Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Foreigner in Mexico in 1920 and 1930


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 as well as experiencing a surge of industrialization.  Excitement, hope, social reform, new forms of art and “untouched”  (i.e authentic) peoples were south of the border.  Foreigners brought a rather romantic view with them and this was clearly met on their arrival.  They were taken by the handcrafts of Mexico and saw in them a reflection of a society isolated from historical pressures and they a reflection of their authentic self.   It wasn’t until 1923 that the USA formally recognized Mexico and still later until some of the tensions 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” and “ 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.

Pablo O’Higgins, an Irish American, arrived in Mexico City in 1924 and was soon chosen to be an assistant to Diego Rivera on his murals.  He became a well know artist painting several murals and being asked to do a mural in Mercado Abelardo Rodriguez.  In the 1930s he introduced Marion Greenwood to the art of fresco mural work.  In 1940 he was the only non-native to be chosen to exhibit work in the exhibition of Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art at the MOMA in New York. You can see many of his mural in the Mercado Abelardo Rodgruigez.

Marion Greenwood and her sister Grace, both American.  Marion arrived in Mexico City in 1932 and soon met Pablo O’Higgins who introduced her to the fresco mural style and recommended her to others.  She went to Taxco where she painted a mural in a hotel owned by an American.  Grace Joined Marion in Taxco and they went on to Morelia, Michocan to paint a mural.   The governor wished to invite a number of artists to do mural work as a way to attract tourists to the city.   They went on to paint murals in Morelia and in Mexico City.   She returned to the US in 1937.     See James Oles, The Mexican Mural of Grace and Marion Greenwood.    also by same author, Walls to Paint on:  American Muralist in Mexico 1933-36.

Fred Davis, born in Illinois and arrived in Mexico City around 1910 working for the Sonora News Company selling newspapers and souvenirs on the train running to Arizona.   He became a great collector of antiquities and local crafts.  During and immediately after the revolution there were a number of antiquities flowing onto the market and Davis was able to open a store with his purchases.  His store attracted the inteligensia and the artists of Mexico and Davis was an early exhibitor of the works of Rivera, Orozco, Tamyo and Spratling.  

Rene D’Harancourt, born in Vienna, arrived in Mexico City around 1927 and worked for Fred Davis.  D’Harancourt often received commissions  from rich Americans or Mexicans who wished to accumulate a collection of antiques and folk art for display in their homes.  In 1929 he was commissioned to organize an exhibit of Mexican popular arts for the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  There had been a similar exhibition in Mexico City and 1921 and this became his model.  His exhibition was so popular in the USA that it travelled to 13 cities over 2 years. Went on to become the director of the Museum of Modern Art in NY. 

Jean Charlot, born in Paris to a father who had married in Mexico in the 1820s, he moved to Mexico City in 1921, already an accomplished painter.  He was one of four painters who accepted a commission from Vasconcelos to paint murals in the Secretary of Education building.  His was actually the first mural finished, titled “The  Massacre in Templo Mayor”.   Charlot was also instrumental in getting the works of Jose Posada recognized.  He did art work of the popular press and his humourous works of the “catrinas” (the skeletal figures) are now very common.  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)

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 at age 18 with her parents (who were born in Latvia) fearing for their daughter they arranged for Frances Toor to keep an eye on her.  Toor of course introduced her to the intellectual and cultural elite of the day.  Reutrning to the USA in 1927 to do university work she remained active through putting Mexican artists in touch with Americans and speaking on their behalf.  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 in Latvia, Toor went to the USA as a child and then 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.  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).  This visit led to the use of images from these two events in the marketing of Mexico and becoming part of an effort to build a distinctive Mexican identity.  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.

Frances Flynn Paine  Born in Texas she spent many of her formative years in Mexico where her father was superintendent of the railway.  Sshe became bilingual and had visited many quite remote parts of Mexico.   In 1928 she received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to spend three years in Mexico where it seems she would help the Rockefellers acquire indigenous art but also develop relationships with Mexico.  In 1929 while Abbey Rockefeller was founding the Museum of Modern Art she also worked with Frances Paine to establish an organization to promote friendships between the two nations.  In 1931 Frances acting as a gent for Diego Rivera acquired a number of paintings for the Rockefellers and also secured funding for Rivera to go to New York to create a number of mobile murals as part of a Rivera show in 1931. Paine was also to set up a cooperative among Mexican folk artists and to assist in market their goods in the USA.  Abby Rockefeller had visited Mexico in 1928 but Nelson made his first visits in 1930 under the guidance of Frances Paine.  Now both husband and wife were in love with all things Mexican and they ended up with a collection of 3000 pieces.  You can see some of this in Treasures of Mexican Folk Art, reflecting pieces in this collection.

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.

Walter Pach  (1883-1958) was an artist, 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 sites 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 changing the 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).  

