The Mex Factor: how Mexico's cultural revolution was inspired by the nation’s political and natural landscape

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The Mexican civil war in 1910 sparked a cultural revolution. An enlightening exhibition shows how both home-grown and international artist responded

With the world aghast at the horrors of the Syrian civil war and the military coup d’état in Egypt, it is as well to remember just how often revolutions have turned to violence and how long the conflict can go on before some sort of stability is restored. Nowhere was this more so than in Mexico, where the popular  uprising against the 35-year rule  of President Porfirio Diaz in 1910  resulted in a decade-long civil war and the deaths of around a million, many from starvation and disease caused by the tide of conflict.

It also resulted in an outpouring of new and nationalist art, the subject of an enlightening new exhibition in the Royal Academy’s upper Sackler Wing Galleries. The war itself, it should be added, was too intense to allow much direct art. Instead, just as in the American Civil War, it was gruesome. Photographers such as the Mexican Manuel Ramos and the American Walter H Horne made their reputation out of the slaughter. Ramos tried to show the effect in views of the battered buildings. Horne made an income of out of selling the postcards of death (there is a particularly gruesome series of an execution of three men) to the American soldiers camped on the  border and peering over the Rio Grande at the action.

Painting, as in the American Civil War, found it harder to cope with the cataclysm around, save for the crude works on copper or tiles in the manner of the Mexican miracle paintings. The show does include, however, two  powerful paintings done early on in the conflict by Mexican artists. Francisco Goitia’s Zacatecas Landscape with Hanged Men II has all the ferocity of Goya with its image of a rotting body hanging from a tree in a bleached desert landscape that has its own deathly beauty, while Saturnino Herrán’s Woman from Tehuantepec is an extraordinary portrait done in the style of Velázquez and Manet but with a fierceness of stroke and directness of look that is positively unnerving. Goitia had volunteered to serve with the northern revolutionary leader, Pancho Villa, as an artist and saw for himself the brutality of war before Villa was  assassinated in a government trap.

The real spurt to art in Mexico came with the ending of the war and the  establishment of a new Republic in 1920. In political terms the result – as so often – was a triumph of the forces of order over the more radical movement of the peasantry as romanticised in the figure of Emiliano Zapata. The bitterness of a betrayed revolution was to last far  longer than the war itself, with Zapata  becoming, not least to Hollywood, who cast Marlon Brando in the role, the image of martyred heroism.

Whether glorious in its end or  otherwise, the revolution had put Mexico on the map. Artists flocked back to take advantage of the public art being commissioned by the new socialist government. At the same time, it attracted a host of writers – DH Lawrence and Malcolm Lowry chief among them – and artists from north of the border and across the Atlantic, all keen to participate in the brave new world of sponsored art and the bright and  violent imagery of Mexico.

You can find some of the political art of the time bombastic in its acclamation of the virtues of a socialist state and sentimental in its promotion of the people as heroes of the nation, but you cannot deny the energy or the freshness of the painters involved. Even without the great murals that made their reputation, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Orozco – known as “Los Tres Grandes”– impress you with the boldness and confidence of their vision of a country freed from oppression and rediscovering its Mayan and ancient roots.

In Dance in Tehuantepec (1928), Diego Rivera pictures his peasant dancers stately and proud, unflinching in their gaze and monumental in their pose as they move in line. Jose Clemente Orozco’s Barricade (1931) is an impassioned portrayal of human effort and exhaustion in the revolutionary effort. Siqueiros, who was to be imprisoned for his part in a failed attempt to assassinate Trotsky (Stalin’s agents fared better), presents Zapata in monumentalised terms, a face of supreme determination and moral dignity confined by the walls around him.

Not all Mexican artists took to this political culture but all, sensing the break from recent past, expressed a strong nationalism, seeking in the  colours and people of the country a way to present an art that was special to the place. One of the strongest paintings in the exhibition is by Roberto Montenegro. Maya Women (1926) takes the profiles of ancient Mayan sculptural reliefs and re-creates them with the block colours of the post-impressionist painters he had studied in his years in France and Spain. The result is a picture of controlled energy that might seem Gauguinesque but is  wholly different in its sense of sprung tension.

The other side of Mexican art at this period was the influx of artists from abroad. The list of photographers  arriving for short or longer stays reads like a roll call of the prewar giants – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Laura Gilpin, Robert Capa and Martin Munkacsi. There were painters, too, including Leon Underwood and Edward Burra from Britain, Josef Albers, the German abstract painter who visited the  country repeatedly after his emigration to the US, the American Philip Guston and the Canadian-born Henrietta Shore.

While the foreign photographers took some great shots of the country, its unremitting light and dramatic shadow, it is difficult to sense that their Mexican experience had huge effect on their style or understanding. What the visiting photographers did  influence was the ambitions and confidence of a gifted young generation of Mexican photographers such as Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo and Agustin Jimenez.

The history of Mexican art of this time can be written in the loves and mutual learning of the artists – Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, the Bravos, Rufino Tamayo and María Izquierdo and, of course, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (although such is the correctness of our time that the caption for Frida Kahlo’s picture in the show  determinedly does not mention the relationship now that she has become such a feminist figure in her own right). The women come out as equal to the men, even if they learned at first from their partners before splitting up and developing on their own. The street shots of Lola Alvarez Bravo, who decided to become a professional  photographer after separating from her husband, are wonders of care and feeling. So too with the Italian model Tina Modotti, who became a role model for a new generation before being expelled for her political views in 1930 (she returned in 1939 under an assumed name after fighting in the Spanish Civil War).

When it comes to painting, the  effect that Mexico had on its visitors seems to have been particularly  profound. Josef Albers took hundreds of photographs of buildings and landscapes during his successive visits, carefully ordering them into patterns as the basis for his abstract works named after the Mayan places he saw. Edward Burra, who stayed with the  increasingly alcoholic Malcolm Lowry at Cuernavaca, responded eagerly to the colour and the macabre of the country. His two watercolour and gouache pictures on show, Mexican Church (c1936) and El Paseo (c1938), serve as an answer to Evelyn Waugh’s characterization in Brideshead Revisited of the English artist  returning from Latin America filled with its colour but too polite for its  violent energy.

The Royal Academy’s moderately sized exhibition is too broad a brush to give much depth to its survey of Mexican art of the time. For that it needed to have decided whether to concentrate on Mexican art in its own right or the work of visiting foreign  artists, rather than both. But as an  introduction to a cultural outpouring too often ignored in this country, it is full of revelations, not least for  demonstrating what state commissions can do in fostering a flowering of talent. If only a British government seemingly bent on starving the  publicly supported arts to extinction could learn the lesson. But then, the Mexican government of the 1920s and 1930s actually believed art was important to the country and its people.

Mexico: a Revolution in Art,  1910-1940, Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 (020 7300 8000)  to 29 September

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London