Decentralizing the Discourse
The Politics and Art of Post-Revolutionary Mexico
In 1937, Frida Kahlo completed “Mi nana y yo [My nurse and I],” a painting that would travel first to the Julien Levy Gallery in New York city and later to an exhibition in Paris organized by the French surrealist, André Breton. In the foreground of this image, the white-clad figure of a baby bearing the adult head and neck of Kahlo is cradled in her nurse-maid’s arms. Kahlo’s white garment is pristine and the lace lying against her infantile legs echoes the xylem and phloem visible on the underside of the whitened leaf in the background. This echoed pattern, however, is not the only thing Kahlo and the leaf share. Both receive liquid nourishment: the leaf, from the drops of rain falling from the sky, and Kahlo from the breast of her nurse-maid. Though the source of each being’s nourishment appears different, the drops themselves are indistinguishable. The drops of breast-milk and of the rain double.
Similar to the sky that gives water to the earth and the earth that holds the flora, the nurse sustains her hybrid Kahlo. She is not simply sprung from the land (see the etymology of “indigenous”) but exists instead of it; or, rather, she is a continuation of the land for, in a quasi-flaying of the skin—one that avoids the immediate violence of dripping blood and instead depicts a reddened edge that speaks to past violence and present irritation—, her left breast, the one dripping into Frida’s adult mouth, exposes its not so human flesh. This flesh is not an anatomical depiction of mammary glands, but rather full of whitened flower-like plants whose stems lead to her nipple. Though her breast is doubly exposed, naked and vivisected, the nurse’s face is masked in black. Her expression is withheld. Who is this woman who performs the role of the nurse? What are the relations drawn between the care-taker, the keeper, and the face-less indigenous?
“Mi nana y yo [My nurse and I]” is a constellation of revealed, revealing, hidden, and masked symbols. Any permutation or combination of these symbols offers itself to rich readings of nation-building, of the temporality of the indigenous, of the self of self-portraiture, and of gender and ecology. This is just to name a few. No one reading is comprehensive. If “Mi nana y yo [My nurse and I]” is read as a representation of the production of a Mexican national identity, focusing on the prioritization of the indigenous past and its influence upon contemporary Mexico, the aspects of the work that do not corroborate such a reading are forgotten. When certain inter-relations come to the forefront while others recede in service of a reading, we give to the work a single-point forced perspective. In contemporary scholarship, this is the creation of a center-periphery discourse.
To actively combat the scholarly creation of a center-periphery discourse, or at the very least to take past peripheral figures as our new centers for future readings, we must account for the intellectual and artistic debates taking place in Mexico at this time. We must investigate how “Mi nana y yo [My nurse and I]”—and all of Kahlo’s work that traveled beyond its nation of origin—was born within a certain political and artistic climate.
1. André Breton, Mexique: Préface d’André Breton (catalog, Renou & Colle, 164 Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Paris-8e, 1939).
2. Frida Kahlo, “Mi nana y yo” (oil on tin, Collección Museo Dolores Olmeido, Xochimilco, Mexico, 1937).
The Mexican Revolution ended in 1920, leaving at least one million dead and little remaining infrastructure. As peace settled, many Mexican intellectuals and artists, including Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera, returned from Europe, where they had associated with many of the European avant-gardes, to inhabit this burgeoning nation. However, growth was not solely driven by the intellectuals returning from Europe, but also from Mexican government officials. In the two decades after the war, the government not only attempted to introduce new economic developmental programs but also began to delineate a new theory of popular art and national identity. The intellectuals and artists began to articulate a new political and artistic climate.
3. Benjamin Keen, “The Mexican Revolution—and After” in A History of Latin America, 5th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996), 282. The demographic impact of the revolution is widely contested, ranging from 1 to 3.5 million dead. For a brief discussion of the Mexican Revolution and its political effects read this whole chapter by Keen.
4. Rick A. López, Crafting Mexico: Intellectuals, Artisans, and the State after the Revolution (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 18.
