MoMA building, Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art was suggested as the period—or perhaps exclamation point—to end the Modern Moment, as its art had gained mainstream acceptance.
To view this exhibition is to be caught in a web of conspicuous and metaphorical connections.
Although their essay in the corresponding exhibition catalog is organized by the three primary epicenters of cultural activity in the United States during the period (Chicago, Los Angeles and New York), Mellins and Albrecht deftly arrange the physical exhibition in groups of individuals and institutions, rather than by place. Each gathering of materials indicates focus on an individual, either artist or promoter (both in some cases), or an institution. The artists are arranged on the periphery, while the promoters are centerally oriented in the alcove, revealing connective and sometimes complicated—take for instance the dynamic between Nickolas Muray, Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera, evidenced in Kahlo’s, Diego y yo drawing, labeled “For Nick with love, Frieda”—webs not only between the artists, but also across the gallery space. Therefore, the exhibition space itself becomes a visual metaphor for the cultural tissue from which the movement was formed. For instance, a portrait of publisher Blanche Knopf by Miguel Covarrubias, a leading social connector between the United States and Mexico in this story, is situated directly across a vitrine displaying materials linked to the Alfred A. Knopf publishing company. Launched by Alfred and Blanche Knopf, the publishing house not only published Covarrubias’s own books, forming a personal thread in the web, but it was also the leading American publication promoter of the Mexican Modern Moment, adding to the broader conversation. Bearing witness to these connections, it quickly becomes clear that the promoters are as integral to the formation of this movement as are the artists, having facilitated the connections that laid its foundation.
Perhaps the moment in the exhibition that is most visually and spatially representative of its spirit is the astute arrangement of photographs by American photographer Paul Strand opposite Portrait of George Gershwin in a Concert Hall by David Alfaro Siqueiros. In facilitation of Mexico’s process of shaping its post-war national culture, Strand spent two years photographing Mexico and its inhabitants by invitation of Mexican composer and director of the Fine Arts Department of the Ministry of Public Education, Carlos Chávez. Strand’s time in Mexico culminated in a book of photographs published in the United States titled Photographs in Mexico. Close by the selection of Paul Strand’s photographs hangs David Siqueiros’ Portrait of George Gershwin. Siqueiros spent seven months producing art prolifically in Los Angeles. These two instances, a United States-born artist living and working in Mexico, and a Mexico-born artist living and working in the United States, both interacting with other central figures in this story, is a condensed embodiment of the cultural exchange that created the movement.
To view this exhibition is to be caught in a web of conspicuous and metaphorical connections. The exhibition viewer enters a moment in the dialogue, although made ready with extensive background information, both circumstantial and contextual. The command of the exhibition is elucidating the role archives can hold in rounding and animating how an art movement comes into being, from beginning to end. Preserving objects from material culture, studying and exhibiting them throughout time is a central component in allowing for wider frames of reference to form. Exhibitions like Mexico Modern help to provide a better understanding of our world, and to facilitate identification with people outside ourselves, thus reinforcing the cultural significance of humanities disciplines.
Mexico Modern is on display at the Harry Ransom Center through January 1, 2018.