- Modernist Networks:Taxco, 1931
In a 1931 photograph entitled "Meeting in Taxco during Siqueiros's house arrest," the Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros sits between the American architect and silver impresario William Spratling and the Russian avant-garde filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein; the Mexican filmmaker Chano Ureta is seated next to Eisenstein [Figure 1]. As the title suggests, at the time of the photo Siqueiros had been recently exiled to Taxco, a small mining town approximately one hundred miles southwest of Mexico City, after spending eight months in a Mexico City prison for "subversive activities." In Taxco, the artist lived in an abandoned church high above the city which also housed his workshop as well as a gallery, an art school for children, and a meeting place for the newly emerging artistic and intellectual community which recently began traveling to Taxco to buy the silver produced in Spratling's workshop.
What does the meeting of three international modernists in a small Mexican town in 1931 tell us about early 20th-century global networks—both real and imagined? In the image, all four men wear hats and look directly at the camera. Their choice of headwear is illuminating. Spratling and Siqueiros wear leather sombreros popular among vaqueros (Mexican cowboys) and revolutionaries, Eisenstein and Ureta wear berets, which in 1931 were already a symbol of the Parisian bohemian artist. While their choices may not be intentionally provocative, through objects as benign as hats, the men signify multiple cultural allegiances. Siqueiros' and Spratling's sombreros evoke vernacular Mexican traditions while Eisenstein and Ureta's berets place them within a more cosmopolitan milieu. Thus this image demonstrates how material goods can signify meaning; it also speaks directly to the [End Page 289] tensions between the local and the universal that frame the history of global modernism. This article explores these tensions by focusing on the real and imagined networks that linked these artists at this particular moment in time.1 By focusing on the multiple networks that brought Siqueiros, Spratling, and Eisenstein to Taxco in 1931—chains of interconnected people, ideas, and things—I hope to bridge the universal and the local, the national and the cosmopolitan, the folk and the modern to reach across oceans, time periods, and mediums to complicate our understanding of global modernism. In particular, I pay attention to the centrality of new forms of technology and material goods to chart the creation and proliferation of a vernacular modernist vocabulary.
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I am borrowing the term vernacular modernism from the film scholar Miriam Hansen. While she uses it to discuss the idea of Americanism in classical Hollywood film in the context of Soviet avant-garde cinema, I think the concept is helpful here since it both articulates and mediates the experience of modernity, "such as mass produced and mass consumed phenomenon of fashion, design, advertising, architecture and urban environment, of photography, radio and cinema."2 The idea of a mass-produced vernacular, as opposed to the popular (which in the Mexican example has a different meaning than it does in the United States; it is more closely aligned with what we call the folk), highlights the place of the quotidian and the local within universalizing discourses of modernism and modernity. Within vernacular modernism, the marketplace [End Page 290] becomes a crucial site for the dissemination of what it means to be modern at this moment in time. 3
By 1931 Mexico was already a hub in the modernist network, both real and imagined. Indeed, American art historians often refer to the late 1920s through the early 1940s as the years of the "Mexican craze" or the "Mexican Invasion."4 Due in part to the wars in Europe as well as to increased railway travel between the Americas, Mexico became a popular tourist destination. Anthropologist Nestor Garcia Canclini, in his study of Latin American modernism, stresses the importance of tourism in creating internal national as well as international cultural identities...