Saturday, June 3, 2017

Mexican Mural Movement: Roberto Montenegro and a New Beginning of the Movement


One Artistic Encounter Leads to Another

The serendipity that occurs in life when one is exploring one thing and coincidentally runs across something else of value, makes for wonderful moments. Such moments seem to occur frequently in our Ambles through Mexico City. Recently, we went to explore Carlos Monsiváis' curiously named Museum of the Corner Store (Museo del Estanquillo) in Centro Histórico. While perusing the author's very diverse collection of mementos of the 20th century, we were stopped in our tracks by a simple but forceful portrait by a Mexican painter we had not previously heard of, Roberto Montenegro.

Portrait of a Mexican

By Roberto Montenegro, 1930

We were so struck by the power of the portrait that we knew we had to learn more about the artist and find out if he had other work on display in Mexico City.

Later, checking Wikipedia, we learned something of the artist's biography, including something that greatly surprised us.

Life and Times of Roberto Montenegro

Image result
Roberto Montenegro

Born in 1885 in Guadalajara, Montenegro's education began at a school for boys where he had his first experience with drawing. This led to meeting the Italian Felix Bernardelli, who had a painting and music school in Guadalajara. Bernardelli introduced Montenegro to Art Nouveau.

In 1903, at age 18, he was sent by his father to Mexico City to study architecture. Through his cousin, the poet Amado Nervo, he was able to meet many of Mexico City's social elite. From 1904 to 1906 he studied drawing and history at the Academy of San Carlos. Among his classmates was Diego Rivera. In 1906, he and Rivera were finalists for an art scholarship to go to Europe. The decision was made by coin toss, with Montenegro winning. Nevertheless, months later, Rivera would also be given a scholarship to go. Montenegro went first to Madrid, where he studied at the Academy of San Fernando. He became a passionate visitor to the Prado Museum, studying the works of El Greco and Goya, among others

From 1907 to 1910 he was in Paris where he had his first contact with Cubism, meeting Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris. He also met Aubrey Beardsley and Rubén Darío, who reinforced his early exposure to Art Nouveau. While in Paris his work was exhibited. He also traveled to London and Italy. He returned briefly to Mexico in 1910 but by 1913 he returned to Paris, studying at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts and collaborating with Rubén Darío on an art magazine called Revista Mundial (World Magazine), to which he contributed illustrations. When World War I broke out in 1914, he moved to Barcelona, then to the island of Mallorca, where he painted and also made a living fishing. Wikipedia

A "New" Beginning to the Mexican Mural Movement

Montenegro returned to Mexico in 1921, in response to an invitation from José Vasconcelos, the first Secretary of Public Education after the Mexican Revolution. Herein lies what so surprised us.

Vasconcelos' invitation was to paint murals related to Mexican life and culture in public buildings in Mexico City to help forge a Mexican sense of national identity. He sent the same invitation to Rivera and David Siqueiros, both of whom were in Paris, and to José Clemente Orozoco, who was in the United States. Apparently, Montenegro was the first of the four to return to Mexico City and go to work on Vasconcelos' vision.

Thus, Montenegro was actually the first Mexican artist to create murals in public spaces, before Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco or David Siqueiros—"The Great Three"! He, not they, initiated the Mural Movement!

Wikipedia also tells us that the murals, or at least one of those that Montenegro painted, still exist in the former Colegio de San Pedro y San Pablo, College of St. Peter and St. Paul, in Centro Histórico, less than a block from the former College of San Ildefonso, where, until now, we (and most people) had believed the Mural Movement began with the first murals created by the "Great Three".

So on a recent Saturday morning, we take Metro Line 2  from Coyoacán to the Zócalo. Walking up a newly opened pedestrian walkway between the Cathedral and the Aztec/Mexica Templo Mayor, we soon arrive at the former College of St. Peter and St. Paul.

Former College of St. Peter and St. Paul.

College with a Complex History

San Pedro y San Pablo College was built in late 16th and early 17th centuries. The official founding occurred in 1574 with the name of Colegio Máximo de San Pedro y San Pablo (Great College of Saints Peter and Paul). It was called "Máximo" because it was built to oversee the training of priests in Mexico City and other parts of New Spain. Construction began in 1576. The church section was built between 1576 and 1603. An annex was completed in 1603, and the rest of the college complex was finished in 1645. The purpose of the college was to provide university-level education to young criollo men, descended from Spanish settlers. 

After the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 from colonial Mexico, the college closed. The school building was given to civil authorities, who first used it as a barracks, and later to house the Nacional Monte de Piedad, a pawn "shop" and charity foundation that is still a major institution; in effect, it provides small personal loans in exchange for some collateral. The church building was transferred to Augustinians, who removed most of its decoration.

