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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Opens Vida y Drama: Modern Mexican Prints

BOSTON, MA.- Printmaking has flourished in Mexico for nearly five centuries, since the first printing press arrived in 1539. After the Revolution of 1910, creative printmaking workshops thrived in Mexico City and prints played an important role in the formation of modern Mexican visual style. Vida y Drama: Modern Mexican Prints, an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), features bold, evocative, and socially conscious Mexican prints created from the 1920s through the 1950s. Lithographs, linocuts, and woodcuts by some of Mexico’s finest artists—Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Leopoldo Méndez, and Alberto Beltrán—are among the 27 objects in the exhibition drawn from the Museum’s extensive collection of works on paper. Vida y Drama, on view May 30 through November 2 in the Clementine Haas Michel Brown Gallery at the MFA.

"Printmakers of this period generated some of the most interesting Mexican art of the 20th century, inspired by their history and the changing world around them,‖ said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. ―As this exhibition illustrates, these artists were essential to the development of modernism in Mexico."

The works in Vida y Drama are arranged to examine three related themes. The first section offers some of the earliest prints made by three great painters, Rufino Tamayo (1899–1991) and the muralists Diego Rivera (1886–1957) and José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949). During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Tamayo, Rivera, and Orozco went to New York City, the center of the modern art world, where they created, exhibited, and sold fine art prints. These works drew international attention to Mexican modernism and excited new interest in printmaking among younger Mexican artists.

"Artists gravitated toward printmaking as a means to explore the pre-Hispanic past and indigenous visual traditions, and to experiment with American and European avant-garde styles," said Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell, exhibition curator. "Their prints gave form to the ideals of social, racial, and economic equality that fueled the Mexican Revolution."

Tamayo’s Virgin of Guadalupe (1926–1927) is one of the first woodcuts he made, and the lines have a rough look and a sculptural quality that evoke folk art. The simplicity of shape expresses his awareness of pre-Columbian art and European Modernism. Rivera’s most famous print, Zapata, is one of five lithographs he created in New York in 1932. It depicts Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary leader and advocate for agrarian reform. The image relates to two of Rivera’s previous projects, his 1929–1930 frescos for the Palace of Cortés in Cuernavaca and a portable fresco he painted in New York for the Museum of Modern Art in 1931. Two works by Orozco also illustrate subjects related to the Revolution of 1910—the lithograph Hands (1926), an evocative and hopeful image of outstretched hands, and The Rear Guard (1929), a boldly abstracted depiction of soldaderas, the women who followed their men during the Revolution, to take care of them and, when necessary, fight alongside them.

The second section of Vida y Drama highlights prints published between 1939 and 1957 by the circle of artists associated with the Taller de Gráfica Popular (the People’s Graphic Workshop, or TGP, founded in 1937). Many TGP artists were of the generation that was inspired by Tamayo, Rivera, Orozco, and the other great muralist and printmaker, David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974). The TGP was Mexico City’s most prolific and experimental printmaking workshop. Its artists created a wide range of powerful images (including posters advertising their exhibitions) that comment on social and political changes occurring in post-Revolutionary Mexico and well as in Europe and America. Included in Vida y Drama are two important and closely related works created by TGP artist Alberto Beltrán (1923–2002) in 1957. His linocut poster Vida y Drama de Mexico—20 Años de Vida del Taller de Gráfica Popular depicts an artist’s hands carving the image of a young man’s head into the surface of a printing block. The head seems to rise off the block, and this speaks to the TGP’s interest in representing the challenges faced by everyday people. The other work by Beltrán is an ink, watercolor, and graphite preliminary drawing for the Vida y Drama de Mexico poster. The figures drawn in yellow ink summarize the group’s objectives: to depict the struggles of the Mexican people (the ―vida‖) and to expose corruption and injustice (the ―drama‖) represented by a calavera, a skeleton figure, dressed in a tuxedo and offering a toast to the viewer. Another TGP-related poster is Taller de Gráfica Popular: Exposición 20 Litográfías (1939) by Francisco Dosamantes (1911–1986), a color lithograph featuring a stylized eye that appears to be watching one’s every move. Additionally, Angel Bracho’s (b. 1911) color woodcut ¡Victoria! (1945) congratulates the Allied and Red Armies for defeating fascism in Europe and ending World War II.

The third part of Vida y Drama explores different types of portraiture. These are more intimate images of actual people in which the artist uses visual style to convey the sitter’s mood and character. Rivera’s La Mujer (Frida Kahlo) (1930) is a lithographic montage of his wife, the renowned Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, seated on a bed wearing only shoes and a beaded necklace. Before canceling the stone, Rivera made the MFA’s unique proof. He printed the image on both sides of the paper, and then pressed another impression against one side. The result is a fascinating print that implies movement, like a photographic double exposure, and the figure appears to have both male and female characteristics. Three artists’ self-portraits also are featured in this section: an unflinching image of Rivera in middle age, created in 1930; a 1939 naturalistic head and shoulders view of the young artist Jésus Escobedo (1918–1978); and Escobedo’s Man’s Head (Self-Portrait), about 1940, which shows biomorphic distortions to his facial features.

Museum of Fine Arts | Diego Rivera | José Clemente Orozco | David Alfaro Siqueiros | Leopoldo Méndez | Alberto Beltrán | Rufino Tamayo |

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