Sunday, 24 January 2010

REVOLUTION ON PAPER: Mexican prints 1910-1960

At the British Museum until 5th April

1. Re-inscribing the Tombstones

“Politics was central to his art”. They’re talking about Leopoldo Mendez, but the label could convincingly be applied to almost anyone here. This is a highly political collection stemming from a highly political era, roughly spanning from the 1910 Mexican revolution to the world war against fascism. (The single exception may be Orozco whose heart always seems to have lain with the grotesque.)

Of course Diego Riviera is the ‘name’ on which the show is hung. Not only does his image (above) advertise the exhibition, we see two of his prints almost before we’ve even entered the room. But the show does a sterling job in unearthing his lesser-known contemporaries. Pasada’s print ‘The Graveyard’ icily portrays the tombstones of the poor as lacking inscriptions, yet he is but one of many artists rescued from similar anonymity.

There’s perhaps an irony here in these prints being taken up in the country they so lambasted, the United States. In some ways they were adopted the way white musicians adopted blues, nodding obligingly to the originators as they rushed past them towards fame. This influence persists; and, truth to tell, I mostly think of these artists through their influence on the radical comics collective from New York World War Three (even if their weapons of choice are stencils ratther than prints).

There’s often a roughness to things, but a roughness which keeps them vibrant and compelling. As Richard Dorment comments in, all of all places, the Telegraph: “If this kind of thing seems crude, it was meant to be. Most of this art was never intended to shown in museums or even private homes, but was pasted on walls, or distributed at protest marches.”

(At the same time, we perhaps shouldn’t over-romanticise this aspect. The prints are a good less crude than, for example, the screenprints that filled walls of France during 1968. And tellingly, unlike in France, these prints were normally signed. These artists never asked for anonymity! They exist on the slippery borderline between art and political activity, but do not fall for either side.)

And of course function determines form. Simplicity and reduction play to prints’ strengths, not against them. But more, these works, designed for walls or pamphlet covers, are more often signs than windows. The veteran World War Three posse member Seth Tobocman articulated the difference when I was lucky enough to interview him: “A window moves inward. You look into it – at a scene. Whereas a sign actually exists in, and interacts with, the world outside of it.” ('Comics Forum' 26, 2002) As you walk around you can find exceptions to this rule, or works which lie between the two. But the signs predominate.

2. Fathers and Skeletons

A classic example of this re-inscribing is the very artist who came up with the ‘without inscriptions’ print - Jose Guadalupe Posada (above), who is presented here as the founding father of this school, like Woody Guthrie to the Sixties folkies. Perhaps due to his working in an earlier era, his work is admittedly less eye-grabbing than his disciples. His images don’t dominate the broadsheets in which they appeared, but are incorporated into (often heavy slabs of) text, like cartoons in a newspaper. Sometimes rather than a single bold image a series of thumbnails pepper the page. You need to look past all that to discover the power of his images.

All that said, it’s important to notice the divergencies his followers underwent. The curator suggests that Posada pioneered the ‘calaveras’ genre of skeleton imagery. However, Posada is more rooted in this imagery’s origins in the Day of the Dead festival than his followers would be. Death to him was a great social leveller, reducing us to the skeletons we all are underneath. In this way his skeletons are almost like the Neurath’s semi-contemporary ‘universal man’ iconic figures, so often used in statistical graphics (below). The skeleton figure acts paradoxically, throwing emphasis onto the figures’ accoutrements (bosses’ top hats versus peasant caps), whilst confirming that these are only accoutrements for almost identical figures. (See for example his ‘Skeleton of the Brave KKK’ (1910/13), in which a skeleton confronts the Klansmen with their mortality.

Yet the later Mexican artists tended to use the calaveras image in a more targeted way, as a shorthand for the dead hand of capital. Take for example Ramirez’s ‘Mother Country’ (1940) where a skull and vulture leer behind the fascist ‘side’ of his composition, against heroes of the revolution standing behind the leftists. This may be a case of the Mexican artists absorbing an international image. The Russian caricaturists most associated with the 1905 revolution, such as Bordsky or Kustodiev, tended to use the skeleton in this way. It’s certainly the way this image has come down to us, with the World War Three artists regularly depicting cops, politicians and real estate developers as skeletons.

