THE UNITED STATES AND THE RENAISSANCE
Cultural exchanges form a two-way traffic. One can prove that the School of Paris has greatly influenced modern painting in the United States. One can also prove, which is in no way contradictory, that pioneer American machines and pioneer American cinema were some of the factors that forged new cultural urges, dynamic and functional, that made imperative the creation of a School of Paris.
It is trite and true to state that the Mexican Renaissance has influenced the art of the United States. The complex of government commissions, mural technique, social subject matter, and oratorical style that one meets after 1920 in United States art is patterned after Mexico. But less is known of the reverse process, the role of the United States in shaping the Mexican movement in its formative years.
Montenegro and the nationalist painters accepted the handicraft state of folk art as a desirable esthetic set-up as had Ruskin and Burne-Jones in England. They approved of the retrograde economic arrangements of Indian potters and weavers that gives their work, even in Mexico, a mediaeval flavor. The muralists stated instead that a world where small crafts thrived legitimately was no longer possible, and they hailed the machine age. Rivera started to decorate the Ministry with the handicrafts of Tehuántepec as subject matter, but came back from his trip to Guanajuato with sketches of miners and industrial workers already international in scope, prototypes of the Detroit murals of Ford factories. Siqueiros in his 1921 Manifesto praises what is a United States cityscape rather than a Mexican one: “We must…love the life of our cities in process of construction, the sober and practical engineering of our modern buildings stripped of architectonic complexities, huge piers of steel and cement anchored to earth.” His consciousness of the machine age made him soon disdain handmade frescoes and proclaim instead the advent of Duco paint, stencils and air-brush. Throbbing closer to Mexico than it ever had to the futuristic world of Marinetti, the northern colossus made its mark.
The first chance that the United States had to hear of the mural renaissance came at the thirteenth annual convention of the American Federation of Art that met in Washington in May 1922. A special séance was held on the 18th, with “Pan-American art” for its topic. Guillermo A. Sherwell, member of the Inter-American High Commission and juristic expert, read a paper on “Modern Tendencies in Mexican Art.” As often happens in the official world, his data would have been up-to-date twenty years before.
There is really no Mexican school of painting, sculpture or architecture….Mexican art follows the styles now prevailing in the largest centers of population.
The modern Mexican painter is rebellious to the process of submitting to that relative amount of standardization and uniformity which are necessary to constitute a real artistic school, but…[adds SeĖor Sherwell optimistically] art itself is not the loser for it.
Dismissing with a few words Atl, Martínez, Montenegro and Rivera, his lecture is a paean of praise for the estimable pen-and-ink illustrator who died in 1907, “the great Julio Ruelas who may be considered a member of the illustrious artistic family of Albrecht Dürer and Gustave Doré.” He describes individual pictures, among them “a man of the world at the edge of an abyss with his face turned towards the sweet figure of Christ pointing in the opposite direction…the beautiful dancer Otero dancing among skulls…a dog, or a wolf, or a hyena, eating a corpse close to a man, father or sweetheart, who cannot rescue it, for he is tied with iron chains…and scores and scores of other works possessing a tragic touch….” His closing words were a fanfare: “Ruelas is more than a Mexican glory. He is a glory for the American continent.”
In July 1922, Walter Pach, painter and critic, opened in Mexico City his course on modern art, heroically given in Spanish at the Academy of San Carlos. While he was giving the course, Pach put on display in the library of the Academy a succinct and choice show of graphic works––Matisse, Picasso, Derain and Villon, hemmed in between their historical forerunners from Lorrain to Goya. For Mexicans this was a first opportunity to see at home “School of Paris” originals.
