Mexico City - Art Round Up (April 2023)
With a short week to discover Mexico City, I took in some of the city’s well known sites and institutions, as well as discovering smaller art galleries and artist studios. This is an overview of what I particularly enjoyed, but by no means an extensive foray into Mexico City’s rich artistic scene.
Museo Nacional de Antropología is a good first stop to familiarise yourself with Mexico’s long and multifaceted history, showcasing the array of indigenous civilisations which have contributed to making Mexico what it is today. The museum offers a useful starting point to understand the vernacular of Mexican art: its particular tropes, motifs and colours.
Museo d’Arte Moderno (MAM), located close to the Museo Nacional de Antropología, builds on the latter's rich heritage to present a collection of Mexican modern art. I discovered the visionary work of Remedios Varo, a surrealist painter who worked in Spain, France and Mexico. Varo’s work features the Surrealists' dreamlike approach to painting, and is executed with hallucinatory precision. I loved her mix of fantasy and domesticity in surprising combinations.
The MAM also holds a stunning portrait - famous the world over - The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo. It’s an iconic work about selfhood and identity by perhaps the best-known Mexican artist. There is a huge reverence for Kahlo today, both in Mexico and internationally. Her use of colour and her interest in Mexican politics and mythology connect her deeply to the country. What makes Khalo stand out is her ability to free herself from the artistic codes of her time and develop a deeply personal approach to painting informed by her personal relationships and embodied experiences of illness, joy, love and trauma. I was struck by the large procession of visitors I witnessed filing in front of The Two Fridas who seemed to be paying their respects to Kahlo as much as admiring her painting.
So it came as little surprise when I found out that visits to La Casa Azul, Khalo’s house in Mexico City, are completely sold out - you have to book weeks in advance! Instead of visiting her home, I headed to Khalo and Diego Rivera’s studio in San Angel: it’s a compound of stunning modernist architecture formed of four separate buildings. Rivera and Khalo shared this complex with fellow artists Jose Clemente Orzco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, with whom Riviera founded the modern school of Mexican mural painting.
Next, to find out more about murals, I visited the Museo Nacional de Arte (MUNAL) dedicated to Mexican artistic production. The building is architecturally stunning, and the collection is well worth discovering. I was particularly struck by Siqueiros’ ‘Retrato de María Asúnsolo Bajando la Escalera’ (1935). Better known for his social realist paintings and murals, in this painting Sequieros has a more delicate approach to depicting his subject, with which I connected immediately.
On to another museum, Museo Soumaya, which is the eccentric collection of Mexico’s richest man, Carlos Slim, housed in a futuristic building designed by Mexican architect Fernando Romero. The lobby included casts of famous classical European sculptures, including several versions of Michelangelo’s Pieta, and Le Penseur and The Gates of Hell both by Rodin. The museum is an odd mix of styles and modes of display: on the first floor you will find old telephones (Carlos Slim owns Mexico’s largest mobile phone operator) alongside lesser known 19th-century French paintings. Some parts of the museum follow a more conventional chronological progression through artistic movements, and, on close inspection, you can unearth some gems. I was captivated by Franz Hals’ Portrait of a Woman and Mary Magdalene as Melancholy by Artemisia Gentileschi. Both of the women depicted had a quiet but indomitable presence.
Wandering around Roma Norte, a neighbourhood of Mexico City full of art galleries (Maia Contemporary and OMR are well worth a peep) and small museums, I stumbled upon the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana, dedicated to the promotion of Mexican contemporary art. The exhibition I saw was called Piedra y Arena (Stone and Sand); I was drawn in particular to a sculpture by Abel Ramírez Aguilar, La Mujer Caracol (the Snail Woman). It was modernist in style, representing a woman lying on her side and twisted, her body reminiscent of a stylised snail. Her curves and upward gaze gave the impression of movement and aspiration. Fascinatingly, I discovered that Mexico has an original system which allows registered artists to give a painting to the state by way of paying taxes in order to stimulate artistic production and not burden artists.
The highlight of my visit was Diego Rivera’s murals (pictured above) in the Palacio Nacional, the seat of government in Mexico City. Since 2018, it is also the official residence of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The Rivera murals tell the history of Mexico: beginning with the Aztec, Maya and other indigenous civilisations, to the Spanish conquest, the many wars of liberation, and they finish with Rivera’s depiction of what the future of the country might look like. The murals are monumental in size and ambition, combining Rivera’s powerful artistic vision and communist beliefs in an effort to portray the emergence of modern Mexico. For me, they provided a critical link between past and present, and a useful touchstone to understanding Mexico today.
Last but not least, I had the privilege of visiting the studio of Mexican-American artist Omar Rodriguez Graham. With nearly 20 years’ practice under his belt, Omar has had shows in Mexico and in the US. His work includes large scale murals, as well as smaller sized paintings. Omar’s style is colourful, textured and abstract. We discussed the view that originality in art is elusive at best, and he explained his process of ‘digesting’ iconic images in Western art to render them into a new form by distorting lines and creating fluid shapes to form an intricate web. Using different paints and pigments, he plays with texture and depth. Omar sketches on a tablet, and has developed a detailed system of notation and coding for his studio team to work with him in realising his designs. Omar has not yet crossed the pond, but something tells me that it won’t be too long before we discover his work in Europe.
My rapid canter through Mexico City’s art scene left me wishing to return for more. I loved discovering art imbued with colours and symbolism that I had never seen before. It is nothing new, Mexican art has existed for a long time, but perhaps it is time to see more of it in our galleries and institutions.
Artwork by Omar Rodriguez Graham, in his studio