Tucked away in the Sackler Wing galleries at the top of the Royal Academy, the Mexico: A Revolution in Art exhibition is a strange collection of painting, prints and most importantly photographs spanning a tumultuous, exciting and pivotal time in Mexican history.
On entering the exhibition one is immediately struck by the bare grey and dimly lit settings. A stark contrast to previous misconceptions of a bright and colourful country, this exhibition immediately takes on a more somber and serious tone, with the first room immediately highlighting the harsh realities of revolution, with the works of Manuel Ramos and Walter H. Horne. Their photographs capture in vivid, graphic detail the impact of war on Mexico. Horne’s ‘Execution’ series calmly lay out the physical casualties of revolution, bodies left hanging or shot in rural countryside contrast sharply with the traditional oil portrait paintings in this room but appear to reunite in theme with the prints of Jose Guadalupe Posada, such as ‘Little Calvera Gomez’ displayed on the opposing side of the wall. Both demonstrate not only the intense political unrest but also the fascination with death and martyrdom in Mexico. These photographs were in fact so popular at the time that many were made into postcards for American troops stationed along the border to collect.
Walter H. Horne, Execution in Mexico
Jose Guadalupe Posada, Little Calvera Gomez
The second room appears almost entirely dedicated to painting, bar the small selection of photography by Edward Weston and Tina Modotti on one short wall. Weston travelled to Mexico in 1923 with his then lover Tina Modotti. Becoming enraptured by the country, Weston and Modotti together contributed to creating a modern approach to photography in Mexico. No longer concerned with portraying picturesque Mexican scenery, Weston focused on the everyday objects of Mexican life. This is demonstrated in his Ollas photographs, ‘Tres ollas de Oaxaca’ and ‘Ollas de Oaxaca.’ Here simple, traditional clay pots are given a new importance.
Edward Weston, Tres ollas de Oaxaca
Edward Weston, Ollas de Oaxaca
This is also demonstrated in Weston’s photograph ‘Excusado’ of 1926. This almost comical work does not immediately appear to the viewer as a toilet, as it appears incredibly grand and austere, with the cool, white porcelain of the toilet mesmerizing the visitors’ gaze. However Weston’s works appear to be sadly eclipsed by the larger and well-known paintings of Diego Rivera in this room, which I feel detracts away from the simplistic beauty of these photographs.
Edward Weston, Excusado of 1926
The third and penultimate room however is largely dedicated to photography, celebrating the works of Bresson, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Agustin Jimenez to name but a few. Bresson’s work immediately catches the visitors’ eye upon entering this room, most notably his harrowing image of 1934, ‘Striking Worker Murdered.’ This raw and unsettling image demonstrates Bresson’s bravery in depicting the brutality of Mexico at the time. Taken the same year that Bresson arrived in the country, at the young age of twenty-five, the work carries an essence of martyrdom, with the strikers outstretched arm reminiscent of Jacques Louis David’s oil painting ‘The Death of Marat.’
Henri Cartier Bresson, Striking Worker Murdered, 1934
Bravo’s images, which sit alongside Bresson’s in this room, depict everyday life for the Mexican worker, most significantly in his photograph ‘Furnace Men’ of 1935. This image appears to be an almost futuristic portrait, with the two men covered in protective clothing, concealing their faces, they conjure an image of explorers or spacemen, a world away from the bitter truths and economic climate of the country at the time.
The other photographer who stands out in this room is the work of Jimenez. A talented Mexican photographer who emerged in the 20’s, Jimenez created poignant images, creating film still like effects. This is not surprising, as he worked closely with the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein throughout his career. The repetition in his photographs entitled ‘Explosion’ and ‘Dustpans’ for example, are hypnotically condensed and yet powerful in what they are trying to convey.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Furnace Men, 1935
On leaving the exhibition the works of photographers Lola Bravo and Robert Capa sit alongside the bold and abstract oils of Josef Albers. Although one might argue this detracts from the photographs, they are so intense and emotionally raw in themselves that they hold their own in this room very well. Bravo’s image entitled ‘Indifference’ of 1940 demonstrates her highly active relationship with the cultural life of Mexico. Its title combined with the disturbing image of the old woman bound and appearing in pain whilst society passes by, highlight the plight of the everyday Mexican.
Lastly Capa’s photograph ‘First Fatality on the Election Day’ is a superbly well-composed image. The viewers eyes are immediately drawn into the centre of the image where the limp and lifeless body of a man lays, and are then drawn back out of the image by the faces of men in the crow surrounding him. Reverberating around the body like a ripple on water, these men’s eyes stare directly out onto the viewer, forcing us to confront the incredibly dark subject of the image.
Lola Bravo, Indifference, 1940
Robert Capa, First Fatality on the Election Day, 1940
This exhibition although slightly weak in its content of paintings, and amount of works, holds a brilliant selection of photographic works by a whole range of artists influenced by Mexico and its revolution.
Originally written for PhotoDemocracy Blog.