Times & Places

Mexico: The Meeting of Two Worlds (1920-1950)

Hybridizations

The impact of work by Los Tres Grandes, or the “Big Three,” extended beyond the art world in Mexico, giving rise to movements in other countries, including the United States. After 1929, the United States sank into economic depression and sought solutions for high unemployment rates. President Franklin D. Roosevelt developed the New Deal program, which included the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP). This program closely emulated José Vasconcelos’s muralism project in Mexico. According to art historian Francis V. O’Connor, the director of the WAP/FAP, John Dewey, thought the Mexican mural program could boost the arts in the United States and provide an example of art with a social message.

Shortly after the Mexican Revolution and until right before World War II, Mexico became a meeting point for poets, painters, filmmakers, and photographers from the United States and Europe, transforming the country into a melting pot of visual languages and movements. Surrealism encountered magical realism and generated its own genre.

Mexico and the United States

During the first half of the 20th century, several figures helped promote Mexican art in the United States. Among them were Katherine Anne Porter, who in 1922 became the first curator to organize a Mexican folk art exhibition in California, at the behest of Mexico’s president Álvaro Obregón, and Frances Flynn Paine, who promoted the exhibition at the New York Art Center in 1927. Without a doubt, one of the most celebrated exhibitions of the time took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1930—Mexican Arts—which presented colonial, folk, and modern Mexican art. This exhibit significantly influenced the work of local American artists.

Some Mexican artists played prominent roles in the American art scene and directly shaped artistic expression in the United States. These artists include cartoonist Miguel Covarrubias, known for his scathing wit, and Marius de Zayas, an artist and friend of Alfred Stieglitz and promoter of Pablo Picasso, Cubism, and African art in the US. José Juan Tablada, a Mexican poet and diplomat, also fostered the presence of artists such as Orozco and Rivera in New York.

Surrealism

Mexico City became a key destination for foreign artists who were seeking refuge from the political persecutions in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. Mexico offered an exotic location and a growing art scene. French dramatist Antonin Artaud and French writer André Breton considered Mexico to be a location where the surrealist legacy could continue. In 1940, the International Surrealist Exhibition took place in the Galería de Arte Mexicano. Works by European surrealist artists were displayed along with ancient and modern Mexican art in an interpretation that certain experts considered to be somewhat forced. The mixture of artistic values did not go unnoticed by the artists themselves, who created a hybridization of the original concepts and incorporated elements from ancient American art and other world cultures, bringing them together in a surrealist language with local Mexican interpretations.

Surrealist artists who arrived in Mexico City in the mid-20th century experimented with everyday objects such as furniture, toys, organic materials, and marionettes, using them poetically to challenge preconceived notions. Objects were thus transformed through the creative, subjective unconscious of both artist and spectator. On several occasions, text by the artists accompanied the objects to contribute to the transformation toward a new reality.

Conclusions

The end of the first half of the twentieth century was marked by the death of Orozco and the arrival of German artist Mathias Goeritz in Mexico, both of which took place in 1949. The protagonists of muralism were still active at that time, following Siqueiros’s ideals—defending the core principle that “there is no other road but ours” and insisting that the only way to create national art was through muralism. Artists such as Goeritz, however, supported the idea that art should be renewed through synthesis, opening up the horizon for a new generation of artists who would fully explore abstraction.

Adapted from

  • México 1900-1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, and the Avant Garde, Gallery text [The Meeting of Two Worlds: Hybridizations; Mexico and the United States; Surrealism; Surreal Objects; Conclusion], 2017.

Related Multimedia

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lecture; focus on Church's trips to Mexico during 1880s and 1890s
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1st lecture in Modernism North and South of the Border couse; in conjunction with Modern Masters of Mexico: The Gelman Collection (Frida Kahlo/Diego Rivera), October 8, 2000-January 28, 2001; speaker is from the University of Texas at Austin
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Piano Music from Mexico and the United States, is an engaging recital program presented by Mexican pianist Mauricio Náder. This concert invites the audience into a universe of Romanticism and Folklore as imagined during the 1900s by diverse eminent composers from Mexico and the United States. 
Audio Files
1st lecture in Modernism North and South of the Border couse; in conjunction with Modern Masters of Mexico: The Gelman Collection (Frida Kahlo/Diego Rivera), October 8, 2000-January 28, 2001; speaker is from the University of Texas at Austin
Audio Files
lecture; focus on Church's trips to Mexico during 1880s and 1890s
Audio Files
Audio Files
Audio Files
part of Modernsim North and South of the Border course; in conjunction with Modern Masters of Mexico: The Gelman Collection (Frida Kahlo/Diego Rivera), October 8, 2000-January 28, 2001; speaker is Curator of American Art, DMA
part of Modernsim North and South of the Border course; in conjunction with Modern Masters of Mexico: The Gelman Collection (Frida Kahlo/Diego Rivera), October 8, 2000-January 28, 2001; speaker is Curator of American Art, DMA
Audio files
Audio files
Audio files

Web Resources

  • Khan Academy
    Learn more about Latin American art.
  • Khan Academy
    Read more about Mexican muralism and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco.
  • Khan Academy
    Learn about realism.
  • Khan Academy
    Read more about surrealism.
  • Khan Academy
    Learn more about cubism.
  • Khan Academy
    Read about modernism from 1850 to 1960.
  • Khan Academy
    Watch a video about the influence of abstraction.
  • Khan Academy
    Read more about the influence of the World Wars and dynamism.
  • Khan Academy
    Watch a video with Curator Chris Stephens as he explores art of the 1930s at the Tate.
  • Khan Academy
    Watch a video with Curator Chris Stephens he explores art of the 1940s at the Tate.
  • Khan Academy
    Watch a video with Curator Chris Stephens as he explores art of the 1950s at the Tate.