Wednesday, July 18, 2012


As a Canadian, Mexico was not part of my consciousness until I arrived in central Mexico and ended up spending a great deal of time in the region.  The situation for Americans was quite different as their history was intimately connected to Mexico and it became the focus of advertising in the 1920s.  There was a new found interest in Mexican art and there was travel between the two countries as well as efforts to exhibit and sell many things Mexican.  With the relative stabilization of Mexico under president Obregón (1920-1924) and the malaise that set over many western nations after world war 1 there was great interest in the revolution as the new politics made space for progressive voices and nationalism.  America had come to be seen as cautious, materialistic and boring.  Excitement, hope, social reform, new forms of art and “untouched”  (i.e authentic) peoples were south of the border.   It wasn’t until 1923 that the USA formally recognized Mexico and still later until some of the tension between the two diminished.  However, people did not wait for all of this; they took a train to Mexico City.  Mexico also became a gathering point for many revolutionaries from Latin America - Cuba, Venezuela - who had been exiled for their politics, being seen as too radical and threatening.   Many of these people had a lasting impact on Mexico and the USA and others influenced developments in other countries.   Patricia Albers in her biography of Tina Mondotti explains it best:  Mexico City teemed with fanatics, bohemians, idealists, radical; and visionaries.  Intellectuals who had once looked to Europe for cultural revelation now turned their backs upon the old continent, embracing instead the genius of peasants and indigenous peoples whose inclusion in the Mexican community promised to bring forth the regeneration and exaltation of the national spirit.

The relationship to the indigenous peoples was difficult and full of contradictions.  As noted in a previous post on “Night of the dead the old men” we saw a genuine interest in the indigenous Purépecha peoples but behind this we saw a tension between the past and the present.  The indigenous people of the past were of interest (as perhaps captured by that difficult term “Mexican folkways”) but the relationship to real people was often different and contradictory.  José Vasconcelos (1882-1959) provided a good example.  In the government of Álvaro Obregón he was the minister of education and began the process of modernizing the education system and saw it as a vehicle for the creation of a common or national sense of belonging to a wider community.  At the same time he was a firm believer in the creation of a new Mexican race where all of the indigenous people would disappear and become like everyone else.

While many “foreigner” were in Mexico prior to 1920 it is this date which really marked a turning point.  The following list is my working document but it may be of interest to others.  I am sorry it is so long and so "rough" but please consider it as my working notes.

Alma Reed (1889-1966):  One of the more extraordinary women to go to Mexico.  While a journalist in San Francisco she wrote about the terrible wrong done to a young Mexican man who was sentenced to death at age 16.  Due to her efforts his sentence was commuted and the president of Mexico (Álvaro Obregón) invited her to visit Mexico in 1922.  She accepted this offer but got her publisher to give her an assignment in Mexico, covering an archaeology conference in the Yucatán.  Two extraordinary things happened here.   First, an American who owned the property where Chichen Itza is located confessed to her, or perhaps bragged, that he had found a great deal of fascinating material in the cenotes on his property and arranged to have them sent secretly to the USA.  The response to her story in the paper was that Mexico set about getting the museum to return many artifacts.  The other thing was her meeting with Felipe Carrillo Puerto, the radical governor of the Yucatán.   The two fell deeply in love and while she was back in San Francisco organizing their wedding the governor was assassinated  on January of 1924, a victim of a coup in one of the most radical states at that time.  The reasons for this are unclear but as this was still a troubled time in Mexico it was probably organized by the landowners who wanted to protect their property from his reforms, or, Adolfo de la Puerta, a member of Obregón government, although an enemy, was stirring up a rebellion and needed to keep open the route of firearms coming from Belize.  A song was written about their love affair, a movie made and books published as well as her autobiography.   The discovery of her autobiography after her unexpected death is a story for another time.   At the urging of Anita Brenner, Reed met Orozco and they were to meet again and she became his principal patron and went on to write extensively about the muralist movement.  Both Alma and Orozco met Edward Weston while on a trip to Carmel, California.  (see the 1994 biography by  Antoinette May, Passionate Pilgrim: The extraordinary life of Alma Reed.   Also the incomplete autobiography discovered and published by Michael Schuessler  Peregrina: Love and death in Mexico. )

