Surrealism in Mexico

Photo: MNBAQ

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with a crown of thorns and a hummingbird, 1940. Oil on canvas, mounted on wooden board, TheHarry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

In the early 20th century, Paris, was considered the artistic capital of the western world where art had become more a product of the mind and less the representation of what is perceived by the senses.   Individualities became more and more important and thus one witnessed a variety of new currents. Among some of the “chain reactions” that had taken place, we see the irrational found in Expressionism continue into the Dada movement from which evolved Surrealism.    Many Latin-American artists feeeling the need to be part of this unrest, came to Paris, eager as they were to break away from the artistic traditions they had inherited from the colonial period.  Surrealism thus came to Latin America, on the one hand by direct contact with adherents to the movement in Europe, and on the other through European exiles, many of which came to Mexico.  One of them was Andre Breton.

Breton’s travel to Mexico in 1938 was primarily to meet Leon Trotsky; the Russian Marxist revolutionary and theorist.  Trotsky was staying as a guest of Diego Rivera's former wife Guadalupe Marin.   It is through Diego Rivera that Breton met Frida Kahlo whom he qualified as an "innate" Surrealist painter.   Indeed, Frida Kahlo showed in her works, essentially autobiographical, elements of Mexico's magic realism, and indigenous traditions.

Two years later, the Galeria de Arte Mexicano in Mexico City hosted the International Surrealist Exhibition organized by Breton and the Austrian exile Wolfgang Paalen.   The exhibition showed works by several European surrealists and a few Mexican surrealists.  To the art shown were added pre-Columbian and Oceanic artefacts. These additions were there to show the importance of the occult and the general visionary quality of the so-called primitive state.  Drawings by the insane, also part of the exhibition, were to confirm the freedom from false rationality, restrictive customs and structures.   From then on Mexico began attracting artists from abroad, from New York in particular, where few Latin American artists had settled and where Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera had made many friends during their stay there.

It is important to note however that in Mexico, Surrealism war more the product of an individual choice rather than that of a group.  Frida Kahlo who is considered a major figure of Mexican surrealism was soon followed by other women like Leonora Carrington and Maria de los Remedios Varo y Uranga who both produced their major works in the 1950’s and after.

Next:  Surrealism in the United States