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Included in this collection are fascinating ideas and insights on the impact of the avant-garde in the 1920s, the Mexican mural movement, Surrealism and other fantasy-based styles, modern architecture, geometric and optical art, concrete and neoconcrete art, and political conceptualism. For students and scholars of Latin American art, the volume offers an invaluable collection of primary and secondary sources.
Saturnino Herran "Our Gods" Mural Project
From Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries, 1990
Saturnino Herran died in 1918, leaving tantalizingly unfinished a mural project for the National Theater in Mexico City. This essay traces its genesis and progress.
Efforts to create a nationalistic art were intensified in Mexico following the Spanish-American War of 1898 between Spain and the United States, which strengthened the bonds between Spain and Mexico and led to an increased interest in Spanish art. While they continued to explore their Precolumbian past during the first decade of the century, Mexican artists also began to emulate the Spanish styles of Synthetism, Symbolism, and Expressionism.
Saturnino Herran was at the center of the cultural and artistic ferment that culminated in the centenary celebrations of Mexican independence in 1910, during which artists and writers explored and discussed their national heritage. He was a member of Ateneo de la Juventud (Atheneum of Youth), founded in October 1909 by a group of young artists and writers who, in their reaction against the positivist philosophy of the Porfiristas [followers of the dictator Porfirio Diaz], advocates of modern technological advancement, sought inspiration in the ancient Greeks. Beginning in 1906, they published a number of articles in the journal Savia Moderna, in which they espoused nature as the basis of Symbolist and Synthetist expression.
The search for a national art led Herran and other artists to focus on indigenous subjects, but presented within the context of the Spanish-inspired Symbolist manner. A generation earlier a similar movement had evolved during the latter part of the nineteenth century, when Mexican artists used Indian subjects in historical works painted in a Spanish-inspired neoclassical style. Examples of this style, in which the Indian subjects are presented as idealized Greco-Roman figures, are The Discovery of Pulque by Jose Obregon (1832-1902), The Senate of Tlaxcala by Rodrigo Gutierrez (1848-1903), and The Torture of Cuauhtemoc, 1892, by Leandro Izaguirre (1867-1941).
Herran's unrealized mural project Our Gods, which he worked on from 1914 to 1918, the year of his death, in similar vein turns to the Indian as the prototype of the indigenous race. Herran's Indians move in a timeless, idealized past, actors in a mythological world emerging from a confluence of Spanish and Indian cultures to create a new national identity.
Herran began Our Gods in response to a competition held at the Academy of San Carlos for a decorative frieze to be painted for the Teatro Nacional in Mexico City (today the Palacio de Bellas Artes), then under construction. The artist described his subject as an oVering by a group of Indians before an Aztec god.
As the conception for the mural was elaborated by Herran, the overall format evolved into a triptych, with the Aztec earth-mother goddess Coatlicue occupying the central panel and the subjects paying homage to the idol on each side, Indians on the left and Spaniards on the right. Herran worked out the final segment of the project in 1918, when he superimposed a crucified Christ on Coatlicue to symbolize the coming together of the Indian and Spanish cultures, indigenous pantheism and Spanish Catholicism. The merging of the two races and cultures is thus symbolized by the central motif. The symmetrically balanced composition, with the dominant figure in the center and secondary figures at either side, has its origins in Precolumbian art.
The mural was never completed. What remains is a series of large studies in charcoal and the partially completed left panel.
The first study for Our Gods, done by Herran in 1914, shows a group of Indians in poses of veneration before the Aztec deity Coatlicue, goddess of birth and death. She is known also as the Goddess of the Serpent Skirt and is portrayed with two serpent heads emerging from her neck, which symbolize the earthbound character of human life. Serpents also replace the hands and feet. Herran used as his source for the image of Coatlicue the colossal sculpture of the deity in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City.
The wavelike pattern created by the three groups of Indians, which begins at the upper left and moves in a downward arc toward the center and then back up toward the deity on the right, is counterbalanced by the outline of a volcano in the distance, the famous Ixtaccihuatl, or Sleeping Woman, so named because the silhouette resembles the form of a reclining woman.
The compositional study for the right panel, done in 1915, shows three groups of Spaniards - friars, warriors, and townspeople. The group at the extreme right, complementing the Indians in the left frieze, carries a palanquin with the venerated Virgin of the Remedies, a statue that accompanied the expedition of Cortes to New Spain. In the background is the snowcapped volcano Popocatepetl, or Smoking Mountain.
The study for Coatlicue Transformed contrasts the ferocity of the Aztec goddess with the gentleness of the crucified Christ. Coatlicue, source of life and devourer of all things, is surrounded by flowers and skulls; the hard stone of the idol is contrasted with the soft flesh of the crucified Christ. Together they symbolize Mexico, the mixing of races and the blending of two different worlds, the indigenous with the European.
