visiting museums: special exhibitions | the philadelphia museum of art: paint the revolution |

Living is like tearing through a museum.  Not until later do you really start absorbing what you saw, thinking about it, looking it up in a book, and remembering – because you can’t take it in all at once. ~ Audrey Hepburn

Why do we visit museums?  I don’t know about you, but I visit them for a hodgepodge of unrelated reasons.  When I’m at home near Washington, D.C., where so many museums are free, I visit them to pass the time, to have special day outings (topped off with lunch or dinner), to learn about cultures, to explore artists and artistic styles, to have something to do in miserable weather, to expand my appreciation for beauty, or simply to be inspired — either to expand my creativity or to discover new travel destinations.

Philadelphia Museum of Art: Paint the Revolution
Philadelphia Museum of Art: Paint the Revolution

While traveling, I don’t visit museums as often as I ought to, mainly because of time constraints.  I would usually prefer to be outdoors doing urban or nature hiking.  Most often I go if there is a really famous museum or collection to see, such as the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, or the National Archeological Museum in Athens.  Sometimes, such as when we visited the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, we went only because it was pouring rain.  In Barcelona, I visited Fundació Joan Miró and Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya-MNAC only because I had nearly four days there and these museums happened to be on the Barcelona Bus Turista route.

To be honest, I’ve always felt overwhelmed by museums.  I’m always exhausted after I’ve visited one, as I’ve usually attempted to see the whole museum over a 3-4 hour stretch.  Because I’m rushing through, trying desperately to see everything, I feel only slightly enriched by the multitudes of things I’ve seen.  I feel like I’m not devoting enough time, or I’m devoting too much time; mostly I’m feeling unfocused and adrift.  I feel guilty because I’m giving the art too little consideration.  By the time I’m done, I’m too often relieved the whole experience is over.  Frankly, I’ve never thought about how one should visit a museum and thus have done it haphazardly.

Paint the Revolution
Paint the Revolution

That is, until I read the thin volume: How to Visit a Museum, by David Finn.  You’ll have to read the book to get the full value of David’s wisdom, but when Mike and I went to Philadelphia right before New Year to see the special exhibition themed “Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910-1950,”  I tried to put into practice some of David’s suggestions; one we took to heart is that we should go at our own pace and try to limit our time to 1-2 hours.

First, I thought about why I was so set on seeing this special exhibition.  It was due to leave the Philadelphia Museum of Art on January 8, so time was running out.  The event was highly publicized so I felt abuzz with excitement. I had gone to Mexico for a two-week study abroad trip in May of 2007, before I discovered my love of photography, so my pictures from there are disappointingly pathetic. I would love to go back now with a new eye to appreciate and capture the colors, art, and culture of Mexico: the whimsical parrot-hued villas and haciendas, arched doors and windows, colorful and folksy tiles, the ubiquitous Virgin Mary, plantations, Talavera vases.  I had seen the 2002 film Frida and was inspired to see some of her work as well as that of her long-time lover, Diego Rivera.  Finally, I didn’t know anything about the Mexican Revolution and wanted to learn something about it.  I wondered what finally pushes people to revolt against evil governments.

The one thing I forgot about special exhibitions is how crowded they often are.  This one was no exception.  However, I still managed to enjoy it by taking David Finn’s advice and following my instincts.  He says:  Be prepared to find what excites you, to enjoy what delights your heart and mind, perhaps to have esthetic experiences you will never forget.

I was drawn to the brilliant orange marigolds in a caravan of punt boats along a canal in The Offering of 1913 by Saturnino Herran.  The artist is known for his innovative approach to representing scenes of everyday life and indigenous customs.  Little did I know that orange marigolds are placed as offerings on altars and graves on the Day of the Dead.  The varied ages of the passengers allude to the cycle of life.  I like the detail of the baby and the girl’s face, which looks rather melancholy.

Alfredo Ramos Martinez (which by the way is my mother’s maiden name), liked to emphasize the effects of natural light and atmosphere.  This pastel shows a Flower Seller traveling with wares by a punt boat.  Seeing this pastel so close made me wish I could learn to do pastels, but first I need to learn how to draw!