Edward Weston (1886-1958):  He traveled to Mexico in 1923 with one of his four sons and Tina Modotti, a young Italian woman who appeared in silent movies. Between 1923-27 he had a commission with Anita Brenner to travel through Mexico taking photos of artisans and of everyday life.  His relationship with Modottii was short lived but he did portraits of Rivera and others of his cultural and intellectual circle.  He returned to the USA in 1929.   A great deal has been written on Weston but see in particular Tina Modotti and Edward Weston:  The Mexican Years. (2004)

Tina Modotti (1896-1942):  Modotti apprenticed with Weston and gained some recognition for her work.  However, she became increasingly political, declaring she was a communist and was expelled from Mexico in 1929 after allegations that she murdered her lover.  She returned under a false name in 1939.  Modotti had a relationship with a Cuban in Mexico who was part of a large Latin American group of revolutionaries, many exiled from their own country.  You can find images of Modotti in some of Diego Rivera’s early murals.  See Patricia Albers (2002)  Shadows, Fire, Snow;  The Life of Tina Modotti.   Or, Mildred Constantine (1993) Tina Modotti: A Fragile Life, or even Margaret Hooks ( 2000) Tina Modotti: Radical Photographer.    Or to make the circle a little tighter check out the book by Elena Poniatowska (1932-), Tinísima (1991).  Poniatowska was not born in Mexico although her Mexican grandmother left for Europe during the revolution.  Poniatowska and her parents returned (in a sense) to Mexico in 1942 where Elena soon became actively involved in journalism, revealing a powerful social consciousness.   She write in Spanish and has a long list of publication, many which are significant for understanding Mexico.  Two in particular stand out:  Massacre in Mexico (1971)  (in English translation) which deals with the 1968 murder of students in Tlalelolco and the Nada, Nadie (1988) which deals with the 1985 earthquake and the failure of the political system to respond.  Both of these events were transformative and are helpful for understanding Mexico today.   You can find a biography of Poniatowska written by Michael Schuessler.

Anita Brenner (1905-1974):   Brenner was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico but her family left to live in Texas during the revolution.  She returned in 1923 and immediately became part of the intellectual and cultural life of the new republic.  She remained in Mexico City until 1927 and did not return until 1940.  In 1929 she published Idols Behind Altars, with some illustrations by Weston, and in 1943 The Wind that Swept Mexico, a story of the revolution.  Both are still referred to today.   You can find the diary/journal she kept from 1925-1930 edited by her daughter Susannah Glusker and including numerous great photos in Avant-Garde Art and Artists in Mexico (2010).   Her daughter also wrote Anita Brenner: A mind of Her Own (2010).

Frances Toor (1890-1956):  Born into a large Jewish family, Toor went to Mexico City in 1922, along with her husband who she divorced a few years later, to continue her studies  and after three years she began publishing the immensely influential magazine Mexican Folkways which lasted until 1939.  As we know from the post on Night of the dead and the old men as symbols, she was included in a 1923 or 1924 trip to Lake Patzcuaro where she witnessed night of the dead as well as Los Viejitos (the old men).  The first issue of her magazine includes stories from that trip. In 1936 or 1938 she published a tourist guide to Mexico for a foreign audience, in 1939 a book on Mexican Popular Arts and in 1947 she published  A Treasury of Mexican Folkways which went in to several printings and was influential in creating a sense of the vibrancy of indigenous life and the arts and crafts in Mexico.  No one has done more to promote tourism to Mexico and to value the arts of the indigenous peoples.  Toor also gave Aaron Copeland a copy of Cancioneros, songs she had collected in Mexico, and these formed the basis of his music known as El Salón México.   This spurred Copeland to use American folk themes in his music.

William Spratling (1900-1967):  Moved to Mexico in 1929 after spending 3-4 summers there during previous years.  Immediately became part of the circle around Diego Rivera and assisted in having his works shown in New York.  With his commission from that sale he moved to Taxco where he began to design silver, frequently using indigenous themes. Taxco became a minor centre for expats at this time.

