Academic journal article Woman's Art Journal

To Paint the Unspeakable: Mexican Female Artists' Iconography of the 1930s and Early 1940s

Academic journal article Woman's Art Journal

To Paint the Unspeakable: Mexican Female Artists' Iconography of the 1930s and Early 1940s

Article excerpt

Throughout the history of Western art, male artists have represented women from their own gendered perspective, creating paradigms that, though far removed from women's own experiences of womanhood, have influenced the social expectations of women's behaviors and feelings. An outstanding counter example of feminine voices bespeaking women's most intimate and painful experiences can be found in the works of art created by a group of Mexican artists active during the 1930s and early 1940s. Some of these artists are today well-known, such as Maria Izquierdo (1902-55) and Frida Kahlo (1907-55); others less so, including Rosa Rolando (1895-1970), Lola Cueto (1897-1978), Aurora Reyes (1908-85), Isabel Villasenor (1909-53) (1) and Olga Costa (1913-93). (2)

Despite recent attention to the lives and works of Mexican women artists, the monographic methodological perspectives commonly used by art historians tend to emphasize the singularity of each artist, thereby diminishing the social and political significance of their coherent artistic production as a group. (3) Here instead is offered a collective, comparative approach, based on their significant personal, social, and political connections, and considering the difficulties they faced as female artists in the highly patriarchal society of Mexico during the 1930s and early 1940s, which led them to develop, independently, a common iconographic repertoire.

Although these artists occasionally expressed joyful, confident images of themselves and other women, more frequently they focused on anguish caused by the social pressures imposed by the prevailing "machista" society. Through their selection of tabooed themes, among them unhappy brides, frustrated motherhood, miscarriage and infant deaths, and gender violence, these artists exposed not only their own private fears and feelings but common preoccupations and challenges posed to them by the social construction of gender roles in Mexican society. I contend that these artists chose such themes not only to work out some of their most subjective psychological torments at a personal level, but also as an effective political tool to publicly denounce some of the cultural bases that sustain the pernicious patriarchal gender paradigms in regard to what it means to be a woman.

The 1930s was a passionate time, both politically and artistically. The international context was marked by the 1929 crash of the United States stock market and the extraordinary economic depression that followed; by the Spanish Civil War, which mobilized people worldwide; and by the emergence of totalitarian regimes in Spain, Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union that terrorized Europe. The serious economic problems faced by democratic governments throughout the world, marked by high unemployment, spurred a deep political consciousness among large portions of the population, with polarization between right- and left-wing ideologies, and agitated politics worldwide.

In Mexico, the long postponed social changes proposed after the Revolution of 1910 were finally coming to life. In 1934, when Lazaro Cardenas was elected president, a position he held until 1940, new hope was born for neglected sectors of Mexican society, including women. Enormously popular, his progressive program included the implementation of so-called "socialist education" and great advances in land reform and social security. As workers' wages increased, the labor unions were revitalized. The oil expropriation of 1938, and subsequent foundation of "Petroleos Mexicanos" (PEMEX), was one of Cardenas's most revolutionary and transcendental acts.

The movement in favor of women's rights also experienced an extraordinary growth, and many women began to take an active part in politics. (4) Nevertheless, Cardenas's 1934 effort to pass a law implementing female suffrage ultimately lacked sufficient support. (5) In 1936, the Unique Front for Women's Rights (Frente Unico Pro Derechos de la Mujer) assembled 50,000 women belonging to 800 organizations throughout Mexico. …

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