Frida Kahlo. Diego Rivera. José Clemente Orozco. They’re Mexico’s most famous painters, known even to Americans with only a casual interest in art.
But these icons were among scores of Mexican artists turning out work in the first half of the 20th century, and now 80 paintings from that era are on display in “Mexican Modernism from the Blaisten Collection.” The exhibition makes its U.S. debut this weekend at Phoenix Art Museum.
The show captures a time “when Mexican art really sung out around the world,” said museum director James Ballinger.
Drawn from works collected over the past 30 years by Mexican art collector Andrés Blaisten, the paintings reflect a period, after the Mexican Revolution, of political and social rebirth in that country. Created between 1910 and 1950 by 45 leading artists, they depict a time of artistic renaissance, when Mexican artists had no shortage of inspiration and plenty of know-how when it came to artistic technique.
Sara Cochran, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, says the exhibition manages to do two things at once: provide context for the work of international stars, such as Kahlo and Rivera, and impart an understanding of the rise of Mexican art independent of overshadowing by household-name artists.
“The great joy of what Andrés Blaisten has done is to capture a snapshot of what was going on all around the big-name artists, and what they were surrounded by culturally and artistically and politically. A collection of this scope gives references,” she says.
The paintings touch on seven themes: avant garde experimentation, national renaissance, urban artists, self-portraits and portraiture, students of Mexico’s open-air schools for children and teenagers, still life and surrealism.
Across many of the works, artists embraced their nation’s indigenous heritage.
“You see this idea of Mexicanidad, a certain celebration of traditional Mexican culture,” says Cochran.
In conjunction with the show, Phoenix Art Museum has put on view modern Mexican works from its own collection, including Frida Kahlo’s 1939 “El Suicidio de Dorothy Hale.”
Blaisten, who studied to be an artist before becoming a collector, says amassing his collection has had bigger repercussions than he imagined.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this collection would grow to the size it has become. It’s nearly 8,000 pieces,” he said, through a translator. “The period it covers is so rich, and to this day I keep finding more and more pieces. The history (of Mexican art) changed as a result of this discovery I made in regards to the pieces of art.”
Phoenix Art Museum organized the show, along with the San Diego Museum of Art and Mexico City’s Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, where the collection is permanently housed. It will go on to the San Diego museum and, in 2012, to The Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University.
“We always think we know our neighbors, and perhaps we don’t,” says Cochran. “This shows a new and exciting face of Mexico, a time when everything is in play and everything is possible.”
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