5. Ibid., 49.
This new climate included theories of national identity that were framed around miscegenation and focused on a mixture with the indigenous roots of Mexico. Under Jose Vasconcelos, the Secretary of Public Education from 1920 to 1924, the nation embarked upon a project of muralism. This project of a public art was framed around his previous iterations of national identity. In 1925, Vasconcelos published what is now considered an extremely controversial work, La raza cósmica [The cosmic race]. At the time, it was one of the most circulated books. The work is perhaps most known for positing a “fifth race” that was characterized by mestizaje. Vasconcelos connects this ethnic mixing to the future of the Americas when he writes, “El objeto del continente nuevo y antiguo es mucho más importante. Su predestinación obedece al designio de constituir la cuna de una raza quinta en la que se fundirán todos los pueblos, para reemplazar a los cuatro que aisladamente han venido forjando la Historia.” These two sentences not only suggest a new force in history, but also connect the result of miscegenation to a divine purpose. The words “predestinación” and “designio” clearly echo a rhetoric of destiny and divine plan in the founding of this continent. However, Vasconcelos employs these words not in reference to the colonial dominion of the Spanish, but subverts their previous colonial use to connect them to this new “fifth race.” This subversion allows for a reversal of the hierarchical renderings of colonial power. The Spanish, the white conquerors, no longer are the agents of this divine plan. Mexico, and the entire continent, thus becomes the birthplace of this new people upon which all people “se fundirán.” This glance toward the future, through the use of the future tense “se fundirán” (“will be founded”), then suggests that this fifth race, the product of miscegenation, is not only the origin of a new people but also the base upon which all people of the world will be founded. With these sentences, Vasconcelos redraws the geography of human civilization. Mexico, and the entirety of America, are the center of the discourse. Through a glance to the future, theirs is a most “modern” people.
6. Karen Cordero Reiman, “Constructing a Modern Mexican Art, 1910-1940,” in South of the Border: Mexico in the American Imagination 1914-1947 (Washington: Smithsonian Institutions Press, 1993), 21.
7. Jorge Schwartz, Las vanguardias latinoamericanas: Textos programáticos y críticos (Mexico City: Fondo de cultura económica, 2002), 604.
8. José Vasconcelos, “La raza cósmica” in Las vanguardias latinoamericanas: textos programáticos y críticos, ed. Jorge Schwartz (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2002), 611. In English, “The objective of the old and new continent is much more important. Its predestination arises from the plan to make the cradle of the fifth race in which all the peoples will merge, to replace the four races that by themselves have come to forge History.”
Even before the publication of Vasconcelos’ seminal work, this topic of ethnicity, nation, and national identity was present within the intellectual sphere of Mexico. In 1916, several years before the Revolution ended, Manuel Gamio, a Mexican archeologist and anthropologist, published his work on national identity entitled Forjando patria [Forging the nation]. Much like Vasconcelos’ later work, Gamio suggests that the unification of Mexico into one nationality is rooted in the unification of races. At the end of the work, after mentioning the “solemn” times that Mexico is suffering due to the Revolution, he writes, “Fusión de razas, convergencia y fusión de manifestaciones culturales…son conceptos que … indican condiciones que, en nuestra opinión, deben caracterizar a la población Mexicana, para que ésta constituya y encarne una Patria poderosa y una Nacionalidad coherente y definida.” The final clause of this sentence contrasts greatly with the presence of the “fifth race” that Vasconcelos locates in America. Instead, for Gamio, these concepts of fusion and unification are not yet visible in Mexico, but could be in the future. They are not yet realized, but are possible in the reformation of the nation. Thus, this moment of the text suggests the possibility of a national identity in a post-Revolutionary Mexico. However, this nationality can only exist through a fusion, a unification, that would eliminate separate autochthonous groups.
9. Manuel Gamio, Forjando patria, 10-12.
10. Ibid., 325. In English, “The fusion of races, convergence and fusion of cultural manifestations…are concepts that … indicate conditions that, in our opinion, should characterize the Mexican population so that it may become and may incarnate a powerful nation and a consistent and defined nationality.”
