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ART REVIEW

Crossing the border

At the MFA, a riveting exhibition of Mexican prints

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By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / June 5, 2009
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Proud aesthetes may disagree, but art does not always stumble into gaucheness and kitsch when it tries to reach a mass audience. In fact, the opposite can occur when the challenge of finding clear and intelligent forms that speak with verve and immediacy to as many people as possible brings out the best in artists.

Anyone interested in testing this proposition has at least two exhibitions in Boston right now to choose from. One is the Shepard Fairey show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, which is filled with eye-catching graphics designed to seduce as indiscriminately as possible. The other is a more modest but nonetheless riveting show of Mexican prints at the Museum of Fine Arts. (Strong resemblances between scattered works in both shows may get viewers drawing up family trees. But be warned: Fairey's art has many fathers.)

"Vida y Drama: Modern Mexican Prints" inaugurates a new space at the MFA devoted to works on paper. It consists of around two dozen works taken from the museum's collection, and it opens in concert with "Viva Mexico! Edward Weston and His Contemporaries" in a neighboring gallery set aside for photography.

In the battle to win hearts and minds after the 1910 Mexican Revolution, artists in that country had two options. They could either inflate or propagate. Inflating meant casting aside canvases and painting huge murals. The great contributions of such Mexican artists as Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros to the art of mural painting need no reiteration here.

But printmaking was just as important. Lithography, linocuts, and woodcuts allowed artists to make posters and other reproducible images that could be slapped up on street corners or reproduced in magazines just as easily as be acquired by art collectors. Mass reproducibility meant no loss of technical prowess or invention, and in many cases it meant an increase.

In some ways, "Vida y Drama" takes on too much. Its 27 objects are asked to stand for more than three decades of activity and to illustrate three distinct themes. But the quality of the work compensates for the lack of focus, and the decision by curator Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell to put up wall labels and explanatory texts in Spanish as well as English is commendable.

Rivera's most famous lithograph, "Zapata," is a highlight of the first section, which includes work made in the 1920s and '30s by Rivera's fellow muralist (and fierce rival), Orozco, as well as Rufino Tamayo, a Zapotec Indian with a flair for bold woodcut designs.

Emiliano Zapata was a hero of the Mexican Revolution, and he's shown in Rivera's print holding the reins of a sleek and sinuous white horse. The horse's aristocratic owner is shown dead at his feet, while a group of peasant followers is bunched behind his shoulder. (The image is based on a detail from Rivera's fresco cycle in the Palace of Cortés in Cuernavaca.)

It's not a big image, and it could easily seem confusingly crowded. But Rivera knew, like all great storytellers, that what you leave out is as important as what you include. The two main figures - Zapata and the horse - are left largely white, while every subsequent detail effortlessly finds its place in a clear hierarchy.

Rivera only ever made 14 prints. His celebration of class overthrow here is certainly dramatic. But it's worth noting that he was encouraged to take up printmaking by his New York dealer while he was preparing for his 1931 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Thus, in his case, the purpose of printmaking was more about financial expedience than converting the masses.

Speaking of which, look out for Orozco's 1935 lithograph "The Masses," a surging tumult of shouting, flag-waving, gaping mouths, and an emphatic reminder that Orozco's view of human nature was less sanguine than Rivera's. Orozco was anti-colonialist, but he resisted joining the Communist Party. More prolific than Rivera as a printmaker, he spent his formative years as a newspaper cartoonist. "The Masses" is a return to that idiom after years exploring tighter, less expressive styles. It was later used as the basis of a mural.

The show's second section leaps ahead to the World War II period and beyond. It's devoted to the next generation of Mexican printmakers, all of them associated with the Taller de Gráfica Popular (the People's Graphic Workshop, or TGP). Founded in 1937, the TGP was Mexico City's best known printmaking workshop, and its practitioners, six of whom are included here, found inspiration in the muralists (although at least one of them, the brilliant Leopoldo Méndez, had little time for the political posturing of Rivera and Siqueiros, if we can take his satirical wood engravings here at face value).

The political content of the TGP artists' work is as potent as their predecessors'. But now the focus is less parochial, more global.

Given the contagiousness of political psychosis in those years, this is hardly surprising, and it's certainly fascinating to see the Mexican artists respond to events beyond their shores: the Spanish Civil War, the Holocaust, the allied defeat of the Nazis.

Angel Bracho's "¡Victoria!" employs the same eye-catching graphic language and color scheme (red, black, and white) as much of Fairey's work. The image, which shows a pile of shattered symbols of Hitler's fascism beneath US, British, and Soviet flags, has the words "DESTRUCCION TOTAL DEL FASCISMO" printed in a red sans serif font below.

An even better marriage of image and typography comes in Francisco Dosamantes's poster for a 1939 TGP exhibition. The image shows a huge eye with red capital letters taking the place of eyelashes. The message conveyed by the staring eye may be that TGP artists will remain ever vigilant in monitoring injustice.

Two late works by Alberto Beltrán - one a poster, one a related drawing - give the show its title: "Vida y Drama." Like Dosamantes's 1939 poster, Beltrán's 1957 image advertises a TGP exhibition, in this case a 20-year retrospective of the workshop's output.

The preparatory drawing, in ink and watercolor, is particularly natty: Two dark and brawny hands are shown carving out lines from a linoleum square, emphasizing the manual labor that goes into art. Behind them, in mustard-colored ink, is a poster-like image divided in two. One half shows a young, anxious-looking couple (symbolizing "vida," or the plight of ordinary people); the other shows a cackling skull in a suit quaffing wine (symbolizing "drama," or injustice and corruption). It's a great example of graphic art: bold, sophisticated, passionate, savvy.

The show's final section is devoted to portraiture. There's a great self-portrait by Rivera, his eyes sagging, his double chin bulging like a pocket of air trapped in a rolled up sleeping bag. And there are two superb self-portraits by Jésus Escobedo, both made in 1939-40 when the artist was 21. The first is perfectly conventional. The second reveals the influence of Surrealism, whose European leader, André Breton, had visited Mexico in 1938. Escobedo's features are distorted, and the effect, as in the portraiture of Pablo Picasso or Francis Bacon, is suggestive of extraordinary psychic pressures.

Look out, too, for the only two examples of Siqueiros's work: a monumental head portrait of his friend and patron Moisés Sáenz belonging to a series of works inspired by colossal Olmec sculptures, and an unusual reclining nude depicting Siqueiros's wife, the Uruguayan poet Blanca Luz Brun.

The other nude of interest - in fact, the only other nude in the show - is Rivera's depiction of his wife, Frida Kahlo, propped on the edge of a bed, posing with her ankles crossed and her hands up behind her head. This image is matched by a second one on the flip side: In a curious piece of experimental printmaking - Rivera called it "lithographic montage" - the image has been run through the press once or twice more to create a mirror image.

The effect, very much like a double exposure in photography, is deeply strange, and in its intimate, psychological way, more compelling than any of the politically motivated prints on show. But then, if Frida Kahlo taught us anything, it was that if the personal is sometimes political, it always comes back, in the final analysis, to being personal again.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

Related

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Edward Weston's 'Chayotes'

Photographer transformed by Mexico

"Viva Mexico! Edward Weston and His Contemporaries" may be a small show but that smallness is rich and intricately layered.

VIDA Y DRAMA: Modern Mexican Prints At: Museum of Fine Arts, through Nov. 2. 617-267-9300,

www.mfa.org

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