Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Guest-blogger Tasha Tenenbaum on "Kahlo de Rivera" and the Long List of World-Class Mexican Artists

Guest-blogging today is my fellow Mexico aficionada, and Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, historian Tasha Tenenbaum. An honor indeed. (Note that I myself inserted the links--- many to wikipedia--- not knowing whether Tasha would approve!) Over to you, amiga!
During the week of March 11 of this year, the Library of Congress sponsored a series of programs looking at two major Mexican composers-- Carlos Chavez (1899-1978) and Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940). As part of that event, I gave a paper, "Mexico in New York, 1940," which looked at a major exhibition of Mexican art 1200 B.C. to 1940 at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York and the concerts conducted by Carlos Chavez there.

Reporting on these events showed me how Mexico is consistently presented as "folkloric," and kept apart from the designation of "world-class" in the places that matter in the art world. And, it made me angry as it should you. As I went over the history, I discovered that the MOMA had given its first one-man-show to Henri Matisse, but its second to Diego Rivera in 1931. Its third featured Pablo Picasso. Had Rivera not insisted on painting the portrait of Lenin in his mural at Rockefeller Center, he would have been well on his way to becoming a major international artist, and perceived that way by the rest of the world. Dozens of walls would have been open to his genius. No less than the Library of Congress might have been graced with his designs, and hundreds of visitors would have come there to see them. Of coure, that's all speculation since we know he painted Lenin, and the mural was destroyed.

The important lesson is that in the early 1930s art connoisseurs recognized that Rivera was in the same league as Matisse and Picasso. So, what happened? The simple answer is politics. Rivera painted Lenin; President Cardenas expropriated the oil industry; and Mexican art was exhibited to emphasize "artesanias." A more complex answer would include the overarching concept that the centers of cultural power would only recognize the artistic production of Europe at that time. As for the so-called Third World, well that's relegated to a niche described as "folkloric," or "Latin," but certainly as something exotic.

The week after the wonderful concerts featuring the music of Chavez and Revueltas, the "New York Times Magazine" published an article in its art issue entitled "After Frida." It featured Mari Carmen Ramirez, the Latin American curator at the Houston Museum of Art. The article contained lengthy quotations from Ms. Ramirez in which she notes that Frida Kahlo was a bad painter and that the Brazilians Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica are replacing Diego and Frida as the Latin American art couple of note. I sent in a letter explaining that Latin Americans shouldn't have to denigrate each other to attain recognition in the art world.

Or do they? Perhaps I am more sympathetic to Ms. Ramirez' point that I'll admit, but for different reasons. If so, it's only to insist that in the current climate, it's time to expand international consciousness of what's great. If the world is really getting smaller thanks to computers and the search engines they use, then the canvas has to get bigger. There really is room for Rivera and Kahlo AND Clark and Oiticica in the universe that cyberspace has given us.

But, it's time for all of us to do our part. We have to begin by eliminating the folkloric ourselves and get it banished from the people we influence. So, no more Diego and Frida until we casually speak of Henri and Pablo. It's Rivera and Kahlo, or, if we want to get formal, Kahlo de Rivera. And, now for some special pleading--- what about the other world class Mexican greats? Doesn't Mexico have more extraordinary art per square foot than anywhere else? Should I start a casual alphabetical list (feel free to add): Anguiano, Belkin, Carrington, Chavez Morado, Coronel, Covarrubias, Cuevas, Fernadez Ledesma, Gerzso, Gironella, Herran, Izquierdo, Montenegro, Orozco, Ruiz, Siqueiros, Soriano, Tamayo, Toledo, Varo, Zalce and Zenil...

--- Tasha Tenenbaum

Madam Mayo says: I'd add Luis Nishizawa to that list. If you're in Mexico City, you can still catch his breath-taking exhibition at the Palacio del Arzobispado.

---> For the archive of Madam Mayo's guest-blog posts, click here.