These calls for fusion and unification that are found in the works of both Gamio and Vasconcelos ultimately result in discussions of art and aesthetics within this new national identity of mestizaje. Gamio cites a type of art that is already present in Mexico as a predecessor for a true national art. This type of art is the result of “el arte español y el prehispánico” encountering each other and “se invadieron uno a otro, se mezclaron y en muchos casos se fundieron armónicamente.” This process that Gamio describes seems to relate to a quasi-transculturation. The two art cultures meet and both are changed through this meeting. Most interestingly, Gamio suggests that a third type of art, one that is the unification of the two, is formed through this meeting. It is this third type that is a national art. Vasconcelos, on the other hand, does not consider the cultural output of the prehispanic civilizations, the indigenous people of Mexico, to be art. In the section of his memoirs entitled “El desastre,” he writes, “…Y una de las exigencies de nuestro programa era poner en contacto, cada vez que fuese posible, al gran publico con el gran artista, no con las medianías.” This distinguishing between “mediocre” artists and great artists creates a hierarchy of art, and Vasconcelos’ new program of art attempts to bring the public to this higher form. Art, then, for Vasconcelos was not the mixing of traditional forms, but rather the elevation of the masses to a higher standard. It is a reconfiguration of his conception of transcendence through miscegenation. While both of these descriptions of a national art suggest that there are societal divisions in art forms and receptions, they envision different methods in forming a national art.
11. Gamio, Forjando patria, 65. In English, “Spanish and prehispanic art invaded each other, mixed and in many cases were united harmoniously.”
13. José Vasconcelos, La creación de la secretaría de educación pública, 143. In English, “…And one of the requirements of our program was to put in contact, any time that it was possible, the general public with the great artist, not the mediocre ones.”
These two iterations of national art, and different ways of achieving a national art, are but two discussions of art present in post-Revolutionary Mexico. Within this time period, there was also an outpouring of avant-garde activity through the movement of Estridentismo—which focused on a quasi-Futurist idea of action and included references to the state of the nation post-Revolution—and its opposing group, los Contemporáneos. Many of these young artists and authors were clearly influenced by the publication of European avant-garde manifestoes, but ultimately framed and negotiated their own movements.
14. Cordero Reiman, “Constructing a Modern Mexican Art, 1910-1940,” 31.
The framing of a new avant-garde, seen in Manuel Maples Arce’s first manifesto for the Estridentista movement, published on the walls of Puebla in 1921, is one that is conscious of the contemporaneous avant-gardes of Latin America and Europe, but also actively works against the bounded –isms to form a new, Mexican avant-garde. The refusal of the boundaries of European movements is expressed several times throughout the text. The seventh precept of this manifesto begins with this rejection of previous avant-gardes. Maples Arce proclaims, “Ya nada de creacionismo, dadaísmo, paroxismo, expresionismo, sintetismo, imaginismo, suprematismo, cubismo, orfismo, etcetera, etcetera, de –ismos más o menos teorizados y eficientes. Hagamos una síntesis quinta-esenical y depuradora…. ” While this listing of various avant-gardes could be read as simply referential, Maples Arce, with the phrase “más o menos teorizados y eficientes,” uproots the power of these avant-gardes. Instead of suggesting that some of these movements have been more influential to contemporary art, this sentence argues against their influential power. These movements, both the more defined and the less defined ones, are denied. This sentence, thus, counteracts the usual iteration of the avant-gardes. Instead of aggressively positing that the previous avant-garde movements were aesthetically or theoretically wrong, which was the subject of many European manifestos, Maples Arce’s manifesto does not allow for this contradiction to be born. Instead, he places Estridentismo outside of this typical narrative. Unlike other avant-gardes, Estridentismo advocates not for a complete negation of what came before, but for a “quintessential” synthesis. This suggestion of unity inherently posits that these earlier movements are not contradictory modes of art, but rather can be unified into some common theory.
