When it comes to Mexican and Latin American art, most people tend to think of large murals and folkloric figures. But there is so much more.
The Norton Simon Museum is toasting Hispanic and Latino Heritage Month with “Breaking Ground: 20th-Century Latin American Art,” an exhibit of work by artists from 1931-1985 in which they explore the various forms of modernism. The exhibit opens Sept. 13.
The show includes paintings, lithography, photography and more by artists such as Diego Rivera, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Angel Bracho of Mexico, Roberto Matta from Chile, Antonio Frasconi of Uruguay and Gego (also known as Gertrud Goldschmidt) from Venezuela.
“There is a really recognizable style that developed in Mexico in the 1930s,” said Lynn LaBate, head of education at the Norton Simon Museum and the curator of “Breaking Ground.” “This was due to the minister of education who had this idea of using art to create a Mexican national identity and the Mexican government paid artists to create murals that celebrated Mexican history and culture and to bring to life the ideals of the revolution, which is to trace the idea of Mexico as a united culture.”
LaBate notes that many artists were not interested in the political agenda, so they explored universal themes,as well as a range of artistic styles. The Norton Simon exhibit features works culled from the venue's collection that show the influence of a wealth of art movements, including surrealism and existentialism, along with less-known work by important artists.
“It's an opportunity to present what is an alternative view of what is the most commonly held perception of Latin America art as being folkloric or primitive. This work is about formal issues and it's about composition,” LaBate said.
“Breaking Ground” looks at the artists' exploration of the figure/ground relationship, which is demonstrated through figurative and abstract works. The show, too, demonstrates how the pieces as a whole forge a connection with Los Angeles at its center. Among the highlights are photographs by Manuel Alvarez Bravo.
“He was one of the first artists to take Mexican art and not frame it in that folkloric or picturesque type of framework,” LaBate said. “He really looked beyond that and his work really deals with issues of form and composition.”
For example, Bravo's image, “Remembrance of Azompan,” shows a young girl standing in front of a wall. She is dressed simply and blends into the wall like a chameleon. Bravo plays with art tradition by depicting the foreground in dark tones and the background in light tones. This draws the eye to his exploration of texture, pattern and form.
Lithographer Rufino Tamayo used his work to reflect Mexican cultural identity, not politics. He incorporated ideas from Mexican muralism, 20th century American art and European figurative art of the 1950s into his work. His abstract piece, “Variations of a Man No. 3,” reflects man's place in the cosmos. The figure is positioned in such a way to give the print a spiritual quality, while its linear aspects refer to ancient petroglyphs.
At “Breaking Ground,” many works that are rarely shown will be on display, as well as pieces exclusive to the Norton Simon's collection, such as Diego Rivera's “Blue Boy with the Banana.” In the 1920s, Rivera painted pictures of docile, round-faced children for visitors to Mexico, but this work, created for German art dealer Galka Scheyer, is angular and the boy's clothing is unkempt.
“This is one not often on public view and something that you would not be able to see at the Museum of Latin American Art (in Long Beach)” LaBate said.
LaBate, who studied in Peru and Mexico, discovered that art was intrinsically linked to everyday life, as she saw it everywhere she went.
“One of the reasons I wanted to bring this group together is that they celebrate Los Angeles as an art nexus,” she said. “We have artists from Venezuela, Uruguay, Chile and Mexico. We have photographers, lithographers, painters, and a master of woodcuts, and the works show that Latin American artists were citizens of the world. They spoke the language of the day, which was modernism, and they are interwoven into the fabric of art history. They are also interwoven into the fabric of Los Angeles in art history.”