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.

Mexican art.
Cubist folk: Dance in Tehuantepec (1928) by Diego Rivera.
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.