Exhibit chronicles two decades of Mexico, U.S. cultural exchange

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017 Austin360
Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907-1954), “Untitled,” 1951. Oil on canvas, 25.7 x 28.2 cm. Contributed by Harry Ransom Center

In the aftermath of Mexico’s long and brutal revolution, the country in the early 1920s sought to shape a new national identity through socially engaged art and culture. This era of Mexican cultural renaissance catapulted creatives such as Diego Rivera, José Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros onto the world stage. But artists alone didn’t create what became a cultural phenomenon that captured the hearts and minds of both Mexicans and Americans.

“Mexico Modern: Art, Commerce, and Cultural Exchange, 1920-1945,” a free exhibit on display at the Harry Ransom Center through Jan. 1, shows how artists, journalists, museum curators, gallery owners and publishers from both the U.S. and Mexico instigated what the exhibit calls the “Mexican Moment” during the early 20th century. Through more than 200 items, drawn mainly from the Harry Ransom Center collections, the exhibit chronicles two decades of cultural exchange between Mexico and the United States.

“This Mexican movement didn’t just spring out of nowhere,” co-curator Thomas Mellins said during a Ransom Center presentation. “Art movements depend on institutions and individuals to really move it along.”

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While visitors likely will recognize famous artists of the cultural renaissance such as Frida Kahlo, others featured in the exhibit include lesser-known movers and shakers such as journalist and anthropologist Anita Brenner. Through her articles and books, Brenner championed modern Mexican art and culture and, as a result, boosted its visibility across borders.

“Mexico Modern” begins by giving a glimpse into the social and political upheaval during the Mexican Revolution with portraits of the war, including one of the revolution’s most prominent figures, Francisco “Pancho” Villa. Visitors then travel through the decades with works such as Siqueiros’ stunning 1936 “Portrait of George Gershwin in a Concert Hall.” Siqueiros, who created the piece while in New York teaching an experimental painting workshop, portrayed the composer playing the piano. Siqueiros painted Gershwin’s family and friends (including Siqueiros) seated in the front row.

The fluid cultural exchange between the countries also can be seen in the work of American jeweler William Spratling, who is known as the founder of the modern Mexican silver movement. In the 1930s, Spratling established a workshop in the silver mining Mexican town of Taxco and influenced jewelry design with his updated pre-Columbian and traditional Mexican motifs.

“He’s an American, but he forges a generation of Mexican jewelers whose work is still highly prized and collected today by leading collectors and museums all over the country,” says co-curator Donald Albrecht.

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Although the idea for “Mexico Modern” came about years ago, Mellins said during his talk that the notion of nations having cultural dialogue “and cooperating for cultural ends seems only more relevant now, particularly with these two nations.”

In 2013, both independent curator Mellins and Albrecht of the Museum of the City of New York received a research fellowship at the Ransom Center, where they could dive deep through the center’s holdings.

“For us, one of the particularly interesting dimensions of this project was the large number of relevant Ransom Center collections — from the papers of Mexican artist and social connector Miguel Covarrubias to those of the New York-based publishers Alfred and Blanche Knopf,” Mellins and Albrecht wrote in an email.

Throughout the Mexican Renaissance, Americans embraced modern Mexican art and culture. In an essay about the Mexican Moment in the United States, Albrecht and Mellins wrote that premier American universities and institutions began commissioning frescoes by Mexican muralists, museums and collections began acquiring Mexican art and “everyday Americans brought Mexican art into their homes by way of prints, reproductions and ‘dime-store’ decorations.”

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Three U.S. cities — Los Angeles, Chicago and New York — emerged as cultural epicenters at the time and not only embraced the Mexican Moment but helped propel it forward, according to the curators. Their essay appears in the companion book “Mexico Modern” published by the Museum of the City of New York and the Ransom Center in conjunction with Hirmer publishing house.

“Many American powerbrokers and tastemakers, reaching out to an interested public, were drawn to Mexican art and culture because of its expression of radical politics and social commitment,” they wrote. Others, according to Albrecht and Mellins, were fascinated by the fusion of “modernity and antiquity.”

Other featured works in the exhibit include Kahlo’s 1940 self-portrait with thorn necklace and hummingbird, photographs by Hungarian-born fashion and portrait photographer Nickolas Muray and caricatures by Covarrubias.

“After seeing the show, we hope people understand that art movements are rarely defined by national borders,” Mellins and Albrecht wrote in an email. “That transnational dialogues are most common, and also that artists and designers do not work in isolation but within complex networks connecting them to gallerists, museums, curators and writers, among others.”

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