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
Weston’s student and companion, Modotti, was even more enmeshed in Mexican social and political
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.