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Weston and Charlot: Art and Friendship by Lew Andrews (review)

From: The Americas
Volume 69, Number 3, January 2013
pp. 405-406 | 10.1353/tam.2013.0031

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Edward Weston and Jean Charlot were part of the astonishing group of foreign artists and intellectuals who flocked to Mexico City in the 1920s and 1930s, drawn in part by a fascination with the Mexican Revolution and with the explosion of artistic activity that followed it. In Mexico, Weston and Charlot found themselves in the company of an international group that included Tina Modotti, Anita Brenner, Frances Toor, and Sergei Eisenstein, not to mention national artists like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

When the two artists met, Weston was in his late thirties and Charlot in his mid-twenties. Though they worked in different media (Charlot was a muralist and a painter), the two struck up a friendship that would last until Weston's death in 1958. Based primarily on their correspondence, Lew Andrews has written a generous and extremely readable chronicle of an artistic friendship. Weston and Charlot shared a fascination with Mexico and a quasi-religious commitment to art: "Write to me please," Charlot pleaded in a 1927 letter, "There are so few of us who live for art" (p. vii).

Weston's time in Mexico—he lived there on and off between 1923 and 1926—has been studied in depth, notably by Amy Conger in her Edward Weston in Mexico (1983). Charlot's stay in the country has been well-documented in Spanish by Mexican scholars, but his life and work are not as well known to English-speaking readers. One of the merits of Andrews's book is to devote as much attention to the lesser-known painter as to the famous photographer and to devote much space to discussing the period after both Weston and Charlot left Mexico in the 1920s. Weston would settle in Carmel, California; Charlot, in contrast, moved around quite a bit and lived in New York City, Georgia, Mexico, and other places before finally establishing himself in Hawaii, where he died in 1979.

This double biography includes many surprises. We learn, for instance, that Charlot was a devout Catholic who counted priests and monks among his friends and wrote essays on religious art. He was born in Paris to a cosmopolitan family but moved to Mexico, accompanied by his mother, in 1921. He soon found work as a muralist and became one of Diego Rivera's assistants. In these explosive years, he would often take his mother along to parties and get-togethers where Rivera, Lupe Marín, Tina Modotti, Frida Kahlo, and Weston were among the guests. Charlot and his mother would also host soirées together (p. 17).

After the two artists left Mexico, Weston in 1926 and Charlot in 1928, they maintained a regular and intense correspondence in which they debated many artistic questions: the merits of surrealism, the status of modern photography, the work of other artists they knew and admired. On several occasions Weston wrote about his conflicted relation with Alfred Stieglitz. In 1927, for instance, a friend wrote Weston to tell him that Stieglitz had seen some of Weston's photographs, but "seemed disappointed. He thought your technique was very fine but felt the prints lacked life, fire, were more or less dead things not a part of today." In response to these criticisms, Weston quipped: "If I had sent my toilet, for instance, how then would he have reacted? And must I do nothing but toilets and smokestacks to please Stieglitz!?" (p. 47) Charlot, for his part, disliked the famous American photographer. In a letter to Weston he wrote: "I saw Stieglitz and I saw his work and I dislike both—I can see how he could impress you before your mexican [sic] work but it is impossible that now you do not realize that you are far ahead of him" (p. 70).

Andrews chronicles a friendship that endured as Weston and Charlot moved around and took very different directions in life. Weston would eventually be recognized as one of the most important American photographers; the Museum of Modern Art organized an exhibition of his work in 1946. Charlot, in contrast, remained a marginal figure: he spent the last decades of his life teaching at the University of Hawaii and doing historical murals in...

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