Editors' pick: Originally published Nov. 14.
In 1932, the Mexican painter José Clemente Orozco travelled to Hanover, N.H., to lecture at Dartmouth College, where he painted the first piece of what became his mural "The Epic of American Civilization." Covering the walls of a room in Dartmouth's Baker-Berry Library, it offers a view of the history of the Western hemisphere that's as gorgeous as it is vicious. Its unlikely location in a stronghold of the American elite shows the fascination that artists such as Orozco exerted because of their radical political views and their compelling artistic vision. The Philadelphia Museum explores that combination in its special exhibition "Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism 1910-1950," which runs through January 8.
Like his contemporaries, Orozco was shaped by the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910 and lasted for the next decade. When Álvaro Obregón took office as president in 1920, he tried to use the arts as a way of uniting the country. One result was the murals that Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros painted both in Mexico and the U.S., which are represented in the show by a number of paintings and several digital projections, including one of "The Epic of American Civilization." It was an art as ideologically driven as it was artistically informed. Much of the work in the show recalls Goya's horrific vision of a society riven by bloodshed; in a more peaceful vein, Siqueiros's Peasants has the flowing strokes of a Van Gogh work.
Rivera spent the bulk of his time between 1906 and 1921 in Europe, where he absorbed a range of influences from El Greco to Cezanne, the Cubists and Picasso. The figures in Rivera's Liberation of the Peon have the classical simplicity of some of Picasso's early work, while their arrangement is that of a Pieta, a painting of Christ's deposition from the cross.
Other artists found inspiration in Mexico's fusion of Spanish and indigenous religious traditions. Juan Soriano's 1938 painting "The Dead Girl" shows the deceased surrounded by flowers and memorialized by hands in prayer, one of which grips a rosary. In María Izquierdo's 1943 Our Lady of Sorrows, the Madonna looks skyward as ceramics, citrus and a slice of watermelon are crammed in the ledges below her.
Orozco, Diego Rivera and Siqueiros all lived and worked in the U.S. at various points in their lives, and their occasionally fraught relationships with patrons mirrored their country's ambivalence toward its northern neighbor. Frido Kahlo depicted that relationship in her Self-Portrait on the Border Line, where she stands between the industrialized U.S. with its Ford plant and stylized skyscrapers and a primal, fertile Mexico. Perhaps she copes with the disparity by smoking the cigarette she holds in the fingers of her right hand.
The show includes a section of photography that links it to Live and Life Will Give You Pictures, an exhibition of French photography from the private collection of Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg that's at the Barnes Foundation through January 9. The great Mexican photography Manuel Álvarez Bravo depicted his country's struggles unflinchingly, but his 1931 image "Optic Parable" is as surrealistic as a film by Salvador Dali.
Henri Cartier-Bresson's 1934 photograph of two prostitutes looking out of adjacent windows of a wooden door to a Mexico City brothel is the only work to appear in both shows. It's situated among the avant garde at the Philadelphia Museum, but at the Barnes with its large collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art Cartier-Bresson's work is part of a tradition of depicting prostitutes forthrightly that dates back to Manet. Works in that tradition are a theme of the Barnes show, which offers Brassaï's Paris streetwalkers and several shots of cancan dancers at the Moulin Rouge by Ilse Bing, a German photographer who moved to Paris in 1930.
Intentionally or not, Bing's photos with their use of blurriness to depict motion recall Edgar Degas's dancers, one of which is in Albert Barnes's collection.
The Barnes show includes a number of artists who are canonical in the history of photography. Eugène Atget's atmospheric scenes of Paris and its environs are here; the 1926 photo of the Marne River featured below is an example. So are Brassaï's images of the city at night that anticipated the Paris of film noir and André Kertész's uncanny photos, including one of a wall on a Paris street that's plastered with posters for the aperitif Dubonnet.
Familiar as many of the works are, they gain considerably from comparison with those in the Barnes's permanent collection. Atget's print of Water Lilies at Versailles taken around 1910 recalls Monet's paintings of the same subject, while a Cartier-Bresson still life of nuts, pears, eggs, apples and watermelons invites the viewer to see one of Paul Cézanne's paintings in the main galleries and consider what the photographers of the first half of the 20th century learned from the artists who preceded them by a generation or two.