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Gabriel Figueroa, Cinematographer: Great Moments in Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema

In a stunning exhibition celebrating the extraordinary achievements of Gabriel Figueroa Mateos, Mexico’s greatest 20th century cinematographer, with an exposition aptly subtitled “Great Moments in Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema,” the Mexican Cultural Institute mounted a tightly organized and beautifully installed survey of Figueroa’s entire body of work — using film clips, stills and powerful, blown-up prints, ingenious light boxes, and a strip of movie cells that hangs from the fourth floor ceiling to the first floor in the grand staircase of the Institute’s mural and fresco embellished mansion on 16th Street.

As eloquently summed up by the Institute’s Deputy Director Gustavo Morelos Cirion, Figueroa’s “internationally transcendent yet uniquely Mexican style is evocative of the vibrant post-revolutionary Mexican art community, which sought to convey the country’s transformation following the trauma of the Mexican Revolution. . . . His films are an essential part of the network of appropriations, exchanges, and reinterpretations that formed Mexican visual identity and visual culture in the mid-20th century and beyond.”

photo--courtesy Mexican Cultural Institute, Washington DC

photo–courtesy Mexican Cultural Institute, Washington, DC

In a brilliant career of 50 years — from the early 1930s to the early 1980s — Figueroa was the cinematographer for 235 films, working with such Mexican and Spanish greats as Luis Buñuel, for whom he shot such world renowned classics as Los Olvidados and Simon of the Desert, as well as for Emilio Fernandez, whose Rio Escondido is a grand compendium of Figueroa’s mesmerizing compositional, sequencing, and lighting techniques. Figueroa was also the cinematographer for Hollywood masters like John Ford, for whom he shot The Fugitive, and John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana.

Figueroa came early to art; while a teenager studying painting at the Academy of San Carlos, Figueroa was introduced to photography by Jose Guadalupe Velasco, who subsequently employed Figueroa in the art of making photographic portraits. Velasco was a pioneer in the use of artificial lighting, the framing of photographic compositions with lighting, and techniques for retouching photographic negatives — and in the process of building a successful portrait photograph studio in Mexico City.

After achieving success with Velasco, Figueroa gravitated into apprentice film work and moved to Southern California where a Mexican government scholarship allowed him to study under the great Hollywood cinematographer Gregg Toland. That experience was transformational for Figueroa.

This present survey displays the achievements of Figueroa’s transformation throughout the Cultural Institute’s first and fourth floor galleries. The exhibition’s first floor’s gallery space, a double room separated by a shallow open partition, begins the show with two parallel reels of film clips from Figueroa’s greatest works. These film excerpts will be familiar to ardent fans of Mexican movies from this era; to others they will be revelations of what can be achieved with great camera skills — especially deep focus shooting, the use of high contrast black and white filming and low horizon landscape compositions, plus dark background filters and lighting techniques, both those learned from Toland and those further developed by Figueroa to capture an extraordinary canvas of Mexican real and imagined life.

photo--courtesy Mexican Cultural Institute, Washington DC

photo–courtesy Mexican Cultural Institute, Washington, DC

One can sit or stand and view both films simultaneously or separately, with one of the two film reels showing such scenes as pearl divers, floating gardens, weary migrants, small town dance contests, “picturesque depictions” of peasant life, and a variety of slices of domestic interiors — some quite frightening, and some quite benign, some even charming.

The second of the two reels mixes abalone fishermen with scenes of the pyramids at Teotihuacan, revolutionary horseback rancheros trashing a peasant village on market day, streetscapes with Mexicans in 1940s modern dress, weddings and lighted candles and scenes of the Day of the Dead, brutal hangings and political executions, sequences of dreams in death and the afterlife by the protagonist in Los Olvidados — lots of Buñuel and Fernandez — with dramatic landscapes, the Valley of Mexico, trains and railroad tracks being a constant in both reels of film clips.

It is intensely exciting just to watch the film clips, together and separately, both for one’s own emotional reaction and the reinforcement of one’s visual memories of these great films.