Jean Charlot (1898-1979):  Born in France to a mother of mexican origin, returned with his mother in 1921.  From 1926-1928 he worked at Chichen Itza as the artist attached to the excavation project but more importantly when he first arrived in Mexico he worked with Diego Rivera on murals.  His own, and best known, mural was Massacre in the Main Temple at the National Preparatory School.  Charlot was also involved with Anita Brenner.   He went to New York in 1928 but did return to Mexico where he met his wife.  After 1949 he lived in Hawaii. It is worth looking at his book titled The Mexican Mural Renaissance, 1920-25.  (1963)

Walter Pach  (1883-1958):   artists, gallery owner and organizer.   Pach was one of the people behind the armory show in New York in 1919 and taught in Mexico City during the 1920s with an emphasis on indigenous art.  He established an important link between the USA and Mexico and was instrumental in getting people like Rivera and Orozco shown in the USA.

Frans Blom (1893-1963):  Born in Denmark, he first traveled to Mexico in 1919 where he stumbled into archaeology. He returned to USA and received training in the field and was working at the university in New Orleans when he returned to Mexico in 1922 to examine and explore the ruins at Palenque.  He devoted his life to exploration in this area and to work with the Lacandon indians.  He became connected to Gertrude Duby  (1901-1993) a Swiss photographer who came to Mexico in 1940 and spent her life working with the Lacandon, taking 1000s of photos and eventually opening a large home (Casa Na Balom) in San Cristóbal which welcomed indians among other guests.  Her books of photos are worth searching for.  (Note:  archaeological sites in central Mexico were the domain of Mexican explorers while sires in the south were left to foreign money and archaeologists.)

Paul Strand (1890-1976):   An American photographer who had many styles was drawn to social reform photography, perhaps due to early experience with Robert Hines but also because of his socialist leanings.  Only in Mexico from 1932-35 where he had a commission from the Mexican government to produce a film, Redes (1936) released in the USA as The wave.

Andre Breton (1896-1966):   Born in France and founder of the surrealist movement, was sent to Mexico in 1938 by the French government.  In Mexico from 1938-40 where he became part of an hidden intellectual group in Erongaricuaro, Michoacán (about 20 minutes from Pátzcuaro).   Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo would visit this group.  He had the opportunity to write with Leon Trotsky who had arrived in Mexico in 1937 and assassinated in 1940.

Carl Zigrosser (1891-1975).  Was a print collector and manager of the Wehye gallery until 1940 when he moved to Philadelphia Museum of Art to become the curator of prints and drawings.  While he spent only a brief visit to Mexico he corresponded with many of the artists of his time and arranged for showing and the sale of their work.  Until he emerged on the scene there was no where in the USA to purchase Mexican art.  He also organized the exhibition of the works of José Guadalupe Posada in 1944. 

Ruth Lechuga (1920-2004):  Arrived in Mexico in 1939 to escape the war in Europe, went on to become a photographer and anthropologist, creating a collection of indigenous art and objects of everyday life that is now on exhibition.  The museum of her collection is well worth the visit.  She was responsible for a change in which the indigenous peoples of Mexico were perceived.

Hugo Brehme (1882-1954), a photographer born in Germany, arrived in Mexico in 1908,  expecting to stay only a short while.  This turned into a lifetime.  He published some famous photos of the revolution and was known for his pictoralism style.   He met Manuel Alvarez Bravo (1902-2002) who was to become one of Mexico’s best known photographers in 1923.  Bravo also met Tina Modotti, Diego Rivera, Paul Strand, Andre Breton, Carteir-Bresson and worked with Eisenstein on his movie about mexico. He was more influenced by the formalism style of Weston and Mondotti.  His mature work however, has a surrealist quality and he had an exhibition arranged by Andre Breton.

