THE POWER OF MONO - ART AS ACTIVISM, Artis-Naples, Florida
Why has black and white photography been able to maintain a vibrant presence in a world dominated by color images? The answer must be that monochrome images are particularly effective in conveying ideas directly and with impact, unmediated by colour tones. Taken to its extreme, then, pure black and white, without intermediate grey tones, should be even more powerful. A fascinating exhibition of over 140 examples of Mexican political poster lithography and paintings currently running at the Baker Gallery of the Artis-Naples, Florida, shows how true this can be.
This outstanding exhibition, Art as Activism: Taller de Gráfica Popular, is the result of an important donation to the Baker Museum by Harry Pollak, a noted south eastern collector of Mexican art, and the particular emphasis of the show is the work of the artists associated with the Taller de Gráfica Popular (People's Graphic Workshop, TGP). Established in 1937 by a collective of revolutionary artists during the years of instability which followed the Mexican revolution of 1910, the TGP workshop produced hard-hitting posters promoting the cause of reform and highlighting the hardship of the Mexican working class and peasantry. Many of these artists were previously unknown to me but, like the better-known Diego Riviera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Siqueros, the aesthetic of the artists associated with TGP drew on the satirical social critiques of the printmaker Jose Guadaloupe Posada (1852-1913). International infuences on these artists are also evident, particularly German expressionism and the visual impact of the Soviet avant-garde.
Riviera and Siqueros had been among the founders in 1934 of the Liga de Escritoras y Artistas Revolutionarios, LEAR, whose communist affiliations led its artists to devote their art to the revolutionary cause. LEAR was soon disbanded, but was succeeded by Siqueros' Taller-Escuela de Artes Plasticas, TEAP. The TGP stemmed from both these organisations as a centre for politically-committed graphic arts. TGP produced posters, leaflets and other material to promote the cause of marginal and dispossessed groups in Mexico, in support of education and literacy campaigns, support of women in traditional as well as political roles and improvements in living conditions, housing and infrastructure. They were pasted onto walls or handed out to workers at demonstrations, and a number of supporting materials at the exhibitions gives context to this usage. There are photographs of walls in Mexico City plastered with posters from the presses of TGP, samples of various types of printed materials, newspapers and manifestos, and even a printing press from the period. Over time the concerns of the TGP widened; under the direction from 1942 of Hannes Meyer, formerly a director of the Bauhaus, the attentions of the Taller artists inevitably turned towards international politics and the crusade against fascism.
Siqueros, Orozco and Riviera are represented only tangentially. The large photographs of the Gabino Ortiz public library, created by President Cardenas and with murals by Orozco was a discovery for me. His eight murals and two frescos create a tableau of social comment which looks down on the readers in the library. Around these photographs the murals are reproduced as lithographs. With titles like las Massas, Fusilamiento del Gral Alvarez, they offer a searing and stark critique of huddled masses, murders and cruelty. Riviera is represented by a peon to the power of collective labour, his Sawing Rails, a product of his 10 month stay in Moscow in 1927 (see above). Siqueros' painting Imprisoned Farmer may be well-known but its stark realism ensures its impact.
The significance of this exhibition is the introduction it provides to around 30 artists of the TGP. An information board helpfully gives us brief information about each, but we discover them primarily through their single-minded black and white lithography and the activities they represented or causes they promoted. These artists grasped the essential that, so long as their black and white posters conveyed one simple idea, the medium was perfectly suited to getting across messages to a population among whom illiteracy rates were sky-high. Satirical portraits of cruel masters and politicians are favoured subjects: Posters from Ignacio Aguirre and Fernando Pacheco show the ruthless President Huerta murdering his political opponents and those by Isidoro Ocampo and Alfredo Zalce satirise Huerta ruthlessly for his actions during the '10 tragic days' of 1913. Francisco Mora's Contradictions Under Ruiz Cortines (left) graphically illustrates the church sheltering state oppression. Popular uprisings were well-represented in the work of TGP artists. A late poster (1960) by Alberto Beltran depicts guerilla activity while Emiliano Zapata, the heroic popular leader of the southern Mexican peasants, is illustrated by Mariana Yampolsky, Sarah Jimenez, Ignacio Aguirre and Angel Bracho.
Other posters celebrate the role and contribution of Mexican women. While paintings by Alfonso Zalce and Maximo Pacheco show women in traditional Mexican roles other posters portray them as soldadera and revolutionaries, or heroic figures like Josefa Ortiz de Zdominguez, a woman who fought tirelessly for the rights the indigenous Mexican people and who is vividly captured by Elena Huerta. TGP artists designed posters promoting education and literacy campaigns, particularly in the 1920s when President Obrehon forced through reforms. The campaigns of industrial nationalisations carried out by President Cardenas in the 1930s spurred the TGP artists to produce posters celebrating Mexico's agrarian reforms: Luis Arenal depicted how Mexico lays Claim to its Electrical Resources, Ignacio Aguirre pictured The National Petrochemistry and Celia Calderon symbolised the country as a woman carefully harvesting her resources in her Mexico, Owner of all its Resources (above). The broadening of the TGP's horizon's in the 1930s and '40s spurred a number of depictions of world affairs. Leopold Mendez, Mexico in the War: The Labourers go to the United States, 1960 (above) shows how carefully composition adds to the power of the message. Shocking images by Jose Chavez Morado, Iron Mask and Death, War Science, 1953, evoke the horrors of war. TGP artists also explored significant moments in Mexican history, such as the Franco-Mexican war of 1861-67 and the revolution of 1910. Luis Arenal's Juan Alvarez and the Ayuta Plan, 1960, commemorates the liberal movement of 1854. Sarah Jiménez celebrated the constitutional reforms of Benito Juárez in the mid-nineteenth century in her Juárez and the Reform, 1960. There are a number of paintings in this exhibition which show how the work of these artists was not simply confined to poster art. Two significant works are Alfredo Zalce's Woodcutter and the surrealist-inspired painting called Mule Drivers by Gullermo Meza.
Art as Activism: The Taller de Gráfica Popular Artis-Naples, The Baker Gallery Naples, Florida
September 6-October 5 2014
All text © Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014.
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