15. Manuel Maples Arce, “Actual Núm. 1,” in Las vanguardias latinoamericanas: textos programáticos y críticos, ed. Jorge Schwartz (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2002), 190-198. In English, “Now [let us have] nothing of creationism, dadaism, paroxysm, expressionism, synthetism, imagism, suprematism, cubism, orphism, etc., etc., of –isms more or less theorized and efficient. Let us make a quintessential and purified/purifying synthesis…”
While Maples Arce’s manifesto does directly address the cosmopolitan rhetoric of unification beyond national borders in its tenth section, it also clearly references the revolution and Mexican history to advocate for a new national art. This manifesto is often cited for the seemingly anti-Mexican refrain, “Muera el Cura Hidalgo.” While this statement could simply be imbued with the irreverent tone of a youthful avant-garde, the call for death to the symbol of Mexican Independence moves beyond irreverence. This is a proclamation against the symbolism of this figurehead, and the reverence for historical figures. This cannot be read as a cosmopolitanism that is anti-Mexican, for, as we discover later in the manifesto, Maples Arce’s manifesto is not anti-national but rather against government-sponsored creations of identity. At the end of this manifesto, Maples Arce writes, “Exito a todos los poetas, pintores y escultores jóvenes de México, a los que aún no han sido maleados por el oro prebendario de los sinecurismos gobiernistas.” This sentence, that opens with the praising of the young Mexican artists, uses polemic language in discussing the government. He praises the Mexican artists that have not been corrupted by these high-paying but little-producing governmental positions. To some extent, this praises non-sponsored art and those who have not fallen into the pocket of the new post-Revolutionary government. In returning to our reading of Vasconcelos’ call for great art, this manifesto also functions as a proclamation against “high” art. This is made clear both through the phrase “Chopin a la silla eléctrica” and, at the end of the second manifesto published in 1925, when the new refrain becomes, “¡Viva el mole de Guajolote!” The first of these phrases is not only a call for the death of an earlier and highly formalized musician, but also a call for the use of new technologies in this death. It is a celebration of the new and the mechanical over the old. The second phrase, while it would seemingly contribute to a provincialism in the Mexican national context, as turkeys are only native to the Yucatán peninsula, celebrates food. This celebration of an item that all can eat regardless of class irreverently diminishes the seriousness of the usual high-culture endings to this call. This is a call to life for something quotidian. Thus, this seemingly funny moment becomes a new discourse of Mexican aesthetics. In celebrating this mole, Maples Arce creates a movement that springs from the contemporaneous common culture. While he is aware of these movements taking place in Europe, the true movement forward in Mexican art is not to become an erudite, great artist or to create an esoteric group, but to celebrate the modern, quotidian life of Mexico.
16. Ibid., 190. In English, “Death to the Priest Hidalgo.”
17. Ibid., 196. In English, “Success to all the young poets, painters, and sculptors of Mexico, to those who still have not been ruined by the special-favor gold of the governmental sinecures.”
18. Ibid., 192, 200. In English, “Chopin to the electric chair” and “Long live the turkey mole.”
This irreverence for systems of knowledge and power has traditionally in scholarship been opposed to another group of young authors who received the support of José Vasconcelos, known as Los Contemporános. While this “group” was rather hazily defined and these authors did not have their own eponymous magazine until 1928, they published various other magazines until then. One of these magazines, published from 1922 to 1923, La Falange purported to “desautoriz[ar] … la influencia sajona” and to “reivindic[ar] los fueros de la vieja civilización romana de la que todos provenimos.” While this clearly denies any influence from the North in its rejection of the “Saxon influence” and instead advocates for a return to “Roman civilization,” this politically charged phrase does not suggest a contemporaneous political situation. Instead, it uses these ancient divisions in civilization, an ancient conflict, to not cast the glance forwards but to uproot this magazine from contemporaneous Mexican politics. The paradigm of the Contemporáneos is one that ignores the current political climate. This is echoed in the prologue to the Antología de la poesía mexicana moderna published in 1928. Jorge Cuesta, who was a member of the group at this time, organized this anthology. In discussing the anthology, Cuesta writes, “Los grupos, las escuelas, se disuelven; sólo quedan los individuos que las han superado….” This negation of the movements surrounding these poets and the assertion that it is only the individuals that move beyond these groups who remain is not only a rejection of the contemporary artistic scene of avant-garde groups, but also a glance forward. To consider what remains is to suggest that something must remain and that art persists beyond its contemporaneous moment. Most importantly, this erases the specific artistic and political climate from these works.