From Modern Mexican Painters, 1941
Dr. Atl is pseudonym of the influential Mexican artist Gerardo Murillo. While this excerpt describes him primarily as a forerunner of the Mural painting movement, it also shows his innovative handling of paint and charcoal.
When Dr. Atl returned to Mexico in 1907, after a few years of study in Europe, he found the Academy of San Carlos in a state of turmoil because a new teacher, Antonio Fabres, a Catalonian academician, had been imported by the Minister of Education over the protest of the director of the school. The public liked and bought the paintings of Fabres, which were executed in the color-photographic style of [Spanish Impressionist Ignacio] Zuloaga, but the students were not happy in the atmosphere he created. Dr. Atl, who was then about thirty, promptly organized antagonisms into revolution; whereupon the usurper was presently retired.
The Doctor then undertook to lecture privately about the Impressionists whose work he had been seeing in Paris. He took a few student artists out-of-doors, away from the ateliers where they had been painting under artificial light, and encouraged others - among them the [future] Surrealist painter Roberto Montenegro - to continue the researches which they had timidly begun in the field of native colonial art. To show that he was a practical man as well, he organized exhibitions of the works of youthful painters in Mexico City: of Angel Zarraga, who later removed to Paris, so it is said, to produce religious canvases beyond the range of the satirical comments of his unholy friends; of Joaquin Clausell, a prolific but imitative Impressionist who had some success in the United States; and of a quite unknown young man, Diego Rivera, whose pictures he believed in and bullied his friends into buying. With the money from levies upon Dr. Atl's acquaintance, Rivera went for the first time to Europe.
In 1908 Dr. Atl made his first attempt at mural decoration. The place, a shabby gallery in the Academy of San Carlos; the purpose, the glorification of a gentleman from Puebla who had presented a collection of pictures to the State. Of a great array of mostly imitative art the chief treasure was an original work of the Spanish [Bartolome Esteban] Murillo, whom Dr. Atl secretly despised. Nevertheless, having arranged the permanent disposition of the pictures on the Academy walls, the artist proceeded to paint, in so-called Atl-color, a eulogistic mural. Working in solitude, according to his contract, he produced, in the Impressionistic style, a frieze of nudes disporting themselves above the gilded frames of the sacred pictures.
There are several stories about the ultimate removal of these decorations. Dr. Atl says they were painted out because they were shocking, but it is also said in Mexico that the artist himself removed the rosy nymphs in the nick of time, before their uncertain chemistry could cause them to disappear of themselves. This story might be suspected of being an invention of the later muralists, of whom one, in fact, repeated it to me; for some of the rude demonstrations of Atl-color which the inventor has made in times past on the walls of his studio have a dirty look of having survived there for years. However, decorations made in that medium in 1921 in a convent patio have practically flaked away.
Atl-color was invented for use, like pastel, on the surfaces of paper, wood, plaster, fabric and board. Composed of wax, dry resins, gasoline and oil color, it is manufactured in small bars like sticks of sealing wax. The color itself is apparently unalterable, although the substance can be dissolved in gasoline for spreading with brush or palette knife, and melted like wax for thickening and diversifying textures. A surface covered with Atl-color can be freely overpainted.
Dr. Atl has used his invention in a variety of ways ever since he first made experiments with it in Rome at the beginning of the century. Sometimes he dissolves it in gasoline and spreads it like water color on paper prepared with white of zinc. Frequently he paints with water color, superimposing Atl-color to enrich the textures. He also combines it with oil, a conjunction which is likely to produce harsh variations of surface textures because Atl-color, while brilliant, is hard.
Not long ago Dr. Atl saw, in a village cantina in the State of Michoacan, a small picture which looked familiar to him. It turned out to be his own first work in Atl-color. When he brought it home I went to have a look at it. It was Impressionistic in the manner of Pissarro, with period figures strolling across a shady plaza. Dr. Atl painted in this style, many years ago, a few portraits which have a way of looking abnormally loose at close view, and of rapidly tightening into form from a distance. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, therefore, that Dr. Atl's Impressionism is not so much Pissarro as Sisley after Pissarro.
His later painting is tighter and less varied in both subject matter and treatment. Until quite lately he has invariably worked in his studio, relying upon his prodigious and well-trained memory for details of color, light and contour. Because he painted from memory and always used the same themes, Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl and the Valley of Mexico, his studies were bound to become monotonous. In the summer of 1939, however, he painted forty-eight small board and canvas pieces directly from nature. Done in oil and water color, many of these have the flexibility and fresh feeling and charm of his earlier work.
Like most of the Mexicans - Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Orozco Romero are others - Dr. Atl has painted scores of self-portraits. A typical Atl for a comprehensive Mexican collection would be one of the self-portraits with Popocatepetl in the background. It should be executed in either Atl-color or charcoal, because in these media Dr. Atl does his most personal work.
