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Myth and tragedy

Stellar show of 20th century Mexican art at FAC


El Enao y la Nia, a 1993 oil on canvas by - Alejandro Colunga. Its on display at the Fine Arts Center - along with works by Jose Gualadupe Posada, Diego - Rivera and others.
  • El Enao y la Nia, a 1993 oil on canvas by Alejandro Colunga. Its on display at the Fine Arts Center along with works by Jose Gualadupe Posada, Diego Rivera and others.

You've got to hand it to Fine Arts Center CEO Michael DeMarsche: People are flocking to see the Chihuly chandelier, they came in droves for the Linda McCartney show, and they're swarming each print in the Ansel Adams Polaroid exhibit.

The concurrent exhibit to the Adams show, The Persistence of Myth and Tragedy in 20th Century Mexican Art, only adds to DeMarsche's reputation and is a wonderful primer for anyone unfamiliar with the rich modern history of Mexican arts.

Gorgeous lesser works by all the big-name Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera, Jos Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, along with images of Rivera and Frida Kahlo and "mixografias" by Rufino Tamayo, give the exhibit its recognizable heft, but, for my money, it's the work of two lesser-known artists that really make the exhibit sparkle.

Even if you don't know the name Jos Guadalupe Posada, you know his work. Posada popularized the pervasive calaveras, or skeletal representations of public figures, in the early 20th century through a mind-bogglingly prolific output of engravings that appeared in newspapers and broadsheets throughout Mexico.

Born in 1852 in the provincial town of Aguascalientes, Posada had a knack for the graphic arts and was mostly self-taught. When he was only 20 years old, he was already working steadily for his friend, the newspaper man Trinidad Pedrozo, as the lithographer for El Jicote, a weekly newspaper that was soon banished from Aguascalientes for its political content.

Pedrozo moved the paper to Mexico City in 1873, and Posada followed. Once established, his reputation spread like wildfire as he churned out images that ranged from satirical send-ups of politicians to historical vignettes. Newspapers all over Mexico City printed his work.

Though the calaveras, a part of the iconography of the Day of the Dead, became Posada's most famous representations, the entire breadth of his popular folk style helped contextualize the tumultuous era of Mexico's struggle toward independence and would heavily influence the entire trajectory of Mexican arts. Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros all paid visits to Posada's studio when they were young artists, and all would cite him as a major influence on the public-minded social realism movement that spawned the great Mexican murals of the early 20th century.

The broadsheets in the show are mostly from his work for the Antonio Vanegas Arroyo Publishing Company for whom he worked most of his adult life. The delightful black-and-white graphic quality of the calaveras is enough to make Warhol drool in his grave.

Far and away the most spectacular single image in the Myth and Tragedy show is Leonora Carrington's "Tuesday." Carrington, born in England in 1917 (the year of Posada's death), fell in love with surrealism as a young art student.

While studying in London, she met Max Ernst and soon moved to live with him in Paris, where she met surrealist artist and writers Andr Breton, Yves Tanguy, Jean Arp and many others. When Ernst was forced to flee the Nazis as they swept through France during World War II, Carrington had a nervous breakdown and wound up in mental institution in Spain.

After escaping the institution and fleeing to Portugal, Carrington was escorted to New York by the Mexican journalist Renato Leduc, who brought her to Mexico right after the war. It was while in Mexico that Carrington's talents exploded. Almost immediately, she became close friends with Remedios Varo, a painter whose inclinations toward the fantastical ends of surrealism closely matched Carrington's own sensibilities.

Though Mexico couldn't have been farther from her native culture of England, its rich mytho-magical tradition provided her with an imaginative freedom that exploded in the hundreds of prints and paintings she has produced throughout her long career.

"Tuesday" typifies Carrington's exquisitely rendered magical anarchy. Against a backdrop of an impossible thatch hut that becomes a cliff, three gaunt women and a variety of animals occupy the foreground. On the left-hand side, a woman in a red dress bears a hyena on her shoulder. In the center, a woman in a green gown rides on the back of a sea turtle as she puppeteers a strange deer-like creature. To the right, a cat grows from the shoulder of a woman in a mauve dress while two other cats perch upon a branch in front of her bare breasts.

While the placard next to the lithography from 1987 suggests that the print "is filled with dualistic symbolism meant to be read as a virtual 'path of life' through which both humans and animals progress," the work is far more open-ended than that.

Even if Ansel Adams is what draws you to the Fine Arts Center this fall, don't miss a chance to peek at some of the finest art by our neighbors to the south.

-- Noel Black


The Persistence of Myth and Tragedy in 20th Century Mexican Art

Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St.

Through Nov. 21

Hours: Tues.-Sat., 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sun., 1-5 p.m.

Adults $5; seniors $3; kids, ages 6-16, $2


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