He also illustrated his lectures with slides, and with unexpected results. The Mexican milieu mussed up somewhat roughly by comparison the witty output of painters like Dufy and Laurencin, while it gave to others an even more substantial meaning than Paris allowed. Shown at the San Carlos Academy, the bronze horse of Duchamps-Villon felt an easy neighbor to the nearby Aztec serpent heads of the Museo Nacional––both styles putting ruler, compass, and calipers to uses that parallel musculation and élan. The Roi et reine traversés de nus vifs projected on the screen of the Mexican school proved Marcel Duchamps brother to the Toltec carver of the moon goddess from Teotihuacán. Aware of this new set of relationships, Pach often emphasized a point with local aptness, as when he pointed to the left foot of Cézanne’s harlequin in Carnival as “more solidly planted in the ground than the National Theater,” the Italian marble heap sucked in by the ooze of Tenochtitlán’s reclaimed lake.
Before leaving Mexico on October 18, Pach witnessed the beginning of the work in the Preparatoria School. That same month, México Moderno published his “Impressions of the Contemporary Art of Mexico,” the first estimate of the movement by an outsider. It stabilized the official career of Rivera and corrected the people’s estimate of Orozco as a cartoonist, helping him in time to the mural field.
Though Pach is both painter and critic, his relationship to the Mexican Renaissance is that of the critic and as such alone comes within the scope of this book. But let us at least mention that Pach as painter worked hard and well in Mexico, elated by the silver clarity of the plateau light.
Before leaving, Pach invited Mexican painters to exhibit in a group at the Independents Show scheduled to open in February 1923 in New York. In 1918, de Zayas had presented the pointillist and cubist work of Rivera at his Galería Moderna, 5th Avenue at 42nd Street. Best Maugard had been introduced in 1919 at the Knoedler Gallery. And in October 1922 an exhibition of folk arts had reached Los Angeles. But this was the first time that modern Mexicans showed together as a group outside their own country.
A balanced choice was arrived at between muralists and easel painters. Among the muralists Siqueiros sent an admirable self-portrait in a brown Leonardesque chiaroscuro with especially powerful hands and arms. Rivera contributed a 1921 gouache, a Yucatecan mother and child framed in an archway of palm leaves capped with a red flag; an easel encaustic Balcony, women slyly hiding behind the grilled reja of a window; two oversize heads in charcoal and sanguine used as studies for Creation; and sketches after Italian murals and mosaics.
Mérida sent stencil-flat oils, the Guatemaltecan Pajanachel of 1920, and the Mexican Women of Motepec, just completed at the time. Amero was represented by a sketch, probably related to his ill-fated tempera murals in the library of the Ministry. I sent three oils in an adzed plane technique, of which A Man was seen again in New York in the retrospective held by the Independents in 1941.
Among easel painters, Orozco, not yet a muralist, sent five of his 1916 watercolors of bordello scenes. Rufino Tamayo contributed a Young Man, not yet a “Tamayo” since his personal style developed ca. 1926. Rodríguez Lozano and Abraham Ángel, “humbly searching in folk arts a way slower but surer” than that of the muralists, contributed some of those naēve temperas on cardboard that influenced the future course of Mexican modernists.
There were two primitives, Cano with The Ride, a hunter and huntress embracing on horseback, and Martínez Pintao with a bas-relief carved in hard aguacatillo wood, The Agony in the Garden. There were also temperas by Adolfo Best and children’s watercolors using the seven lineal elements of his drawing method.
At this early date, Mexico had not yet taken a stand in regard to its budding mural movement. Knowing that foreign opinion could help sway an irresolute public, Vasconcelos staked much on the success of the show and publicized it eagerly.
In connection with the show of Independent Artists, Secretary of Education Vasconcelos wired to the secretary of the exhibition a message of thanks for the cordial gesture of accepting Mexican works, a proof that art is the best link between nations.
However puzzled New York’s independent artists may have been to find that their Mexican colleagues chummed with cabinet ministers, they rose to the occasion.
409 NEW YORK 48 MM 4 EX RL
JOSE VASCONCELOS MINISTER OF EDUCATION MX
THIS SOCIETY SENDS CORDIAL GREETINGS TO THE ARTISTS OF MEXICO AND THANKS YOU AND THEM FOR SENDING THE SPLENDID EXHIBITION WHICH HAS BEEN ENTHUSIASTICALLY RECEIVED BY DISCERNING CRITICS AND WHICH HAS BEEN INVITED TO THE MUSEUM OF NEWARK NJ FOR THE MONTH OF APRIL
DIRECTORS OF THE INDEPENDENTS BY JOHN SLOAN, PRESIDENT
The telegram did not lie, for discerning critics are few. The hit of the Independents Show that year was not Mexican, however, but pure Americanese.
