In a city home to large collections of Latin American and Latino art, as well as an equally large Mexican-American population, the newest Museum of Fine Arts, Houston exhibition, "Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950," feels necessary. Yes, big-ticket names like Rivera and Kahlo anchor the show, but curators made sure to elevate the significant contributions of other, lesser-known figures in a conversation about a new kind of art and Mexican national identity.

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Diego Rivera, Dance in Tehuantepec, 1928, oil on canvas, collection of Eduardo F. Costantini, Buenos Aires. © Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This first eye-catching piece, Rivera's Retrato de Martin Luis Guzman, features its subject's harshly angular face hidden in the shadows with only a sliver of light illuminating one eye. His body is securely wrapped in a Mexican sarape, or shawl, painted with vivid and striped patterns, with a matador’s hat placed on Guzman’s head as an homage to Spain.

The painting introduces the dialogue between Mexican artists and the international art community, infusing European styles with folk motifs. This was the case with Rivera, who dabbled in the Cubist style heralded by Picasso. After winning a scholarship to continue his artistic studies abroad in Europe, Rivera painted Retrato de Martin Luis Guzman featuring a heavily geometric approach with distorted imagery. 

While Rivera’s paintings garnered well-deserved attention, Houstonians are now exposed to the works of other influential contemporaries such as Gerardo Murillo, known under the pseudonym Dr. Atl, after the Aztec word for water. Creating an institutionalized way to teach the foundations of art to the next generation, Dr. Atl used a system derived from pre-Colombian motifs. “At this time, they were recovering the indigenous past, they were looking at colonial architecture, there was the allure of folk art and the celebration of their roots. Artists played a vital role in establishing that,” explains Rachel Mohl, MFAH assistant curator of Latin American and Latino art.

Roberto Montenegro’s Maya Women reflects on the resurfacing of indigenous culture in mainstream art. Four Mayan women are painted in a surreal manner with exaggerated features. Abandoning the standards of European beauty, Montenegro crafts an ode to these women painted in intense espresso shades contrasting with their white dresses.

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José Clemente Orozco, Barricade, 1931, oil on canvas, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, given anonymously. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Interestingly, non-Mexican artists were also included to emphasize the mutual influence across cultures. Works by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston and Tina Modotti are placed in between silver gelatin prints of Manual Alvarez Bravo, a leading Mexican photographer of his time.  Cartier-Bresson, rightfully dubbed the father of street photography, candidly captures the reality of daily life. He doesn’t focus on social or political turmoil as Bravo does, but finds beauty in what others might overlook.

Two made-up prostitutes in Calle Cuauhtemocztin gleefully lean out of windows unaware of who they are posing for, whereas Bravo’s Striking Worker, Assassinated depicts the grim reality of working class struggle. The graphic, bloodied body of a young man following a strike encapsulates the basic needs many fought for during this period.

The exhibition carries on with many works bitterly honest in their depiction of revolution in all its forms. Totaling 175 paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings, “Paint the Revolution” is a love letter to Mexican culture, an unseen compilation of work that leaves a lasting impression of the past and present of ourselves and our neighbors.

Thru Oct. 1. Tickets from $13. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 1001 Bissonnet St. 713-639-7300. More info at mfah.org.

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