Milena Oehy, Kunsthaus Zürich (ed.), Mexican Graphic Art, Kunsthaus Zürich/Scheidegger & Spiess, 2017, paperback, 320pp, 386 col. illus./80 mono illus., paperback, €38/£35, ISBN 978-3-85881-799-0
The exhibition Mexican Graphic Art, was held at Kunsthaus Zürich 19 May-27 August 2017. This accompanying catalogue provides an overview of the printmaking in Mexico from the 1880s to the 1970s. Armin Haab (1919-1991) was a Swiss photographer who had an attachment to Mexico – the country, its people and its art. He photographed in Mexico and collected Mexican prints. His lifetime collection of Mexican prints (about 1,000 sheets) was donated to Kunsthaus Zürich the year before his death; that collection formed the core of the exhibition. The catalogue has a biography of Haab and some of his photographs of Mexican life are included in the catalogue.
The book contains a summarised history of Mexico and the milestones in the Mexican graphic arts. This allows readers to determine the many links between Mexican history and art. For the majority of its existence, Mexican fine arts (in the Western sense) have been motivated by social issues and representations of everyday life, with a strong strand of devotional art. In this exhibition the political and social aspects were in the foreground, reflecting Haab’s taste as a collector. Exactly how representative this collection is of Mexican graphic art as a whole is hard to tell. Many of the staples of Western art did not feature largely in Mexican art if this survey is accurate. There are few landscapes, still-lifes, nudes, mythological allegories or images of buildings.
Prominence is given to a quote stressing the importance of pre-Hispanic culture for Mexican art. This claim may be true but it is not fully substantiated here. While a number of Twentieth Century Mexican printmakers had an ethnographic engagement with native peoples, means transmission (and importance) of pre-Hispanic craft and imagery into modern Mexican art is not explicated here. On this subject, readers will have to turn to other books for detailed discussion.
The first printing press in the Americas arrived in Mexico in 1535. Early illustrated books and prints were devotional or instructional, carefully monitored by Spanish colonial authorities and the Catholic Church. Woodcut (and later linocut) was the major print form in Mexico due to the technique’s cheapness and the ease of hand-proofing. The cheapness of the paper used means the prints were not robust and because the prints were directed to the general public they were usually not preserved by collectors of the time. For numerous prints no proof exists – the print has entirely been lost to the depredation of time.
In 1835 the first lithographic press was imported to Mexico. Lithographs – as newspaper or pamphlet illustrations, often satirical in nature – became the dominant art Mexicans encountered in daily life. Following Mexico’s independence in 1821, the graphic arts and popular press played an important role in the country’s search for a coherent independent identity and as a display of resistance towards colonial interference with the country’s self-governance, including French imperial intervention.
[Image: José Guadalupe Posada, Calavera Catrina / Revolutionary Calavera (1900-1913), zinc-etching, paper: 34.5 x 23 cm; image: 29.5 x 16 cm]
José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) is considered one of the founding fathers of Mexican prints. His social commentary, journalistic reportage and macabre political satires (frequently including skeletons), were directed to a general readership not collectors of fine art. The combination of Western technique and the flatness of folk art gives his prints a touch of modernity akin to Le Douanier Rousseau’s.
The undemocratic regime of Porfirio Díaz (r. 1877-1880 and 1884-1911) was the subject of much commentary and criticism. In 1910 a popular revolution began, leading to the overthrow of Díaz. The civil war continued until 1920 and caused the death of over 2 million people. During this period (and immediately afterwards) anti-war positions inspired many artists – coinciding with anti-war sentiments in war-ravaged Europe, typified by artists such as Dix, Grosz and Kollwitz, whose work parallels that of Mexican artists.
In the immediate post-Revolution era, a new group of artists came to dominate the fine arts in Mexico. The Mexican Muralists José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974). They were all Socialists and committed to making art for the general public – often as murals or public artworks – addressing the history and everyday life of the Mexican people in clear narratives, using a Leftist political narrative. In stylistic terms, this could be called Social Realism. A manifesto stated the Muralists’ beliefs included “to socialise art; to destroy bourgeois individualism; […] to produce only monumental works for the public realm.” The Muralists travelled widely and knew American art of their era. They were consciously fine artists not folk artists or printmakers working for newspapers. They were receptive to ideas of Western Modernism and incorporated those techniques and ideas but were committed to representational art and communicating directly with the masses, putting them in variance to artists such as Léger, the Surrealists and abstractionists who were also Socialists. The Muralists were in favour of forging a style that was Modern but were keen to incorporate Mexico’s pre-Hispanic history and culture in their art. All of the Muralists made prints, which was a method of working that perfectly fitted their aesthetic and political beliefs.
In 1937 the Socialist government founded the Taller de Gráfica Popular, which gathered together leading practitioners to produce Social Realist broadsides and posters. Artists worked as part of a collective and many were members of the Communist party; all agreed with the political programme of the TGP. Notable TGP artists included Leopoldo Méndez, Raúl Anguiano, Mariana Yamplosky and Alberto Beltrán. Socialist Mexico became a haven for Spanish Republicans fleeing Franco’s Spain in the closing stages of the civil war and, later, for Europeans escaping World War II. The 1940s was the TGP’s heyday, when it published a large number of prints and reached a wide audience. In 1960 a split divided the group as members sought greater political and artistic autonomy, influenced in part by the rise of abstraction in the USA in the 1950s. The TGP still operates, though it is less overtly political today.
[Image: Alberto Beltrán, El guerillero Pancho Villa/The Guerillero Pancho Villa (1877–1923) (1946), linocut, paper: 42.7 x 32.1 cm; image: 29.5 x 21.9 cm]
The rival Sociedad Mexicana de Grabadores was founded in 1947 to provide a support network for apolitical and avant-garde artists who did not subscribe to TGP’s ethos. Other independent artists, including Rufino Tamayo and the Surrealists are mentioned in passing. No prints by Frida Kahlo, Mexico’s most internationally famous artist, are included in this book.
Some individual prints are discussed and the volume includes short artist biographies, a bibliography and a list of exhibited items. Short texts introduce areas of significance and major figures in the field. Overall, the catalogue makes a good case for the high quality of Mexican printmaking and its importance in the fine arts of the country. This is a valuable reference book for any Anglophone researcher studying Mexican art.
The unusual binding of the volume bears comment. The cover is attached to the rear of the book and folds round the spine and front only loosely. It allows readers to see the signature-bound spine, making clear the physical construction of the book, fitting the directness of Mexican art. The binding and cover seem robust and this touch of invention is welcome.
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