(“Dia de Fiesta, Mexico” image: Sophie M. Friedman Fund, Copyright Aperture Foundation Inc; Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
|The only straight line in Edward Weston’s 1926 “Rose Roland (Covarrubias),” shown above, is the part in the dancer’s hair. The portrait is featured in “Viva Mexico! Edward Weston and His Contemporaries,” on view through Nov. 2, 2009, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. One of the contemporaries, Paul Strand, contributed the 1933 photo “Dia de Fiesta, Mexico” (top). (“Rose Roland” image: Sophie M. Friedman Fund; Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
|Tina Modotti modeled for Edward Weston and ran his studio in Mexico. In exchange, he mentored her. As is evidenced by “Worker’s Hands, Mexico” (1927), on view in “Viva Mexico! Edward Weston and His Contemporaries,” she became an accomplished photographer in her own right. (Sophie M. Friedman Fund, courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art; Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
The photograph turns the face of a young woman into a mask of mourning. Sharp shadows exaggerate the straightness of her hair, eyebrows and nose, the ridge of her forehead and her taut lips.
This stark portrait by Edward Weston (1886–1958) of his lover, Tina Modotti, resembles “Head II (Grief),” a 1926-1928 woodcut by Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991). The angular, semi-abstract style of each evokes the monumental Olmec heads found in Mexico’s jungles, remnants of the country’s pre-Hispanic past.
The two images appear in companion exhibitions on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through Nov. 2, 2009. “Viva Mexico! Edward Weston and His Contemporaries” is a concise and captivating exploration of Weston’s two formative sojourns in Mexico in the mid-1920s. In the adjacent gallery, “Vida y Drama: Modern Mexican Prints,” presents prints created by Mexican artists as their country was making its turbulent transition from dictatorship to democracy.
Little of this turmoil is evident in the Weston show, which chronicles the evolution of an artist rather than the struggles of a nation undergoing convulsive change. But both galleries show artists inventing a new visual language honed by Mexico’s land, sun, folk culture and ancient ruins.
In the early 1900s, while European artists were adopting the streamlined forms of African tribal art, their U.S. counterparts were celebrating the clean-lined inventiveness of American machines and skyscrapers. But some headed west to pursue an authentic American modernism in the nation’s unspoiled landscapes and Native American traditions. Weston, a Californian, went south.
Weston biographer Nancy Newhall described Mexico as his “Paris,” the place where he set his compass as an artist. Weston’s only travel outside the U.S., his two long stays in Mexico between 1923 and 1926, inspired visual experiments that led to his distinctive vein of images — sensuous close-ups of nautilus shells, nudes, cacti, peppers and cabbage leaves — and a career contemplating the inner radiance of organic forms.
Mexico freed Weston from his burden of skill in traditional portraiture and mistily romantic landscapes. In Mexico, Weston became modern, his eye purged by its sun-baked terrain, ancient stone ruins, and the sculpted faces of people whose angled features evoked their pre-Hispanic ancestry. All he saw focused his lens on form and immediate sensory experience.
“How ridiculous a ‘soft focus’ lens in this country of brilliant light, of clean cut lines and outlines,” Weston wrote.
Of the 45 photographs from the ’20s and ’30s on view in “Viva Mexico!,” 30 are by Weston. They show him abandoning the merely picturesque to instead render “the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself.”
“Chayotes” (1924) is an image as lusciously tactile as its subject — the glossy contours and spiky flesh of squash encircled by a painted bowl and woven mat.
In Mexico, Weston found form everywhere, including on the rooftop veranda of the apartment he shared with Modotti, who ran Weston’s studio in Mexico and modeled for him. In return, he mentored her and she became an accomplished photographer herself.
A series of rooftop nudes show Modotti reclining on a serape, the contours of her body evoking the undulating hills of a Mexican landscape. Also on view is Weston’s pear-shaped nude of young anthropologist Anita Brenner, who hired Weston and Modotti to photograph Mexico’s pre-Hispanic sites and folk art for her 1929 book, “Idols Behind Altars,” which appears in a display case.
