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  • Muralism without Walls: Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros in the United States, 1927-1940
  • Helen Delpar
Muralism without Walls: Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros in the United States, 1927-1940. By Anna Indych-López. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. Pp. xi, 250. Notes. Index. $45.00 cloth.

The seemingly paradoxical title of Anna Indych-López's book accurately describes its contents. The author's overall purpose is to explore how the work of Mexico's "big three" muralists—Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros—was transmitted to members of the U.S. art world during the 1930s, given that most of them were unable to travel to Mexico to view the much-heralded murals at first hand. Accordingly, she looks at such topics as exhibitions in which easel paintings and portable frescoes by the artists were shown. She is also interested in the ways in which the content of such works was adapted for U.S. viewers and the expectation of the latter regarding the "Mexicanness" of that country's modern art. In sum, the author says, the "politics of cultural production, dissemination, and reception lie at the heart of this project" (p. 8).

After an introductory chapter, Indych-López turns to the series of Orozco drawings initially called Horrores de la Revolución (1926-28). Commissioned by Anita Brenner, who was Orozco's first promoter in the United States, and based on his murals in the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, the drawings depicted "the [Mexican] Revolution as a leaderless, disorganized, and destructive process" (p. 28). They evoked little interest in New York because of their style and grotesque imagery, and changing the series name to Mexico in Revolution had little impact. Only when Orozco began making lithographs of the series that "cleansed [it] of the horrific details of civil strife and struggle" (p. 64) did it attain critical notice and approval.

Orozco, along with Rivera and Siqueiros, was among the modern painters represented in the Mexican Arts exhibition, which is the subject of Chapter 3. Indych-López traces the diplomatic, commercial, and aesthetic background of the show, which opened in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1930 and travelled throughout the country. Although the show was well received, the work of Mexico's modern painters was eclipsed by the display of popular arts, of which it was seen as an extension. According to the author, the purpose of the exhibition was to improve Mexico's negative image in the United States but it "was merely replaced … by an image of the country as primitive, [End Page 127] rural, and picturesque" (p. 126). Among the paintings shown at the exhibition was Rivera's Baile en Tehuantepec. The painting is based on a mural in the Ministry of Public Education, but changes made by Rivera reinforced the folkloric image of Mexico promoted by the show. Similar changes were evident in work Rivera exhibited at his hugely successful retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1931. Since a major purpose of the exhibit was to advance understanding of Rivera's Mexican murals, he painted eight portable frescoes, five of which were adaptations of the murals, while three had New York themes. Indych-López shows how the panels were de-radicalized versions of the murals, most notably Sugar Cane, based on the mural Slavery in the Sugar Mill in the Cortés Palace in Cuernavaca. As the title change suggests, the panel's content was modified to lessen the impression of colonial oppression depicted in the mural. Although the show broke attendance records, the portable frescoes were poorly received by the critics and failed to recreate the essence of the murals, which Indych-López feels was better captured in photographs and lithographs.

By 1940 not only had U.S. interest in Mexican art reached its apogee, but concern about its politically radical character had dissipated. This became evident when MoMA mounted a large exhibition called Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art in conjunction with the Mexican government. This exhibition devoted greater attention to muralism than its 1930 predecessor and "explained [it] … as an outgrowth of a variety of...


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