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Mexican Modernism Making Moves

The new year sparked a desire to begin it in a non-traditional way. While people flock from all over to come to New York City, I instead escaped to Philadelphia and marked “completed” off my yearly excursions to a new location. Despite Philly being a nearby destination, I kept hearing from people how much they enjoyed being there…so I thought, what do I have to lose?! A typical to-do list might consist of visiting Liberty Square, walking along the waterfront, eating a Philly cheesesteak, running up the Rocky Steps – all of which I made sure to cross off. But I decided to take it one step further (pun intended), by visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see its closing exhibit of Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism 1910-1950.

As you approach the museum, Benjamin Franklin Parkway seemingly resembles an American version of the Champs Élysées leading up to a classical fortress, housing an esteemed collection of artworks. Walking up the steps no doubt gives a satisfaction for completing such a physical feat, where for a brief moment you feel like Rocky Balboa. You can’t help but enjoy (if not partake in) jumping at the top of the steps along with a variety of strangers. “Gonna Fly Now” may be the anthem that pushes you up, but the draping self-portrait of Frida Kalho draws you in. Given this past election and the attention towards creating borders with our neighboring country, the use of Kahlo’s “Self Portrait on the Border Line between Mexico and the United States” centered by stark red banners on either side, steals your attention to the revolution inside both artistically and politically. Even the museum’s architecture adds an underlying tone to the balanced order of creative expression, standing tall with its Ionic and Corinthian columns, separated into a perfect rendition of Ancient Greece.

Modernism is most attributed to the European artists who founded the ideas of Cubism, creating seemingly realistic worlds, and challenging the representation of social conflicts. Beginning in 1910, Mexico went through a series of corrupt regimes and bloody conflicts amidst a failing economy and constant civil war. Revolts became a common occurrence in the country. The employment of murals in public spaces, consisting the symbolism of mexicanidad, provoked interest in establishing an identity for its people. This period of exploration spread to artists such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco who adapted these newly found techniques towards a Mexican audience. Before his iconic murals, Rivera travelled to France studying Cubist imagery and adapted them to his own interpretation of traditional icons often represented in Mexico. His “Adoration of the Virgin and Child” aligns with the religious representation of Madonna and Child, except Rivera makes these holy figures into a secular subject. Staying true to previous interpretations, the Child is the focal point of the piece; with the supporting cast gazing their attention upwards to the heavens. However, the holy mother of God is no longer deified, but rather an unknown, everyday woman transporting the local food of her indigenous land. Blocks of color abstract the landscape of the countryside where an obscure man also turns his gaze to the floating child above. The shift to these muscular, non-idealized forms stem from paintings such as Millet’s “The Sower” or “The Gleaners” which Rivera would have been familiar with. Depictions of the countryside where workers partake in back breaking labor, the unmentioned (often forgotten) plight of the people which Mexico’s government was neglecting. Orozco also illustrated the disasters of conflict. Like the Spanish court painter, Francisco de Goya, he captured scenes displaying death as the sole outcome to the violence that ensued. From the assaults of rape to the fallen bodies of explosions, Orozco leaves no issue untouched.

Revolt didn’t only mean a call to arms or protests of war, but also a reflection to what it meant to be Mexican. The selfie queen (before the term “selfie” even existed) Frida Kahlo, blazes the trail for this journey of self-exploration. Before her life-changing bus accident, Kahlo’s “Self Portrait in Velvet” depicts her humble beginnings in portraiture. She challenges the ideas of beauty, proudly displaying her unibrow, while alluding to Manneristic influences by elongating her neck and arms. She’s become a pioneer of symbolism, a fashion icon of Latin dress and commentator on the political events happening around her. Other artists such as Roberto Montenegro & Manuel Rodríguez Lozano also tackled the concept of Mexican identity through the mixing of the native Indians and the Spanish settlers. Profile views of the bronzed women carrying almond shaped eyes or the Mayan inhabitants whose civilization once flourished the land, further pushed the interest to highlight the mixed culture. A celebration of vibrant fauna, the music of past generations and community gatherings were the subjects of choice to highlight Mexico’s cultural history.

Mural painting became the country’s billboards of social commentary appealing to both the general public and government leaders. Despite murals being immovable, the museum provided an immersive experience filling tall projections of the building’s facades, scrolling by as if you were walking by them in person. To the right side of the room, a separate digital screen allowed the viewers to pause on a specific wall enabling them to zoom in, examine details and learn more about each individual panel created. Above each panel, a red banner would display the demands of the revolutionaries’ visions. The murals extended beyond the Mexican subject matter, eventually crawling its way into international affairs. As the decades passed and the themes of capitalism were being tested by a second world war, the power of symbolism was used as propaganda. In the stairwells of energy headquarters in Mexico City, scenes of flame-enthralled buildings, stacks of gold coins, rising skyscrapers and army flanks covered every corner. The buildings’ workers couldn’t escape the blatant message that was being presented by the political movements of Europe in the late 1930’s. The argument was that the people were being exploited and the revenue streamed from these productions only served a narrow elite. Deconstructing the artistic traditions reflected the deconstruction of the status-quo which was being faced. Artists used these elements to call attention to the depleting government infrastructure and a call for action to grant liberty and justice for the labor of the people.

With the theme of revolution at the core, you couldn’t help but reflect on these discussions with today’s current events. The struggle between accepting a cultural mix and resolutions to economic depravity are themes still relevant to us. Often we think of our American Revolution as solely being at the inception of this country; the visits to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell were subtle reminders of that. Walking around the galleries, I watched as others leaned into paintings displaying a constellation of iconography. If the tables were turned and we used this same symbolistic reference today, would it still be considered revolutionary? Would these subjects instigate a dialogue to our current political shift? Questions like this couldn’t help but pop up when strolling around. It’s safe to say, Mexican Modernism proved to be a movement that made moves toward social equality and a harmony amongst conflicting approaches appear possible.

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