Make a run for the border

By GREG COOK  |  June 2, 2009

Photos like San Pedro y San Pablo (1924) reflect Weston's adoption of Modernist geometric formalism. The picture is about the jaunty rhythms of the metal girding of the skylights in a former convent, a V of sunlight raking across the walls, the diagonal of a stairway railing. Aqueduct (1924) pares down the brick structure's span to a few elegantly curved arches running in diagonals across the picture and silhouetted against the sky.

LA MUJER Diego Rivera’s lithograph of Frida Kahlo is but one example of his detailed, sensitive draftsmanship.
Weston's pruning scenes to their elemental details reaches an apotheosis in Palma Cuernavaca (1925), a tightly framed photo of the trunk of a palm tree that looks a bit upward so that the form narrows as it ascends. The trunk resembles a concrete chimney; the photo seems a distillation of his earlier shots of smokestacks. Excusado (1925) is his iconic close-up of his toilet — a wink at Marcel Duchamp's infamous urinal, but also part of Modernism's glorification of rude industrial culture. The toilet's curves are glossy and smooth. Weston is always a master of sensuality.

In Mexico, Modotti "served as Weston's model, spokesperson, studio assistant, and exhibitions coordinator . . . in exchange for which he taught her photography," Leslie Furth explained in the catalogue to the MFA's 2000 show "Edward Weston: Photography and Modernism." Modotti's photos explored the up-close compositional formula at the same time as Weston, and perhaps a bit before. (See her 1927 close-up of a Worker's Hands resting on a shovel.) She also translated for him and helped introduce him to luminaries of the Mexican art scene, among them Diego Rivera.

Weston's 1925 Nude of Anita Brenner shows her back and butt, with her head and limbs curled up so that they disappear. Weston wrote: "I was shaving when A. came, hardly expecting her on such a gloomy, drizzly day. I made excuses, having no desire — no 'inspiration' — to work. . . . But she took no hints, undressing while I reluctantly prepared my camera. And then appeared to me the most exquisite lines, forms, volumes. And I accepted, working easily, rapidly, surely."

Brenner's truncated, abstracted torso resembles the body of a cello, echoing nudes Rivera was painting into murals around that time. The influence seems to have run both ways. It's sexy, surreal, with unnerving suggestions of dismemberment.

Curated by Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell, the MFA's companion exhibit, "Vida y Drama: Modern Mexican Prints," fills an adjoining gallery with some 27 works from the museum's collection by Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and their successors. The show demonstrates Rivera's sensitive detailed draftsmanship in lithographs of his wife, Frida Kahlo, seated nude on the edge of a bed, revolutionary Emiliano Zapata reining in a horse, and a frog-faced self-portrait. Orozco's lithographs reduce people to abstracted types — as in the flag-waving mob of mouths in The Masses (1935). Siqueiros's 1931 portrait of educator (and Siqueiros patron) Moisés Sáenz turns the man's head into a massive monument, something like the ancient Olmec sculptures in Mexico.

Inspired in part by the Mexican Revolution of 1910–1920, these artists forged an indigenous Mexican Modernism drawing on the craggy artifacts of pre-Columbian peoples as well as contemporary popular art broadsides (think Posada) and folk crafts. Their work also continued to reflect the spirit of the Revolution in its strong pro-communist, anti-capitalist leanings.

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Related: Slideshow: Two Mexican exhibits at MFA, Viva Modernism, Photos: 'Seeing Songs' at MFA, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Edward Steichen,  More more >
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