From Aztec to high-tech

Mexican Modernity
June 9, 2006

In the 1920s and 1930s, Mexico began a process of "modernisation" of its public life that eventually produced a political system that for many years was considered the model for other Latin American nations. The beginnings of political change coincided with the first flowering of a remarkably vibrant artistic and cultural scene.

The links between politico-economic change and artistic flowering have been insufficiently studied. Unfortunately, Ruben Gallo's claim to "present a comprehensive account of Mexican postrevolutionary culture in the age of mechanical reproduction" does not live up to its billing. For one thing, Gallo selects for study a limited number of artists, some of them not Mexican and many of whom never entered Mexican territory. The Italian photographer Tina Modotti (who worked in Mexico) is discussed in extenso , but the Mexicans Agustín Jiménez, Lola and Manuel Álvarez Bravo are mentioned only briefly in connection with a competition to portray a cement factory - Manuel won the prize with a work every bit as modernist as the work of Modotti.

Gallo's search for a poet who produced truly modernist work inspired by the typewriter focuses on the Brazilian M rio de Andrade, who never made it to Mexico but did correspond with the Estridentista group of writers. A rather repetitive discussion of Andrade's work is enlivened by the revelation that he was a "mechanical pervert". As an example of radio's impact in Mexico, Gallo chooses Guillaume Apollinaire's Lettre-Océan , but Guillaume never visited Mexico and we learn nothing about Mexican modernity.

Gallo's concern to elaborate a theory of modernity soon sorts artists into sheep and goats. Those who fail to embrace modernism are dismissed as clinging to "antiquated literary models", "more interested in Hellenism than in futurism" - and "pictorialist" photographers "sabotaged the medium's autographic process". Gallo's readers may be confused to read in his introduction that Diego Rivera was blind to the new technologies and "preferred Aztec to high-tech", only to discover later that Rivera was the "prestigious" judge of a prize awarded to a modernist photographer.

Gallo's grasp of broader historical developments is disappointingly weak, and his interpretations too often distorted to fit his thesis. It is unlikely that Governor Jara of Veracruz toadied up to President Plutarco Eliás Calles at the opening of the Jalapa stadium in 1925 because Calles disapproved of Jara's enthusiasm for futurist poetry and modern architecture. Jara's position was under threat for a more bread-and-butter reason: state taxation of oil companies. The historical confusion is compounded by rather loose use of the terms "Mexico" and "the country" to signify, more often than not, Mexico City rather than the country as a whole - the Jalapa stadium is the only artistic project outside the capital to be mentioned in this book.

Nevertheless, the curious reader will find some real gems in Gallo's book. In 1923, a group of entrepreneurs held a radio fair in the Palace of Mines in Mexico City. The Azc rraga brothers (later to become media moguls) promoted their new-fangled medium with a "Radio" soda, while the French-owned Cervecer!a Moctezuma launched XX beer (the XX mimicked radio waves), which is still familiar to Mexican beer drinkers. The Buen Tono tobacco company issued a Radio cigarette and employed young ladies equipped with radio antennae. Gallo's book would have been all the better for more such historical and cultural context and much less repetitive theorising.

Ian Jacobs has a PhD in Mexican history from Cambridge University.

Mexican Modernity: The Avant-Garde and the Technological Revolution

Author - Ruben Gallo
Publisher - MIT Press
Pages - 268
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 0 262 07264 5

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