The many masks of modern art

The next article in this series appears on September 22.m Twentieth-century revolutionary art has tended to be more revolutionary in style than in substance. And more inclined to see revolution in formal rather than in human, social, or political terms. Even such highly subjective and compassionate painters as Nolde and Kokoschka saw themselves as artists first and social spokesmen second; they focused their attention primarily upon the pictorial effectiveness of attention-getting distortions and flamboyant color. And such a truly loving and concerned artist as Kollwitz was passionately dedicated to seeing that her depictions of human pain and human dignity were not "debased" as political propaganda.

Most interesting of all, however, is the fact that the Russian Revolution, probably the most dramatic revolution of the century, became the adoptive mother , not of a pictorial style that depicted or advocated social revolution, but of Constructivism, one of the most radically "pure" and "abstract" of all Modernist art styles. It was only later that Russian art reversed itself and dictated that only politically "correct" subjects were acceptable, a point of view speedily adopted by Hitler upon assuming power, and agreed upon by various other totalitarian regimes.

There has, however, been one dramatic exception to the rule that this century's art has been more revolutionary in style than in substance, and this took place during Mexico's extraordinarily fertile period of the 1920s and 1930 s. At that time it led the world in social and political activism in the form of huge, monumental murals on the walls of public buildings.

There has never been anything quite like it. True, there were gigantic murals in the Renaissance, but they were largely religious in nature. This was different and unique: many acres of painted wall surfaces, executed by extremely sophisticated artists and craftsmen, were all directed at the depiction of social and political history, of traumas, theories, and ideals -- a pictorial encyclopedia for the masses to "read" and from which they could learn.

But most remarkable of all -- and what set these murals apart from most of the social and political art of Soviet Russia and Hitler's Germany -- was that here was art in the true sense of the word. Its roots also went deep into Mexican artistic and social history. Aztec and Mayan stylistic tendencies, as well as their modes of formal articulation, were modified to serve 20th-century subjects and ideas. The chunky and flatly patterned figures of Aztec gods, kings, and warriours became modern mythic figures representing labor, big business, the church, political leaders, working men and women. And Mayan grotesqueries became the modern personifications of war, death, and famine.

But most of all, this art was moral and political: it demanded action, and had a particular concern for righting wrongs, exposing historical errors and crimes, advocating social reforms, and demanding what it believed was the best in man.

The seeds for this mural movement were planted in 1922 with the publication of a manifesto by the newly organized Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors. It read in part: "We repudiate the so-called easel art and all such art which springs from ultraintellectual circles, for it is essentially aristocratic. We hail the monumental expression of art because such art is public property." And finally, "We proclaim that . . . the makers of beauty must invest their greatest efforts in the aim of materializing an art valuable to the people, and our supreme objective in art, which is today an expression for individual pleasure, is to create beauty for all, beauty that enlightens and stirs to struggle."

The three outstanding artists who took this manifesto to heart were Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Siqueiros (who was, as a matter of fact , largely responsible for it). All were highly sophisticated men in both the artistic and political sense, and all were soon to become the giants of the modern Mexican art movement.

Of the three, Rivera was the only one to have studied art in Europe, and the one most familiar with the intricacies of 20th-century Modernism. Because he was also extremely adept at working in several of the modern styles (a few of his early canvases can hardly be distinguished from those of his French contemporaries), it is safe to assume that his decision to turn his back on European modernism and to join forces with his Mexican fellow-painters in reactivating the art of the mural was more pragmatic and less inevitable than theirs.

This pragmatic attitude extended also to his murals, which are the least overtly passionate of the three, the most decorative, the most didactic, and yet , paradoxically, the most realistic. They chronicle Mexican history from its beginnings through the present, with special emphasis on the Indian's struggles against his various oppressors, and they are particularly outspoken on the plight of the workers and peasants under the impact of foreign capitalism.

"Agrarian Leader Zapata" shows that revolutionary figure standing beside his white horse. It is typical of Rivera's art in its visual precision and simplicity. It is easy to understand, highly decorative and yet realistic in detail, and it places a revolutionary leader in the role of a hero.

Orozco was the most dramatically monumental of this trio, the one with the deepest sense of human tragedy, and the one most capable of transforming intense emotion into stark and overwhelmingly effective shapes and patterns. He was an artist of great compassion who saw his art as a prime weapon in the war against oppression and the dehumanization of one group by another. While his images are unusually powerful, they also tend at times to be a bit melo-dramatic and simplistic. This ultimately weakens his cause by overstating his position and his grievances. Even so, his was an art of profound conviction and concern, and if he erred at times as an artist it was only because his feelings were so overwhelmingly on the side of humanity.

The most violently revolutionary -- in his life as well as in his art -- was Siqueiros. To him art was a fist designed to smash the enemy and lift up the underdog. Everything was directed toward maximum effect, and that included the utilization of every technical device that could give his work greater physical impact. He was angry -- and was very obvious about it. As a consequence, his images frequently resemble political posters lacking subtlety or nuance. And yet, his frank and open passion, and his unwillingness to accept any sort of compromise, give his best works an odd kind of authenticity occasionally lacking in the "storytelling" art of Rivera, or the almost too painful art of Orozco.

We are now several decades removed from this movement. Since that time, Mexican art has, by and large, made its peace with international Modernism, and the influence of these three giants has waned dramatically. Even so, the murals of Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros hold up remarkably well, and are now, in fact, the subject of renewed attention and respect.

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