Friday, April 29, 2011

History and Identity: Art Appreciation as Reflecting a Region's Standing

Latin America's history with colonial oppression, now centuries old, and the subsequent dispossession of the indigenous by a new set of oppressors, may contribute to the problems artists there face in framing their works. But I believe the socio-economic and political standing of a region influences majorly how its art is viewed locally and abroad. As long as Latin America remains poor, as long as it stays mired in admiration for Trujillos, Castros, Duvaliers, Pinochets, and now Chavezs and Ortegas, until it clears the poppy fields instead of the Amazon, until its people stop flocking to the Virgin of Guadalupe for curing chronic conditions, one suspects its art will be seen a tad condescendingly by the rest of the world.

One can claim this is unfair, that art should not be tied to politics and economics, that multiculturalism means accepting the warts of those with other ways. Unfortunately, artists will have little following in their own places as long as the people there are poor. Art is our highest form of mental expression, and it cannot flower where basic human wants are unmet for large hordes of the populace. For Latin American art to achieve international recognition, those countries will have to progress economically, lifting their masses out of poverty.

The Spanish rule is now almost two hundred years old, only slightly younger than British rule in the US. Blaming colonialism for Latin America's art problems is a flight from the reality of its poverty, despots, demagogues, the pelo malo/pelo bueno (good hair/bad-curly-hair) local racism, and superstitious religion. Art cannot don the mantle of myths and mirages to distract from reality. The pre-Columbian Aztlan reeked of famines, human sacrifices, conquest, tribute, slavery, and environmental destruction. The Aztecs were as bad as the later Spaniards. If artists there are still railing against Colonialism almost 200 years after Spain left Mexico then their ways and works are unlikely to be the salvation of the land.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Frida Kahlo (Blog #7; Assignment H)

Julie Taymor’s Frida is the biography, changed in places, of the famous Mexican painter, whose life was as large as her husband’s art. Salma Hayek does little justice to the real Kahlo, but the film is worth watching as an introduction to a serious study of both Kahlo and Rivera.

Kahlo’s story is well-known, oft told, and as surreal as some of her art. She was a Marxist, actually a Stalinist; a feminist bi-sexual; a sexual libertine; a many-race mix, part Jewish, part Spanish, part Amerindian; married to a man equally complex, talented, rebellious and anarchic; and a lover of the Mexican indigene. She loved Mexico, and as Patrick Marnhan confirms (258), pulled Rivera back to the country after the aborted commission at Rockefeller center. 
To the end, Kahlo stayed Marxist, even after an affair with the doomed Trotsky (310). While she fought for causes well ahead of her time--civil rights for the native Indians and feminist expressions of the female body--she did not limit her appeal to specific segments. Her final solo exhibition showcased her work as an artist, not as an activist wedded to identity-based causes. She used her mixed identity to root herself in and preach a common humanity beyond divides, and a common responsibility to work for equal rights across the board. In this she was influenced heavily by her husband, Diego Rivera. Rivera’s circle of mural painters, Orozco and Siqueiros among them, were strong believers in the original tenets of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and their debates were on details. This cultural air of stressing human solidarity as opposed to group identity and fragmentation seeped into Kahlo’s portraits and behavior too. She was racially not of Mexico’s majority, being half Jewish, nor was she part of its powerful elite, the Criollos. But she avoided the mantle of representing her specific ethnicity or cultural setting, preferring to stand for ideals more basic and hence more universal. This was largely because the cultural backdrop of the revolution, and the mural art springing from it, encouraged a universal outlook.

Works Cited
Frida. Dir. Julie Taymor. Miramax, 2002. Film.
Marnham, Patrick. Dreaming with His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera. New York: Knopf, 1998. Print.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Museum Visit: Olmec Exhibition at DeYoung

The Olmecs are widely thought the first major civilization of the Americas, first rising sometime in the second millennium BC. They ruled over what is now southeastern Mexico, along the Gulf coast. Their three main cities were Tres Zapotes, La Venta and San Lorenzo (near the latter-day Tenochtitlan, today's Mexico City), all abandoned by 400 BC. They are known mostly for their huge rock monuments, and the controversy over their origins.

The DeYoung exhibition featured several major Olmec works. Most were figures of people and animals, or narratives of historical scenes and traditional ceremonies, with some rare female images. The most imposing were the Olmec Heads, meters high, weighing many tons, carved in volcanic basalt stone. There were also axes, mirrors in magnetite, clean shell pendants of Jadeite and a pair of twinned figures in Andesite rock. The figures were of a man and beast combination. Many of the figures showed the cranial deformation (shaping) practiced by the Olmecs; the maize cob thought the right shape for the human head. Some stone carvings related to the ballgames they played, and were deeded to the later civilizations such as the Mayas, Toltecs and Aztecs. The art also included ceramic slip-painted with pigment.

Olmec works remained static through the centuries, with little change in style or substance. Their strong belief in the supernatural is likely one reason. Many of their inventions, such as the long-count calendrical system and hieroglyphs, would be adopted by other Mexican cultures. Ethnically, they are considered the same stock that came in via the Siberian bridge and spread south.

While the art impresses with its sophistication relative to what has been excavated elsewhere in the Americas for the same period, it is, in technique, variety and dynamism, not there with the art of the civilizations close to the Mediterranean shores, such as Mesopotamia and Egypt. Lack of metal tools, a smaller population, and no form of writing seem to have held back the Olmecs.