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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How board games became a billion-dollar business

A new generation of tabletop games escaped the family table – and fuelled a global industry.

In Birmingham not long ago, I watched a political catastrophe take place. A cabal of academics was clamouring for a liberal manifesto and an anti-capitalist government agenda. The working classes were demanding authoritarian rule with fewer socialist policies. And the ruling party, beset by infighting and resignations, was trying to persuade everyone that it had their interests at heart. It all felt disturbingly familiar – except that these politicians were brightly coloured cartoon drawings, their policies were drawn from a fat deck of cards and the people pulling the strings of government were a young family and a bunch of cheerful twentysomething men in T-shirts.

This was Statecraft, one of hundreds of board and card games on display at the UK Games Expo (UKGE) in Birmingham last summer. Now in its tenth year, UKGE is Britain’s biggest event in the increasingly crowded and profitable world of tabletop gaming and, with its milling crowds, loud music, packed stalls and extraordinary costumes (I spotted Judge Dredd, Deadpool, innumerable Doctors Who and more sorcerers than you could shake a staff at), it felt like a mixture of a trade show, a fan convention and a free-for-all party.

For anyone whose last experience of board games was rainy-day Monopoly and Cluedo, or who has doubts about the place of cardboard in an entertainment landscape dominated by screens, there was no better place to come for a Damascene conversion.

Statecraft’s creator, Peter Blenkharn, a gangly and eloquent 23-year-old with an impressive froth of beard, was in his element. “Our game also has one-party state scenarios,” he explained, brandishing a colourful deck of terrifying political events. “Sectarian violence. Hereditary establishments. An egalitarian society. Each one tweaks the mechanics and the mathematics of the game. There might be a housing crisis, a global pandemic, extremist rallies, a downturn in the economy, and with each you get a choice of how to react.”

Blenkharn is one of many new designers making careers out of the current boom in tabletop gaming. He founded his company, Inside the Box Board Games, with Matthew Usher, a friend from school and Oxford University, and raised £18,000 on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to make their chemistry-themed puzzle game, Molecular. It was manufactured in China and shipped to Blenkharn’s mother’s house, where his family helped to send copies to the game’s backers. Last year, a second Kickstarter campaign for Statecraft made more than twice as much money, prompting Blenkharn to go into the business full-time.

“Publishing your own games is definitely profitable,” Blenkharn told me. “The profit margins are enormous on medium runs, and there’s a huge amount of room for more indie publishers . . . People collect 20, 30 or 40 board games at £20 or £30 a time. You can play with a range of different people. And while video games have a fairly niche age range, as you can see . . .” – he gestured around at the milling crowds – “. . . these games appeal to everyone. The market is exploding.”

The figures appear to support this optimistic prognosis. Last August, the trade analysis magazine ICv2 estimated that the “hobby games” business in 2015 – that is, board and card games produced and sold for a dedicated “gamer” market, rather than toys – was worth $1.2bn in the US and Canada alone. On Kickstarter, where independent designers can gauge interest and take pledges to fund production, tabletop games made six times more money than video games in the first half of 2016.

One of the most startling of these Kickstarter success stories was Exploding Kittens, a simple, Uno-like game illustrated by the creator of a web comic called The Oatmeal. This unassuming deck of cards, crammed with daft cartoons and surreal humour, earned nearly $9m in the month of its crowd-funding campaign, making it the seventh most successful project in Kickstarter’s eight-year history; so far, the only products on the platform to raise more money have been four iterations of the Pebble smart watch, a travel jacket with a built-in neck pillow, a drinks cooler that ices and blends your drinks – and a reprint of another board game, the fantastical (and fantastically expensive) Kingdom Death Monster, which costs $200 for a basic copy and is taking pledges of up to $2,500. It has already raised more than $12m. The figures for other games are scarcely less impressive: a game based on the Dark Souls series of video games, for example, raised £4m in crowd-funding pledges last April.

Touring the aisles of the UKGE, I started to wonder if there was any subject about which someone hadn’t developed a board game. A family was deep in a new edition of Agricola, a German game that involves scratching a living from unforgiving 17th-century farmland. “I’m going to have trouble feeding my child this harvest,” I heard one of the players say. Nearby, two people were settling into Twilight Struggle, a tussle for ideological control set in the Cold War, in which the cards bear forbidding legends such as “Nuclear Subs”, “Kitchen Debates” and “We Will Bury You”.

I spotted three games about managing fast-food chains, one about preparing sushi, one about eating sushi, one about growing chillies and one about foraging mushrooms; I watched sessions of Snowdonia, about building railways in the Welsh mountains, and Mysterium, a Ukrainian game in which a ghost provides dream clues to a team of “psychic investigators” using abstract artwork. A game called Journalist (“‘Where is that promised article?’ roars your boss”) seemed a little close to home.

Spurred by the opportunities of crowd-funding and the market’s enthusiasm for new ideas, a legion of small and part-time designers are turning their hands to tabletop games. I met the Rev Michael Salmon, an Anglican vicar whose football-themed card game Kix, a tense battle between two players with hands of cards representing their teams, has echoes of the Eighties classic Top Trumps. Nearby was Gavin Birnbaum, a London-based driving instructor who designs a game every year and carves them individually from wood in his workshop; 2015’s limited edition from his company, Cubiko, was Fog of War, in which perfect little tanks crept around a board of wooden hexagons, zapping each other.

