Art and Revolution in Latin America

Article excerpt

Art and Revolution in Latin America David Craven. Art and Revolution in Latin America, 1910-1990. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 240 pp., 65 color ills., 130 b/w. $55.

Yale is to be congratulated on introducing this new series on Latin American art, with work old and new, beautifully illustrated in color and black-and-white. This is the first book that brings together the art of three major Latin American revolutions of the twentieth century: those of Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua. It does so, moreover, in a way that gives equal prominence, in space and density of analysis, to the latter two, smaller countries, which figure so much less prominently, if at all, in histories of Latin American art. I notice that the new Thames and Hudson edition (1993/2004) of Edward Lucie-Smith's Latin American Art of the 20th Century has very little on Cuba, nothing on the Cuban poster, and nothing on Nicaraguan art. It would have been logical to include in Craven's book a fourth relatively recent, important, but lamentably and violently aborted "revolutionary process," that of Chile under Salvador Allende, where murals, comic books, posters, and other forms of art flourished briefly for three years before being obliterated in that earlier, U.S.-abetted terrorism of 9/11 (1973).This chapter has yet to be written.

Craven's is an ambitious book, weaving political, economic, and a broad swath of cultural phenomena into the analysis of works of visual art that go continuously and very sharply in and out of focus. It is erudite, with cultural and art-historical references broadly ranging across time and space, and it is thoroughly documented with citations, some quite long, from critics, artists, and political and literary figures. There is also an appendix which includes valuable new sources, in the form of interviews conducted by the author with Nicaraguans, together with translations of a previously published essay by Gerardo Mosquera, a leading Cuban critic and a favorite of Craven's, a speech of 1980 by Ernesto Cardenal, and oddly, the 1929 "New Plan of Study for the National Art School" by Diego Rivera, which hardly belongs here.

Craven stops Mexico short in 1940. This decision is egalitarian, serving to prevent the mighty, long-lived Mexican mural tradition from outweighing the other two, "younger" countries. The Mexican section, at fifty-three pages, is actually oustripped by Nicaragua at fifty-nine. (Cuba has "only" thirty-nine). There is much to be said for Mexico after 1940, and it has been said. José Clemente Orozco lasted until 1949, Rivera until 1957, and David Alfaro Siqueiros died only in 1974. In a teasing, forward glimpse, Craven speaks of Riveras "unjustifiably upbeat murals of 1945-51." Is the man not allowed his optimism? We may envy him.

Craven gnaws at the problems of Mexico's three revolutions and the multiple versions of them. Readers coming from his Diego Rivera as Modernist will be prepared for his passion for disentangling historical complexities and his combining art and sociopolitical-economic-etc. histories. The fit is seldom and not expected to be perfect, and not always conducive to clarity. But the section on the revolution in education is original and illuminating. It adjusts the conventional bias toward José Vasconcelos, the academic educationist who encouraged a "retrograde visual aesthetic," in favor of Alvaro Obregón, the revolutionary leader, as the primary backer of the first revolutionary mural movement manifested in the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria. We learn that "all the major and many of the minor, murals of the first few years-from 1922 up to around 1928-were located in educational institutions." After that, they graduated. Craven insists on the fundamental cultural structures, in which the educational is always important, since revolutions see art as education. He thus sets himself firmly against the long-lingering tradition in art history, which is to compare art with other art. …