Painting of Christ in Prohibition Satire Brings Summons to Artists’ Society Head
A. Baylinson was served with a summons at the Waldorf last night because of the exhibition of a painting by J. Francis Kaufman entitled “Father Forgive Them, For They Know Not What They Do,” in which the figure of Christ appears in juxtaposition with those of prominent prohibitionists who are protesting at the miracle of turning water into wine…
As to the Mexican offering, it disconcerted most critics. The New York Times, on February 25, 1923, reported:
The Mexican artists exhibiting with the Independents this year are of many ages from five to fifty, making a rude guess at the later age. Some of the work is by school children and has a true naēveté, that of the sampler. You can see the stuff from which young Mexican Hassams and Kuehnes [sic] and Sloans and Krolls will probably be made. If one could only keep them at still life until they had their eyes open to the enormity of the figure painter’s offense! The Mexican idea of the figure is in some inscrutable way related to the climate of the tierras calientes and makes for abnormality. It is very interesting, however, to see the contemporary art of all these nations emptying their cornucopias into our widespread aprons. Nothing could be more insular than to not wish to see them except, having seen, to imitate them.
The Art News for March 3, 1923, gave as its opinion:
…Mexican Exhibit is Something of a Disappointment.
…The gallery devoted to the work of a group of independent artists of the City of Mexico does not afford the interest of “local color” at least that might be expected. There are thirteen painters represented and with one or two exceptions there is little suggestion of native influence in the work, it being a dispiriting reflection of present art movements in Paris…”
Alexander Brook, reviewing the show for The Arts, decorously ignored the Mexican section.
The one critic wise enough to root for the Mexicans was Thomas Craven in The New Republic, March 14th:
The outstanding contribution to the exhibition came from the City of Mexico….Not that it was great art, but it afforded a tonic relief in a desert of horrors. The critics must needs keep an eye on the Mexicans: they are close to actualities, and if they can be saved from the vitiating formulas of the Parisian cafes, they will undoubtedly arrive at high achievements…
Given the coolness of the comments, the benefits that foreign admiration would have accrued at home––and that Vasconcelos hoped for––failed to materialize. The show was instead a spur to the first all-out attack on moderns by Mexican conservatives, who felt encouraged by the lukewarm attitude of U.S. critics.
El Universal printed a special wire from its New York correspondent, Durán y Casahonda:
…One day I paid a visit to the Mexican room of the exhibition with other Mexicans, among them Tata Nacho, a popular musician nicknamed “Mexico’s gift to Greenwich Village.” My hopes ran high to see something so beautiful that no doubt could be left in this cosmopolitan crowd as regards the artistic temperament and ability of my countrymen.
But––to be blunt––the pictures did not appeal to me…As I walked around the small gallery, itching to exclaim “How beautiful!” my expectations sank….Such was my disillusionment that the erudite remarks of Tata Nacho left me cold. Certainly his criticisms were not on the charitable side, except about a self portrait by Alfonso [sic] Siqueiros. Pawing his bohemian sombrero with both hands, Tata Nacho exclaimed “How does it happen that Diego Rivera and Alfonso [sic] Best send things so colorless, so insignificant!”
…There was also a collection of color notes by Orozco. For lack of familiarity with our milieu, their formidable realism is misunderstood here. Virtuous or vicious, the virile work of Orozco provokes repulsion instead of admiration.
A somewhat symbolist picture by Carlos Mérida entitled Women of Motepec was seen with complacency, but I could not read on any features admiration or enthusiasm, the expression that comes to experts and laymen alike when faced by the convincingly beautiful….In reviewing the show the New York critics omitted to mention the Mexican group. Better luck next time!
Striking while the iron was hot, the same newspaper editorialized the next day:
Our Artists Are Imposters!