Perhaps the most impressive prior CV belonged to Commander Andrew Benford, who developed his hidden-movement game called They Come Unseen beneath the waves in the Seventies while serving on Royal Navy subs. Sold at UKGE in a snazzy cardboard version by the war games company Osprey, it had come a long way from the “heavily engineered board covered with thick Perspex and secured to an aluminium board” that the nuclear engineers prepared for the original. Benford, now retired, was already thinking about an expansion.

This surge in innovation has also made these interesting times for established creators. Reiner Knizia, one of the best-known names in board games, told me, “There are enormous changes in our times, in our world, and this is reflected in the games. It’s wonderful for a creative mind.” Knizia is a German mathematician who quit a career in finance to become a full-time designer in 1997. His interest in games began in his childhood, when he repurposed money from Monopoly sets to devise new trading games, and he now has more than 600 original games to his credit.

Knizia’s games are frequently remarkable for a single innovative twist. In Tigris and Euphrates, a competitive tile-laying game set in the Mesopotamian fertile crescent, players compete to win points in several different colours, but their final score is calculated not on their biggest pile but their smallest. His licensed game for the Lord of the Rings series developed a method for co-operative adventure – players collaborate to win the game, rather than playing against each other – that has become a separate genre in the 17 years since its release.

But Knizia is no doctrinaire purist. The design experiments he conducts from his studio in Richmond, London (“I have 80 drawers, and in each drawer I have a game, but no sane person can work on 80 products at the same time”), embrace new methods and unusual technologies – smartphones, ultraviolet lamps – in their pursuit of what he calls “a simple game that is not simplistic”. When I mentioned the assumption common in the Nineties that board games would be dead by the millennium, he raised an eyebrow. “That clearly wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “Just as if you said travelling would die out because you could see everything live on television. There are basic needs of human beings: to socialise with other people, to explore things, to be curious, to have fun. These categories will stay. It doesn’t mean that we have to have printed cardboard and figures to move around: we might lay out a screen and download the board on to the screen. The act of playing, and of what we do in the game, will stay,
because it is in our nature.”

This question of the appropriate shape for board games – and how they are to utilise or shun the glowing screens that follow us everywhere – is one that many game designers are asking. Later in the summer, I had the chance to play the second edition of a game called Mansions of Madness, a reworking of an infamously complex board game based on the work of the horror writer H P Lovecraft. In its original incarnation, players navigated a series of terrifying colonial mansions, encountering monsters and events that needed to be drawn from piles of pieces and decks of cards by a human opponent. Like many games that involve huge numbers of interacting decisions, the first edition was a horror of its own to manage: the set-up took an eternity and one false move or misapplied card could ruin an entire game. For the second edition, its publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, streamlined the process – by handing over responsibility for running the game to an app for smartphones and tablets.

“To some, I’m the great Satan for doing that,” Christian T Petersen, the CEO of Fantasy Flight, told me when we discussed the integration of apps and games. “There was a portion of the gaming community that resisted it for various reasons: some on the basis that they didn’t want a screen in their lives, some on the basis of interesting thought-experiments that if they were to bring their game out 50 years from now, would the software be relevant or even possible to play? Maybe it won’t. I don’t even know if some of these inks that we have will last 50 years.”

Also a designer, Petersen was vigorous in his defence of the possibilities of mixed-media board gaming. “We’re trying to use technology to make the interface of games more fun,” he said. “Too much integration and you’ll say, ‘Why am I playing a board game? I might as well be playing a computer game.’ Too little and you’ll say, ‘Why is it even here?’ But I believe there’s a place in the middle where you’re using software to enhance the relevance of what this can be as a board game. We’re still experimenting.”

Other experiments have gone in different directions. The program Tabletop Simulator, released in 2015, is a video game platform that represents tabletop games in a multiplayer 3D space. Players can create their own modules (there are hundreds available, many of them no doubt infringing the copyright of popular board games) and play them online together. A recent update even added support for VR headsets.

While designers debate the future of the medium, tabletop gaming has been creeping out of enthusiasts’ territory and into wider cultural life. In Bristol, one evening last summer, I stopped by the marvellously named Chance & Counters, which had recently opened on the shopping street of Christmas Steps. It is a board game café – like Draughts in east London, Thirsty Meeples in Oxford and Ludorati in Nottingham – where customers pay a cover charge (£4 per head, or £50 for a year’s “premium membership”) to play while eating or drinking. The tables have special rings to hold your pint away from the board; the staff read the rule books and teach you the games.

“When I was growing up,” explained Steve Cownie, one of the three owners of Chance & Counters, “board games were associated with family time: playing Monopoly at Christmas and shouting at each other. Now, it’s been repositioned as a way for young professionals, students, just about anyone, to spend time with each other. It’s a guided social interaction, where there’s a collective task or a collective competition.”

There is barely a smartphone in the place. “People aren’t sitting around checking Face­book,” agrees Cownie. “They’re looking each other in the eye, competing or co-operating. It’s amazing to see, really.”

A board games café is an odd social experience but a compelling one. Before taking our seats at Chance & Counters, my companion and I were ushered by a waiter towards a wall of games that ran down the side of the building, past tables of other people bent in rapt concentration or howling in riotous disagreement over rules. “Would you like something light?” he asked. “Something heavy? Something silly? Something strategic?” The rows of gleaming boxes stretched out before us. Somewhere in there, I knew, was exactly the game we wanted to play. 

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era