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Harper Montgomery’s The Mobility of Modernism: Art and Criticism in 1920s Latin America was released on the heels of Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo’s Latin America: The Allure and Power of an Idea (2017), a book which spends eight chapters arguing why Latin America is a useless construct that “has never been a real place, a clear civilization, or a well-demarcated and unique culture or group of cultures.”1 Tenorio-Trillo posits that US academia uses “Latin America” as a form of packaging that “avoid[s] command of any explicit history” and instead becomes a platform from which to postulate “‘big’ histories and theories” (Latin America, 166). How nerve-wracking for an emerging scholar who boldly—or naively?—references Latin America in the title of her first single-authored monograph and who puts forward a big thesis, that modernism as practiced by the artists in her book “became an anticolonial stance in their art and criticism, a means of expression that called into question not only the long-standing cultural authority of Europe but also the value of modernization itself” (Mobility, 1).
Tenorio-Trillo, it turns out, was one of Montgomery’s graduate advisers, so she was no doubt aware both of the pitfalls and implications of her framework. And admittedly she does fit one of the patterns Tenorio-Trillo attributes to Latin Americanists in academe, to view “Latin America as encompassing a totally alternative ontology . . . that destroys ‘hegemonic’ truths” (Latin America, 161). For Montgomery, modernism as defined by “Cold War institutions and international art” is one such “hegemonic discourse,” which “has risked devaluing all but a narrow strain of art” (Mobility, 2). Surveying earlier artistic production, “when Latin American intellectuals were looking with more sustained interest toward each other,” instead “demonstrates that [modernism] . . . could hold concrete liberatory promise” (2). Over the course of her book, Montgomery reveals how, “employing tools of expression learned elsewhere,” artists, and the critics who supported them, sought “to carve out a local, critical, and oppositional form of artistic expression” (6).What we today call Latin America was then, as now, a debated term and referred to as América (minus the United States) by most or Indoamérica by others. The intellectuals that Montgomery writes about were well aware that the region they inhabited was a cultural construct and that it was up to them to constitute this imagined community. In her telling, they mapped their common locus in the illustrated magazines espousing modernist ideas and critical thought that circulated regionally and transatlantically throughout the 1920s, the most emblematic of which was the Peruvian journal Amauta.
While the characteristics of Latin American avant-gardism are clearly delineated by Montgomery, the “mobility” referenced in her title is deliberately polyvalent. On the one hand, it refers to the circulation of artists and artworks. She refers to her protagonists as “translator-informants, moving, as they did, between centers and peripheries in patterns of migration that were not determined by locations of origin or foreign destinations as much as by circuits of circulation and hubs of recognition” (23). Likewise, “mobility” speaks to the “global, transcultural context . . . in which the center of Western art was no longer located in 1920s Paris but rather in numerous cosmopolitan sites” (39). The term also alludes to the contingent and malleable character of modernist media, tropes, and formal languages, which could signify differently in different contexts. In the hands of Argentineans Xul Solar and Emilio Pettoruti, the grid, for example, “was linked to craft: it was an organizing structure asserted by the logic of artisanal materials, not one imposed by the artist’s will or the rationalization of modernity” (93). Woodcuts, which could be alternatively employed to “critique authorship, hierarchies of culture and class or modern technologies of production,” depending on their site of reception, were the Latin American modernist medium par excellence (149). Widely reproduced in the magazines that constituted the regional circuit, the woodcuts’ “shifting meanings made manifest the complex process by which artistic forms attain political...