’Visual Anthropology of Mexico’ brings masters to Korea
By Noh Hyun-gi
Since 1957, the Mexican government has collected artwork from artists in lieu of taxes. These creative contributions were categorized as Patrimonial Heritage by the Mexican Ministry of Budget and Public Finance.
The Embassy of Mexico has selected masterpieces from the collection that best chronicle the contemporary art of the country and brought them especially for Korean viewers to Sookmyung Women’s University Museum in Seoul.
Of the works at the “Visual Anthropology of Mexico,” a lithograph by the renowned Rufino Tamayo “Iron Cross” stands out. Tamayo was born and trained in Mexico but spent much of his life in New York. He combined Mexican folk themes with Surrealist and Cubist styles, often in vibrant colors and a textured surface.
Originally commissioned for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, an edition of “Iron Cross” was displayed at “Contemporary Art and Olympics,” an art exhibition from Aug. 25 to Oct. 5, 1988 in celebration of the global festivities that marked Korea’s leap into modernization. The piece shows a gymnast in a blue, red, and black background that resembles the Korean flag.
“Tamayo opposed the prevailing school of art in Mexico, Muralism. He believed that arts should not be the means of a political movement. Because of his stance, he faced a lot of hardship — he was not politically correct,” Luz Elena Banos Rivas, deputy head of mission of the Embassy of Mexico in Korea, told The Korea Times at the exhibition opening on Tuesday.
World famed master Diego Rivera was a leading artist of Muralism. His work “Urban Landscape,” a monotone painting that shows workers cleaning snow on the streets is part of the exhibition. Faceless and simplified, the work depicts round shapes of workers loading trucks with snow, the unadorned and mechanical lives of city laborers.
Starting in the 1930s following the Mexican Revolution, the Muralist painters like Rivera and Antonio Bruiz expressed political messages, often of Marxist nature, and scenes from Mexican history. Although most of the famous works are large in scale, many left smaller works that also embody a commanding presence.
Interestingly, many foreign artists such as Angela Beloff participated in this nationalistic movement. Beloff, whose oil painting “Santa Maria Park” is presented at the exhibition, is a Russian painter who moved to Mexico to follow Rivera. The couple was married for two years until Rivera left her for, another master painter, Frida Kahlo.
Gabriel Ramirez’s “Last Sunday of the Season” (1985) showcased at the museum is a product of the Rupture Movement which followed Muralism. The work shows sporadic placement of blue-green across blue and yellow — subtly yet surely — dissects the space geometrically. The piece reminds one of the works of Abstract Expressionism, an American post-World War II movement pioneered by Wassily Kandinsky.
The political messages began losing steam in the 1960s — represented by the rise of the Rupture Movement. Individuals who wanted to abandon the social content of Muralism turned radically to abstraction, relying on color and geometric composition.
“The issue is no longer necessarily nationalistic; artists talks about situations more subjective, more internal, which they express with new language,” explains the exhibitions catalogue.
Another painting in the exhibition, Rodolfo Morales’ “Beyond The Silence,” shows the emergence of Magical Realism in the southwestern state of Oaxaca while the Rupture artists were prospering in Mexico City. “Beyond The Silence,” 140 by 175.5 centimeters in size, exudes haziness and divides the canvas in horizontal layers of colors. The bizarre subject matter — a skeleton lies on a red flower bed as two angle-like figures gracefully float over it— is signature of Morales’ works.
Painters like Morales and Sergio Hernandez of Magical Realism produced masterpieces characterized by vibrant hues and experimental surfaces with the subtext of folk narratives and myths.
This parallels the magical realism in writing that started in Latin America around the 1940s, represented by texts like Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez ‘s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
In the late ’70s, Mexico saw the rise of what critics called “new Mexicanism” or “new nationalism” shown in Nahum Zenil’s mixed media piece “Saint Gerald.” Zenil, one of the rather daring artists of Mexico, tackled unconventional subject matters like homosexuality through restructurings elements of Retablo, or Latin American divine painting.
Such works of the ’70s were inspired by the dominant Catholicism of the state entwined with the local culture. According to Kim Hyun-wha, professor of Art History at Sookmyung Women’s University, contemporary Mexican artists of this era strived to reinterpret the traditional styles of the Renaissance, Baroque, and neo-Classism.
The exhibition includes not only paintings but also sculpture and video work and is open to the public through March 31 for free. The museum hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Saturday.