Tuesday, June 4, 2013

'Modern Impulses' at the Olmedo Museum

We are the beneficiaries of the turnaround in strained relations between Mexico and France. The Dolores Olmedo Museum has loaned its whole collection of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo paintings to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.  Taking their place is "Impulsos Modernos, Pintura en Mexico 1840-1950" (Modern Impulses, Painting in Mexico 1840-1950) -- an exhibit designed to be loaned to France in 2011 in exchange for impressionist paintings. Plans for both exhibits came to a screeching halt when President Sarkozy cancelled France’s planned “Mexico Year.”  With the recent changes in administration in both countries, cultural exchanges have resumed.

Curator Miguel Cervantes Diaz Lombardo inaugurated the new exhibit last Saturday. He explained that "Impulsos Modernos" spans a little over a century (1840-1950) of Mexican art .  It focuses on 65 pieces of portable easel art by 43 artists.

Curator Cervantes told us “The Revolution brought Mexico a new identity charged with nationalism -- a new conception of what Mexico had been, and was. Jose Vasconcelos, [1920s Secretary of Public Education] was extraordinarily important in developing Mexico's renowned post revolutionary mural art movement dominated by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.  Less appreciated, a modernist easel art movement paralleled the mural art movement."

As if the wonderful "Impulsos Modernos" exhibit weren’t enough, it gives us a fresh reason to return to the remarkable museum housed in Dolores Olmedo’s Xochimilco residence, the gorgeous Hacienda La Noria.  Olmeda’s will left La Noria and its contents to the people of Mexico.

Since opening in 1992, the Olmedo Museum has been home to an impressive collection of Mexican 20th century art -- including 145 pieces by Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and 25 by Frida Kahlo (1907-54).

At age 11, Dolores Olmedo (1908-2002) accompanied her schoolteacher mother to the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP) building, encountering Diego Rivera working on murals there.  Upon introduction, Diego requested permission to paint the young girl, and her mother agreed.  In an undated interview published after her death Olmedo, known to her friends as Lola, acknowledged to Elena Poniatowska a secret she’d kept for decades.  The model for the nude in the mural on the staircase of the SEP building was a very young Lola!

Olmedo had a lifelong friendship with Rivera culminating in him leaving Olmedo head of a trust that contained many of his and Frida’s most valuable works as well as control of Casa Azul, Frida’s birthplace and home.

Lola was an amazingly successful businesswoman.  She transformed the purchase of an old brick factory into a megamillion dollar construction industry. She transformed herself into one of the most powerful and influential people in Mexico.  A product of post-revolutionary Mexico City, she was a friend to several presidents and spent her life at the heart of the 20th century Mexican art renaissance.  Most artists featured in the exhibit were contemporaries of and indeed acquaintances of Doña Lola. 

Mexican artists adapted the European art trends of surrealism, cubism, impressionism, realism, naturalism, modernism, while giving them a Mexican flavor.  "Impulsos Modernos" takes us through these trends in chronological order.

It is an empty exercise to think of many of the post-revolutionary artists without thinking of their political affiliation. The Syndicate of Artists and Engravers formed during the Mexican Revolution stated that to be truly revolutionary, art must include a social statement in addition to being something of beauty -- a statement usually reflecting the member artists' Mexican Communist Party affiliation.  Easel art had much less obvious social statements than murals -- sometimes none at all, or just a subtle inclusion of a red star as Jesus Guerrero Galván (1910-73) did frequently. 

Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) and Gerardo Murillo (1875-1964), better known as Dr. Atl, were notable exceptions.  Tamayo was quoted saying "art only needs to be something of beauty," but in his last years frequently said he had been a socialist all his life. 

Dr. Atl embraced the other end of the political spectrum -- fascism.  Shunned for years by other artists, he has made a strong comeback based solely on the quality of his work -- especially his aerial views of his favorite subject, volcanoes.  In order to work quickly in cramped helicopters or single engine planes, Dr. Atl developed Atl Colors that give his paintings in "Impulsos Modernos" a  sweeping fresh texture quite unlike the other artists work on display around them.

The last room in the exhibit features surrealism and includes paintings by an adopted Mexican, Leonora Carrington. Curator Cervantes chose to end the period with surrealism, stating “surrealism led directly to abstract art.”  The advent of abstract art seems to be the end of the nationalist period of Mexican art. 

I hope word of this exhibit -- open through August 25 -- leads you to the Dolores Olmedo Museum. The Olmedo Museum reflects Lola’s passionate love of Mexico and the arts.  Her impressive pre-Hispanic collection, beautiful gardens and menagerie of living animals create a vibrant museum.  You won’t be disappointed with your visit.

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