Loot, and Other Perspectives on Graphic Revolution
If you paid attention to news stories about the protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, you could see politics in the way people describe events. When people took to the streets chanting Black Lives Matter, and the names of Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Tamir Rice, and the many others who were killed by police, were those events described as protests, or as riots? Were the people protestors, or were they vandals and looters? Those judgements reveal different sides of history, and they are not new.
For the record, the events were protests, and the protestors were righteous.
People have always chosen sides in revolutions based on their ideologies, but also based on their class and economic standing, and how that was built. It is why some people fled Cuba as they saw Fidel Castro nationalize industries and seize property. Was that looting, or was it a righteous act on behalf of the Cuban people?
Indeed, that specific distinction played out more than 100 years ago in Mexico, too, and it is one of the most fascinating aspects of A Graphic Revolution: Prints and Drawings of Latin America. The exhibit opened just before the Cleveland Museum of Art closed its doors due to the coronavirus. Then it spent nearly four months hanging in the dark on the walls of the empty museum. Now that it has re-opened to the public, we have a new opportunity and a new zeitgeist in which to view A Graphic Revolution. It’s been extended to November 29, 2020. The historic look at prints and drawings of Latin America has a new timeliness as the nation reckons with racism, marked by protest, and as individuals examine their own response.
The exhibit fills two rooms with works from the early twentieth century to the present. Revolution has been a constant in Latin America in the 20th century, but in this case the one that figures prominently is the Mexican Revolution of 1910. In particular the juxtaposition of images by Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera show different perspectives on one of its leaders, Emiliano Zapata. Zapata’s agrarian peasant army, the Liberation Army of the South, called for land reform–which meant redistribution of land from wealthy owners to peasants. Together, rebel factions overthrew dictator Porfirio Diaz, but they also broke down as factions and the fighting dragged on for years. Their perspectives on the conflict and its strategies and leaders were a clear and significant difference in the works of Orozco and Rivera, and those varied perspectives on the revolution are made clear in the juxtaposition of several images by the two artists.
Orozco’s litho, Zapatistas, portrays the leader and his followers as an angry mob of virtually identical men in the shadows of their sombreros. They’re presented to the viewer as a looming threat. His drawing called Loot portrays the aftermath of violence as a group of revolutionaries walks from the scene with bundles of stolen goods packed on horses, led by a rifle-bearing man in a sombrero, which is topped by a superfluous, formal top hat. As interpretive text from the museum says, it’s from Orozco’s series “Horrors of the Revolution.” The artist had become disillusioned with the revolution, writing that he “did not trust revolutions or glorify them.”
Meanwhile, exactly the opposite perspective informs Diego Rivera’s portrait of Zapata all in white, in heroic pose, astride a white horse.
The works are mostly devoid of slogans familiar to revolutionary print. Phrases like “Viva la Revolucion” and “La Gente Unido jamas sera vencido” do not appear. One exception is Pablo O’Higgins 1952 linocut, Cardenas and the Expropriation of Oil, which was published by the influential Taller de Grafica Popular. The subject is president Lazaro Cardenas’s 1938 nationalization of foreign oil production in Mexico, for the purpose of improving conditions for workers. In the image, Cardenas looks out over a cheering crowd waiving banners that mark the date and say “Viva La Expropriacion del Petroleo.”
Also produced by the Taller de Grafica Popular is a book on view, commemorating the 12th anniversary of the shop. It was an artist-run print shop in Mexico City whose mission was to use the democratic power of print to spread images addressing social and political issues. The book features small lithographs and woodcuts made by people who worked there or were involved in its projects. In reading the descriptive text, TGP sounds not unlike Zygote Press.
While many of the works—lithos, woodcuts, especially—take advantage of the idea that multiple impressions can popularize and spread ideas, they did so subtly. Often they portrayed common people in ways that revealed conditions and attitudes they lived with, or desired. Rivera’s Open Air School portrays a teacher, seated and reading or discussing a text with ten people gathered around her, attentive. In the distance, men with horses plow the fields while a mounted horseman with a rifle looks on. Fanny Rabel’s woodcut, Teacher, presents a woman holding a book. It’s an admiring perspective, her face glowing in the light.
Revolution and political instability are manifest in the exhibit not only in the content of the works, but in the circumstances of their production, and even the means of their dissemination. Argentine artist Leon Ferrari made his work Square using a commercial printing process usually for reproducing blueprints, while in exile in Brazil during the political instability of the Peronist years in Argentina. Square is a grid of intersecting lines, apparently inspired by the layout of Sao Paulo, with people walking between the lines, within the squares. While in exile, the artist would distribute his work by folding it and mailing it. Fold lines are visible in the example on view.
The exhibit begins with monochrome black drawings, lithos, and woodcuts, but becomes increasingly more colorful through the years as it includes screen prints and other techniques. It also shows increasing connection to ideas playing out internationally on the art scene, including the multiple perspectives of cubism, and greater interest in abstraction. A work of Afro Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam shows influence of artists he saw while in Europe, such as the linear quality and angular shapes of artists like Picasso. Geometric abstraction is well represented in works of Hugo Rodolfo Demarco and Almir Mavignier, Gego, and Jesus Rafael Soto, among others. The 2009-10 work, Cinnamon, by Beatriz Milhazes (Brazil), which is presented opposite the introductory wall text, is absolutely shouting with color.
A Graphic Revolution is not likely to get the level of attention that the 15 or so works of the Keithly Collection will as they are shown for the first time in the post-COVID shutdown, re-opened museum. But if you go to the Museum looking for substance that relates to the current national conversation, this exhibit offers some food for thought.