B y M a r g a r e t R e g a n
SOMETIME IN THE 18th century, an artist in Mexico set out to make a painting that would convey to the folks back in Spain just how different Nueva España was from the old.
The painting, a pivotal work in Mexico: A Landscape Revisited, now at the Tucson Museum of Art, would fall into the category of basic flora-and-fauna illustration, except for one crucial deviation. Along with the birds and avocados and palm trees in this painterly compendium of exotica are depictions of four multi-colored human families, complete with labels of racial type. The real subject of this lovely-to-look-at painting, called Casta (caste), is the complicated racial hierarchies of colonial Mexico.
Unlike their fellow colonists to the north, the Spanish did not hesitate to marry or otherwise conjugate with the New World natives, and their unions gave birth to myriad new racial groups. In Casta, the artist painstakingly records the relatively simple classifications of Spaniard, Indian and Mestizo, and the dizzyingly complicated Castizo, Torna a Español, Mulato and Lobo (offspring of Indians and Mulatos). The painter's earnest rendering of hopelessly complex bloodlines makes modern heads spin, but Casta paintings were a popular genre in colonial art.
They're more than just historical curiosities, though. Like the people of co-mingled race that they depict, the paintings are cultural hybrids of mixed artistic parentage. Casta painters pioneered the effort to see the New World with new eyes and to record it faithfully, but their fledgling New World sensibility was diluted by their use of standard European painting techniques. They painted in oils on canvas, and they used conventional Renaissance perspective and formally posed figures.
This tension between the Old World and the New has been a mainstay of Mexican art ever since. The TMA exhibition, organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C., takes a tour through painted images of the land, itself so much contested, to trace Mexico's turbulent artistic history. Divided into three sections, the show displays some 42 paintings, ranging from the colonial period on up to just this minute. Through the centuries, the paintings ricochet back and forth between European realism and mexicanismo, and between abstraction inspired by an international avant-garde and contemporary reworkings of Mexican folk forms.
Trends in Mexican art are inextricably bound to politics and a sense of national identity. Nineteenth-century nationalists, for instance, called on artists to abandon their European aesthetic and to forge a new, purely Mexican style. "Valley of Mexico," a grandiose 1892 painting in the show by José María Velasco, was hailed in its day as an example of this innovative vision. It glorified the land, certainly, laying down its distinctive volcanoes and vast plains, so alien to Europe, but it's hard for modern eyes to see something really new in Velasco's deep brown colors.
In the mid-20th century, though, Diego Rivera and the other muralists perfected a politically charged style that incorporated indigenous folk art forms and colors. Their heady mexicanismo, writ large on public buildings all over Mexico City, was an ingenious melding of massive, pre-Columbian forms and populist subjects. There are no Riveras or Orozcos or even Kahlos in the show, but the 1929 "Paisaje Industrial," by Gabriel Fernández Ledesma, is a good example of the style. Fernández used a simplified geometry of curves and cylinders to render a smokestack factory, and painted it in bright folkloric tones of orange, red and white. Set among Mexican cacti and mountains, Fernández's factory jubilantly heralds the salvation mid-century artists believed industrialization would bring to an impoverished countryside.
But this style, put to the use of specific political ideas, inspired its own rebellions. Tiring of art they considered overtly political and even provincial, modernist artists such as Rufino Tamayo threw in their lot with the European and North American avant-garde. Tamayo didn't wholly abandon Mexican imagery though; he brought it up to what he considered a purer form. His 1961 "Mountain Landscape" in richly textured blues and rusts is a piece of unapologetic abstraction. Still, it has deep roots in the undulating land.
Contemporary Mexican painters, like their colleagues in the U.S. and Europe, are all over the map stylistically. There's the birds-eye view of the Oaxacan fields, "Plano I," rendered by Franciso Toledo in 3-D pistachio shells on bark paper. Mari José Marín hypes up the colors in her otherwise realistic watercolor of a saguaro cactus in the 1990 "The Light of Each Afternoon." Curdle delves into color-field painting, Luis into Japanese-tinged realism.
In his expressionistic "Yellow House" from 1990, the ambitious Morals tries for a synthesis of all the opposing trends in the long history of Mexican art. An oil on canvas, it has a series of overlapping images, painted in horizontal bands. At top are the sweeping vistas of Mexican mountains and plains; next come the ubiquitous angels of folk art; below them is a piece of Mission-style architecture, painted in a screaming folk-art yellow.
Holding up the unwieldly whole, their muscular brown arms raised above their heads, is a lineup of sturdy Mexicanos and Mexicanas. We instantly recognize these Mexican Atlases from the murals of the 1930s, but they can also trace their art ancestry much further: all the way back to their multi-hued forebears who first broke into paint in the colonial castas.
Mexico: A Landscape Revisited continues through September 17 at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave. Three art historians, Emily Umberger of ASU, Stacie G. Widdifield of the UA, and Esther Acevado of Mexico, will conduct a free seminar on landscapes in Mexican art from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 9, in the TMA Education Center Auditorium. A catalog of the show is for sale in the gift shop. Summer hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. After Labor Day, the museum will also open on Mondays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information call 624-2333.
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