Flower Seller (c. 1916) by Alfredo Ramos Martinez
Flower Seller (c. 1916) by Alfredo Ramos Martinez

Here, a man and woman, Peasants, stand in a typically Mexican landscape identified by the cacti on the ridge and the prickly pears the man carries.  This is another gorgeous pastel.

Peasants (c. 1913) by David Alfaro Siqueiros
Peasants (c. 1913) by David Alfaro Siqueiros

Some of the paintings I simply admired in passing for their use of color without studying them very carefully.

I love this Portrait of Marin Luis Guzman (a Mexican writer) by Diego Rivera, mainly for his brightly colored Mexican serape, and the equipal, the woven wicker chair, he sits on.  The top of the writer’s head is stylized in the manner of a matador’s hat. I love these symbols of Mexican culture and would be inspired to find examples of these on the streets of Mexico if I revisited.

After a Cubist period in Diego Rivera’s work, he went back to following the old masters, especially Renoir and Paul Cezanne, in this Still Life with a Bottle of Anise.

Still LIfe with a Bottle of Anise (1918) - Diego Rivera
Still Life with a Bottle of Anise (1918) – Diego Rivera

After Rivera returned from France, he traveled through Mexico for two years to capture indigenous culture.  I love the colorful mural panel depicting native couples in traditional garb dancing the Zandunga, a traditional Mexican waltz popular in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.  I love how the dance takes place under arches formed by banana trees.

Diego Rivera also painted 17,000 square feet of murals depicting the Agricultural Revolution from 1926-27.  These decorated the Ministry for Public Education in Mexico City and showed the Mexican people’s revolt against the old social order.  In the exhibition, these murals are shown as a rotating video on a blank wall, so we can stand and watch an ever-changing panorama.

Ballad of the Agricultural Revolution - Diego Rivera
Ballad of the Agricultural Revolution – Diego Rivera

As fascinated as I am by Frida Kahlo, I was excited to find this Self-Portrait in Velvet, her first self-portrait, which drew on the early Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli and his paintings of women with their elegantly elongated necks.  As a lover of textiles and rich color, I love the pattern on the shawl collar of her dress.  I also love how Frida never hesitated to portray herself with the hair above her upper lip and her ungainly eyebrows.  She seemed to embrace her less-than-feminine characteristics.

Self-Portrait in Velvet (1926) - Frida Kahlo
Self-Portrait in Velvet (1926) – Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo traveled with Diego Rivera through the United States for a number of years, and in this painting, Self Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States, Mexico is represented by archaeological ruins, lush plants, and flowers, while the United States is mechanical and industrial, with its skyscrapers and smokestacks.  Kahlo stands between the two worlds, holding a Mexican flag.

Self Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States (1932) - Frida Kahlo
Self Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States (1932) – Frida Kahlo

I love the curly hair and coy face, as well as the fountains and birds, in The Powdered Woman by Adolfo Best Maugard.

I’m always drawn to Mexican architecture and colors.  It brings back memories of my visits to Mexico City and Cuernavaca in 2007.

Tepito Landscape (1923) - Abraham Angel
Tepito Landscape (1923) – Abraham Angel

As we walk further into the exhibition, we come to the paintings focused on the revolution.  Here, David Alfaro Siqueiros depicted Zapata, a man of action who led peasants against landowners, a political martyr, and the human personification of the Revolution itself.

Zapata (1931) - David Alfaro Siqueiros
Zapata (1931) – David Alfaro Siqueiros

Alfredo Ramos Martinez, after moving to California in 1928, became known for painting a picturesque world of rural flower and fruit vendors, agricultural and craft workers, and indigenous Mexican families, such as the Flower Seller I showed above.  Zapatistas (formerly Mexican soldiers) belongs to a subset of works on themes of conflict and struggle.

Finally, Luis Arenal Bastar painted The Death of Zapata in 1937.

The Death of Zapata (1937) - Luis Arenal Bastar
The Death of Zapata (1937) – Luis Arenal Bastar

Fermin Revueltas showed industrialization creeping into the Mexican economy here in Port.

Port (1921) - Fermin Revueltas
Port (1921) – Fermin Revueltas

Three Nudes by Julio Castellanos shows a spirit of classicism that was strong across Europe in the 1920s.  He gave the women dark complexions and surrounded them with the rush chairs and white plaster walls of a typical Mexican home.

