Mexico’s Revolutionary Avant-Gardes: An Interview with Tatiana Flores
Published earlier this year, Tatiana Flores’s groundbreaking new book Mexico’s Revolutionary Avant-Gardes: From Estridentismo to ¡30-30! offers an insightful narrative about the early-20th-century movement that came to be known as the Mexican Renaissance. Thanks to her extensive research in previously unpublished archival materials, she is able to paint a fuller picture of Mexico’s role in the broader development of modernism worldwide.
If you have the good luck of finding yourself in Mexico City this weekend, the Museo de Arte Moderno is hosting a book launch for Tatiana and Mexico’s Revolutionary Avant-Gardes on Saturday, October 26th at noon in the Gamboa Room. We were able to sit down with Tatiana recently and ask her a few questions about the book; the following Q&A is the happy result.
1. In your introduction you talk about The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. The Savage Detectives, which is loosely based on the Estridentista movement, focuses on the efforts of one historical researcher to reconstruct the events and personalities surrounding the birth of a literary movement called realismo visceral (visceral realism). Over the course of the story, we discover that the founder of realismo visceral, a young poet introduced at the beginning of the novel and known only to the reader, has been erased from the movement’s history because of insufficient records. Over the course of your research, did you find references to any lost documents or conversations that you really wish you could have been privy to?
Roberto Bolaño had the good fortune to interview the three major Estridentista writers: Manuel Maples Arce, Germán List Arzubide, and Arqueles Vela, in 1976. His interviews are valuable primary sources because they reveal interesting nuggets, such as a prank narrated by Vela in which the Estridentistas covered the statues on the Alameda park in Mexico City with newspaper to oppose the dominant sculptural aesthetic. I wish I could have interviewed them as well, but they had all passed away when I started my fieldwork in Mexico. My first trip was in 1999, and both Germán List Arzubide and Luis Mario Schneider (the major Estridentista scholar) died earlier that year. I would have asked them questions about this and other performative actions such as when some Estridentista supporters were arrested in Puebla for a prank (but Maples Arce evaded capture). I especially would have wanted to ask them about their time in Xalapa, Veracruz, which is frustratingly lacking in documentation. Maples Arce was visited there by Peruvian avant-garde poets Serafín del Mar and Magda Portal, and he also met Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, a major Peruvian politician who was in Mexico in exile at the time. I am working on excavating these connections a bit further. The archives around visual artists, particularly Fermín Revueltas and Ramón Alva de la Canal, are also meager, and there are many missing works of art that I hope one day will resurface.
2. In the 1920s, Estridentismo began to incorporate popular culture and traditional craft techniques. In the context of European modernism, gestures like these have been interpreted as romanticizing native cultures, or furthering the ends of colonial exploitation. But in Mexico, as you mention, handmade products were still very much a part of everyday life, even for members of the bourgeoisie like Maples Arce and his compatriots. Because of this, the gesture was at least in part a genuine attempt to make art accessible to all by collapsing the categories of high and low. How would a knowledge of the history and conventions of traditional craft have changed one’s appreciation of these works? I.e., to what extent, and how, did the Estridentismos interact with these conventions?
In 1921, the same year that Maples Arce drafted Actual No. 1, there was a major exhibition of Mexican popular arts and crafts in Mexico City, spearheaded by the artist Dr. Atl, with an accompanying two-volume catalogue, unheard of at that time. This really shone a spotlight on traditions that until the twentieth century had for the most part been ignored. Almost all of the artists around Estridentismo and later ¡30-30! engaged with crafts, popular culture, or native traditions in some way, but it was not so much of a concern among the writers. Fernando Leal studied indigenous dances in preparation for his mural The Feast of the Lord of Chalma. Jean Charlot was a tireless advocate for the graphic arts and especially promoted the work of José Guadalupe Posada. Gabriel Fernández Ledesma made paintings featuring various kinds of crafts, and Lola Cueto experimented in textile and decorative painting. In an evocative description of his visits to her home, Maples Arce writes, “I would find her decorating rustic furniture purchased in town markets, which she would adorn with flowers and drawings that recalled the lacquers of Olinalá.” These objects are, unfortunately, also lost.
3. This work challenges hegemonic notions of western modernism by using Estridentismo’s engagement with the visual arts (especially Mexican muralism) as a point of departure in order to understand the movement as home-grown. What (if anything) can we learn about European avant-garde art of the period by considering the Mexican Renaissance in a new light?
In addition to furthering the study of Mexican art, I see my book as contributing to the emerging field of global modernisms. I’ve been fortunate to participate in panels with specialists in Korean, Chinese, and Indian modernisms, and although these contexts are vastly different, what is striking is how much we all have to engage with European art in some way. Methodologically, decentering European modernism is an important part of what we do. I think that one of the most important lessons to take away from this kind of work is that there are fascinating artistic manifestations happening around the world simultaneously. We can learn that European avant-garde art is but one of many coexisting traditions. Hopefully, mainstream modernists will be receptive and will begin to think globally about the entire twentieth century and not just contemporary art.
4. Many avant-garde artists, including Maples Arce and his colleagues, were concerned with new technologies and the advent of globalization. Have you considered what Maples Arce might have thought about 20th century social media innovations like twitter, tumblr, pinterest and the like? Would Arce have had a twitter? How would Actual No. 1 be different if he had shared it across social media platforms?
I think Maples Arce would be pleased to know that his predictions about an interconnected world had come true, and I don’t doubt that he would have been active on social media with tons of followers. But nobody writes manifestos these days or founds movements, so that would have been lost. I always like to compare Maples Arce’s perspective on modernity with that of Mexican new media artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, whom I discuss in my introduction. Whereas Maples Arce only saw technology as a force of good, Lozano-Hemmer explores both the wonder of technology and its underside. As a public artist, he is successful at addressing a diverse public in an engaging way, an elusive goal for the Mexican muralists, through installations with light and sound that respond to the spectators in some way. But Lozano-Hemmer also calls attention to the era of surveillance that we now inhabit and reminds us that nothing is private. Even back then, though, as I pointed out in the book, many of Maples Arce’s contemporaries were skeptical of modernity, and I’ve found this to be true among avant-gardists in Latin America more broadly. Not only did they fear that native traditions would be lost, they also criticized the implications of technology for the disenfranchised sectors of society. What would the benefit of modernity be for the urban labor force constructing it? Though those around him may have dissented, however, Maples Arce always retained his original sense of optimism.
Tatiana Flores is associate professor in the Department of Art History with a joint appointment in the Department of Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University.