One day in his studio, after a lunch of superb Mexican food cooked in Tarascan pottery vessels and served by the small daughters of his Indian cook, Dr. Atl gave me a demonstration of his charcoal technique. Rummaging around in a dark corner of the studio, he retrieved a small, smudged cardboard box from beneath a mound of galley proofs. In this container there was a collection of dirty and scarcely distinguishable objects which he described as his portable charcoal set. There was first of all a crumpled piece of chamois skin, encrusted with an accumulation of charcoal rubbings. The removal of this soiled and tattered fragment disclosed scatterings of charcoal and a small whittled stick about the size of a vest-pocket pencil.
"Now see," said Dr. Atl, "this is what I do." He crushed a broken stick of charcoal into dust, wrapped the chamois skin around his index finger, dabbed at the particles of carbon, rubbed the surface of a piece of paper, manipulated the masses of an impromptu composition with his finger tips, drew a few strong, sharp lines with the blackened tip of the little pointed stick, and behold! there was Popocatepetl looming up over the Valley of Mexico.
Any catalogue of the preachments which issued from the voice of Dr. Atl in the days when he cried in the Mexican wilderness should record that he was the first native painter to talk about Communism. Except for a tincture of Russian Communism filtering in chiefly from across the American border, the Mexican variety of communistic thought has been a local product, stemming not from Marx but from the Spanish legal tradition and the Indian way of life. Dr. Atl's Communism was in reality a kind of poetic, almost a biblical socialism. He persuaded his artist disciples to pool their interests in a Centro Artistico, an association in which they undertook to live according to a rule drawn from the life of the artisan classes. They painted houses and garden walls in provincial towns to earn money for tubes and brushes. Eventually they received a joint commission to decorate the walls of the Anfiteatro Bolivar in Mexico City, but the Revolution of 1910 made an end to this scheme; and when the project was revived, years later, Diego Rivera was freshly home from Paris to put it into execution himself.
Dr. Atl likes to think that the revolution in art began in the autumn of 1910, when he organized an exhibition of paintings in honor of the centenary of the Mexican Independence. He showed the work of his followers and of a few solitary painters who wanted to identify themselves with the forerunners of the prospective school of nationalistic painting. The event seems to have been scantily recorded at the time, however, and I have not been able to discover that any tangible result came of it directly.
Revolution broke out in November of that year under the leadership of Francisco Madero, a rich young man who had been conventionally educated at the University of California before he went to study democracy in the then Republic of France. Provisional governments appeared in rapid succession; none of them with the means, had the intention been present, of patronizing the arts.
Excerpted from READINGS IN LATIN AMERICAN MODERN ART by Patrick Frank Copyright © 2004 by Patrick Frank . Excerpted by permission.
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|Saturnino Herran : "Our Gods" mural project||3|
|Manifesto of Martin Fierro||12|
|Don Pedro Figari||14|
|The situation of the modern artist||22|
|Manifesto of the Grupo Minorista : Havana, 7 May 1927||28|
|Manifesto of the Union of Mexican Workers, Technicians, Painters, and Sculptors||33|
|Rockefellers ban Lenin in RCA mural and dismiss Rivera||36|
|Diego Rivera's mural in the Palace of Fine Arts||43|
|Francisco Goitia : Tata Jesucristo||51|
|Los Tres Jircas (The three peaks)||54|
|Latin America faces the Quincentenary : an interview with Oswaldo Guayasamin||61|
|Haitian art... how it started||67|
|A visit with Hector Hyppolite||73|
|A world created by magic : excerpts from a conversation with Andre Pierre||76|
|Frida Kahlo's bus accident||79|
|Two theories of contemporary Mexican painting||89|
|Syncretism and syntax in the art of Wifredo Lam||91|
|Aula Magna Hall||103|
|Modernity in Mexico : the case of the Ciudad Universitaria||107|
|The new art of America||135|
|The founding of Madi||144|
|An interview with Fernando de Szyszlo||148|
|GRAV Manifesto : transforming the current situation in plastic art||161|
|Color and the history of painting||164|
|Reflections on color||166|
|Beasts [Bichos] 1960||176|
|Tropicalia : March 4, 1968||177|
|Afro-Brazilian symbolism in the art of Rubem Valentim||182|
|The cactus curtain||187|
|Chaos as a structure||194|
|A Latin answer to Pop||199|
|The perils of popularity : an interview with Fernando Botero||203|
|The death of a mural movement||209|
|An interview with Luis Cruz Azaceta||212|
|In the studio : Miguel Von Dangel||218|
|Cries from the wilderness||223|
|Everyone needs a Madonna : a visit with Gonzalo Diaz||227|
|The Catherwood Project||230|
|Miami No Es Los Estados Unidos||233|
|Miguel Angel Rios : epics from the earth||237|
|Nahum Zenil's Con Todo Respeto||247|
|Marks of the journey : Roberto Merino and Eugenio Dittborn||250|