Three Nudes (Breakfast) 1930 - Julio Castellanos
Three Nudes (Breakfast) 1930 – Julio Castellanos

In the original version of The Birth of Fascism, David Alfaro Siqueiros painted the female figure giving birth to a monstrous newborn with the heads of Hitler, Mussolini, and William Randolph Hearst, the U.S. newspaper publisher seen by the left as an American Fascist.  A few years later, he removed the portrait heads, painted over a view of a partially submerged Statue of Liberty, and added a swastika floating on the water’s surface.

The Birth of Fascism (1936-45) - David Alfaro Siqueiros
The Birth of Fascism (1936-45) – David Alfaro Siqueiros

Home altars in Mexico are often dedicated to the suffering Virgin Mary in Mexican folk Catholicism.  This painting, Altar de Dolores (Altar [for the Virgin] of Sorrows), is organized around a dark-skinned Virgin surrounded by objects traditionally placed on such altars, including bitter oranges symbolic of sorrow, sugar-paste angels, and sprouting wheat that refers to Eucharistic bread and by extension to the body of Christ.

Mock battles and disguises are typical of the carnival that marks the beginning of the Catholic Lent.  These enigmatic figures suggest the interaction between life and death, good and evil.

Carnival at Huejotzingo (1939) - Jose Chavez Morado
Carnival at Huejotzingo (1939) – Jose Chavez Morado

Manuel Rodriguez Lozano painted his first fresco, Pietà in the Desert, the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Christ, while he was incarcerated on false charges, probably politically motivated, in Mexico City’s Lecumberri Prison.

Pieta in the Desert (1942) - Manuel Rodriguez Lozano
Pieta in the Desert (1942) – Manuel Rodriguez Lozano

Below are a couple of posters related to Fascism.

I’m not sure of this painting’s significance, but the colorful Lion and Horse was painted by Rufino Tamayo in 1942.

Lion and Horse (1942) - Rufino Tamayo
Lion and Horse (1942) – Rufino Tamayo

Troubled Waters earned Jose Chavez Morado a prize in a 1949 Excelsior newspaper competition for paintings of Mexico City.  This allegory of social stratification, corruption, and other evils of modernization continues a perennial theme of modern Mexican art: life in the big city.

Troubled Waters (1949) - Jose Chavez Morado
Troubled Waters (1949) – Jose Chavez Morado

Finally, Juan O’Gorman won first prize in the 1949 Excelsior newspaper competition for Mexico City.  Besides showing the center of town, it is also about the capital city and the power of national symbols.  Two hands hold up a 1540 map of the gridded Aztec capital to connect the present to the past.  The figures floating over the skyline are the feathered serpent, representing the Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl; the golden eagle from the Mexican coat of arms; and a pair of flying nudes with the tricolor flat emblazoned with the slogan “Long Live Mexico.”

Mexico City (1949) - Juan O'Gorman
Mexico City (1949) – Juan O’Gorman
Detail - Mexico City
Detail – Mexico City

I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition, while also learning about Mexican culture and the Mexican Revolution. While we drove to Philadelphia, I read aloud to Mike from my phone while he drove, all about the history and important figures in the Revolution; thus, we learned some of the history before we went, further helping us to appreciate our experience.

One thing David Finn recommends in his book is that when you go to see a special exhibition, you should make it a point to visit some part of the permanent collection while you’re there.  Since we’ve come all the way to Philadelphia to see this exhibit, we also wander through the New South Asian Galleries.  I’ll share those with you in another post.  As I’ve lived and traveled throughout South Asia, visiting this part of the museum was a special way for me to travel vicariously back to that part of the world. 🙂

~ Thursday, December 29, 2016.

7 thoughts on “visiting museums: special exhibitions | the philadelphia museum of art: paint the revolution |

  1. I think the advice is wise – spending too long in a museum can leave you cultured out. I’ve learned just st to pay special attention to what jumps out at me and take a broad overview of the rest. Having said that, you’ve obviously taken a lot in here! It looks a wonderful exhibition.

  2. I find most museums are so large my interest wanes and I wear out before reaching the end. I like small museums with a specific topic. If it only takes a couple of hours to look at the whole place, I’m happy.

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