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Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros and Other Artists of the Social Realist School
By MacKinley Helm
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1968 Francis Helm
All rights reserved.
Dr. Atl, the Saint John Baptist of Mexican Art
Subió al Popocatépetl, Bajó del Ixtaccíhuatl, Y es hombre de gran valer el inquieto Doctor Atl.
From a "Fa-cha" caricature
THE HARBINGER OF THE MODERN Mexican art movement was not the sybarite himself, Diego Maria de la Concepción Rivera who later possessed it, but a half-legendary little man who is said in the popular tradition to inhabit a cave in the side of Popocatépetl. When I lived in Cuernavaca, in daily sight of Popo's snow-capped cone, I was almost persuaded to look for him there. I thought I should be able to recognize, at sight, the bearded face and bulging forehead of his innumerable self-portraits. I could imagine him, his smock exchanged for leathern girdle, eating his dinner of locusts and wild honey at the edge of the volcanic funnel whence, according to the local folklore, he was erupted, more than sixty years ago, into a tumultuous world.
I met him, in the end, not on the mountain whose son he is, but in his commodious and untidy chambers in Mexico City, whither I had been invited to lunch. From explorations of Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl, the Sleeping Woman, the prophet, it appeared, habitually returns to his house in the city to paint and write and talk, to each of which activities he devotes himself prodigiously in turn. When he talked he reached interminably into a cavernous chest, extracting an endless succession of shaggy Habana cigars. These he presently strewed, half smoked and wholly shredded, across the tiles that pave his ancient floors; while through the smoke and out of the clutter of the studio his voice unflaggingly declaimed the history of Mexican art and archaeology.
When this man works he produces, from torrents of dictated speech and nervous passes with charcoal, brush and crayon, a staggering miscellany: columns of political articles, volumes of history and criticism, sheaves of drawings, stacks of brittle landscape paintings, all of which he signs, to support a national myth, with the fictitious name of Dr. Atl.
In 1877, when Dr. Atl was christened Gerardo Murillo in the city of Guadalajara, copies of the vaporous works of the Spanish Bartolomé Esteban Murillo molded the taste of our sister Republic. When the Mexican Murillo came of age he renounced his Spanish patronymic, together with all it stood for, and took an Indian pseudonym. Thus he declared his detachment from the dreary influences of the secondhand culture into which he was born, and acquired a name and handle fit for the beginnings of a legend.
Dr. Atl knew instinctively that the practice of the arts in Mexico in his time was counterfeit, and he was early inspired to believe that production of the genuine article depended not upon fresh importations of art and artists from Europe, but on the deferred rediscovery of the contemporary native scene. More than forty years before he was born the Golden Age of Mexico had come to a brilliant end with the death of Francisco Eduardo de Tresguerras, the native architect whose miraculous churches and convents, free and creative renderings of the baroque and neoclassical styles, stand reminiscently in the plain of Guanajuato. No man in Mexico knew more intimately or cherished more profoundly than Dr. Atl those monuments of a culture which had perished with their building. But that culture had been Spanish and Christian, and Dr. Atl had acquired the notion, at an early age, that if there were to be a Renaissance in Mexico it must be Mexican and pagan.
When Dr. Atl was a young man the Mexican Renaissance seemed a long way off. There was only one remarkable Mexican artist then alive. If ever a man lived out of his place and time it was he—José Guadalupe Posada, who came from the northerly State of Aguascalientes and died in Mexico City in 1913: of complications induced, so it is said, by a peculiarity of drinking twenty-five gallons of tequila every January.
When Posada was about twenty years old he made a series of lithographs for a newspaper in Aguascalientes. From an apparently unique sheaf of proof prints in the possession of Francisco Díaz de León, a distinguished practitioner of the art of printmaking in Mexico today, two lithographs are reproduced here. They are caricatures of local politicians whose names and exploits have long since been forgotten, but they are prophetic, in subject matter and in quality, of the work of four decades devoted by the artist to the perfection of a form of art still assiduously cultivated by the Mexicans.
In the year of Dr. Atl's birth Posada opened his first shop in Mexico City. There he invented a process of drawing directly in acid on zinc plates, and swiftly turned out the thousands of perceptive engravings which variously edified, amused and offended his Mexican public. Many of the drawings appeared in the pages of three or four publications antagonistic to the regime of the tireless dictator, Porfirio Díaz, but no less than fifteen thousand were commissioned by the conservative publishing house of Vanegas Arroyo. About ten years ago four hundred of Posada's prints were assembled by Paul O'Higgins, an American painter living in Mexico, for a monograph published in Mexico City, and thus the engraver was restored to local fame.