19. See Fernando Fabio Sánchez, “Comtemporáneos y Estridentistas ante la identidad y el arte nacionales en el México post-revolucionario de 1921 a 1934,” 207-23.
22. Jorge Cuesta, “Prólogo,” in Las vanguardias latinoamericanas: textos programáticos y críticos, ed. Jorge Schwartz (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2002), 384-386. In English, “The groups, the schools, dissolve themselves; only the individuals that have surpassed these groupings remain.”
While this would suggest a dichotomy in the art scene of Mexico, we cannot limit this context to a dichotomous rendering of young art. At the same time, there are works published that do not subscribe to either of these groups. One of these works, is the “Manifiesto del grupo sin número y sin nombre.” This “movement,” which is defined ironically in the text, is presented as a provincial group in Jalisco in the opening of the manifesto; however, very quickly it is uprooted from that specific location through the phrase “puede morir in cualquier parte.” This denial of a specific location is echoed by the rejection of art for art’s sake. This is summarized in the phrase, “El arte por el arte es lo más inactual.” This sentence captures the idea that there is an artistic consciousness of the day. To say that something is the most “inactual” is to assert that there is a contemporaneous spirit of art and that this form is not it. Thus, this manifesto not only asserts that the avant-garde spirit moved beyond certain regions of Mexico but also that it was a current that extended beyond the avant-garde movements to the conceptions of contemporaneous art.
23. Augustín Yañez, Esteban A. Cueva, Alfonso Gutiérrez Hermosillo, “Manifesto del grupo sin número y sin nombre,” in Las Vanguardias Latinoamericanas: Textos programáticos y críticos, ed. Jorge Schwartz (Mexico City: Fondo de cultura económica, 2002), 320-321.
24. Ibid., 320. In English, “Could die anywhere.”
25. Ibid. In English, “Art for art’s sake is the most out-of-date.”
This background of post-Revolutionary Mexican art cannot be limited to theoretical discussions of art and certain avant-garde movements. After Vasconcelos left his position, the government nationalized the production of popular art. In 1938, the president, Lázaro Cárdenas, undertook a restructuring of the army and labor reform, which became the Party of the Mexican Revolution. This reform was not only evident in economic and political actions but also in the formation of a state policy towards art. Popular art, one that we now commonly call folkloric, become a commercial and, thus, a commonplace entity. It is within this Mexican artistic scene—the discussions of a national art, the currents of the avant-garde, and the commercialization of folkloric art—that Kahlo’s work is born.
26. See López, Crafting Mexico: Intellectuals, Artisans, and the State after the Revolution, chapter 4.
27. Keen, “The Mexican Revolution—and After,” 289.
28. López, Crafting Mexico: Intellectuals, Artisans, and the State after the Revolution,162-163.
29. Ibid., chapter 4.
30. This has been discussed with reference to the form of the retablo or ex-voto and her work. For this discussion, see Castro-Sethness and Herrera, 151.
However, these various forces should not suggest that Surrealism was not discussed by contemporaneous Mexican artists and intellectuals. In 1940, André Breton worked with Wolfgang Paalen, an artist and an immigrant to Mexico, and César Moro, the Peruvian poet, to organize a Surrealist exhibition in Mexico City, which would be called the International Surrealist Exhibition. The catalog for the exhibition was not written by Breton, but by these two artists based in Latin America. Thus, this catalog presents a Latin American agency over this framing of art. In Cesar Moro’s introduction, he gives a new history of art and a history of surrealism. Moro writes Latin America into this history: “Por primera vez en México, desde siglos, asistimos a la combustion del cielo, mil signos se confunden y se distinguen en la conjunction de constelaciones que reanudan la brillante noche precolombina. … Países [México y el Perú] que guardan … millares de puntos luminosos que deben sumarse bien pronto a la línea de fuego del surrealism internacional.” While the metaphor of constellations and the night sky is rather belabored, this reference to a colonial history and a pre-Colombian past, posits an anti-colonial framework for Surrealism. Even more importantly it suggests that Surrealism naturally springs from this history, and that the course of Mexico will naturally elide it with the movement of international Surrealism. Thus, this is an avant-garde that does not break with or antagonize Mexico, but is a natural occurrence, as fated as the movement of the stars.
