`LATIN American Artists of the Twentieth Century" at the Museum
of Modern Art (MOMA) is a show that needed to happen. The
exhibition, which contains 300 works from 1914 to the present by 90
artists, is like walking through a history of modern art. Major
movements like Cubism, Expressionism, and Social Realism, appear.
What's new is how these paintings, sculptures, and installations
give unfamiliar twists to familiar styles.
Latin American artists absorbed avant-garde trends originating
in Europe, but they added elements from their own cultures to
create a hybrid modernism. This art blends innovative 20th-century
techniques with pre-Columbian traditions and New World political
A key painting that illustrates how Latin American artists both
used and transformed lessons from foreign culture is Tarsila do
Amaral's "Anthropophagy." The title, which means cannibalism,
refers to the need to devour Old World conventions and refashion
them into a distinctively Brazilian art. Her solid nudes and
simplified tropical landscape are reminiscent of the tubular shapes
of Leger, with whom Amaral studied in Paris. Yet the painting's
setting and distorted figures announce an aesthetic rooted in
another continent, which - while hardly Edenic - is lush, raw, and
Diego Rivera, too, began as a clone of the Parisian avant-garde,
with early work re-imagining Cubism. (He once said, "I do not
believe in God, yet I believe in Picasso.") "Zapatista Landscape"
might be a generic Cubist still life, complete with trompe l'oeil
wood-grain effects, except that his subject is the Mexican
revolution and includes elements such as a rifle and serape.
Rivera's mature art, like his Social Realist frescos, broke with
Europe to glorify Mexican peasants and their cultural heritage. In
his quest for nationalistic purity, he even experimented with
indigenous cactus juice as a painting medium and consciously based
his style on ancient pre-Hispanic art. In his stylized paintings of
peasants, figures have the cylindrical monumentality of Mayan
Besides Rivera, the other Mexican muralists of the 1930s, known
collectively as Los Tres Grandes - the three great ones - are also
here:David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco. Their art
was revolutionary in more than just aesthetics. They used murals to
stir the populace to support land reform. The epic scale of
Orozco's fresco, "Divebomber and Tank," and the aggressive style of
Siqueiros's "Echo of a Scream" greatly influenced Abstract
Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.
A common thread in this chronological exhibition, crossing
boundaries of time, geography, and style, is political commentary.
From the glorification of peasant laborers in Candido Portinari's
"Coffee" (1935) to Rafael Ortiz's powerful denunciation of the
holocaust in "Children of Treblinka" (1962) and Frida Baranek's
exuberant assemblage of discarded United States Defense Department
weapons, "Unclassified" (1992), Latin American artists criticized
tyranny in many forms. …