Exhibition Details

Location: Steele Gallery
Dates: July 1, 2011
to September 25, 2011

Drawn from the world's most significant private collection of Mexican art, the exhibition presents a visually stunning, definitive look at Mexican art created between 1910 and 1950.

Making its U.S. debut at Phoenix Art Museum, Modern Mexican Painting from the Andrés Blaisten Collection reveals a monumental time of artistic renaissance of Mexico's leading artists including Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo and José Clemente Orozco.

Fernando Castillo, The Black Cat/El gato negro, c. 1929

During the 1920s, the minister of public education created Open-Air Schools throughout Mexico focusing on art education for children, teenagers and later, adults. A number of the students of these schools went on to have successful artistic careers in the 1930s. Fernando Castillo is a quintessential example of this. Aged thirty-three and of modest origins, he enrolled at the Popular Painting Center in San Pablo under the direction of Gabriel Fernandez Ledesma in the late 1920s. Painted during his second year at the Popular Painting Center, is ostensibly a portrait of a boy and his pet. However, the direct gaze and imposing posture of the figures conveys a sense of presence that lends nobility, defies stereotypes and commands the viewer's attention.

Jean Charlot, French Woman with Pitcher/Mujer con cántaro, 1922

The first half of the 20th century was a moment of huge political change in Mexico. This sense of national self-awareness engendered the concept of Mexicanidad, which encouraged artists to look to the country's indigenous traditions as a new source of inspiration. These artists were inspired by Mexican traditional culture, folk art and idealized indigenous history. In his 1930 painting Braiding Hair (Coiffure), Jean Charlot updates the classical European image of the bather. He shows the ideal of indigenous beauty in atemporal setting. The monumental seated nude is likely inspired by the style of pre-columbian sculptural ceramic vessels from the Mexican regions of Nayarit and Colima.

Emilio Baz Viaud, Cuauhtemotzín Street/La calle de Cuauhtemotzín, 1941

Many Modernist Mexican artists focused on the topic of contemporary life as it was lived in the capital. They contrasted the bustle of the city streets, theatres and circuses with the seeming timelessness of life on the land. Particularly, their work highlighted the disparities between wealth and poverty and often implied a strong social criticism of the country's social order. Emilio Baz Viaud's painting Cuauhtemoltzin Street is a case in point. Painted in 1941, it shows a now demolished, dead-end street in the center of Mexico City that was a "zone of tolerance" for prostitution. The work's garish palette highlights the discordant tone of the scene in which all the characters are both the hunter and the prey.

Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, Self-Portrait/Autorretrato, 1940

In Post-Revolutionary Mexico, the diversity of life was reflected in portraiture and self-portraits. This often played out in the social divisions between the bourgeoisie who were portrayed as decadent and the popular masses who were shown as resolute and powerful. Towards the middle of the century, this view became more nuanced. Manuel Rodriguez Lozano painted this stark self-portrait in 1940 when he was named director of the School of Plastic Arts of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM). A deeply psychological depiction, it shows Lozano as a worldly intellectual and quotes artistic elements from Renaissance and Dutch painting, as well as his own work and German art from between the two world wars.

Diego Rivera, San Martin Bridge/El puente de San Martín, 1913

Internationally engaged, many Mexican artists went to study in France and Europe in the early 20th century at a moment of intense artistic innovation. These artists developed a new visual language that came to define Modernism in Mexico. Diego Rivera lived in France and Spain from 1907 until 1920 and witnessed first-hand the beginnings of cubism, dadaism and abstraction. His 1913 painting San Martin Bridge depicts the bridge that links the city of Toledo in Spain to the surrounding countryside. By its focus on shapes and forms, it illustrates Rivera's interest in and knowledge of cubist techniques as well as the landscape painting of Cézanne.

Manuel González Serrano, Equilibrium/Equilibrio, c. 1944

Still Life painting was an important genre in Modern Mexican Painting. It allowed artists to combine objects with specific resonance within Mexican culture or its indigenous craft tradition with expressionist and symbolist painting styles. This illustrated the distinct national identity of modernity within Mexican art. Painted in 1944, Equilibrium is the product of this new synthesis of academic rigor and stylistic freedom that was common among the painters on the fringe of the Mexican Muralism movement. The painting explores a different type of figuration: one in which an exacerbated subjectivity (notably in the precise rendering of the flowers) is contrasted with an intimate and dreamlike setting that is distinctly personal and other-worldly.

Carlos Orozco Romero, Dream/Sueño, 1940

Through political upheaval and global turmoil, Mexican artists developed a unique form of surrealism that reflected the psychological anxiety of the time and remains current in our own time. Carlos Orozco Romero's painting Dream depicts a hallucinatory urban landscape by radically distorting the scale of the elements within the composition and forcing its perspective. Through its disquieting atmosphere and distorted point of view, it calls to mind the paintings by De Chirico but elements such as the white stucco wall are typically Mexican. Although it was painted soon after Andre Breton declared that Mexico was the surrealist country par excellence, this painting and earlier works by Orozco Romero and his colleagues illustrate the fact that Mexican artists had been experimenting with surrealist ideas long before Breton's famous visit in 1938.

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