Made in Mexico

Landscapes of Mexico, circa 1954, by Lola Álvarez Bravo
Familia González Rendón/©Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona/Rodrigo Chapa
Lola Álvarez Bravo: Landscapes of Mexico, circa 1954

I am looking at a little book called Spanish for Your Mexican Visit, published in Mexico in 1935 and bound in rough cloth with the title and some drawings stamped on the cover in red. Inside, amid the lessons on everything from figuring out the trains to navigating antique shops and attending cabarets and bullfights, there are advertisements, many with comic illustrations, for the best places to find homestyle cooking or buy postcards of Diego Rivera’s murals. The author, Frances Toor, was an American who moved to Mexico in 1922 and published guidebooks and a magazine, Mexican Folkways, which celebrated the art and culture of the country. Toor’s audience was Americans who believed that the United States had long ago lost its pioneer spirit. They were hankering for a country that seemed raw, complex, and impassioned.

From Toor’s day down to our own, Americans, especially those with bohemian interests or at least bohemian yearnings, have been fascinated by life south of the Rio Grande, where periods of leftist political hope have intersected with vital popular arts traditions and storied pre-Columbian civilizations. The Museum of Modern Art mounted a show of Diego Rivera’s work in 1931 and, nine years later, an immense survey entitled “Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art.” Since then, that sense of Mexico as a kind of Ur-America—more intense, more open, more dramatic than the US—has surged and ebbed but never really gone away. Frida Kahlo, who had a stormy marriage with Rivera, has by now probably eclipsed him in the public imagination; her finest paintings, whatever they owe to the psychological experiments of her friends among the European Surrealists, cast a mythopoetic spell that owes much to pictorial storytelling as practiced in Mexico since ancient times.

Kahlo’s skyrocketing reputation is only one aspect of a larger movement. Shifting demographics have given Latin American culture an ever-expanding part in the culture of the US, and museums are responding with exhibitions that aim to discover or at least explore how we arrived here. Two years ago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art mounted “Found in Translation: Design in California and Mexico, 1915–1985.” This winter, the Whitney Museum of American Art is presenting “Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945.”

The revelations, collaborations, and confusions that animated artists and art lovers in Mexico and the United States in the twentieth century are all on display at the Art Institute of Chicago in an elegant design show with a mysterious title: “In a Cloud, in a Wall, in a Chair: Six Modernists in Mexico at Midcentury.” That poetic flourish comes from an observation by the central figure in the exhibition, the furniture designer Clara Porset, who believed that “there is design…

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