A Symbol of Freedom: Anita Brenner on the Modern Art Scene in Mexico, in 1954

Juan O’Gorman, Mexico City, 1949. ACERVO CONACULTA–INBA, MUSEO DE ARTE MODERNO</small.

Juan O’Gorman, Mexico City, 1949.


With a show dedicated to Mexican modernism at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we turn back to the Summer 1954 issue of ARTnews, in which Anita Brenner reported on the Mexican art scene. Though her report—one of several that she did for ARTnews during the ’50s—was published after the Philadelphia Museum exhibition’s timeframe (the show focuses on art made between 1910 and 1950), it documents the newfound freedom that artists in Mexico were enjoying after an artistic revolution. She focuses here on Mathias Goeritz’s Museo Experimenta el Eco, which is today considered one of the landmark modern buildings in Mexico. Brenner’s report follows in full below.

“Summer in Mexico”
By Anita Brenner
Summer 1954

The two camps—liberal and doctrinaire of Mexico’s cultural world are having an all-out war. The central issues are a place called El Eco and a maverick by the name of Mathias Goeritz.

El Eco is something you describe according to who you are. A museum . . . a nightclub . . . an experiment in architecture . . . appropriate also for modern “theater in the round.” But above all, a place that has somehow or other achieved a peculiar, remarkable beauty of its own: exciting, and yet tranquil as a convent patio.

Mont’s dream

It was invited by Daniel Mont, a man whose personality was a mixture of all these things, and who lived imagining combinations and creations, hypnotizing all his friends into helping him carry out his boundless fantasy. Mont daydreamed, but finagled the funds, captivating the most prosaic money-men with the vistas he projected (he could have made a bridge to the moon out of pepper trees and onyx sound plausible).

El Eco embodies everything that Mont most cared about and wanted to do. He died suddenly before it was finished, and at a time when he felt himself the most complete failure. When he was buried, not only his family and closest friends showed the shock of genuine loss, but practically all of Mexico’s artistic brains and talent felt it too—from both camps.

Mathias Goeritz, who is a sculptor, musicologist, and experimenter in the visual arts, was handed El Eco in daydream form one afternoon when Mont happened to see a handsomely proportioned lot and a Goeritz show immediately after. “But I’m not an architect,” he said, and Mont replied that was precisely it, an architect would have fixed things, and the point was a “something” altogether new. In any case, Goeritz wanted to do it.

This confidence, and the opportunity to do really what he chose, was of course the jackpot; any artist’s dream of heaven, better than whatever sum of money. As a matter of fact he was paid very little and at times not at all, but the freedom of putting up and tearing down until he got just exactly the height or angle he wanted, was worth it. What emerged was a building that is like sculpture. It follows none of the conventional rules. It is not traditional or functional. Instead it is built for mood. Its inventors call it “emotional architecture.”

David Alfaro Siqueiros, Peasants, ca. 1913. MUSEO NACIONAL DE ARTE, INBA

David Alfaro Siqueiros, Peasants, ca. 1913.


Goeritz’ hedonism

The untrammeled, practically lawless hedonism of Goeritz’ outlook has acted as a powerful irritant to the bloc of party-liners and their retinue who are still quiet powerful. Led by David Alfaro Siqueiros, they have condemned El Eco as a place of many sins: bourgeois, decadent, individualistic and, worst of all, dangerously foreign. Actually of course its crime is that it wasn’t done by party-liners, and disobeys their authority and tenets. So they’re after it with all the axes.

But the number of people who don’t like authoritarianism in whatever form, and say so, has greatly increased. The attempt to protect Tamayo from painting murals in the Fine Arts Palace—even the extent of threatening the former director, Carlos Chavez—although not publicized, became known and aroused a great deal of indignation. Many of the same people who in the old days defended and fought for the right of Rivera, Siqueiros, etc., to paint as they pleased, are anything but sympathetic to the in their role of high priests and would-be inquisitioners to the new generation of protestants. A recent blast published in Arquitectura, by the highly respected architect Mauricio Gomez Mayorga, attacks and ridicules their position without reservation.

The architects in general have come to the defense of El Eco, as a symbol of creative freedom. Moreover, they like it; it has shocked and delighted them. And since they are, in number and vitality, the present leaders in Mexico’s art world, this, of course, counts heavily.

El Eco’s issue

But El Eco is not just an issue in a Mexican art family fight. I tis one answer to something artists the world over have been groping for. Not “art for the masses,” in its propaganda sense; nor the deadly Non-Objective that ends up in mere decoration; nor just a tour de force of technique. It is “modern,” in that it aims at the recovery of human feeling and human meaning, putting these values paramount.

Goeritz, philosophically a humanist, stems from German Expressionism and the Bauhaus group. He was a student of Paul Klee’s. There are traces of this background, of course, in his work, especially in his painting. But what is original and personal, what attracted Mont, is his emphasis on freedom and directness, and his vision of the plastic arts as symbols which stem from the impact upon the artist of what he sees and feels. To him, Altamira is beauty in its purest form; man creating as spontaneously, instinctively and unerringly as a bird sings.

Most of El Eco is in a very muted key. The only high color is in the bar, where Merida did the decoration. On the huge main wall is a casual mural by Henry Moore, sketches blown up to monumental size. The net effect is drama. It is achieved primarily with space and light, so photographs don’t convey it very well. One has to be in it.

Coming through the iron entry, which pivots heavily and smoothly, is weirdly like leaving time behind, and entering a legendary world: something prehistoric, in which Negro ballet feels like voodoo, and djinns are invisible all over the place.

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