Posada's subject matter was as original and personal as his technique. Many years before the Revolution of 1910 he anticipated that eventuality. At a time when the aristocracy of the capital was affecting French taste and manners, he created revolutionary forms of art for the exposition of advanced ideas. Out of the steady flow of copy for the broadsides which he was commissioned to illustrate he chose, when he could, verses and tales celebrating political and social crises, and snubbed the popular taste for corridos about miracles and crimes. With elements now of tragedy, now of comedy, now of pointed caricature, he commented upon the social contrasts of the epoch: the pretensions of the upper classes, the stark compulsions of the poor.
A figure appearing over and over again in Posada's drawings is the calavera, or animated skeleton, a classical form in Mexican art. The Posada calavera fights, drinks, weeps, dances, works and loves: in short, suffers and enjoys all of the pains and pleasures of ordinary men.
Posada's influence upon the painters and engravers who followed him has been incalculable. Diego Rivera, a precocious boy, sat reverently at his feet. Rivera's more radical contemporaries complain that he failed to become a consistent revolutionary himself, but it is freely owned that he has never forgotten what he learned in that shop about craftsmanship: how to balance effective masses of matter, for example. Rivera has recorded his admiration for his teacher, whom he compares to Goya and Callot, in a mural portrait in the National Palace in Mexico City and in an Introduction to the Posada monograph. José Clemente Orozco, who was famous as a caricaturist long before he painted his celebrated murals, was also at one time a careful student of Posada's drawings. Orozco's own objects have perhaps been more pictorial and less didactic than Posada's, but his themes, like his predecessor's, were early taken from everyday life. And today there are as many as a dozen young Mexican engravers who, having steeped themselves in the Posada tradition, turn out calaveras which mock events and men almost as convincingly as his were wont to do.
Posada stood alone in his day, a fine artist who worked hard and conscientiously, critical always of the very market for his wares. More sociable evangelists of art, well-paid and unfruitful, meanwhile labored elegantly in the National Academy of San Carlos. Ingeniero Pedro S. Rodríguez, a Mexican art patron to whom I am indebted for a personal memoir of the turn of the century, describes that establishment as a criadero de mediocridades. Imported Spanish artists instructed their pupils in this "nursery" in the manufacture of an unwholesome sauce of neoacademicism. This, when they had properly learned to make it themselves, the young painters poured over the pictures they sold to Mexican aristocrats: conventional biblical paintings concocted from the recipes of second-rate Europeans.
Every decent instinctive feeling for art was falsified by the typical Porfirian painter. Colors were greasy, drawing was stiffy mannered, forms were out of touch with nature. The Mexico of that epoch was the original home of the Coca-Cola school of art. and Dr. Atl was its first self-appointed critic.
When Diego Rivera went to the Academy in 1899 there were, however, three or four painters whose work was distinctly better than the mediocre average. One of them, Julio Ruelas, who had just returned from Germany where he had studied under the protection of his patron, Señor don Jesus Luján, was known to the public as a romantic painter who treated poetically of macabre and fearful subjects. In private, he produced delicately executed pornographic miniatures, some of which are now bound into an original Mexican Contes Drôlatiques in Señor Luján's possession, and these, by no means to their aesthetic disadvantage, his pupils hastened to copy.
Ruelas' temperament was gay and witty, free and French. To poke fun at parlor art he painted bawdyhouse compositions on the back of his palette, peopling the scene with miniature portraits of his friends. He made a realistic, Goya-like study of a hanged man: to which he added a leering wench who peers under the dead man's nightshirt. He painted a few large portrait studies somewhat after the style of Manet, but his miniature portraits, with their amusing conceits, are minor pre-Surrealist masterpieces. Antonio Ruiz, whose droll miniatures on canvas have lately begun to reach the American public, appears to be thoroughly familiar with his predecessor's technique, although he was not actually Ruelas' pupil; and Orozco, years ago, paid compliments to Ruelas' sardonic treatment of rude and harrowing events.
Ruelas' chief gift to the Mexican Academy was his fresh conception of color. Perhaps he had derived it from the Seville palette of El Greco, of which an example is to be found in the so-called self-portrait hanging in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In any case, it was new to Mexico, and its very novelty—what a departure from Murillo's palette!—encouraged the student painters to experiment with color patterns of their own: with the patterns, in fact, which came to be recognized as the essence of Mexican painting.
Santiago Rebull, a colleague of Ruelas, was born in a sailing vessel in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a circumstance which may have had something to do with his eccentric disregard for academic tradition when he became a teacher. In a long if somewhat impermanent association with the Academy he taught his pupils, as he had been taught by Ingres, to work from life. Like everyone else in Mexico he painted his share of biblical pictures, but, like the best of the Renaissance painters, he used as often as he dared the characters which appear in the sacred history unclothed. The first of many suspensions from his office was occasioned by his introduction of nude models into the schoolroom.
