The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
¡AY, QUE CHAMACO!
The Prince of Wales and Other Famous Americans,
caricatures by Miguel Covarrubias.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1925.
In Mexico there is a well seasoned tradition of fine caricature: almost every one of the younger painters possesses this lacerating gift. It goes with the Mexican aptitude for deadly discernment of the comic in the other person, together with each man’s grave regard for his own proper dignity. In arguments, whether personal or political, they resort early to popular songs and cartoons that carry sharper fangs than any other sort of debate. They have a charming habit of disregarding the main point at issue long enough to call attention to some defect or weakness, preferably an irremediable one, in the opponent. The quick-witted public, humanly fond of a joke on someone else, laughs the loser out.
Covarrubias in this is more Mexican than the Mexicans. As a youth he moved among that group of younger insurgents who revolutionized Mexican painting almost overnight. He was the youngest, and no one was ever born so naïve as he appeared. He did no serious painting, but amused himself at the innocent pastime of making caricatures of the serious paintings of others, and thereafter it was an effort to look at those paintings with an untangled viewpoint. He had a merry little way of dropping into the cafés haunted by his set, joining the carefree group gathered there, and dashing off a few careless impressions of their faces that would spoil their evening for them.
While he was yet too young to be called to account, he brought his talents to New York, and for once the favorite success legend of this nation jibed with the pure truth. The brilliant suddenness of his popularity made the old-fashioned tales of the hardships of genius sound a trifle drab, as his caricature of our native celebrities put a crimp in the high seriousness of intellectual life as she was being led in this city.
Smart New York, under whose garment of custom tailored sophistication beats an eager barbarian heart, touched to wonder by all that is deft, off-hand and of high visibility, had found a new champion; a boy with sure-fire stuff, backed up with the invaluable social gift of malice. “Enfant du siècle” they dubbed him, among other things. He is more than a mere child of his century; more than contemporaneous. He is current—as aptly present in the public interest as this month’s leading musical revue.
It is his speed, his wit, his lively accuracy that first arrest the attention. But beyond his showy technique he has the spontaneous combustion called genius. In this collection of more than sixty drawings, there is only one failure: Babe Ruth. And that merely a comparative failure. There are less than half a dozen that are not superb. The rest are beyond criticism as keen satirical comment, and I claim it is a comment considerably more than skin-deep.
Covarrubias has a wide range of symbols, a command of many styles, and he adapts his medium and his method of approach with an impish understanding of the personality of his subject. Compare the caricatures of Alfred Stieglitz, of Calvin Coolidge, of Robert Edmond Jones, of Xavier Algara. If in the case of President Coolidge he has subtly piled up the miserable details, at other times he strips his subject to the buff: literally, in the drawing of Jack Dempsey, where in a few strokes we are given three dimensions, a framework with a skeleton inside: and in all of them, something else that belongs to metaphysics: a feeling that he has exposed the very outer appearance of a sitter that is the clue to an inner quality the sitter has spent most of his life trying to hide, or disguise. If that isn’t murder, what is it? And what is?
The victims in Mexico used to shake their heads, to get the blood out of their eyes, no doubt. There, let a good joke get out on you just once, and you’re done for. Their civilized perception of the power of wit makes for caution. “Ay, que chamaco!” they would say. “What a brat!” They preserved the drawings he made of them on scraps of paper around café tables, and if they were published, what a book that would be! But they will never be published. New York knows a good joke on itself when it sees it: and Covarrubias is the latest, and the best one.
OLD GODS AND NEW MESSIAHS
Idols Behind Altars, by Anita Brenner,
with photographs by Tina Modotti and Edward Weston.
New York: Payson & Clarke, 1929.
This book is like an ancient chronicle, owing its existence to so many sources, so many articulate lives, that the author does not even attempt the impossible task of acknowledging all her indebtedness. The anthropologist, the explorer, the teacher, the artist, the folk-heroes, the makers of the legend and miracle have joined in pouring out their riches to make of this a communal work, like everything else that comes out of Mexico. It is true there are a few names to lend reality, and the attempt to present reality is a brave one, but there is a portentous air of legend in the style, and in spite of herself the author writes in a heightened mood of one enchanted and convinced by a miracle. Mexico is a disturbing country, and it has this effect on those who love it. The contradictions are too violent in this land of miracles, of Messiahs, of venal politicians, of dedicated scholars, of sober artists and extravagant dreams.
Miss Brenner wrote her book, the first attempt at an ordered story of art and artists in Mexico, with the official sanction and the unlimited aid of the University of Mexico. She has the equipment of a good annalist: youth and enthusiastic sympathies, the gift of close and penetrating observation, a genius for listening and remembering what she hears and an admirably energetic style. She was accompanied on her search by Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, whose photographs are more than mere illustrations: and her material has the freshness of things gathered by word of mouth and through the eye, for later Mexican history has never been written fully and survives in stories told and songs sung in pictures.