Fifty years later, in 1816, when the Jesuits received permission to return to colonial Mexico, they found the complex nearly in ruins. They worked to rebuild both the church and the school. However, San Pedro y San Pablo College never again functioned as such, due to the concurrent Mexican War of Independence against Spain.

Shortly after Mexican independence was achieved in 1821, several important events took place in the church building. In 1823, after proclaiming the independence of Mexico, Agustín de Iturbide held meetings there which led to the promulgation of the "Reglamento Provisional del Imperio" (Provisional Regulations of the Empire). The following year, after Emperor Agustín was deposed, the initial sessions of the Constitutional Congress were held there, during which the first Federal Constitution of Mexico was written. Subsequently, in 1824 Guadalupe Victoria was sworn in there as the first president of Mexico.

The church reopened for worship from 1832 to 1850, but then was closed to become the library of San Gregorio College. Later, the space had quite a number of uses, including as a dance hall, an army depot and barracks, a correctional school, a mental hospital, and a Customs' storage facility.

From 1921 to 1927, the building was remodeled by José Vasconcelos while he was Secretary of Education and inaugurated as a "Hall of Discussion" with an office dedicated to a campaign against illiteracy. Vasconcelos had the church building redecorated, adding a number of important early modern mural works by Roberto Montenegro. Vasconcelos gave the building to the National University (now UNAM), of which he had been the first rector (president). UNAM manages it to this day. In 1996, the university established the Museum of Light in the building.

In 2010, at the time of the 200th anniversary of Independence and the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, the building was closed to transform it into the Museum of the Constitutions, reflecting its use in 1824. It reopened in 2011. The university moved the Museum of Light to empty space in the former College of San Idefonso, about a half block away. Wikipedia

Encounter with a Beginning

Interior of ex-Colegio San Pedro y San Pablo,
now the Museum of the Constitutions.

When we enter, we see that a huge, modern, curved sculptural form, made of polished vertical wooden boards, takes up almost all of the space. Speaking to the person at the admissions desk, we learn it was recently installed to make a more contemporary and viewer-friendly space for learning about the history of Mexico's numerous constitutions. This remodeling also marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution of 1917. Glimpsing a large mural at the rear, we worry that the sculptural form will interfere with viewing Montenegro's work.

Wending our way through the curved space, paying no attention to the recounting of the history of Mexico's multiple constitutions, we make our way to the back space, now made into a kind of small amphitheater for programs. There, in front of us, Montenegro's mural rises over our heads.

Echos of the Classical Past, Transitions to the Modern Future

Having seen so many murals by the Big Three, and by some of their successors, we find this mural a bit odd, yet also familiar. We see Montenegro's Art Deco roots in the huge Tree of Life, which gives the mural its name, and which is a traditional Mexican folk image. But acoss the bottom is ranged a cast of characters that seem out of a 19th century Neo-classic work. We remember the murals in the Reception Hall of the former Secretariat of Communications (now the National Museum of Art), built on the orders of President and dictator Porfiro Díaz at the beginning of the 20th century.

Secretariat of Communications/
National Museum of Art
Secretariat of Communications/
National Museum of Art
We also remember what, until this moment, we had thought was the "first"—and also rather strange—mural of the Mural Movement, Diego Rivera's "The Creation", in the Simón Bolivar Auditorium at San Ildefonso.

La Creación
The Creation

Diego Rivera
San Ildefonso

Both the Montenegro and the Rivera murals feature the reserved, rather static and symbolic Neo-classic female figures. Rivera's foreshadow his later rounded, more naturalistic, but still "classic" human figures. 

The Montenegro also reminds us of another mural in San Ildefonso, the first one executed by José Clemente Orozoco


José Clemente Orozco
San Ildefonso

The Orozco has more fluidity and dynamism than the Montenegro or the Rivera, but similar Classical and Renaissance imagery, reminiscent of Botticelli. While his Madonna is nude, her origins are in Medieval and Renaissance art. 

Montenegro's mural was executed in 1922. Rivera's The Creation was begun the same year and completed the next. Orozco's was done in 1923. Now seeing that Montenegro's work came first, we wonder how much it may have influenced the style of both Rivera's and Orozco's parallel works, or if the three shared a still-existing tie to classical and Renaissance styles. We know that in their subsequent murals, Rivera and Orozco dramatically broke with this traditional imagery and created their inimitable Modern styles. 

A Puzzling Portrayal of the Meeting (or Not) of Cultures

Examining Montenegro's Tree of Life more closely, we notice a couple of other anomalies. The central figure at the bottom is a Conquistador, probably Hernán Cortés, though with red hair. It is an explicit reference to the Spanish domination of the indigenous culture. It reminds us of Orozoco's powerful Cortés and Malinche in the stairwell at San Ildefonso, and even the first mural by David Siqueiros, which we were recently able to view in San Ildefonso, which portrays, among other figures, a possible Malinche and a defeated indigenous man—conveying the implied message about the outcome of the Spanish Conquest.