3. Flags Need Soil

Yet, notwithstanding the above, the exhibition emphasises the importance of indigenous folk art on the movement. For example, it recounts how the era coincided with a spate of discoveries of Olmec ruins, which demonstrated how old indigenous civilisation truly was, and led to anthropological magazines such as ‘Mexican Folkways.’ (It is perhaps a little naive in accepting this as pure coincidence. Surely such discoveries could have been emphasised and capitalised on by the leftist government, or perhaps even invested in through increased archeological budgets.)  In Mendez’ ‘The Large Obstacle’ (1936), for example, the fist that stops the fascist tank arises from the land itself.

This is doubtless part of the appeal of such art. In a way it becomes the opposite of the Italian Futurism of the same era, rejecting an ‘avant garde’ sensibility and choosing to draw from the past rather than trample over it. The art comes to feel rooted in popular movements, not intellectual currencies. Yet this feeling is too good to take on trust. Whilst commenting on the Futurist show I felt the need to contextualise, if not rehabilitate, their rampant technophilia. Yet perhaps the opposite is true here, we can become so seduced by this notion that we neglect to look the horse in the mouth.

For what roots the art can also cause it to become mired in nationalism. Life springs from soil, but sadly so do flags. Jose Chavez Morado’s ‘The Laughter of the Public’ (above, 1939) is ostensibly anti-fascist, but treats it’s threat as a Spanish import – countering nationalism with more nationalism. (In much the way the Eighties Labour Party lambasted the oligarch Rupert Murdoch, but only for being a foreign oligarch.) Yet in an irony of history the Spanish empire exported anarcho-syndicalism to South America along with dictatorship, and several works (including Dosamante’s ‘Bombardment Spain’, 1937) cry for unity with Republican Spain.

4. Collectives and Warfare

Curator Mark McDonald depicts a scene as a hub of creativity, a “great print-making furnace and a forum for artists”. Yet look closely and there’s the all-too-familiar mix of resources being pooled and co-ops created (such as Mendez’s Workshop of Popular Graphic Art) at the same time as intense factionalism. While Riviera befriended Trotsky on his exile to Mexico, Siqueras tried to assassinate him. (Yes, in person! Though his was not the successful attempt.)

Sadly, this seems to sum up the politics of the latter part of the era. While the name of Zapata continued to be venerated, Trotskyism and Stalinism became the only actual games in town. A 1941 print by Zalce is entitled ‘The USSR is Defending The Freedom of the World – Let’s Help!’ Despite the United States remaining their main print-buying market, the conflation of dollar signs with swastikas continued even after American entry into the war.

But perhaps the best barometer of this is the way Zapata himself was depicted. Curator Mark McDonald describes him as “the saint of the farmers”, and certainly his 1919 death had made him a secular saint to which all factions must pay homage. Yet his departure from the here and now also made his image malleable, and within this image there are significant variants. Siqueiros’s ‘Emiliano Zapata on Horseback’, isolates his figure and places him above others on a horse, in what could almost be a portrait of Cortez. Yet Aguirre’s ‘Emiliano Zapata, the Great Leader of the Revolutionary Peasant Movement’ conversely rehumanises the man, placing him before a field of crops, and putting his feet so firmly on the ground that they must surely be dirty. In a famous tale, after taking President Diaz’s palace, Zapata refused to occupy it and made his bed in the stables. Formally both pictures observe the same salutations, but in the second some residue remains of Zapata’s libertarian politics.

Yet radical art was not crushed as completely in Mexico as in Russia, and other images are perhaps more ambiguous. Riviera’s introductory image shows him holding a horse, yet standing. In Bracho’s ‘The Struggle of the Popular Movement’ (1948), the figure of Zapata is fused with the landscape, and set behind a mass of people. In one sense it recalls Mendez. Yet the identification of a figure with a landscape must surely always carry a taint of royalism.

I don’t have much of a conclusion to come to here, except to encourage one and all to see this must-see show, viewable for the pro-worker price of bugger all! Check out the details here or watch this official video.

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