31. César Moro, J, Vazques Amaral trans., International Surrealist Exhibition, 1940. In English, “For the first time in centuries we witness a heavenly combustion in Mexico. A thousand tokens mingle and are seen in the conjugation of constellations which renew the brilliant pre-Columbian night. … Countries [Mexico and Peru] which keep, in spite of the invasion of the Spanish barbarians and their followers of today, a thousand luminous points which must join very soon with the line of fire in international surrealism.”
While Kahlo is not directly discussed in the introduction to the exhibit, two of her pieces were included in the listing of the exhibition. Painting two pieces specifically for the exhibition—“The Two Fridas” and “The Wounded Table”—could be read as Kahlo’s acceptance of a discussion of Surrealist aesthetics in her work. However, what is even more interesting about the framing of this exhibition is where it places Kahlo within the Surrealist aesthetic. Coincidentally, Kahlo’s two pieces, and Diego Rivera’s as well, were not placed in the section of Mexican Surrealist artists, but within the list of International Surrealist artists. While this could suggest the erasure of a national discourse from her art, it also relates her work to this expanded consciousness of international surrealism into which Mexico naturally falls. Thus, this suggests that Kahlo’s work has expanded beyond its original Mexican context and into the communal realm of international surrealism.
32. See Luis M. Castañeda, “Surrealism and National Identity in Mexico: Changing Perceptions, 1940-1968,” 11. In this text, we are told that Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo participated in this exhibition “at their own request.”
33. Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1983), 256. “The Two Fridas” and “The Wounded Table” are the only large-scale paintings Kahlo ever completed and they were finished specifically for this exhibition.
34. César Moro, J, Vazques Amaral trans., International Surrealist Exhibition, 1940.
However, we must acknowledge that Kahlo did remark upon her inclusion in this iteration of Surrealism. Many years after this exhibition, Kahlo would make two statements about her relationship with Surrealism. In a private letter to Antonio Rodríguez in 1952, she wrote, “Some critics have tried to classify me as a Surrealist; but I do not consider myself to be a Surrealist… Really I do not know whether my paintings are Surrealist or not, but I do know that they are the frankest expression of myself…. I detest Surrealism. To me it seems to be a decadent manifestation of bourgeois art.” While this quotation clearly highlights a political background, it also constructs a division between Surrealist paintings/art and Surrealism as a movement. Whereas Kahlo quite emphatically rejects her placement within the movement, she remains uncommitted to situating her work within a movement. The following year, in a short article published in Time Magazine, Kahlo states, “They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” This simple statement solely provides a definition of what Kahlo self-identifies as not being. Her art is not oneiric. Her emphasis on a “reality” suggests that this is the point of departure between her work and Surrealism. She imagines dreams and reality as mutually exclusive, which contradicts Surrealism’s traditional understanding of dreams. Kahlo’s work is her reality, and it does not need to be characterized in any further manner.
35. Kahlo quoted in Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, 263.
36. Kahlo quoted in “Art: Mexican Autobiography,” Time Magazine, Apr. 27, 1953.
It is with this incredibly multifaceted context that we approach Kahlo’s work. If we return to the ever-expanding worldview of Kahlo’s “Mi nana y yo,” we begin to see how all of these histories interweave within the work. However, we must again ask, how can we approach a study of this work? With such a widened context, does every integrated reading re-create a unifocal center-periphery discourse? We begin to see that the only way to approach this work is through this collage of histories, which avoids any defined reading of the foundations and meanings of Kahlo’s work. We must vivisect any linear narrative of the work, much like the nurse-maid’s flayed open breast, to fully understand its location within this collection of works that travel between Mexico City, New York, and Paris.