Our New York correspondent had occasion to visit the exhibition of Independent artists opened at the Waldorf Hotel. A legitimate and easily understandable curiosity led him there to witness the honor accrued to Mexico through strong and decisive works…
Well, what a letdown for our friend! He sweated blood as he saw a set of grotesque monkeyshines, as discordant symbolistic colors made his eyes pop in pain. The more he tried, the less he could make even an iota of sense of those pictures, of what they meant or of what they were meant to mean….
Let us confess that such disenchantment does not surprise us. SeĖor Durán y Casahonda does not smell with his eyes, hear through his nose, taste with his fingers, and other inversions needed to plumb the esthetic depths where dwell those sympathetic daubers of canvas in the new mode…
Coming soon after the opening of Rivera’s Auditorium, this adverse publicity did much to unite public opinion against the muralists. The reports from New York injected into the painting controversy at home an element of foreign opinion. Not only were the painters sinning against beauty, but the exportation of their ugly wares denigrated the country. To take a stand against the muralists was not only to side with common sense and Beauty, but also with Patriotism. “What will foreigners think of us?” became a current comment in front of the murals.
José Juan Tablada, writing from New York, answered the attack in his introduction to Best’s drawing method, published in July 1923:
Those calumniators of artists whose art they cannot fathom have gregarious souls. They gather in a pack and, sniffing each other dogwise, howl as one against the Unknown!
A work of art should breed respect. It is not a dance marathon that bars none, but a religious act that implies spirituality. Those who cannot plumb art for lack of this virtue or its attribute, faith, would better remain in the outer court with the dogs, the corpses, and the unbelievers.
The devotees of art, our Mexican art, struggle at a disadvantage against such a frame of mind. At the very moment that this art affirms itself courageously and is recognized in foreign lands, up to now so cautious and miserly in their praise, it is disowned and ridiculed at home. Just now here in New York while the Mexican painters, Rivera, Best, Clemente Orozco, Rodríguez Lozano, Charlot, Ángel, etc., saved the show of Independent Artists…a few rascals lacking credentials, personality or purpose…trumpeted in costly cables to Mexico the failure of our triumphant artists.
A month later, when the murals of the Preparatoria School were mutilated by its students, one of the arguments publicly advanced to justify the wreckers was that the destroyed murals would have ridiculed Mexico in the eyes of American tourists. In answer, a group of United States citizens publicly declared themselves for the painters, a beau geste for the time. Carleton Beals and Anita Brenner, both American citizens, circulated a petition in favor of the muralists. It was to be signed by foreigners only, a delicate move since Mexicans justly resent outside pressure on internal matters. Printed as a poster, it was displayed at street corners, lavishly so in the neighborhood of the school.
When El Democrata acknowledged on July 3rd receipt of the sheet, it was under a cynical headline meant to remind readers of the American armed disembarkment at Vera Cruz, in the days of the cursed Victoriano Huerta: “The Mural Paintings of the Preparatoria at the point of provoking a Casus Belli.”
This courageous document, first to recognize modern Mexican art as transcending local interest, did much to stay the complete destruction of the work.
Moved by a spontaneous feeling of indignation, the signers wish to register an active protest against the vandalism of a group of students of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria who mutilated with malice the frescoes painted recently there by SeĖores José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. As we are all foreigners, it seems at first that we should not intrude in Mexican affairs…Though deeply rooted in National culture, the arts, painting, music, literature, of a country become the patrimony of the world at large, which judges, possesses, and assimilates them, regardless of what nation begot them. Damaging the paintings of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria injures our cultural assets as well as your own.
…Among all cultured people, today’s art topic is the new school of Mexican painting, one of the most admired things to come from Mexico…
…Barbaric students have destroyed the property of all art lovers the world over, having destroyed besides a property of the nation. Even if they could boast of a criterion sufficient to appraise these artworks––which is surely not the case––they obviously have no right to destroy what is in no way their own…Their action would remain inexcusable even if the paintings had been worthless. One should remember that an artwork expresses the painter’s soul, his culture, experience, and longing, and is a faithful mirror of his epoch.
