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ART REVIEW

Photographer transformed by country's exoticism

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By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / June 5, 2009
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Maybe the best way to understand "Viva Mexico! Edward Weston and His Contemporaries" is as three interlocking hinges. "Hinges" is meant figuratively, of course, since one's a man, another's a residency, and the third's a toilet.

The first hinge is Weston himself. He's a pivotal figure in 20th-century American photography. Other major photographers started out in the gauzy grip of Pictorialism and eventually rejected its assumption that artistic photography was a thing of soft focus and moody evocation. Stieglitz was one, Steichen another. But the furious clarity of Weston's peppers and sand dunes showed once and for all that art photography was a thing unto itself and not the pursuit of painterliness by other means.

Those peppers and sand dunes came after Weston's two sojourns in Mexico, between 1923 and 1926. Those years, which are the focus of this Museum of Fine Arts show that runs through Nov. 2, are the second hinge.

Nearly all the images come from the Lane Collection, which is on long-term loan at the museum. It's a small show. There are just 44 images, 33 by Weston. (Two more are in the next gallery, part of a companion exhibition, "Vida y Drama: Modern Mexican Prints.") But that smallness is rich and intricately layered.

"In the USA, Mexico is a place you run to," the critic Greil Marcus observed of Bob Dylan's song "Desolation Row." The observation applies just as well to Weston. He abandoned his Glendale, Calif., portrait studio, as well as his wife and three of his four sons, to go to Mexico with his lover, Tina Modotti, and oldest son. His time in Mexico was Weston's only experience of being outside the United States. It was, as his biographer Nancy Newhall noted, Weston's Paris.

The sheer exoticism of Mexico affected Weston deeply - but the nature of its exoticism affected his art in particular. Mexican picturesqueness wasn't Pictorialist. The country is a place of strong light, hard edges, and harsh contrasts. Even if Weston had wanted to, he couldn't have functioned there as a Pictorialist. "How ridiculous a 'soft focus' lens in this country of brilliant light, of clean cut lines and outlines," he wrote.

Mexico removed Weston's residual gentility. And while his innate romanticism remained intact ("I have seen faces," he wrote of Mexico in his "Daybooks," "the most sensitive, tender faces the Gods could possibly create, and I have seen faces to freeze one's blood, so cruel, so savage, so capable of any crime"), his Mexican experience tempered and focused that romanticism. Still a slave to beauty (what artist isn't?), Weston now had a radically different conception of what beauty might consist of.

A case in point, and the third hinge, is "Excusado." This low-angle view of a toilet is a genteel-tradition nightmare - and an aesthete's opium dream. Weston later and Weston earlier balance in exquisite equipoise: so humble an object, so gorgeous a presentation. With its marmoreal gleam, this piece of porcelain could be a functional Brancusi - or the "Venus de Milo" reimagined as indoor plumbing.

There's nothing specifically Mexican about bathroom fixtures (except for an implicit joke on Montezuma's Revenge?). But other photographs, like "Maguey," an agave plant, or "Chayotes," a kind of squash, make their geographic provenance absolutely clear. A spiky sunburst of darkness, "Maguey" could be a botanical monument - its appearance is that noble and splendid. The stubbly textures of the chayotes wonderfully contrast with those of the bowl that holds them and the table that bears both.

"Excusado" is one of several well-known Weston images in "Viva Mexico!" Others are his almost giddily moon-faced portrait, "Rose Roland (Covarrubias)"; pear-shaped "Nude, Anita Brenner"; and "Galvan Shooting." Weston's friend Manuel Hernandez Galvan had been a general in the Mexican Revolution. As the title of the portrait suggests, the image captures him focused on a target. But Weston has cropped Galvan's head so tightly that only the title betrays the action taking place. Galvan seems to be squinting in the sun, captured in thought, or both. It's an inspired technical choice on Weston's part, making Galvan's expression endlessly intriguing.

Mexico changed Tina Modotti even more than it did Weston. By the time Weston returned to the States for good, she was well on her way to being a major photographer in her own right. Three of her photographs are in the show. In its ability to achieve powerful ideological effects with the simplest of means, her "Manos de trabajador, Mexico" (Worker's Hands, Mexico") shows her affinity with the contemporary Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

There are four nudes Weston took of Modotti on the roof of their Mexico City house. Aesthetically, he had the heart of a clinician: He revered form. He wanted to show, to present, to render the thing in itself. Libidinally, though, Weston had the heart of an adolescent (some other body parts, too). It's a bit embarrassing how he tends to gush in the "Daybooks" over his romances. But the collision of these two strains in his sensibility meant that his nudes can be extremely sexy. The most famous examples are the ones of his second wife, Charis Wilson, from the '30s and early '40s. These images of Modotti have a pretty high temperature, too.

Also in the show are two photographs by Paul Strand, two by Weston's son Brett, and three by the Mexican master Manuel Alvarez Bravo. His "Washerwomen Implied," with its contrast of textures and interplay between revelation and concealment, invokes the surreal. The sensibility behind such an image so clearly differs from that of Weston (who nonetheless admired Alvarez Bravo's work). Weston abhorred mystery. The exaltation he so strenuously sought was the exaltation of the real.

Weston was a latter-day Transcendentalist - a camera-carrying descendant of Emerson. And Mexico helped put Weston on his way to attaining as well as any artist or writer has the most breathtaking of Emersonian aspirations: the status of transparent eyeball. The very considerable reward "Viva Mexico!" offers is the opportunity to see that eyeball coming into focus.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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'Vida y Drama'

A riveting exhibition of Mexican prints

The modest and riveting "Vida y Drama: Modern Mexican Prints" inaugurates a new space at the MFA devoted to works on paper.

VIVA MEXICO! Edward Weston and His Contemporaries At the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Nov. 2. Call 617-267-9300 or go to www.mfa.org.

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