Ione Robinson (1910-1989).   Arrived in Mexico in 1929 and returned in 1931 with a Guggenheim grant to study art; she chose to work with Diego Rivera on the   mural in the National Palace.   For a short while she lived with Tina Mondotti in Mexico City. Politically focused all her life, she went to Spain in support of the republican side and in 1936 arranged for about 450 orphans to be sent to Morelia, Mexico.   In 1939 she was again in Mexico to take photos of the children in Morelia.  She is best know as a short story writer and in 1945 wrote an instructive piece on the bull fights in Mexico City.  See her biography, A wall to paint on (1946).  

The above list could continue but here is a brief mention of others.   Margaret Shedd (1898-1986) lived off and on in Mexico and developed the  Mexican Centre for Writers.  Katherine Anne Porter a well know writer first visited Mexico in 1920 in time for the inauguration of president Obregón.  She made many visits and her writings reflected her experiences there.   Eliabeth Catlett an artist who arrived in 1946.  Rene Harnoncourt arrived in 1926 and was among the first art curator to exhibit Mexican works in the USA.  Charles Lindburg made his well publicized flight to Mexico in 1927. Frank Tannenbaum, a leftist,  wrote several books about Mexico based on his travels, beginning in 1922.  Carleton Beals, a socialist, first visited in 1918 and returned again in 1923, eventually to be exiled.  Stuart Chase who visited Mexico in 1930 and wrote a much remarked upon book, Mexico: A Study of Two Americas (1931).   Edward E. Ross, the sociologists, traveled to Mexico and wrote the Social Revolution In Mexico in 1923 and also lectured in MC in 1928.  Eyler E. Simpson, a sociologist, was in Mexico from 1928 to 1935 and wrote, The Ejido:  Mexico’s Way Out. (1937).  Martha Graham, the famous dancer and teacher, visited in 1932.  Robert Redfield was in Mexico in 1926 and wrote the very well known book, Tepoztlan, a Mexican Village:  A study in Social Life (1930).  This book and others continues to be reflected in the observations of visitors to Mexico who note that Mexico seems more authentic than the USA, more communal, more family based, has a less materialistic and individualistic attitude, and so on.  D. H. Lawrence arrived in 1923.  John Dos Passos in 1926-27.  John Dewey, the famous educator/philosopher in 1926.  Elsie Clews Parsons, having received a PhD in 1898, made her first visit to Mitla in 1913 and returned between 1929 and 1933.  The results of her work were published in 1936 as Mitla: The Town of Souls.

If you choose to do further reading on this period I recommend Helen Delpar The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican.  (1992) as a starting place.

While I have searched for Canadians who might have had a connection to Mexico in the 1920s all I have learned to date is 25,000 German Mennonites began moving from Canada to Northern Mexico in the 1920s. 

For those who want to know something of the political context behind this time period, here is a list of the Presidents of Mexico.

There were 9 presidents from the deposing of Porfirio Diaz in 1911 to the election of Álvaro Obregón in 1920.  Two of the 9 where assassinated, 3 were interim presidents (one for 45 minutes), 2 were exiled  and 2 resigned under pressure.

Álvaro Obregón  (1920-24).   He and Calles came to be seen as soft liberals and not the radicals that many expected.

Plutarco Elias Calles (1924-28)   Was a more cautious politician and lacked the interest in the art of cultural nationalism that was shared by Obregón and his circle.  This made life for many artists more difficult and forced them to look to the USA for markets.

Alvaro Obregón wins election as president and is assassinated two weeks later.   Calles appoints Gill.  This was the beginning of the PRI election machine.

Emilio Portes Gill (1928-30)

Pazcual Ortiz Rubio (1930-32)  Resigns early due to the undue influence of Gill.

Abilardo Rodriguez (1932-34)

Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40)  Removes all of the people loyal to Calles from government  and in 1936 forces Calles into exile.  Also in 1936 he gives refuge to Trotsky who arrives in Jan. 1937. In 1937 he nationalizes the railway system and in 1938 nationalizes petroleum.   So, much more progressive, some might say radical, politics.  However, Cárdenas was a member of what became the PRI as were those going back to president Gill and this party remained in control until the election of Vicente Fox in 2000.

Manuel Ávila Camacho (1940-1946).

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