LONG BEACH, CA.- Katharsis is an exhibition that includes over 150 photographs and film clips from the Photography Collection of the Fundación Televisa. The collection documents Mexican wrestling or lucha libre. The images produced under journalistic assignment, studio portraiture, documentary and/or artistic production, span a period of nearly seven decades. Three generations of writers, a documentary film collection and the archives of specialized magazines have created this visual history that allow a peek into an aspect of Mexican popular culture entrenched in the psyche of Mexicans since the 1930s. For many, lucha libre culture is reminiscent of gladiators and Aztec warriors in battle. This exhibition was organized by Dirección de Artes Visuales de Fundación Televisa.
Upon its development as a genre of mass entertainment and through its various elements, lucha libre mexicana succeeded in establishing an aesthetic that was simultaneously bizarre and refined. Katharsis explores the elements that make it so unique and in doing so, divides them into themes such as The Mask; Ladies of the Ring and Santo: The Silver Masked Man, among others.
Lucha libre combines athleticism, theater, dance, cartoons and other visual arts. Men and women train to turn their bodies into weapons and once in the ring, they turn into combatants who face each other in honor of old and new mythologies. The mask is a central and key component of the luchador (wrestler). Anthropologists, philosophers, linguists, psychologists, writers and poets have investigated the profound mystery of the mask which transforms the face and questions the significance of identity and the roles played by the characters. Lucha libre has made the mask one of the most colorful forms of expression. Yet, the fascination with masks is not strange for Mexicans, whose lives are filled with the rites and celebrations of their complex, cultural and religious syncretism.
The first wrestler to enter the ring with his face hidden was Masked Marvel for a fight that took place in New York in 1933 between him and Jim Atts. The popularity of the latter reached the Mexican venues, where his name was translated into SpanishLa Maravilla Enmascaradaand assumed by another wrestlerGordon El Ciclón (The Cyclone) Mackay. However, it is Luis Núñez, in his personification of El Enmascarado (The Masked Man), who is recognized as having been the first masked figure produced for the Mexican ring.
Just like their male colleagues, luchadoras (female wrestlers) were subjects for photographic portraiture and wrestling publications. The German photographer Hans Gutmann rebaptized as Juan Guzmán correspondent for Life and Time in Mexico, covered shows that famous women fighters from the United States among them Mildred Burke fought in the Arena Nacional, in 1940. Forty years later, Lourdes Grobet profiled La Briosa (The Lively One) in her dual role as mother and luchadora. These and other images of female fights should be seen not only as documents related to the evolution of a sports spectacle, but as evidence of the positive and transgressive actions that portrayed femininity in a way that was not in accordance with traditional standards.
Yet, since the middle of the 20th century, there has been no other wrestler like Santo: El Enmascarado de Plata (Saint: The Man in the Silver Mask) and few civilian or military heroes, athletes, movie stars, or other deservedly renowned personalities, have attained the mythological heights of the wrestler who fought in such a hood and under a name with an explicit religious connotation. The body of the greatest legend of Mexican wrestling, the superhero Mexico needed to face down the dangers of the atomic age, belonged to Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta.
Santo (Saint) debuted on July 26, 1942, wearing a coarse, leather hood and trained in the characteristic skills of rudo (rough) fighters. Through the following four decades, he fought in the Mexican arenas, winning championships and putting his mask against other hoods and scalps, without ever revealing his identity. In doing so, he cemented himself in the world of lucha libre as the most legendary luchador.
From television to comics, graffiti to digital animation, journalism to film, there has been no medium of visual expression within Mexican popular culture or the fine arts of the 20th century that has not paid tribute to the mythology of lucha libre. The fights, at once corporeal and symbolic, bloody and cathartic, have created unquenchable sources of imagination that transcend the limits of the ring. The public is not resigned to the role of spectator; but instead, they fervently participate in the complex and boundless theatricality of lucha libre.
The exhibition Katharsis was organized by Fundación Televisa. Support is provided by the Robert Gumbiner Foundation, Arts Council for Long Beach and City of Long Beach. Media support is provided by KCRW.