The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2010

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SEPT 2010 Issue

THE DAWN OF MODERNISM: Early Twentieth-Century Mexican Photography

Tina Modotti, “Roses,” c. 1924; platinum print.  Courtesy Throckmorton Fine Art.
Tina Modotti, “Roses,” c. 1924; platinum print. Courtesy Throckmorton Fine Art.

On View
Throckmorton Fine Art
July 8 – September 11, 2010
New York

Given today’s death-dealing, drug war headlines about life south of the border, it’s strange to recall that there was a similarly lethal revolution going on in Mexico one hundred years ago (1910 – 1917, and well beyond). And that in the following decades, artists and fine art photographers found inspiration there, simultaneously introducing European innovations and creating their own organic aesthetic.

The Dawn of Modernism, at Throckmorton, presents a museum-quality show of 33 black and white photographs by 10 bright lights of Mexican photography—the prolific German-Mexican postcard artist Hugo Brehme, Lola and Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Héctor Garcia, Leo Matiz and Mariana Yampolsky, as well as foreigners—the Australian-American commercial and fine art photographer Anton Bruehl, the German-American photojournalist Fritz Henle, the Italian communist Tina Modotti and her mentor, America’s celebrated Edward Weston. Because the show encompasses an extended period—1923 to 1951, a tumultuous span that included the Great Depression and World War II, it necessarily spreads thin.

The lateness of the cultural hour suggests that any Latin American modernist photos not already collected must necessarily be seconds, or imitative of European Modernist works. Although many of the photos do have analogs in the work of photographers and artists outside Mexico, a reciprocal statement could be made relative to these groundbreaking photographs. Indeed, similarities between these and foreign works simply corroborate modernism’s worldwide embrace. In any event, most escape the fate of mediocrity and stand on individual merits.

Photos in The Dawn of Modernism reveal definitive modernist elements. Formally, these are abstraction, asymmetry, and geometry, including isometric perspective; intellectually they are celebrations of technology, psychological themes, and socio-political undercurrents. Among formally-focused works, photographs by the under-exhibited and tragically short-lived Tina Modotti run the gamut of quality. Modotti’s seminal, abstract “Roses” (c. 1924), is a sensitive wash of texture in platinum that eclipses Steichen’s melodramatic “Heavy Roses” (1914). Her tentative “Calla Lily” (c. 1924-26), deriving from the work of her mentor, Edward Weston, underwhelms compared to Imogen Cunningham’s highly contrasted “Two Callas” (1925). Modotti’s “Telegraph Wires” (1925-1928) is left in the dust by Walker Evans’s similarly composed “Brooklyn Bridge” (1929), despite its monotych, shrine-like presence, mainly because, despite its formal earnestness, its execution has an unfocused, snapshot quality.

Weston’s asymmetric “Querétaro, Mexico, Colonial Period” (1926), a Precisionist pair of buttresses, isn’t really modern; it’s simply a dynamically composed photo that hints at abstraction. Its 19th-century level plane perspective, tourist postcard theme, and antique vibe trump even hinted innovation, making it feel almost anti-modern, a documentary throwback, like Adolfo Farsari’s “View of Shijo-dori, Kyoto, Japan” (c. 1896). It’s Weston on unselfconscious autopilot, a photoarchaeologist succumbing to ancient allure. Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s “Jicamas nudas” (“Nude jicamas,” 1925) and “Chapil de leña” (“Woodpile,” 1927) are more daring. “Jicamas” is a unique animal, a Brancusian homage “photo sculpture” totem pole. Au courant in its time, no doubt, it seems self-conscious to contemporary eyes. “Woodpile” is another story, evoking Mesoamerican pyramids and pyres, and Canadian inuksuit, stark against the sky. It’s an early step on the path to Jackson Pollock and Stephen Talasnik.

The show also includes photos that barely bear the moniker of modernism—artistic-touristic and celebrity photographs—because their subject matter obscures categorical qualification. Henle’s “Portrait of Nieves” (1943) is an impish study of Rivera and Henle’s voluptuous nude model seen from the nose up among curvaceous fronds. This is apparently included because of its unconventional composition; otherwise, it’s just a wiseguy in-joke. In contrast, Weston’s portraits transcend voyeurism and reveal their subjects as actors in a modern world. His “Retrato de Diego Rivera” (1923) captures a slouching, sly character in a threadbare belted coat, head atilt, whose body forms a long, modernist diagonal, his expression ambiguously insouciant or catatonic. Weston’s left-gazing portraits of “Guadalupe de Rivera, Mexico” (Rivera’s then wife, 1924) and “Manuel Galvan, Mexico” (c. 1924) are definitively modern and radically formatted in the socialist-heroic mode of El Lissitzky and Gustav Klutsis.

Given its limited scale, the show coalesces into a thematically consistent whole. In Matiz’s “Untitled, Mexican Charros” (“Sin titulo, Charros mexicanos,” 1946), men seated diagonally on a bench are stand-ins for identical cogs, hitting modernist themes on all cylinders. His “Frida Kahlo en la Casa Azul, Coyoacan,” a non-vintage carbon print from a 1944 original, is an iconic keeper. Her crisply focused body bisected by a diagonal shadow, Kahlo leans back against a stucco wall, chin slightly raised. The diagonal does double duty: formally, it creates a delineating compositional effect; metaphorically it presents Kahlo as a being between two planes: the modern world of light and the ancient realm of darkness. Representing an era when modernism was new, Kahlo stands fixed in metal molecules, awaiting perusal in later, equally transitory times.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2010

All Issues