Mexican art at the Royal Academy of Arts: A curious artistic sampling, ignoring the elephant in the room

Mexico: a Revolution in Art a the Royal Academy fails to show the best of the country's art - but it does give a good idea of what's going on down Mexico way.

Mexico: a Revolution in Art
Royal Academy of Arts, London W1
 
Several years ago, someone who was possibly not the sharpest knife in the publishing drawer produced a catalogue raisonné of the work of Mark Rothko. All well and good, except that none of the illustrations were in colour. And there, at a stroke, went the whole point of Rothko. 
 
“Mexico: a Revolution in Art 1910-1940”, the exhibition now running at the Royal Academy, risks something of the same. The uniqueness of 20th-century Mexican art resides in its public murals and especially in the nationalist, socialist and historical wall paintings of “los tres grandes” – Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco. Unsurprisingly, in an exhibition held five and a half thousand miles from Mexico and in the small rooms of the RA’s Sackler Galleries, there are no murals to be seen. 
 
What there is instead is a selection of paintings and photographs by both Mexicans and foreigners that illustrate something of the country’s turbulent social and artistic progress during the three formative decades from the outbreak of the revolution in 1910 to the end of the presidency of Lázaro Cár - denas, the last revolutionary office holder, in 1940. While there is a single painting by each of the big three – and a tiny, Nicholas Hilliardesque miniature by Rivera’s wife, the overrated darling of Mexican painting, Frida Kahlo – the rest of the show, sans murals, is a curious artistic sampling that tries to ignore the elephant in the room.
 
It takes some doing. Of the 30 paintings on display, only 14 are by Mexicans, and from them it is hard to discern a national style or a particular confluence of themes. Indeed most of the indigenous works are outshone by those of the foreigners. Mexico’s mixture of pre-Columbian exoticism and revolutionary fervour attracted a remarkable number of writers, artists and photographers – D H Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, Edward Burra, Philip Guston, Henri Cartier- Bresson, Robert Capa and Edward Weston were among those who spent time there. They became an influential part of the closeknit Mexican art world. 
 
The event that drove this change in Mexican art was the ousting, after a near 35-year rule, of President Porfirio Díaz. The revolution that started in 1910 was a messy affair, with regional bandit leaders such as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa becoming popular heroes and the country having ten different presidents in as many years. Attempts to calm and unify the situation usually ended in assassination. This bloody decade and its motley cult figures were recorded in the faux-naïf woodcuts of José Guadalupe Posada and by photographers such as Walter Horne, who turned his pictures of executions, hanged men and destroyed buildings into postcards to be sent home by the American troops stationed along the border. 
 
Perhaps the best picture in the exhibition deals with this period: Francisco Goitia’s Zacatecas Landscape with Hanged Men II. Painted circa 1914, it has the feel of a Mexican Paul Nash and shows a desiccated corpse, dried to biltong by the desert air, strung up on a bare tree in a scrubby and dusty landscape. It is not, however, a documentary painting. Goitia, an artist on Villa’s staff, had studied such painters as Velázquez and Goya in Europe and claimed to have exhumed soldiers’ corpses and hung them on trees to compose his own disasters of war pictures. The effect, though, is immediate and potent, a symbol of how during its early years the revolution bore its own strange fruit, with summary death finding its way even to the most remote parts of the country. 
 
Few of the other paintings can match Goitia’s power. For example, Rivera’s colourful but emotionally bland Dance in Tehuantepec (1928) fuses a mild Cubism with folk culture, while Orozco’s 1931 Barricade, showing a knot of roughly-painted fighters stripped to the waist as they struggle to hold the line, is both anatomically and colouristically uncomfortable. Siqueiros’s hieratic portrait of Zapata (1931) is better, depicting the sombrero-topped revolutionary as an Easter Island figure, disquietingly close to the picture foreground and set against a Giorgio de Chirico-style architectural backdrop. These examples, however, give little idea of the effect these men produced when José Vasconcelos, the enlightened minister of public education from 1920 to 1924, commissioned them to lead his public murals campaign. 
 
This is an unusual exhibition in that it contains few pictures of the highest quality and no indisputable masterpieces. Both the paintings and the photographs, however, have their interest – some considerably more than others (there are a lot of unmemorable photographs) – in chronicling modern Mexico’s birth pangs. The French painter Jean Charlot described pre-revolution Mexico as a place where “the rich thrive on alabaster statuettes, Louis XV pianos and telephones in the style of Louis XVI” but it quickly became a country of artistic vibrancy that embraced modern art both instinctively and tightly. 
 
If the exhibition doesn’t show the best of the country’s art, it does, in a minor key, give an idea of what was going on down Mexico way. 
Cubist folk: Dance in Tehuantepec (1928) by Diego Rivera.

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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