The Vogue for all Things Mexican

I’m in the middle of reading two books for my thesis and wanted to jot some notes down before I get distracted by something else. South of the Border: Mexico in the American Imagination 1914-1947 by James Oles, and The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican: Cultural Relations between the United States and Mexico 1920-1935 by Helen Delpar, both address America’s “obsession” (my word) with Mexico in the early part of the 20th century. This is something I’ve thought a lot about but never explored in depth. So come on, let’s world build!

South of the Border is actually an catalog for the 1993 Yale University Art Gallery exhibition of the same name. The exhibition explores the relationship between American and Mexican artists and what drove Americans to view Mexico in a brand new light as the art center to emulate. Delpar’s book, published 1992, takes a wider look at American/Mexican relations but does devote a full chapter to the fine arts. Delpar’s book in particular has already proved to be an invaluable resource for me, filling in the gaps of political and cultural relations between the two countries sometimes taken for granted in other writings on American/Mexican art during this time period. South of the Border caught my attention right away. Constructing a Modern Mexican Art the opening essay by Karen Cordero Reiman, really hit at the heart of what I’ve trying to elaborate on for some time.

Reiman opens her essay stating

“To understand why Americans, and particularly American artists, were interested in Mexican art and in Mexico as an artistic subject between 1925 and 1950 is not necessarily to understand Mexican art of the time. Foreigners attracted to Mexican art have generally been drawn to the “exotic,” to what they consider “typically Mexican” and different from their own culture…”

In the first opening sentences Reiman introduces us to the notion that we’re not trying to understand Mexican art, but rather the conception of Mexican art that Americans had created. We’re thinking about how American artists interpreted and subsequently appropriated Mexican art. This is central  to my theory of a “Mexican Model”. The model is American made, which makes it all the more interesting when Mexican artists painting in America are criticized for being too timid in subject matter, or unoriginal in composition, and American artists are praised for being “a dyed-in-the-wool Mexican, in feeling as well as point of view and expression.” (Delpar 158).

What I’ve been able to take away from these two books (full disclosure, I have not finished reading either) is just how deep(?) America’s fascination with Mexican visual culture went and how quickly it was forgotten. The end of the Mexican Revolution and the relative safety and political stability which followed, allowed Americans to start traveling to the country again. That the Revolution was fought for “democratic ideals” struck a chord with Americans fearful of the rise of fascism in Europe. (Delpar 136) Travel begat souvenir shopping, and decorative arts and and goods flooded into America. The expanding art market in America enticed Mexican artists to begin exhibiting and seeking patronage in the states. Mexican motifs began to show up in American furnishings, interior design, and architecture.  All of this laying the groundwork for the arrival of the Mexican Muralists as the great modern alternative to European abstraction, something Americans could identify with and embrace as their own.

The Mayan Theater, Los Angeles, California. Opened 1927, the theater embraces Pre-Columbian motifs, a hallmark of the Mayan Revival Style.

It’s interesting to think about the popularity of the Mexican Muralists during this period of strange fascination with all things Mexican and that Mexican Muralists began to show in America during a period where most Americans were predisposed to like anything Mexican. That’s not to say that the muralists popularity was undeserved, just that their acceptance in America was possibly helped by wave of interest in Mexico which had started almost a decade prior.

I hope to expand on the arguments that these two books put forth. There’s a lot to think about here. I’m really interested in the ways the Mexican government promoted “Mexicanness” (Reiman’s word) to Americans as a way to foster good relations and an interest in supporting Mexican art and trade. And subsequently, how this false concept of “Mexicanness” shaped Americans expectations of what Mexican art and by extension Mexican murals should be. In regards to murals, there’s a lot of rhetoric about the Mexican muralists that is sometimes sharply at odds with the critical reception, and I’d like to explore how this created ideal of Mexican art plays into that discrepancy.

*My citations have really been a mess on these posts. I still haven’t found a way to deal with them in WordPress that I’m satisfied with and since these posts are extremely informal I may just stick with the MLA-lazy version I’ve used here. Sorry!

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