Wednesday, 5 October 2016


It’s being billed as the largest exhibition devoted to Mexican art in at least half a century, and the impressive show now on at Paris’ Grand Palais does feel like a landmark event.

A billboard announcing the exhibition.
Titled Mexique 1900 - 1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Orozco and the avant-garde, it features Mexico’s most famous artists as well as those less known, and gives a historical perspective of the Latin American country through its art.

The more than 200 works on display trace “a vast panorama across modern Mexico, from the first stirrings of the Revolution to the middle of the 20th century, complemented by a number of works from contemporary artists,” say the co-organizers (France’s Réunion des  musées nationaux-Grand Palais  and Mexico’s Secretaria de Cultura, Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Museo Nacional de Arte.)

The scope of the exhibition and several other events featuring Mexico over the next months in France reflect the much-proclaimed strengthening of diplomatic ties between the two countries.  On a state visit to France, Mexican Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu Salinas attended the official launch of the exhibition on Oct. 4, a day ahead of the public opening.

While she held talks with her French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault, the bilateral consultative body known as the Franco-Mexican Strategic Council (CSFM) also met to “formulate proposals for cooperation”.

A visitor reads up on Diego Rivera's La Molendera.
This massive exhibition can thus be seen as furthering diplomatic links, unlike in the recent past when relations froze over the row concerning a French citizen that Mexico imprisoned for her alleged involvement with a kidnapping gang (she was subsequently released).

That spat caused the Mexican government to pull out of the 2011 “Year of Mexico” cultural festival, resulting in the cancellation of some 300 events scheduled in France.

But all that now seems firmly in the past. The current show follows the blockbuster exhibition Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo: Art in fusion, presented in Paris from October 2013 to January 2014, and it, too, is a visual feast that will entice viewers.

The exhibition’s curator Agustin Arteaga Dominguez says that Mexique 1900 - 1950 offers a “fresh new look” at the “limitless Mexican art scene” of the first half of the 20th century. This was a period known for the Mexican School of Painting and its “most prominent” movement – Muralism.

A view of Diego Rivera's Rio Jurchitan.
Viewers get to discover the celebrated works of “Los Tres Grandes” (The Three Greats), as the most influential muralists were called. Their names – José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera – are familiar to art buffs, as they defined the era following the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 with their extraordinary and controversial creations.

Through the works of these artists and others, the exhibition “aims to demonstrate how the Mexican Revolution, as an armed conflict, laid the groundwork for a new national identity,” the co-organizers state. “The artistic creativity in the years following the Revolution [which claimed thousands of lives] had an ideological aspect. It employed media other than easel painting, including muralism and graphic design.”

Before viewers get immersed in the art of Los Tres Grandes and their portrayals of workers’ struggles, societal violence and other subjects, the show starts with an exploration of how the artists drew inspiration from both international movements and  the “collective imaginings and traditions of the 19th century”. This comprises paintings created in the 1800s and early 1900s, depicting notable individuals, nudes, street scenes, and landscapes .

Kahlo's The Two Fridas attracts a viewer.
Organized over two floors of the vast Grand Palais, the exhibition also includes a section on “strong women” – female artists who seized their “place on the artistic stage”, as the revolution “opened the way to many new possibilities and encouraged women to contribute to the economic effort”.

Most visitors will be drawn immediately to the iconic work of Frieda Kahlo, even though the organizers caution that her “towering presence … should not conceal a wealth of extraordinary artists such as Nahui Olin, Rosa Rolanda or photographers like Tina Modotti and Lola Alvarez Bravo”.

Indeed, Olin’s striking painting of lovers (Nahui y Lizardo frente a la bahia de Acapulco) occupies a prominent position in the exhibition, but one still can’t help being entranced by Kahlo’s The Two Fridas, her first large-scale work, or by her Self Portrait with Cropped Hair, created shortly after she divorced the unfaithful Diego Rivera.

Another section looks at the production from artists who went against the ideological tide of the times and presents the abstract works of Gerardo Murillo and Rufino Temayo, among others, while the final part of the exhibition shows “A Meeting of Two Worlds: Hybridation”.

In the presence of The Greats: Jose Orozco's
La fiesta de los instrumentos
Here, visitors learn the role that Mexican artists in the United States played in avant-garde movements and how, on the other hand, foreign artists influenced and were influenced by the local scene when they moved their studios to Mexico.

One drawing that stands out in this meeting of worlds is that by cartoonist Miguel Covarrubias titled Harlem and used for the cover of Vanity Fair in 1939.

But the images that will probably stay with most visitors are the vivid, immense murals by Rivera – such as Río Juchitán,  the last one he completed – and by Orozco. The latter’s La fiesta de los instrumentos has a powerful, mesmerizing energy that sums up the whole exhibition. - Text and photos: A.M. / SWAN

"Mexique 1900 - 1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Orozco and the avant-garde" runs until Jan. 23, 2017.

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