Perhaps the most interesting couple who became very influential were Dwight Morrow and his wife Elizabeth Cutter.   Morrow was the US Ambassador to Mexico  from 1927 to 1930 and arrived on the heels of an Ambassador who appeared to despise Mexicans and saw the society has primitive, backward and in need of civilization.  There was much talk of the US invading again and  tensions between the two countries were high.  Morrow came at a difficult time but because of his approach and personality settled tensions and made a contribution.   He met regularly with President Calles and is credited with helping resolve the “cristero war”, a struggle between the Catholic church and the state which could well have torn the nation apart once again.  Morrow is a character in the 2012 movies For Greater Glory based on the cristero war.  He loved Mexicans and adored the arts and crafts of the county and played a part in the promotion of the 1930 exhibition of folk wart in the United States.   He and his wife built a home in  Cuernevaca and filled it with Mexican antiquities and folk art.   A good read is Wayne Gibson, Ambassador Morrow’s influence on the Calles Administration, 1952.

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. Wolfgang Paalen, born in Vienna and leader of the abstract art movement, met Frida Kahlo when she was in Paris during 1938.   He emigrated to the USA and in 1939 moved to Mexico living in a house next to Frida.  He spent a great deal of time in Mexico and died in Taxco.  Katherine Anne Porter a well known writer first visited Mexico in 1920 in time for the inauguration of president Obregón. Over the next 10 years she lived between New York City and Mexico City.  Many of her writings reflect her experiences in Mexico.   Eliabeth Catlett an artist who arrived in 1946.   Charles Lindburg made his well publicized flight to Mexico in 1927 at the invitation of Ambassador Morrow.  He was later to marry Morrow’s daughter Annie whom he had met in Mexico.  Of course, in 1932 the baby of Charles and Annie was kidnapped and murdered resulting in the trial of the century.  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 the anthropologist 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. By the end of the 30s and into the 40s countless anthropologist arrived in part to document life in rural villages just prior to the arrival of new highways that would open up the county. 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.   Ryah Ludins knew Marion Greenwood and she too received a commission to paint a mural in the museum in Morelia (as did Grace Greenwood), Philip Guston (also known as Goldstein) was given a commission in 1934 to paint a mural in Maximillians Palace in Morelia, Michoacan.   Reuben Kadish also pointed a mural in Morelia.  Isamu Noguchi apparently drove to Mexico in a car he had borrowed from Buckminster Fuller in about 1933.  He knew Marion Greenwood previously and she asked Rivera to offer Isamu a commission for  mural in Mercado Abelardo Rodruigez.   His work is quite unusual in that it is part sculpture and part painting, reminiscent of the last big work by Siquieros.
Winold Reiss, a German born American, arrived in Mexico City in 1920 and drew portraits of the revolutionaries and of the heirs of the Aztecs.  Appears to have been his only exposure to Mexico.  Thomas Handforth, a prolific painter and etcher made a short trip to Mexico in the 1920 and produced a few works there. Doris Rosenthal, an American painter and printmaker made solitary expeditions to remote regions of Mexico in the 1930 (a photo shows her preparing for a trip in Patzcuaro).  In 1943 a five page spread of her paintings and the story of her travels in Mexico appears in Life magazine.  Marsden Hartley traveled to Mexico in 1932 with a Guggenheim Scholarship.  He was overpowered by the light in Mexico and the landscape, the people the creatures.  He did produce several paintings from his period.  Helen Levitt, a photographer, went to Mexico City in 1941.  She stayed way from middle-class neighbourhoods as she wanted to get photos of the poor.  She used a camera with a 90 degree lens so her subjects would not believe she was taking their picture.   She returned with many amazing photos which you can find in her book Helen Levitt:  Mexico City, 1997.  Josef Albers and his wife Anni, both born in Germany and part of the Bauhaus Schoool fled to the United States in 1933-34.  They made their first visit to Mexico in 1935 but returned about 14 times.   He was struck by the ancient architecture and took thousands of photos. They also collected 1300 object along the way, some of them antiquities and others just interesting things.  His subsequent painting are modernist but one can see the architectural details reflected in them.  Robert Motherwell made a trip to Mexico with Robert Matta.  Motherwell was to become an abstract painter but his first serious work comes out Mexico and is published as My Mexican Sketchbook.
Carl Lumholtz

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.  Malcolm Lowry, the author, also visited in 1936 but was deported in 1938, probably due to his alcoholism.  Leonard Brooks mvdd to San Miguel de Allende in 1947 and is credited with playing a large role in turning the town into a artist colony.  Arnold Belkin moved to Mexico in 1948 having been inspired by the works of Rivera.  He meet Siquireros becoming his assistant on the mural at Bellas Artes in Mexico City.  He carried on the tradition of Mexican mural painting as well as working on canvas. others who went to Mexico at this time were Jack Humphrey, Stanley Cosgrove and Isabelle Chestnut Reed.     You might find the following book helpful, Leonard and Reeva Brooks: Artists in Exile in San Miguel Allende, 2001 by John Virtue.

This list could gone on and on but we can imagine from the above the both countries benefitted from these relationships immensely.  However, the role of foreigners was soon to become an issue and they were kept at the margins.   This will be the subject of a related post as a later date.

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)   Gill was a puppet of Calles.

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

Abilardo Rodriguez (1932-34) He was an interim president.

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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