“From the Roof” (1924) blends the lattice-like shadow of a fire escape with the curves of a water tower, the rectangles of tall windows and bed sheets on a clothesline, and the ornate filigree of a nearby colonial building. The interplay of skylights, stair railings and windows in “San Pedro y San Pablo” (1924) creates an image resembling an abstract composition in stained glass.
Modotti and Weston soon joined the burgeoning artistic circle in Mexico City whose luminaries included painter Frida Kahlo and her husband, muralist Diego Rivera. A fascinating 1939 portrait of Kahlo by her then-lover Nickolas Muray shows her wearing mannish corduroy trousers and a traditional embroidered blouse. Posing sphinx-like before her unfinished painting of four parrots, Kahlo looks every bit as iconic as the pre-Hispanic figurines on the shelf behind her.
Brett Weston (1911-1993) accompanied his father on his second stay in Mexico. Their mutual influence is evident in two remarkable photographs by Brett Weston, then 14 years old. While Weston preferred his large-format camera and platinum prints, he gave his son a 3 1/4-by-4 1/4 Graflex camera and cheaper gelatin silver paper for prints. Admiring the rich detail and texture of his son’s abstract images, “Tin Rooftops” (1926) and “Ventilator” (1926), Weston used these more modest tools with increasing frequency.
Alternating between the warmth and fine grain of platinum prints and the precision and sensitive grays of gelatin-silver printmaking, Weston infused his black-and-white palette with richly variegated tones to capture the daily visual drama of Mexico and the textures of stone, skin, ceramics and vegetation.
In contrast to his angular portrait of Modotti, the only straight line in Weston’s photograph “Rose Roland (Covarrubias)” (1926) is the part in the subject’s hair. The head-and-shoulders portrait of this dancer is a play of curves. Her long neck is a column of scalloped shadows that rises to her face like a stem.
“Market, Oaxaca” (1926) captures the sidewalk symphony of shapes, textures and shadows in a market scene. Sheltered by the palm-leaf roof of their cabana, two women are surrounded by their woven wares, rows of rectangular birdcages and clusters of circular baskets.
Using a false lens to capture his subjects unaware, another visiting American photographer, Paul Strand (1890–1976), finds the visual syncopation in a row of men wearing wide-brimmed hats in “Festival Day, Mexico” (1933). The image balances the similarity of their attire with the individuality of each man’s slouching stance and includes the off-stage figure of a girl resembling a young Madonna.
Weston relished the exuberant patterns and textures of Mexico’s crafts and the baroque, memory-laden fantasias of its folk art. In “Pulqueria” (1926), he captures the found surrealism in the window display of a bar serving the searing Mexican drinks made from the maguey cactus. The peeling assemblage features a mysterious female figure by a moonlit pool.
Weston’s “The Hand of the Potter (Amado Galván)” (1926) shows an artisan’s fingers giving form to a gourd that seems to grow out of his wrist. In contrast to this reverent image of craftsmanship, an equally striking photograph by Modotti takes a political turn.
Her “Worker’s Hands, Mexico” (1927) renders the strength and course textures of sun-burnished hands gripping a shovel. Reproduced in radical broadsides, Modotti’s image honors the manual laborers whose rights are a theme of reform-minded posters in the adjacent gallery.
After two sojourns in Mexico, Modotti and Weston diverged in their preoccupations and lives. Modotti joined the Communist Party and remained in Mexico City, where she documented murals by Rivera and other Mexican masters, and made her way as an artist and radical activist.
Weston returned to California, his eye transformed by his years in Mexico.
Learn more about the exhibit of photography by acclaimed artist Edward Weston and a number of his contemporaries, on view through November 2009 at the venerable art museum. More »
During the first decades of the 20th century, Mexico was making its convulsive transition from dictatorship to democracy. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the exhibition “Vida y Drama: Modern Mexican Prints” shows 32 works by two generations of artists during these turbulent decades. More »