By Ida Victoria Gustavson
Contemporary Mexican art, like contemporary art everywhere, is influenced by the social, economic, and political current events as well as past art movements and artists. The European art movement Surrealism of the 30’s and 40’s had a profound affect on Mexico’s artists of the time as well as future generations of painters and sculptures. More so Mexico than any other country outside of Europe embraced this genre and made it their own.
The beginnings of surrealism in Europe arose out of the political and social affairs of the time. Heavily influenced by the work and writings of Sigmund Freud, this art movement was based on Freud’s psychoanalytical technique of free association. The definition of surreal is “above the real,” relating this form of art to a higher reality. This was achieved by creating images with everyday objects and imagery, but by placing them in strange juxtapositions they begin to create a dream like world, an exploration into the imagination. These dreamlike worlds being created on canvas were also a direct reaction and rebellion against the stark realities of the war raging outside of their studios.
The father of Surrealism, artist Andre Breton famously claimed “Mexico was the surrealist country, par excellance.” He spent a lot of time in Mexico at the home of his friends Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera which surely helped him come to this realization. On one of Breton’s visits, Leon Trotsky, the exiled revolutionary, was also a guest in the home of Rivera, and Trotsky at the time was having an affair with Kahlo. During this weekend, artist, friend and contemporary of Rivera, Alfaro Siqueiros was planning a failed assassination attempt on Trotsky’s life. For Andre Breton, his time in Mexico in the presence of these characters could only be called surreal.
I wasn’t very familiar with the influence of Surrealism on Mexican art until I went to the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City, where I saw the works of well known Frida Kahlo, and the not so well known Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington. Though Varo and Carrington were not Mexican, but European by birth, they adopted Mexico as their country and Mexico adopted them; they are considered two of the country’s top female artists. These three artists together, began to create Mexico’s own surrealist movement through their symbolic imagery and creations of fantastical worlds.
The difference between these 3 artists, and their contemporaries, is that they painted from within. Most of the art being produced after the Mexican Revolution was in direct reaction to the current affairs of the time. Art was about making statements, be they social and/or political. But these three women painted only their reality and each of their paintings are definite windows into their worlds.
Frida Kahlo said that she did not know she was a surrealist until Andre Breton told her so. But her work, with its deep symbolism and vivd, often times wild and disturbing imagery screams surrealism. “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration.” This is the definition of Surrealism.
Both Remedios Varo, born in Spain, and Leonora Carrington, born in England were heavily involved in the surrealist movement in Europe. Remedios Varo took classes with Salvador Dali, and Leonora Carrington married a top member of the movement, artist Max Ernst. But with the outbreak of World War II, Varo escaped the Nazi occupation of France by moving to Mexico City and Carrington fled Europe after her husband Ernst was taken prisoner and placed in a concentration camp. Both made Mexico City their new home, and bringing with them the heavy influence of surrealism. Their paintings with their fantastic worlds of characters and animals, of whimsical machines and dream worlds had an enthusiastic audience in Mexico.
Because of the war raging in Europe, Mexico in the 30’s and 40’s was the place that artists and intellectuals convened. The surrealist artists of Europe mingled with the Mexican Muralist and easel painters and out of this collaboration, Mexico had established its own version of the movement, that was Mexican through and through, adding a new twist to the history of modern Mexican art.
Surrealism continues to have a stronghold on contemporary Mexican art, with young artists always studying and admiring the Masters that came before them. Galeria de Ida Victoria as well as other art galleries in Mexico have a range of art that is inspired by the Mexican Surrealist movement of years ago.
You can find Ida at the Ida Victoria Gallery in San José del Cabo.