3,000 Years of Stirring Art

The multifaceted `Mexico: A Work of Art' festival is giving North Americans a taste of cultural life south of the border. Today, a look at two of the most important art exhibitions.

THROUGH February 1991, New York City is playing host to roughly 150 cultural events involving Mexican art, dance, film, music, and theater. ``Mexico: A Work of Art'' as the festival called, is sponsored by the Consultate General of Mexico and consolidates the efforts of hundreds of Mexican artists and dozens of American and Mexican institutions. Heading the 53 visual-arts events in both size and importance is ``Mexico: Splendor of Thirty Centuries,''' currently at the Metropolitan Museum here:

It is the largest, most comprehensive and most important survey of Mexican art New York has seen in 50 years.

It is the season's first ``blockbuster'' exhibition, with over 400 items (some of great size), ranging from roughly 1000 B.C. to the mid-20th century.

It is one of the handsomest, most sensitively mounted shows the Metropolitan has put on in recent years. No matter how one approaches it, as a means to a complex and profound aesthetic experience, or as a way of acquiring greater insight into Mexican art and culture, a visitor is unlikely to be disappointed.

By way of introduction, the museum has placed two massive pre-Columbian sculptures in its Great Hall, a 5 1/2-foot-high Olmec head, and a three-foot-high Aztec head of a feathered serpent. The former, executed about 1000 B.C. and weighing nearly five tons, was discovered in 1965. The latter, carved roughly 2,500 years later, was unearthed within the grounds of the Cathedral of Mexico City in 1881.

The exhibition begins on a somber but impressive note with several monumental pre-Columbian sculptures. It ends dramatically but poignantly almost 3,000 years later with the canvases of a number of early-to-mid-20th-century Mexican artists, most notably Diego Rivera, Jos'e Clemente Orozco, Rufino Tamayo, and Frida Kahlo.

The first severe aesthetic jolt to an otherwise smooth chronological flow comes around A.D. 1520. Because of the Spanish Conquest, the art of Mexico underwent a dramatic change at that time. Everything from architecture and painting to the crafts began to reflect (and imitate) European - particularly Spanish - styles and themes. In a few short years, the art of Mexico was transformed. It ceased to be bold and blunt and became exquisite and refined - and often difficult to distinguish from its European models. Even so, the art produced during Mexico's 300-year colonial period includes many extraordinary pieces - enough, in fact, to make up about one-third of the exhibition.

Of special interest are several paintings produced between Mexico's break from Spain (1820) and the Mexican Revolution (1910-20). Although influenced to varying degrees by European Neoclassicism and Romanticism, these canvases achieve a mild but distinctly Mexican flavor by their frank depiction of that country's citizens, customs and landscape. Especially notable are a number of startlingly realistic anonymous and signed portraits, a handful of ex-votos (painted offerings of gratitude for miraculous cures by divine intervention), and a group of

With Jos'e Posada's popular satiric and political prints, the exhibition enters the 20th century and the period when Mexican art once again connected significantly with its artistic heritage. Seen within the sweeping historical context of this show, the art of Rivera, Orozco, David Siqueiros, and a handful of other recent painters assumes a validity and importance not generally accorded it when viewed from the perspective of European modernism.

Rivera in particular pays early Mexican art the ultimate compliment by incorporating a number of its forms and symbols into his own highly public art. In such works as ``The Flower Carrier'' and ``Agrarian Leader Zapata,'' one sees not only a full and frank acceptance of the realities of everyday Mexican life, but a high regard for the way his artistic ancestors made art as well. Of all the recent Mexicans, Rivera comes across as the most forceful and authentic, the most genuinely ``Mexican.''

Much of that derives from his extraordinary creative vitality, but just as much is due to his decision to renounce the art of Europe for that of Mexico. That he made that decision at all was remarkable enough. That he made it at a time when Mexican art was generally ignored and he had already established his first-rate capabilities as a modernist is doubly remarkable and significant.

This is not, of course, to take anything away from Orozco, Tamayo, Siqueiros and the rest, all of whom are represented by powerful and often moving works. And neither is it intended to downgrade the art of Rivera's wife, Frida Kahlo. As this exhibition proves, they all are more than entitled to their outstanding reputations. But none is quite Rivera's match. In the quality of his early Cubist canvases, the simple power of his late easel paintings, and most of all, in the extraordinary inventiveness and range of his murals (unfortunately only hinted at here), he proves himself to be the preeminent Mexican artist of this or any other century since the Spanish Conquest.

Overall, however, he is only one artist in this magnificent survey of Mexican art. Confronted by the amazing display of human creativity on view here, one can only absorb as much of it as is possible in one visit and make plans to return two or three more times to view the rest. In fact, four or five return trips might not be sufficient.

After closing at the Metropolitan on Jan. 13, 1991, ``Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries'' travels to the San Antonio Museum of Art (April 6-Aug. 4, 1991), and to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Oct. 6-Dec. 29, 1991).

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