Art & Museums
Photography Shows at the Mexican Cultural Institute (2829 16th St., NW)
Published: December 13th, 2012
Three photography shows comprising works of Americans and Europeans photographers living and working in Mexico during the 20th and 21st centuries were on view at the Mexican Cultural Institute during the winter of 2013. Featured were the bravura photogravures made by Paul Strand in the 1930s, the hand-painted, early 20th century postcard photographs of Hugo Brehme, and Stephen Faulke’s work-in-progress chronicling the artistic creations of Mexican and Mexican-American artists working on both sides of the southern border wall being constructed between Mexico and the United States.
Paul Strand & Others
Strand’s 20-image portfolio published in 1940 and 1967, 1933: Mexican Portfolio, is part of a larger collection of photographs on loan to the Cultural Institute from the Bank of America’s “Arts in Our Communities” program; it is joined by individual prints of photographs made by 13 other outstanding American artists. This overall ensemble of work is titled “Luces y Sombras: Fourteen Travelers In Mexico.”
Strand’s series of works — his “Lights and Shadows — opens with emotionally moving, realistic images of ordinary rural life in Mexico during the harsh economic times of the 1930s worldwide depression. The somber and stolid looks of the Mexican peasants in his photographs are captured in extraordinarily dignified, realistic portraits. Strand’s subjects look directly into the camera with a profound and accepting self-confidence, no matter how modest their clothing might be nor what the objects and surrounding environment in the photographs might signify about their respective economic or social status. Other of Strand’s photographs present eerily intriguing painted wooden sculptures depicting the passion of Christ, especially his crown of thorns and his scourging, and the simplified, comforting features of the Virgin Mary in folk art presentations that are classically Mexican. His quiet and understated photographs of buildings and rural village architectural features combine a modernist sensibility with a realist’s dead-on eye.
- Paul Strand, “Woman and Baby, Hidalgo”
- Far less well-known to American audiences is the photo-realist and modernist work of Chicago-born Wayne Miller. Two of his stunning photographs are in the show. The first depicts a handsome young Hispanic priest sitting on a tilting-forward empty wooden box in front of a rudely made altar in a poor parish church where the priest is hearing a kneeling peasant man’s confession; the tenderness with which the photograph is taken is palpable. The second is quite different and features a young peasant girl with a lovely facial expression carrying a sleeping baby boy literally slung on her back and held by a rolled woven shawl. The little boy wears a child’s sombrero.
Across from Miller’s work are a number of Aaron Siskind’s terrific abstract photographs. My favorite is an image of the stone, brick, and plaster textures of part of the side of an old structure together with those of the building’s high wall’s supporting members — perhaps partial pilasters. A large photograph in the following gallery by Sally Gall is one of the show stoppers of the exhibition. Titled Thirst, this stunning image is of a tree’s roots stretching at great length down into a cenote — a sink hole — all of which would have deep ritual and sacrificial significance in the Yucatan.
“Luces y Sombras” concludes with a large cibachrome photograph taken by Nan Goldin in what appears to be a sparsely furnished hotel room in Mexico City. Titled Suzanne/Mona Lisa and beautifully printed in dense, blood-red and black colors, it presents a disturbingly harsh and haunted vision. Both Edward and Brett Weston, the Cuban American Mario Algaze, Harry Callahan, Wijnanda Deroo, Elliott Erwitt, Kenro Izu, H. Arthur Taussig, and Danny Lyon complete the galaxy of contributors of outstanding works to this fine show.
Hugo Brehme: “Visions of Mexico”
The second show is a thematic presentation of work by the German-born Hugo Brehme, a pictorialist photographer par excellence, who captured, in the eloquent language of the accompanying scholarly wall text, the timeless essence of Mexico’s “natural beauty, indigenous heritage, and the social reality of his adopted homeland. Remarkably, almost a century later, these indelible images continue to reinforce Mexico’s historical identity and the ongoing search for its roots.”
Brehme is often characterized as the grandfather of Mexican photography. Active from 1905 to 1954, he established a photography studio in Mexico City in 1908 and served as an early mentor to such Mexican greats as Manuel Alvaro Bravo. Brehme never varied his pictorialist and realist styles notwithstanding the remarkable variety of his prodigious output in the half century of his photographic activity in Mexico.
The works on display, courtesy of New York’s Throckmorton Fine Art, concentrate on Brehme’s early pictorial photographs and his hand-colored photographic postcards. The show opens with Cuernavaca, Jardín Borda, a small, exquisitely hand-painted early postcard photograph. Across from this charming silver gelatin print is the picture book of these photographs titled “Timeless Mexico,” which was opened to a 1930 image presenting a photograph that consists of a tree whose densely articulated branches fill an entire large format picture, creating a mesmerizing image.
Continuing into the first large gallery, Brehme’s photographs range from almost anthropological, straight-forward documentaries of fishermen and farmers in their longboats or plowing their fields, to “scenes” of what might be called tourist attractions — town plazas with their churches and municipal buildings and vistas of mountain valleys and snow-capped volcanoes. A fascinating trio of three different versions of the same image depict different ways of printing an image of an elaborate stone and concrete staircase rising up the side of a hill.
The next gallery continues these themes with larger photographs. An especially engaging one, El Jxtaccihuatly, depicts a small, standing peasant boy wearing a great sombrero and preparing to strap onto his back a load of kindling. Another shows a terrific wooded path with a lone stone bench in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park. A photograph cleverly capturing a section of the north wing of “Casa de las Monjas” in Chichen Itza is another stunner. And in Pachuca Brehme delivers a deep background, long vista view of far away, idyllic mountains.
The range of Brehme’s long and productive career far exceeds that of this fine show. A Google search will immediately discover riveting images ranging from iconic contemporary photographs of Emiliano Zapata to a mid-century depiction of a Pacific coast fisherman titled Pescador de Acapulco, depicting a dark-skin mestizo with a modern straw hat pushed back on his head and com- pleted by a cigarette rakishly dangling from his mouth.
Stefan Falke and “La Frontera: Artists Along the US-Mexican Border”
Born in 1954 in Paderborn, Germany, Falke speaks eloquently of his experience growing up in a post-World War II Germany, divided by a wall between east and west, and of his natural interest in the U.S.-Mexican border, especially since moving to Brooklyn, New York, in the 1980s. Upon meeting Marta Palau, an artist based in Tijuana, and developing a plan for a photographic series that would lead to a book of photographs and, no doubt, gallery displays of individual prints, Falke came to Tijuana and began photographing artists working “in the
shadow of the wall” being constructed by the U.S. between the two countries. He has since photographed in Tijuana, Tecate and Mexicali as well as all along the Baja California border. A slide show of terrific color photographic images of this early cut of “La Frontera” is presently on display on the third floor. The presence of artworks and of artists — both in their individual studios and in the open air around the walls and fences — renders the images remarkably upbeat and endlessly interesting. Falke’s commentary on these photographs in the slide show of his work-in-progress, which he delivered at the opening reception for all three shows, was equally fascinating.
Falke next plans to begin taking photographs from the eastern end of the U.S.-Mexican border, beginning with the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo River at Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros in the state of Tamaulipus, Mexico. One can only hope for a speedy completion of what should be an outstanding piece of work.
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