Susan Saccoccia | 6/17/2009, 7:06 a.m.
(“Vida y Drama de Mexico,” 1957, Alberto Beltrán; Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) ...
(“Vida y Drama de Mexico,” 1957, Alberto Beltrán; Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)


(“Vida y Drama de Mexico,” 1957, Alberto Beltrán; Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

During the first decades of the 20th century, Mexico was making its convulsive transition from dictatorship to democracy. After the ousting of strongman Porfirio Díaz in 1910, the nation plunged into a seven-year civil war. More than 2 million people died or fled the country during the Mexican Revolution. But in its wake, Mexico emerged with a progressive, modern spirit. Its artists were part of the transformation.

As Mexico instituted political, economic and agrarian reforms, some of the country’s greatest artists were developing a unique vein of Modernism. Using a new, distinctly Mexican visual language, they created images that stirred civic passion for a nation reinventing itself. Some turned to the printing press, a tool with a long history in Mexico, which in 1539 received the first press in the Americas.

At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), the exhibition “Vida y Drama: Modern Mexican Prints” shows 32 works by two generations of artists during these turbulent decades. One section, “The Modern Mexican Masters,” displays prints by painter Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) and the nation’s three great muralists: Diego Rivera (1886-1957), José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974).

Another section shows works by group of younger artists who in 1937 founded the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP), a workshop that was active until 1957. Alberto Beltrán conveys the TGP’s mission in his poster for its 20-year retrospective, “Vida y drama de Mexico — 20 años del Taller de Gráfica Popular.” A printmaker’s hands etch an image of an ordinary man, whose life and struggles the TGP make visible, while a tuxedo-clad skeleton represents the “drama” — Mexico’s bloody conflicts, political corruption and economic exploitation.

While adapting techniques of Renaissance fresco painters, as well as the U.S. and European avant-garde, Mexico’s early Modernists also looked to their country’s own traditions, including its pre-Hispanic heritage and folk art icons.

They developed a visual language to portray both the grotesque and glorious events of their times, blending the pared-down lines of abstract expressionism with imagery that could express the macabre, monstrous and surreal — often with savage satire.

These events included the Spanish Civil War and World War II, which the TGP connected with Mexico’s own political struggles.

A rifle’s bayonet gouges the eye of a fanged Hitler as U.S., British and Russian flags rise above flaming pyre of fascist symbols in “¡Victoria!” (1945), a color linocut by TGP member Angel Bracho (b. 1911) that celebrates the victory of the Allied and Red Armies.

Mexico’s ubiquitous skulls inspired the “calevaras,” the wily, grinning skeletons that populated the cartoons of Mexico’s first modern satirist, José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). Although Posada’s works are not on display, his influence pervades the show.

In Posada, Mexico’s Modernists had a homegrown artistic ancestor. Churning out thousands of mass-produced penny broadsheets, or “hojas volantes” (flying leaves), Posada used skeletons to caricature high-society dandies and other figures of power during the long reign of Díaz. After censors ran Posada out of his hometown, he moved to Mexico City, where as boys, Rivera and Orozco frequented his print shop.