After investigating the precise nature of the Aztec idol which lies under the Catholic altars of Mexico, attended by kneeling pilgrims who still gather to worship not the appearance but the true holy substance concealed beneath the appearance, Miss Brenner ranges the present scene gathering all elements together in the grand hope of proving an inner spiritual unity between the ancient Indian of Mexico, the current revolutionary program and, above all, the perfect validity of that revolution in art once called the Mexican Renascence, though I doubt if the label still persists there.
In the course of this procedure, done in obedience to many inner and external compulsions, almost in spite of this tremendous effort to reconcile all things, Miss Brenner has written a really beautiful book. She interprets symbols in terms of human life, describes the now-famous mural paintings of the Syndicate of Painters and Sculptors in a lively intelligible painters’ jargon, and devotes a series of remarkably fresh and delightful biographical chapters to individual painters who helped to make the most exciting period of art in the history of America. The chapter on the syndicate conveys the breathless commotion of those few years in Mexico when the new way of painting progressed in Mexico in a whirlwind of manifestos, public demonstrations, newspaper campaigns, with adolescent mob violence expending itself on the still unfinished murals and respectable ladies demanding that the vile pictures be covered over before they would consent to hold a meeting in the patio of the preparatory school. Art occupied no ivory tower, but rolled in the dust of conflict with local politics, religion and the agrarian question and came out victorious, for the walls are there, covered with the simple and irrefutable testimony that once, for a short time, a group of extraordinary artists collaborated in producing works of art.
The artists in Mexico followed the revolution and their activities occurred at the end of a period, not at a beginning, as most of them involved in it wished to believe. In the first part of the decade between 1910 and 1921 several good artists, now well known, were working in obscurity—floating particles lost in the confusion, as were the artists of Russia during the first years of readjustment from 1917. The artists returned to Mexico at the first promise of peace—for they were nearly all abroad—and though they took their color from the political and economic a
Still they were revolutionists and in a sense above politics, for they recognized, they exhumed from under the debris of extraneous hostile life, the art of the Indian in Mexico, and they restored the Indian himself, a perpetual exile in his own land, to the status of a human problem before a world that had almost ceased to regard that race as a living force in Mexico. They fought the enemies of their idea within the walls and without. They adopted habits of thought, and adapted methods of working, and went, in the process, very consciously “primitive,” imitating the Indian miracle paintings, delving among ruins, searching in the archives, attending Indian fiestas, using the native earths for their colors. They talked among themselves, compared findings, defending each his own point of view, and ended, evidently, in confirming one another’s discoveries in all essentials. The Indian was the only real artist in America, they said, and they proved it by pointing to his serapes, his jugs, his ex-votos, his pulqueria decorations and his way of living. They discarded awareness for the darker, profounder current of instinct, which when followed faithfully, did not, they believed, betray. They rejected the mechanistic devices for keeping the surfaces of life in motion and plunged boldly to the depths of the “unconscious.”
This led to a remarkable paradox.
Dr. Manuel Gamio, the anthropologist, who has devoted his life to the cause of Indian life in Mexico, is a Spaniard, Mexican born. Jose Vasconcelos, then Minister of Education, who fostered the work of the Syndicate of Painters and Sculptors, is Spanish-Mexican. Siqueiros, Mexican born, who furnished the theory of action for the syndicate and organized it, was sent to Europe by the Carranza government to study. Adolfo Best-Maugard, who created a method of design based on Aztec motives, is Spanish-French, educated in Europe. Jean Charlot is mostly French and Parisian. Merida is a Guatemalan, who in Europe was associated with Modigliani. Dr. Atl, one of the true pioneers, is partly German. Diego Rivera is a Mexican-born Spaniard, who spent sixteen years in Europe, following the erratic course of modern painting in many capitals. Some of these have a tinge of Jewish blood, others have Indian blood. The great renascence of Indian art was a movement of mestizos and foreigners who found in Mexico, simultaneously, a direction they could take toward extended boundaries. They respected the fruitful silence of the Indian and they shouted for this silence at the top of their lungs.
Those of us in Mexico at the time saw this happen: that not one pure-blooded Indian artist contributed his motivating force to initiate this movement. Several of them joined in, but of the active men not one but had fled out of Europe with years of training and experience, saturated with theories and methods, bent on fresh discoveries. This excepts Orozco and a prodigious child, Abraham Angel, who learned from his elders, then surpassed them in a single leap, and died at nineteen years. Xavier Guerrero, a full-blooded Indian, joined the syndicate, kept his silence and did magnificent work. When he wished to articulate a faith he edited a Communist periodical, in itself a work of art. For him his way of painting sprang from no intellectual or sentimental atavism; it was a simple continuing. He wasted no words on it.
The non-Indians made the experiments and did the explaining.
The famous Syndicate of Painters and Sculptors, with Diego Rivera as a storm center, presented a front of formidable solidarity to the hostile public and fought ferociously among themselves because communality of work and idea can be won only by endless war. The younger artists admired Diego, imitated his work without shame, and ended by convincing themselves that they had worked in that method from the cradle. They revolted against this top-heavy personality which threatened the balance of the group and drew caricatures of Diego, swathed monumentally in a Ku-Klux Klan sheet, shoving them into graves and pushing earth over them. But they held together and followed him just the same.
