MEXICO CITY’S Palace of Fine Arts assigns one of its salons to modern art and another to Mexican art, but both, like all the others, exhibit the same kind of paintings. In tiers of galleries, this huge museum offers little but work by twentieth-century Mexicans. A first look is far from a dull experience. Eager for more, I marched from room to room, excited by a mural still in progress, by the stark perspective of Siqueiros, by the cluttered symbols of Rivera, by the bright colors and stunted figures of young artists, by the mystery of a powerful art spawned in a political revolution. Only later did doubt creep in. Where do young Mexicans go, I wondered, to find out about Botticelli or El Greco or Rembrandt or Degas or Picasso or de Kooning?
Later, at the small Antonio Souza Gallery, the American manager discussed her related problem. The gallery displayed numerous canvases by Leo Rosshandler, a Dutch painter living in Mexico, who paints huge, frightening birds in thick blacks, browns and whites. Although visitors gazed long and quietly at them, sales were meager. “The Mexican public has not been educated beyond Mexican nationalistic art,” the manager said. “They want the usual paintings of the Indian woman with her rebozo and little child.”
During my stay, a brisk controversy in the newspapers, stirred by José Luis Cuevas, has emphasized the significance of the gallery’s problem. Sometimes dubbed Mexico’s joven enojado (angry young man), the 26-year-old Cuevas, wild and imaginative and pessimistic, ranks near the top of the new generation of Mexican painters. He received some notice in the United States early this year when the Evergreen Review translated one of his diatribes. In it, Cuevas railed against artistic provincialism, claiming that a cactus curtain exists between the art of Mexico and the art of the rest of the world.
Now, in his newest onslaught, he has attacked the constraint in Mexican art by citing a personal and detailed example. In an article for the cultural supplement of Novedades, he published some of his correspondence with Fernando Gamboa and added some bitter comment. Gamboa, an art educator and critic, had selected the artists to paint the murals for the new medical center in Mexico City. Cuevas was chosen, but when the center opens, none of his work will adorn its walls. He and Gamboa could not agree on the designs.
CUEVAS said that Gamboa had directed him to avoid depressing subjects. The painter found this prohibition, custom-made, perhaps, for the usual Mexican muralist, impossible for him. “I have never been able to see humanity, the world that surrounds me, except as a giant dungheap without any salvation at all,” he wrote Gamboa. “It is not that your memorandum lays out the subject, which no artist, as a matter of discipline, would avoid,” Cuevas said. “It is that the memorandum gives the tone for the subject... and this is noxious, highly injurious for the destiny of Mexican art which, it seems, is moving with the same old dialectical instruments, without hope of progress, in an eternal repetition of formulas....”
Gamboa’s chief argument was simple: “If you think that in rooms where sick, defenseless, distrustful and timorous people wait for medical examinations, you can paint only negative aspects of human life, then perhaps you are right in supposing...that your murals are going to be rejected.” But it did not seem so simple to Cuevas. Since his attitude toward life and art was well-known, he reasoned, the original invitation could not have been serious. He decided it had been a device to hide Gamboa’s intention of assigning murals only to followers of David Alfaro Siqueiros, the Communist dean of Mexican muralists.
Cuevas, however, did not speak with the whole voice of Mexican youth. In the same issue, another successful, 26-year-old artist, Rafael Coronel, whose brilliant and very funny drawings remind you neither of Siqueiros nor Cuevas, told an interviewer that Cuevas is “like a fly fluttering around a bull... Siqueiros has already arrived, and Cuevas—who knows? . . . His courage is that of a little boy who has just been spanked.” To confuse matters further, Siqueiros told the newspaper Excelsior on the same weekend that the government is constantly moving away from his kind of art. If any favoritism exists, he complained, it benefits the artists who oppose the social realism made popular by the revolution.
I CAUGHT the concert at which Carlos Chávez returned as guest conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional after an absence of several years. He had founded the orchestra in 1928 and directed it for twenty years, bringing Mexico a balance of international and native music. In this tradition, the concert included Beethoven, Haydn, Stravinsky and his own fourth symphony, Sinfonia Romántica. The symphony, commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra, was receiving its first performance in Mexico. Unlike other music by Chávez, it does not burst with Indian dances and folk rhythms; the echoes of Mexican melodies disappear in its integrated brilliance. After the performance, the packed house at the Palace of Fine Arts stood and applauded for fifteen minutes. The audience, however, may have directed its tribute less at the new work than at the status of Chavez as a national institution. Born near Mexico City sixty years ago, Chavez represents a complete Mexican contribution to international art. Yet there is nothing parochial about him. “He has succeeded in creating a music,” the concert program says, “that is eminently Mexican, but eminently Carlos Chavez at the same time.” The rest of Mexican art, struggling and tense, is striving toward this same maturity.
STANLEY MEISLER is a Washington newspaper man and occasional contributor to critical and political journals.