Rivera worked from life in Rebull's classes. He learned, he says, the canon of movement there, and his enthusiasm for art was reborn when Rebull independently began to set subjects from Mexican history. The public was distinctly skeptical about secular painting, but Rivera and his generation were glad to be relieved from the fatiguing reiteration of episodes in the lives of the patriarchs and the saints.
José Maria Velasco, a pupil of Rebull and later a teacher in the Academy, painted more than two hundred Mexican landscapes. Most of them are tight and finished to the modern eye, like Canaletto's, but they are remarkable, of their time, for their poetic realism and sensibility. Rivera has to this day in his private collection a landscape painted by himself, when, at the age of seventeen, he was in an advanced class under Velasco.
Like Dr. Atl, Velasco was cultivated and erudite. He taught his pupils the use of scientific observation and investigation, a conception as phenomenally new to most Mexican painters at the end of the nineteenth century as it had been in England when the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed. To increase his own equipment he attended anatomy classes in the University medical school and made independent studies in natural history. He wrote a scholarly book on the flora of the Mexican high plateau, illustrating it with hand-colored lithographs of his own authorship. Together with Landesio, the idealistic Italian landscape painter, he explored Popocatépetl, long before Dr. Atl's time, and published descriptive texts along with his lithographs and engravings of the mountain. In Mexico City in 1940, to mark the centennial anniversary of his birth, some of the Mexican artists sponsored an exhibition of his transparent, half-mystical and carefully executed studies of the Valley of Mexico.
I have heard contemporary painters respectfully mention just two other artists of an earlier generation: Félix Parra, who introduced Aztec and Maya motifs into his paintings and hastened the impending rebellion against academicism by acquainting his pupils—one of whom was Rivera —with his passion for the ancient Mexican cultures; and Saturnino Herrán, who, while his manner was Spanish to the end of his life, took his subject matter from the contemporary Mexican scene. He communicated to a whole school of new painters his indefatigable interest in the pictorial possibilities of his own time and place.
Herrán's time already sounds like ancient history to our modern ears. I find it repeatedly necessary, as I write, to remind myself that the period of which I am speaking ended only thirty years ago, ten years before the Mexican revival began with a rash of mural painting. So lately the few divinely discontented painters whose names I have been reciting were outnumbered by the fashionable artists who sold their banal pictures into proud French houses on Maximilian's memorial avenue, the Paseo de la Reforma.
A prime favorite of those days, amongst the aristocratic families,—variations of it hang today in many upper-class Catholic houses—portrays the Trinity of Christian theology by the simple device of painting in triplicate the figure of a sickly Son. Nowhere in the world, not even in Victorian England, had bad taste in art and decoration been ever so carefully nurtured as in Mexico during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz.
Only amongst the common people did wholesome art naturally flourish, —folk art and the popular arts. Contemporary artists have taken notice of two types of the generally anonymous folk art, pulquería murals and retablos: the former dedicated to drink and the latter to religion. The old pulquería paintings, of which few remain intact, were designed to acquaint the public with the shops where pulque, the intoxicating vitamin-filled liquor of the maguey plant, is sold. In many a squalid neighborhood these decorations introduced gaiety and color into the outward scene and gave promise of the warmth and life of convivial interiors. Wine-shop proprietors vied with each other in the invention of seductive names. You can see, for example the names still exist—the "Night of Love," the "Saint and Sinner," the "Flower of Ecstasy." The mural decorations, perishably executed in oil paint on cement, took their themes from the fancy names of the shops. Most of these paintings have long since disintegrated and the government has forbidden their replacement, for alleged hygienic reasons. The Cárdenas administration, for all its attention to the poor man's needs, was notoriously unsympathetic with his follies.
The retablo, a small painting on tin, usually celebrates a miraculous recovery from injury or illness or a providential escape from an accident. It represents the hero or the heroine in a predicament from which there has been a supernatural rescue, together with the divinity who worked the miracle. The forms are primitive, the colors lurid, the compositions arranged for their immediately dramatic values. Several of the contemporary Mexican painters have borrowed freely from this thoroughly indigenous source.
There are many collections of retablos in shops and studios in Mexico, but since they were originally made to hang on the walls of churches and chapels in honor of the celestial beings to whom they were dedicated, it is doubtful whether they have been come by honestly. I have in my collection a retablo which I suspect to be the unlawful souvenir of an impious pilgrimage made by a provincial friend to satisfy my whim to own a tin painting of a railway wreck.
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 Fabrés, 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 Fabrés, which were executed in the color-photographic style of 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.
Excerpted from Mexican Painters by MacKinley Helm. Copyright © 1968 Francis Helm. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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