If the syndicate painters purified the atmosphere of the more obvious picturesqueness already exploited sickeningly by their immediate predecessors, still they found their reality ready to hand. The Indian sat, a complete design in space, ready for them. The painters learned soberly and did not corrupt the thing they found. All the symbols are preserved intact. For example, as Miss Brenner notes, ancient symbol of the hand with the flower; this appears over again, and the laboring hand is esteemed a thing of marvelous beauty; great hands of war clasped over a sword hilt; hands grasping a machete, molding a pot; weaving, digging in the mines, delving in the earth, scattering the seeds; this laboring hand became a vast basic symbol. Tina Modotti, an Italian, makes photographs of hands and has made a beautiful study of the hands of Amado Galvan, the potter, for this book, and so united were the artists, no matter what their medium, and so faithful were they to their visions, Tina Modotti’s photographs from life appear at first glance to be photographs of Diego’s paintings.
I wish some one as well equipped for the work might do for the United States of North America what Miss Brenner has done for Mexico. Surely this country, which exhibits such special and florid contradictions, such gargantuan appetites, such magnificence of crime, architecture and machinery, might also be discovered to have some common, unifying source. Explained in terms of creative vitality and racial intermixtures, we might find ourselves justified in being “with pleasure and talent” Americans. We practice to a degree the “vacilada” which Miss Brenner defines as the loud laughter meant to conceal, but which reveals the waverings of despair induced by the necessity to face tragedy without signs of fear. Miss Brenner says this is very Mexican, very mestizo. It would be simpler to say it is very human and excessively Western. What else is the Italian farce? What else the Merry Wives of Windsor? The Punch and Judy show? Our own comic strip for the sake of which large numbers of persons buy the newspapers? In Mexico, true, they are immensely vivid in everything, and in spite of her hatred for the “picturesque,” for that word is rightly outlaw, Miss Brenner is more than once captured and misled by this definitely Mexican talent for high visibility. Why not? It is one of their attractions.
Miss Brenner distributes honors among the painters by a somewhat incalculable system of estimates, and I rather finished her book feeling that if one admired Orozco, then it was not quite possible to give high rank to Diego Rivera. The witty and talented Jean Charlot receives as much attention as either of these important figures, and there are other mysterious selections and exclusions. But in the end this is a book about Mexico not to be missed—a stimulating record of a vital period in the history of American art told by a contemporary eyewitness.
THESE PICTURES MUST BE SEEN
The Frescoes of Diego Rivera,
with an introduction by Ernestine Evans.
New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1929.
For seven years, during a period of more than ordinarily ecstatic turbulence in the life of his native country, the frescoes of Diego Rivera have been spreading, with the power and persistence of an organic growth, upon the walls of public buildings in Mexico. After sixteen years of experiment and discovery in Europe he went home and proceeded to make the question of art an issue as immediate, disturbing and almost as dangerous as a Presidential election. He was a veteran of the series of campaigns which followed cubism after 1912, and his mission to Mexico was not one of peace. In politics he was a revolutionary. Painters sprang up around him by the dozen, for luckily all the good ones were also radical, at least in theory. The mediocre ones stuck by the Academy and the good old times. There was a gratifying amount of seething and ferment, during which his syndicate of painters and sculptors produced some of the best modern painting, if not sculpture, to be found in the world. Rivera, because of his phenomenal personality and his absolute mastery of the situation, was in danger of becoming a legend, a symbol, before his work was half finished. His followers have for him a warmth of adulation little short of worship. His enemies are positively worth having.
It is almost impossible to exaggerate the excitements, the disorders of the life around him when he began his frescoes, or the pressure under which he worked. The group he had gathered shattered from within and dispersed after the first year. Rivera remained alone and painted. Except for two visits to Russia, where he worked for short periods, he moved from the walls of the Ministry of Education to the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, and from thence to the National Agricultural Academy in Chapingo. The mere volume of his labors is impressive, a testimony to the singleness of his idea, and the union of his individual mind with the tradition which formed it.
Tough fibered and resistant, he is an emotional revolutionist, and when he explains his social beliefs in words it comes down pretty fairly to a simple philosophic anarchy, such as almost any Spaniard might express. Within the province of his art all is complete harmony, order, obedience. He selected a difficult, uncompromising medium and proceeded to inclose his intractable material within the confines of a formal beauty. For him the enormous confusion of the visible world can be reduced to a study in geometrical balance, sober color and cross rhythms suspended at the moment of precise harmony. The vision is grand and simple, a little too bucolic, maybe, at times a trifle inflated, but I believe he is the most important living painter.
We are indebted to Miss Ernestine Evans for this first collection of photographs of the murals and an interesting introduction to the artist. The reproductions are very fine and preserve to a degree the values of the subdued grays, brick reds, silvery greens and deep blues of the paintings. The color is secondary, for Rivera emphasizes structure and rhythm. It is a very timely and valuable book.