Mexican Modern Painting from the Andres Blastein Collection
Through August 12, 2012
The Meadows Museum’s summer show Modern Mexican Painting from the Andres Blastein Collection warrants attention from a number of standpoints. As a distillation of a vast collection, the eighty works on display are a fascinating insight into the nature of collection (and thus the collector), a reflection of the upheaval and disparity of the socio-political climate in Mexico at the time, and perhaps most importantly, a varied and fascinating survey of artistic style and cultural expression – a combination of the influences of key European artistic movements with a re discovery and celebration of the Aztec and pre-Hispanic cultures.
As I contemplated this large selection of works, it struck me that this show is, on many levels, an exploration of identity – the identity of the collector and how this is reflected in the works he selects, the identity of a revolutionary / post-revolutionary nation looking back to its indigenous past, and celebrating its unique nature and the individual concerns of each artist whose identity is conveyed through the choice of style and subject matter.
I would need to write for many pages (many more than you are sure to read) to do justice to the breadth and depth of styles, political and social observation and historical contexts covered by this rather extraordinary exhibit. So I have limited myself to providing an overview, with brief reference to only a few pieces which to me, summarize important elements of the show. I feel that in order to understand how such a vast variety of works relates to each other, and to find some cohesion in what can appear a disparate group of paintings, some understanding of the collector and the historical context in which the works were produced is essential. So, at the risk of sounding like a history teacher, I will focus on this here, and let you go and see the works for yourself.
Firstly, a little more about the collection as a whole. While studying painting in the 1960s, Andreas Blastein began buying works and gradually shaped his collection to reflect his own personal ideas about national identity and “Mexincanidad”– Mexicaness. Amassing some 8,000 works across many disciplines, his collection is regarded as one of the greatest accumulations of Mexican art in the world. The eighty paintings selected for this showing give a comprehensive overview of the concerns, styles and influences of Mexican artists from the turn of the century until the mid-century. They also give us insight into Andreas Blastein’s world view, his unique “statement and … way of thinking about art” as Karen Cordero Reiman notes in the excellent exhibition catalogue.
The first half of the twentieth century was a period of immense political, social and cultural upheaval for Mexico, a time when national identity was questioned and shaped. Uniquely combining references to formal European movements, avant guarde social and artistic experimentation, celebration of indigenous and traditional culture and embracing both formally educated and self-taught artists, the collection and this showing is a hotchpotch of styles, references and subjects that somehow hangs together to give a coherent and fascinating insight into the era.
By showing such a range of voices and styles, the exhibit gives a deeper insight into the variety of modes of expression employed by Mexican artists at the time, and reaches beyond the few “big names” to highlight lesser known painters as equally relevant and valid as purveyors of “Mexicanidad”. The works are hung chronologically and the Meadows provides excellent historical commentary makes the exhibit accessible even to those with little knowledge of the socio-political context.
With the start of the Mexican revolution around 1910, Mexican artists (and society as a whole) challenged the “Eurocentric” and classical, elitist traditions that had recently shaped the country and its art. Artists began to explore and indeed revere their pre-Colombian history, the Aztec empire and pre-Hispanic myths, legends and lifestyle. Saturino Herran’s “Our Ancient Gods” is one of the more straightforward examples of this celebration of pre-Hispanic culture.
At the same time however, many artists were acutely aware of, and influenced by, major artistic movements in Europe. This is at odds with the oft held belief that revolutionary Mexican art was inward –looking and one dimensional. In “San Martin Bridge” Diego Rivera provides a shining example of the impact of cubism on his (and others) work.
Alongside the expression of “costumismo” – the portrayal of customs, the changing social structure and overhaul of the established hierarchy supported the rise of the Open Air Painting Schools. This was a radical approach to arts education which stretched across Mexico, opening up opportunities in many rural and urban areas. The inclusive nature of the teaching, combined with an emphasis on spontaneity and innovation greatly supported the flourishing Mexican Modern movement. The Open Air Schools emphasized depictions of everyday life and rural scenes – reflections of Mexican culture as had not been seen in the preceding era of European classicism.
Whilst Diaz de Leon’s “Indian Women on Market Day” is clearly influenced by impressionism in style , the emphasis of the open air schools on presenting “real” everyday life is reflected in the fairly banal subject matter.
Post revolution, the concept of Mexicanidad gained further emphasis as artists strove to crystallize a uniquely Mexican identity that was relevant in the modern climate. Even greater emphasis was now placed on native traditions, regional customs and modes of dress along with exploration of pre-Hispanic history and legend. Works such as “Apprentice Bullfighters” by Manuel Gonzalez Serrano with its strongly surrealist allegorical style and Roberto Montenegro’s “Synthesis” – a combination of ancient and modern symbolism highlight the appropriation of styles by the Mexican Modernists to convey their various expressions of national identity and culture.
Somewhat sadly, the vibrant Mexican Modern period, encompassing the decade long revolution and its aftermath came to a close towards the middle of the century when the authoritarian communist powers began to assert their authority and art became a tool for communist and cold war propaganda.
As a record of a unique and rich time in Mexico’s cultural history, an overview of many and varied artistic styles and subject matter and as a unique insight into one man’s (and indeed his nation’s ) psyche, this exhibit is well worth taking the time to explore. In fact, it may warrant a few visits in order to fully absorb all it has to offer as on first viewing, it can feel overwhelming and complex. If you have the time, do make the effort though, as I for one, gained much : a broader understanding of Mexican art and identity, a new perspective on the far reaching influences of various modern art movements and a fascinating insight into the collecting, curating practices and lifelong passions of Andres Blastein.