Here, with Montenegro, the Spaniard dominates the scene, but has absolutely no relation to the classic, white European women around him. A Diana-like figure on the left seems to aim her arrow directly at him. Wikipedia's account of the mural says this figure was originally one of Guadalupe Victoria, a hero of the War for Independence and Mexico's first president. His shooting of the Conquistador would make some sense: Independence from Spain ends its Colonial domination. But the account says Vasconcelos didn't like the apparenly androgenous representation of Guadalupe Victoria and had Montenegro transform the figure into a classic Goddess Diana. As such, it makes no apparent sense, unless we see the Cortés figure as tied to the Tree of Life and about to be executed. That would also explain why some of the women appear to be weeping.

Another apparent anomaly appears on the right side; among all the white, classically European women, stands a lone dark figure.

An indigenous, "Indian" woman stands
between two European female icons. 

Although the white women stand close to an explicitly indigenous one (who, stylistically, is similar to indigenous women painted by Diego Rivera), they have no structural or thematic relationship to her. Classic European Culture stays far from Mexican Indigenous Culture. The Conquistador is equally isolated from his Classical past and his Mexican future. We know that Vasconcelos favored the teaching of the European Classics—even to Mexico's original peoples—as a "universal" foundation of public education. He also championed Mexicans as the "fifth race"—combining all the races of the world into a new, and better, breed of human being. Perhaps this mural is a hesitant attempt to portray that new union. To our eyes, it does not appear to succeed.

Montenegro painted two other murals in San Pedro y San Pablo, the Fiesta de la Santa Cruz (Festival of the Holy Cross) which depicts a traditional festival on May 3, done between 1923 and 1924, and the Resurrección (Resurrection) which was painted between 1931 and 1933. We had read that they were somewhere in an inner courtyard. We ask some museum employees whether it is possible to see them. They know nothing of them, so we are left with this first mural of the Mural Movement.

Art Nouveau Meets México Folklorico

Surrounding the mural, literally giving it a base, is artistic work that seems to go in a very different direction from the classicism and conceptual conflicts of the mural.

A wainscot of azulejos, blue tiles, provides a base for the large mural and extends to the side walls, providing some connection between it and the surrounding art. Azulejo is a style of porcelain developed by the "Moors" (North African Muslims), who brought it to the Iberian Peninsula. The tiles became a part of Spanish decorative arts and, as such, were brought to Nueva España.

The azulejos frame a series of decorative designs that strike us as a fusion of Mexican folk art and Art Nouveau, with their bright colors, naturalistic shapes and traditional country scenes. In the lower left corner of each image is written: "Painted by Fernández Ledesma".

Later, back at home, we turn to our faithful Wikipedia to find out who this previously unknown artist is.

Another "Lost" Artist

Gabriel Fernández Ledesma was born in 1900, in the state of Aguascalientes, in north-central Mexico. By the time he was fifteen, he was exhibiting his work. At age seventeen, he was given a government scholarship to study at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City, which had just reopened after the Revolution. In 1922, Vasconcelos commissioned him to design the tiles for the renovation of the ex-Colegio San Pedro y San Pablo. He subsequently worked with Roberto Montenegro on other projects. He worked as an art teacher and started his own school to teach handicrafts and popular art. He illustrated art magazines and served as head of the editorial offices of the Secretariat of Public Education. He died in 1983.

From Politically Laden Murals to Art Nouveau Decoration

Looking around the full space of the former chapel, we see archways and pillars covered with Art Nouveau decorative painting, full of the stylized flowers and animals that echo Mexican folk art.

Quintessential Art Nouveau
One source attributes this mural to Xavier Guerrero
(see below)

The Zodiac
In the dome of a former side-chapel

By Roberto Montenegro,
possibly with the assistance of Xavier Guerrero (see below)

The stunning cerulean blue reminds us of its use by Rivera in his "Creation" (above)
and by Orozco as a contrasting hope expressed in the background sky
in his portrayals of the suffering of common folk during the Revolution.

Small, informative plates on the wall tell us this decorative Art Nouveau work was done by Montenegro and two other artists, Xavier Guerrero and Jorge Enciso. 

