Secretos de la revolución: Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940, at the Royal Academy of Arts

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As the RA displays a golden age of Mexican art, Joanna Moorhead unveils some surprising facts

The Mexican art boom of 1910 to 1940, commemorated in a show opening this week at the Royal Academy, was a cultural renaissance that shaped modern Mexico and gave it a place on the stage of world art, a place it retains to this day. It was the movement that spawned the self-analysing art of Frida Kahlo, who wove her own story through a prism of traditional or folk art across her canvases, as well as the vast murals of her husband, Diego Rivera, a notorious womaniser and giant of a man in every way, who was as famous in his day for his left-wing politics as he was for his painting. But Mexico’s golden years have hidden complexities. Here are some of the movement’s best-kept secrets.

1. It started with a revolution that had nothing at all to do with art

The armed uprising of 1910 was aimed at removing autocrat Porfirio Diaz, who had ruled Mexico with a rod of iron for 26 years. Part of the way Diaz controlled his country was in the images of it he allowed: he wanted it to be portrayed in sepia-tinted paintings showing the heroic defeat of the Aztecs, who were now living happily in tranquil villages. But that didn’t begin to reflect the realities of life for ordinary Mexicans – and once Diaz was shaken off, the country began to establish who its people really were. And that meant much harder images of toil and poverty – think Diego Rivera’s paintings of the flower-sellers in the market, and Tina Modotti’s photographs of factory workers.

2. The golden age of Mexican art wasn’t just about Mexicans

As the art scene in the country began to open up, European artists and writers suddenly poured in – some for a holiday, others for longer stays. Everyone who was anyone in the art world wanted a taste of Mexico: writers D H Lawrence and Somerset Maugham, photographer Edward Weston, French artist Jean Charlot.

3. Many big names went to Mexico by chance

The war photographer Robert Capa, for example, was just one of the players who ended up in Mexico by accident rather than design: he was only there because he needed somewhere to stay while he was waiting for his US visa to be renewed. The British artist Edward Burra went to Mexico because some friends of his were going there to get a divorce. Like many others, he was captivated by the country’s magic and his trip inspired several important works.

4. Surreal? They didn’t think so ...

Despite the fact that André Breton, the intellectual father of that movement, proclaimed Mexico “the most surreal nation in the world” when he visited in 1938, few of the artists themselves considered themselves Surrealists. The so-called indigenous Surrealists such as Frida Kahlo didn’t see themselves as part of that genre: she used to say, with irony in her voice, how grateful she was to André Breton for arriving from Europe to tell her she was a Surrealist. Being labelled in this way did, however, help with promotion: it’s unlikely Kahlo would have had her work exhibited in New York in 1938, for example, without the Surrealist tag she had been given by Breton.

5. Those famous murals were about politics, not art

Most Mexicans at the time were illiterate, and the newly formed revolutionary government needed a way to promote its ideals. The minister for public education sent Diego Rivera to look at the frescos of Italy in 1920 – and then started commissioning him to paint murals on his return. These murals told the story of Mexico’s history as seen through the eyes of the indigenous people – a first for modern Mexico. Also, it underlined the revolution’s point that art should be public, in the hands of the people rather than the elite who had controlled the country in the past.

6. The photograph became as powerful as the painting

Tina Modotti was one of those who argued that photography was a proper art form, and should be recognised as such. Dictator Porfirio Diaz hadn’t liked photography at all – it was far too real and earthy. But for the revolutionaries it meant a portable, easy and quick way to start showing the world what life in Mexico was really like, with all its grit and suffering.

7. Few thought Kahlo would become the biggest star of Mexican art

Her fame now eclipses that of all the “big three” muralists – her husband Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros – put together. But at the time none of them would have believed it remotely possible that Kahlo’s personal, inward-looking, female interests – love and loss, pain and suffering – would have greater longevity in the art world than their big, historic paintings based on centuries of struggle and the emergence of a nation. The truth is that Kahlo touched on universal themes, and her fascination with her own life is still strikingly modern in 2013, while their work seems to belong to another age.

8. Diego Rivera narrowly missed having the author of the Russian Revolution commemorated in New York’s Rockefeller Center

In 1933, Nelson Rockefeller commissioned Diego Rivera to paint a mural for the Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. It was to be a huge work, depicting humankind on the threshold of a new future. Instead it became known as the Man at the Crossroads debacle. When Rivera included a scene depicting Lenin, Rockefeller saw red and asked him to remove it. Rivera refused, and Rockefeller had the painting destroyed. But Rivera reproduced the mural as Man, Controller of the Universe in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, where it can be seen to this day.

9. Another Russian became an enduring hero of Mexican art

Although he was a revolutionary Marxist thinker rather than an artist, Leon Trotsky’s years of exile in Mexico City had a huge effect on the art movement of the time. Trotsky had an affair with Frida Kahlo, which strained his friendship with Diego Rivera. His life and death in Mexico – he was assassinated in August 1940 – went on to inspire many art projects, including paintings by Rivera (he appeared with Lenin in Man at the Crossroads); characters in George Orwell’s novels; and the 2009 Barbara Kingsolver novel The Lacuna.

10. Mexico put murals on the map for the modern age

 The mural movement in the US, especially the Chicago mural movement of the 1960s which grew up alongside the civil rights era, was inspired by what had happened in Mexico. Murals such as the one in the city’s Logan Square, which portrays racially diverse people living together in harmony, takes the same starting point of painting the wholeness of the struggle for a better way of life. And the outpouring of art in the run-up to the Second World War made Mexico a natural refuge for many artists who fled Nazism, among them the British painter Leonora Carrington, the Spanish artist Remedios Varo, and the French poet Benjamin Péret.

‘Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940’ runs Sat to 29 Sep at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

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