There is no end to the excitement, including that of the films’ depictions of naturalistic and stylized political and warring executions, the sequences of an intense young schoolmaster striding through a flat and dry Mexican landscape, the visualization of the Angel of Independence on its towering column in a roundabout park-like setting on the Paseo de la Reforma, and the wacky spectacle of a Danzon band with its coronet players rolling head over heals off a bandstand that concludes this overwhelming first gallery; it provides a transition as one moves into the second room.

Here Figueroa’s early career in studio portrait photography is documented; that was where he perfected the Rembrandt Style; this led him to be hired to do still photography for La Sombra de Pancho Villa, and consequently handsome prints of movie stills join studio portraits on the gallery walls. The star of this gallery, however, is an amazing, large lightbox simulating the interior lighting techniques Figueora devised for shooting a tableau vivant scene in his first film as the cinematographer for Alla en el Rancho Grande, director Fernando de Fuentes’ wildly commercial success.

With the third room gallery we are back in the thick of the violence of the Mexican revolution and its aftermath. Powerful scenes are displayed in two additional reels of film clips which include scenes from the execution of a symbolically powerful person — perhaps Francisco Madero — and that of The Underdogs — plus views of urbanization and in both natural and stylized settings soldiers, trains and tracks, and lots of horses, Winchester rifles, cannons, and Gatling guns. Four magnificent, large jet prints line the walls: “Indio Fernandez” from the film Flor Silvestre, “Coup de Grace” from Un Dia de Vida; “Rider II,” also from Flor Silvestre, and “Drums” from Un Dia de Vida. Two small prints from the 1934 film Enemigos complete this room’s displays.

The fourth floor galleries open with its foyer’s charming triptych of three sequences from the end of the film FIN — and then one is immediately cast into a room celebrating the seven of the 20 Buñuel films made in Mexico for which Figueroa was the cinematographer; the celebration presents blow-ups of film stills, film clip sequences with sound, including stills taken by Manuel Alvarez Bravo for Nazarin. The six other films are Los Olvidados, El, Fever Mounts at El Paso, The Young One, The Exterminating Angel, and Simon of the Desert. The large still of a little girl wandering a deserted town during the plague is especially haunting.

The second room celebrates landscapes, with its large wall filled with stills from Un Cita de Amor, Maria Candelara, Sky, and Nets. A large projection of clips showing contrasting landscapes is especially gripping; one views lush and barren, peopled and deserted, and rural and developing urban landscapes — all fascinating scenes.

One is not prepared for the next room, a small gallery that contains dark and mordant scenes and sequences from 19 Figueroa films — especially ones of a peasant (played by a famous Japanese actor from Kurosawa films) gleefully holding dead chickens in outstretched hands in front of what might be a symbolic Calvary and its three crosses; scenes from Requiem and Canal de los Muertos and Revueltas’s music for La Noche de los Mayas; and scenes from the stoning by a nighttime, torch-bearing mob of a woman crouching on a cobblestone ground surrounding a cistern — the woman at the well.

The fourth and final room first depicts The Metropolis, with images from several famous films, including While Mexico Sleeps and Mexico 2000; they present a scary vision of an urban landscape that seems mostly to engender a harsh world of violence, exploitation, and the brutality of economic forces, from harsh transportation systems to slave trade employment — prostitution, for example. The startling black and white photographs of railroad tracks and urban tawdriness are accompanied by the martial-style music of mariachi bands and the street sounds of autos and buses and late night revelers. Giant prints of stills from Victims of Sin (in Spanish Victimas del Pecado) and El Fugitio (The Fugitive), and Salon Mexico are both haunting and visually riveting.

These first and fourth floor ensembles of picture galleries are tied together with an ingenious display of a giant, slender strip of movie stills hanging in the Institute’s grand staircase from the fourth floor ceiling down to the first floor lobby, all displaying the eyes of the captivatingly beautiful Maria Felix from her starring role in Enamorada.

This exhibition of the vital and outstanding role played by the Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa in the glorious maturation of the art of the cinema in movies made in Mexico and the United States from the 1930s through the 1980s continued at the Mexican Cultural Institute (2829 16th Street, NW) through November 3, 2014.