A Celebration of All Things Cultural, Artistic, and Entertaining in Madison
Jan 13, 2012
Land, Liberty and the Pursuit of Freedom
When one thinks of revolution, major forces likely come to mind. People and ideals clashing in opposition, radical new ideas attempting to overthrow established traditions, passion mixing with violence.
There’s no lack of such elements in the art of the Mexican Revolution, which took place from 1910 to 1920. But walk through ¡Tierra y Libertad! Revolution and the Modernist Mexican Print, the new exhibition at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art opening January 14 and running through April 15, and you’ll find what’s most powerful is also deeply personal.
The exhibition of sixty prints from the museum’s permanent collection show injustices that prompted the revolution, heroes of the conflict and the spirit of Mexico post-revolution. The revolution sought to replace an oppressive regime and caste system with a more socialist society of which all Mexicans were part, and the humble campesino became the symbol of the movement, says MMoCA curator Rick Axsom.
“The battle cry of the revolution was land and liberty,” he says, “the idea that he who works the land should own it.”
A linoleum cut of a man in a sombrero, gun in hand and ammo at waist, with his back to the viewer—Rufino Tamayo’s Revolutionist—is first work visitors see when entering the State Street Gallery. The entry space is dedicated to Guadalupe Posada, a printmaker who offered social and political satire and critique; he was generations older than the artists highlighted in the show, but they regarded him as the first radical printmaker.
The main exhibition is loosely organized by themes ranging from work to the national landscape to ritual and faith.
Six prints displayed together are from a portfolio published in 1946 called Mexican People. Made by different artists, they reveal the hardships of the working class but also the pride and dignity found in labor. “These people are the bedrock of the socialist revolution,” Axsom says.
Prints showcasing Mexico’s varied landscape—from the inhospitable desert to lush tropical regions—do more than document the country’s topography. They show the artists’ connection to their land and the country’s people as diverse and imbued with a strength of character.
Three works present allegories of mothers and children. In one, a woman leads a child up a staircase toward a bright light, while in another a schoolteacher walks through an empty landscape, an eagle high in the sky leading her way. And especially moving is a linoleum cut of a woman cradling a baby—whether she’s providing comfort or mourning, the viewer is left uncertain.
Around the corner are the exhibition’s only color prints, three works by Carlos Merida. A Guatemalan artist, Merida published in 1943 ten lithographs titled Prints of the Popol-Vuh. By creating works based on the Mayan religious text and creation stories, he was not only celebrating his Mayan identity, but also offering the genesis of a new Mexico, Guatemala and Central America, Axsom explains.
The exhibition concludes with “Los Tres Grandes”—the stars of the era, José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Orozco’s somber On the Road features a group of men, women and children walking, with adults carrying children and some people holding rifles. They’re on the move, with their backs to the viewer. Says Axsom, “These are displaced people.”
Also included are Orozco’s Grief, with a powerful image of a man’s hands clasped and obscuring his face, and his print of a Franciscan friar bending down in a beautiful swoop to embrace a horribly emaciated Indian.
And Rivera’s Open Air School lithograph, featuring a woman teaching students of all ages, while guards surround them and workers toil in the background, is a stunning testament to individuals learning and growing and striving to reach their potential—a powerful and personal way to end an exhibition delving into the reasons for and life following a revolution.
¡Tierra y Libertad! Revolution and the Modernist Mexican Print runs January 14–April 15 at MMoCA. For more information, visit mmoca.org.
Images—On the Road by José Clemente Orozco, Candelabra, Oaxaca by Vita Castro and Open Air School by Diego Rivera—courtesy of MMoCA.