Because we care for the future of Mexico, we need censure with all the more harshness such mutilations, given that the guilty students will become the intellectuals, engineers, lawyers, and doctors of Mexico in years to come, and will have much to say as to its destiny….
Though essentially a fruit of the soil, Mexican art had also been fructified by many another art. Racial or national traits were supplied by the Indian, the Spaniard, and Paris. The United States offered in turn its industrial might.
But because we deal with art, the skyscraper, the furnace, the airplane could only suggest a subject matter, while Mexican plastic form could be fructified only by an esthetic. It was the good fortune of Mexico to be visited in 1923, at a time when the plastic vocabulary of the mural renaissance was still tender and amenable to suggestions, by Edward Weston, one of the authentic masters bred in the United States.
Edward helped us unravel the web of Paris-bred scruples that slowed our effort. The trade of the muralist makes him cater, by reason of location, to a less exquisite public than that of the easel painter. The responsibility of covering public walls impels the artist to great subjects, meant to spur the onlooker on to an appreciation of heroic feats and moral fortitude.
In the orderly pigeonholes of the seventeen-century French academy, the painters of historical subjects stood higher than the portrait painter, who in his turn, towered over the still-life and the landscape artist. Things were reversed in our generation. Even portraiture, with its implied quota of objectivity, was considered an impure genre. Meanwhile, paintings of apples and bottles rated in Paris the top rung of the scale. Still lifes alone were deemed fit to untap the flow of subconscious idiosyncrasies that were praised as the gist of art. As to “peinture d’histoire,” fallen from its former eminence, it lay sprawled and seemingly dead.
The mural artist of the twenties needed to revise drastically contemporary relative estimates of subjective and objective if he were to champion objectivity in paint at a time when the best informed critical opinion, indeed the best gifted artists, praised only subjectivity. The example of the old masters should have been sufficient. They had validly solved similar problems of uniting nature and esthetic investigations, but had done so in a society different from ours. Our acutely contemporary social consciousness would have felt ill at ease––in period clothes, as it were––if it had relied on their example exclusively.
Weston's camera produced art though it lacked all elements listed by contemporary critics as ingredients of art. The camera eye was incapacitated for subjective vision, devoid of a passion that distorts the model, showed no inclination toward escapism, had no means of leaving out of the picture even an iota of the physical world. Weston's photographs illustrated in terms of today the belief in the validity of representational art that the seventeenth century academies had upheld. Looking at these photographs cleansed objectivity of its Victorian connotations.
The muralists had judged the Nationalist style superficial because of its lineal surface qualities. In turn, the problems of geometric bulk that the Mexican muralists had worked on, under the spell of cubism and of Aztec carvings, appeared superficial compared to Weston's approach. He dealt with problems of substance, weight, tactile surfaces, and biological thrusts which laid bare the roots of Mexican culture.
This pragmatic estimate, based on our local needs of the nineteen-twenties, does not constitute a rounded judgment of Weston's art. He had not come to Mexico to help us out of our subjective-objective impasse, but to work. Breughel needed to make the trip to Italy to know that his roots were north. The Americanism of Weston grew its backbone in front of the hieroglyphs of another civilization. Magueys, palm trees, pyramids helped him shed, sooner then he would have otherwise, his esthetic adolescence. It was in front of a round smooth palm tree trunk in Cuernavaca that he realized the clean elegance of northern factory chimneys. Teotihuacán, with its steep skyward pyramidal ascent, taught him how to love his own country’s skyscrapers.
While Rivera was painting The Day of the Deed in the City in the second court of the Ministry, we talked about Weston. I said that his work was precious for us in that it delineated the limitations of our craft und staked out optical plots forbidden forever to the brush. But Diego, rendering meanwhile a wood texture with the precise skill and speed of a sign painter, countered that in his opinion Weston did blaze a path to a better way of seeing, and, as a corollary, of painting. It is with such humility at heart that Rivera painted––with a brush in one hand and a Weston photograph in the other––his self-portrait in the staircase of the Ministry. (Fig.)