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Picturing Greater America: US Modernist Photography and the Mexican Cultural Renaissance, 1920–1945

Monica Bravo [Brown University]
Wyeth Fellow, 2014–2016

Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Parabola Optica (Optical parable), 1931, printed 19741931, printed 1974

Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Parabola Optica (Optical parable), 1931, printed 1974, gelatin silver print, Gift of Lee and Maria Friedlander, 2006.117.1.1

“La óptica moderna,” reads the optician’s sign in a 1931 photograph by the Mexican artist Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902–2002). Evocative of a modern viewpoint, the equivocal phrase—like the uncanny image itself—reflects a central theme of my dissertation. The photograph expresses the interplay of reflections and projections, the identification of sameness and difference that characterized US-Mexican cultural exchange in the interwar period.

Artists were among the many cultural and political pilgrims who traveled or expatriated from the United States to Mexico after Mexico’s revolution (c. 1910–1920) and in the midst of its cultural renaissance (c. 1920–1940). Among them were four significant modernist photographers: Edward Weston (1886–1958), Tina Modotti (1896–1942), Paul Strand (1890–1976), and Helen Levitt (1913–2009). My dissertation examines the work these photographers created in Mexico, the conditions that drew them south, and their interactions and exchanges with Mexican artists working in a variety of media.

Even as cultural critics and other leaders from the United States and Mexico sought to develop distinctive native modernisms, artists from both nations discovered shared ideals through their inter-American dialogue. Thus, in contrast to standard art-historical analyses that classify these interwar national developments discretely, I contend that artists on both sides of the border contributed to a nascent Greater American modernism by thinking hemispherically. The phrase “Greater America” belongs to the historian Herbert E. Bolton, who, along with other US and Mexican intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s, promoted the idea of a shared history encompassing the Western Hemisphere as distinct from Europe. My research examines US art history in an international context, thereby construing American art broadly, and places photography back into conversation with painting, literature, and music.

In Mexico, Weston, Modotti, Strand, and Levitt trained their cameras on subjects they believed to be the most representative of Mexican culture, particularly those that also resonated with themes relevant to the US context. Their themes included the paradox of a nation that was both young and prehistoric, the lack of a domestic classical tradition, and the recovery of indigenous and folk culture. For example, through his friendships with Mexican muralists, particularly Diego Rivera (1886–1957), Weston soon recognized the nationalist underpinnings of his contemporaries’ folk, archaeological, and natural subject matter, all celebrating Mexican identity. His emulation of their content, especially traditional ceramics and folk toys, in a modernist photographic style had broad appeal, earning him several exhibitions and laudatory press reviews. Weston’s Mexican audiences often used racialized terms to discuss his photographs, indicating that they understood his work through the popular discourse of mestizaje, or racial mixing.

Weston’s student and companion, Modotti, was even more enmeshed in Mexican social and political circles, so that her representation of Mexican culture—through photographs of strikes, indigenous people, and new technologies—conforms most to how urban Mexicans saw themselves and their country. Her images were frequently reproduced in communist newspapers and little magazines alongside prose or poems by her associates among the avant-garde Estridentistas (Stridentists). Strand, on the other hand, sought what he took to be a more authentic Mexico in the nation’s interior, where he photographed peasants, colonial-era architecture, and Catholic sacred sculptures. Strand’s tribute to communal culture dovetails with the revival of indigenous themes and use of folk instruments by his friend the classical composer Carlos Chávez (1899–1978). Finally, Álvarez Bravo’s photographs of Mexico, exhibited in a New York gallery in 1935, inspired Levitt’s Mexican street photographs of 1941. In this example, we see a US modernist photographer responding to a Mexican one and both inventing a New World surrealist photographic idiom.

In my dissertation, completed this year at CASVA, I analyze correspondence and diaries preserved in US and Mexican archives, popular and avant-garde periodicals, contemporaneous discourses of cultural nationalism, secondary critical responses, and, most important, the works of art themselves. A formal and technical analysis of select works from each photographer’s Mexican oeuvre forms the backbone of each chapter, which I then relate to the contexts in which they were produced as well as to visual and written work by Mexican artists with whom they were in dialogue. Although always beginning with the objects, my analyses open onto themes of primitivism, modernism, and national identity.

My project ultimately investigates what it meant to be a Greater American artist in the period between the two world wars and argues for the hybridity of both the Mexican cultural renaissance and US modernist photography, as artists traveled between the two countries and cross-fertilized each other’s art.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo
Parabola Optica (Optical parable)
1931, printed 1974
Álvarez Bravo, Manuel
Mexican, 1902 - 2002