Mexico A Revolution in Art 1910-1940 at the Royal Academy

2013-07-09 11.40.13This exhibition on Mexican art currently showing in the upper galleries of the Royal Academy is a bit puzzling, not least for the low ratio of Mexican artists represented.

I’m not at all knowledgeable about Mexican art,.  What I do know is a mishmash of basically unconnected things gleaned from my experience of visiting Diego Rivera’s and Frida Kahlo’s houses in Mexico City, and seeing some of the Rivera murals in the Palacia Nacional there, twenty years ago or so.  In truth, I only visited these places because the guide books recommended them as the things to do in the City.  Throw into the mix the vague history of Trotsky being assassinated with an  icepick in the back, a teenage reading of Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent, and more recently Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna and you’ve pretty much covered what I know about Mexico in the early 20th century.

I’m not really any the wiser after having been around this exhibition.  It seems that one of the main problems with curating a show about important Mexican art from the period is that most of it is in the form of large murals which are still in situ in public buildings in the country.  In fact the Revolutionary government specifically commissioned major murals depicting the history making it the cornerstone of Mexican art in the period.

In the absence of this key element, this exhibition instead focuses on the art of artists from other countries who happened to pitch up in Mexico during this period, which is a different story.  From the evidence on the walls it seems that quite a few people did pass through at various times.  Some went on purpose, drawn by the idea of communist and revolutionary ideals, the desire to see what Rivera and his fellow muralists were doing, and to enjoy a bit of sunshine; others just happened there by accident, waiting for a US visa to be renewed or, like Trotsky, not welcome in other countries.

I think I needed a bit more explanation to properly understand how the work of all the artists on show really fit together, if they do at all.  According to Brian Sewell in the Evening Standard the catalogue accompanying the show provided an interesting hypothesis, but that seems a bit of a cheat, if none of it was evident from the works on display.

I was struck by the similarity between a number of the works by Mexican artists to the tourist paintings that I saw everywhere when I visited the country. The bold colours, stylised images have become the cliché of their art, and I’d like to have understood if these really were revolutionary early in the 20th century.

 Many of the most striking images were photographs, stark images of the war, sombrero wearing men brandishing rifles, carefuly composed groups standing over dead bodies.  It was hard to elicit exactly what we were looking at, trying to remember the name of the painting it reminded me of.  (Turns out after a bit of research to be a muddle in my memory of Goya’s Third of May 1808 and Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian)

What with worrying about that, and talking about how impressed I had been by the Rivera murals in Mexico City, the exhibition definitely provoked conversation and discussion, unfortunately it was more about the things the show failed to explain or illuminate rather than those that it did.

And don’t go expecting to see much by Kahlo, there is but a single tiny miniature.

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