This exhibition not only showed the cinematographer’s essential role in capturing and executing a director’s vision, but also, in the case of Gabriel Figueroa, revealed the cinematographer as an artist in his own right—one who was able to translate the work of the greats of post-revolutionary Mexico into scenes and images accessible to the masses within as well as outside of Mexico. Equally important, it showed how Figueroa was able to inspire other artists. It was in this regard that the exhibition excelled; it examined the exchange of ideas between the visual and cinematic arts—and Figueroa’s role in it—that helped create and define Mexico’s national identity at a crucial time.
The show began in a gallery where six projectors played highlights from Figueroa’s career in a presentation that mirrored the way many murals engulf audiences.
It then went on to trace Figueroa’s career from portrait photographer to still photographer and finally to cinematographer while comparing his work to that of his domestic and foreign contemporaries such as Diego Rivera and Paul Strand. A final gallery, dedicated to Figueroa’s transition to television, was less successful, piecemeal and unnecessary.
Film clips were interspersed throughout, but it was in the long hallway of a gallery that the excerpts shone as they were juxtaposed with paintings and display cases filled with film stills and other artifacts. Particularly noteworthy was the “Requiem” section, which explored the iconography of skeletons and death imagery in Mexican art and in Figueroa’s scenes. With hazy, laughing calacas, or “skeletons,” sitting around a table drinking, we witnessed a surrealistic scene in which death moves into life and back again, the skeleton acting as both icon and caricature. It was here that we were best able to see the eminence of Figueroa, a major—and almost forgotten—figure in Mexican art.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 88.