Xavier Guerrero, born in 1896 the northeastern state of Coahuila, learned painting from his father, who worked in masonry and decorating. In 1912, at age sixteen, he moved to Guadalajara, in the western state of Jalisco, to study art. There he learned how to paint fresco murals (on wet plaster). In 1919, he moved to Mexico City. In 1922, Vasconcelos hired him to work with Montenegro in San Pedro y San Pablo. Thereafter, he worked with Rivera in the Secretariat of Public Education and other of that artist's projects. It is thought that Guerrero taught Rivera how to work in fresco. It is also thought that he helped Fernández Ledesma create the wainscot of azulejos tiles and other artists in the design of other elements in San Pedro y San Pablo. Wikipedia

Jorge Enciso was born in 1883, in the state of Jalisco. In 1921, together with Montenegro and Dr. Atl, he organized the first Exhibition of Popular Art celebrating Mexican folk art, which was the first coordinated effort after the Revolution to establish a national identity based on the wide variety of indigenous and folk art traditions. He went on to become an art historian focusing on documenting Mexico's Pre-Columbian and Colonial art. He published illustrated books of Pre-Columbian designs and became Custodian of Colonial Monuments and Assistant Director of the National Institute of Anthropology and History. 

Idealized "Indian Atlas"
Indigenous man.

The verticality and squareness
appear Art Deco to us.

By Manuel Centurion

Manuel Centurion was born in 1883, in the State of Puebla, east of Mexico City. His father was a stone mason. Centurion studied at the Academy of San Carlos, the alma mater of most artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1920s he created sculptures for the new Secretariat of Public Education and subsequently created sculptures for a number of government buildings in Mexico City. His style developed from Neo-classicism of the late 19th century to Art Deco of the 1920s and 30s.

Reflections of Louis Comfort Tiffany

Atop the end walls of the transept, crossing the nave, are two other stunningly colorful works.

The Guadalajara Hat Dance

Designed by Roberto Montenegro
Executed by Enrique Villaseñor

(The name does not show up in an Internet search.)

Seller of parakeets

Designed by Roberto Montenegro
Executed by Enrique Villaseñor

The stained glass windows are a complete merger of Mexican folk art themes and images with a technique that was a favorite of Art Nouveau artists. Think Louis Comfort Tiffany. The gorgeous cerulean blue again stands out.

Above the front door is another stained glass work, this one honoring and identifying the space as belonging to the National University of Mexico. 

National University Seal
above the front door.

Stained glass design by Jorge Enciso and Xavier Guerrero
Executed by Enrique Villaseñor

A Moment in and Memento of a Time of Transition

The building originally served the Spanish Colonial purpose of transforming indigenous culture and people into Roman Catholic Spanish ones. In the 1920's—after various other uses—it briefly became a medium in the attempt to forge a specifically Mexican identity. The result reflects the complex batiburrillo (hodgepodge) that is Mexican history and the country that is its outcome. 

The early 1920s was the moment in that history when, after the tumult and conflicting motives of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), the country's cultural and intellectual leaders tried to forge a unified concept and representation of Mexican identity. The mural by Roberto Montenegro and the other artistic work by him and a group of Mexican artists that decorate the former colegio—today the Musuem of the Constitutions—were a first attempt at representing that concept of Mexicanism. Their own batiburrillo—a rather forced combination of Neo-classicism, Art Nouveau and Mexican folk art—reflects the difficulty of their undertaking and an at least initial lack of clarity and unity of vision.

The subsequent, more personal works of Roberto Montenegro, as exemplified in his Portrait of a Mexican, which first drew our attention to the artist, show the direction in which he went. The Mexican of his portrait is a self-possesed, modern young man at home in a cosmopolitan world. There is nothing "folk" or traditional about him. Murals on grand themes were not Montenegro's thing. Personal insights were.

Each of the other artists who participated in the project subsequently went his own way. 
  • Gabriel Fernández Ledesma focused his career on promoting Mexican folk art. 
  • Xavier Guerrero was the only one to continue to paint murals, but as an assistant to Diego Rivera, helping him realize his own unique vision and subordinating himself to Rivera's strong ego. 
  • Jorge Enciso became a kind of cultural anthropologist, seeking to record and, thereby, keep alive indigenous, pre-Conquest imagery. 
  • Manuel Centurion adapted the style of his sculptures to whichever one was in vogue at any time and, like Diego Rivera, he regularly worked for the Mexican government to create heroic images for the nation.
  • Enrique Villaseñor remains a mystery. But his gorgeous stained glass windows speak of an apprenticeship, mentally if not actually, to Louis Comfort Tiffany. Art Nouveau stained glass work was much in vogue in the last years of the Porfiriato, the reign of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911) and continued to be so in the post-revolutionary Mexico City of the upper class.
The Mexican Mural Movement was to go on from this rather jumbled, uncertain beginning, not in a single direction, but along at least three artistic paths forged by the great talents and distinctly strong visions and personalities of the Great Three: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Mexicans have never followed a single path. 

No comments:

Post a Comment