A Graphic Revolution
Britany Salsbury Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings
Untitled 1947. Wifredo Lam (Cuban, 1902–1982). Watercolor and ink; sheet: 48.9 x 62 cm. Jo Hershey Selden Fund, 2019.174. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Printmaking gained popularity throughout Latin America beginning in the early 20th century, offering artists a new, democratic way to express themselves while reaching the broadest possible audience. Working in countries including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, and Mexico, artists began to experiment with processes such as woodcut and lithography to explore national identity and political issues. In addition to making prints, many of these artists also drew, creating studies for projects in other media and independent compositions. The diverse, powerful works that they made on paper over the course of roughly a century transformed Latin American art.
A Graphic Revolution: Prints and Drawings in Latin America is the Cleveland Museum of Art’s first exhibition to focus specifically on its holdings of works on paper from the region during this period. The museum was among the earliest in the United States to collect prints and drawings by Latin American artists, and some of the works—such as lithographs by Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco—were acquired just after they were made. During the first half of the 20th century, curators and Cleveland collectors often worked directly with artists to select key works for the collection. This enthusiasm continues today; the exhibition features nearly ten new acquisitions alongside loans from local private collections.
A Graphic Revolution begins chronologically with lithographs by Mexican muralists such as Rivera, Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, who worked after the dramatic upheaval of the Mexican Revolution. In 1910 citizens began to rise up against their country’s dictatorial leader in hopes of turning power over to the working class. In the unstable years that followed, the government hired artists to create public murals that celebrated Mexico’s history and looked to its future. Rivera’s The Fruits of Labor, for example, shows a young boy sharing a bounty of ripe fruit while, nearby, a man reads to a group of attentive children, suggesting the country’s wealth of resources. Because murals were tied to a specific location, artists like Rivera used prints to share their themes with audiences throughout Mexico and around the world.
The Fruits of Labor 1932. Diego Rivera (Mexican, 1886–1957). Lithograph; sheet: 54.6 x 38.5 cm. Gift of the Print Club of Cleveland, 1934.165. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
At the same time, some Mexican artists used printmaking to address social issues with the hope of bringing about political change. Francisco Mora’s 1945 lithograph Silver Mine Worker was one of many in which he revealed the job’s dangerous, isolating conditions. In the image, a figure crouches in a tight passage; his narrowed eyes and hollow chest emphasize the sheer exhaustion of his job. Dramatically backlit, the man appears to be separated entirely from society. Mora was one of many artists who worked at the Taller de Gráfica Popular, an influential international printmaking collective in Mexico City that encouraged the use of graphic arts as a direct means of social critique.
Other artists throughout Latin America experimented with abstraction, fusing the latest trends in European avant-garde art with their own experiences to create a distinctive vision. Afro-Cuban artist Wifredo Lam lived and worked with Surrealist artists in Paris before returning to his native country after World War II. In Havana, Lam became fascinated with Santeria and voudoo, the primary religions practiced there. Both emphasized the supernatural and inspired Lam to depict the fantastical winged creatures seen in an untitled drawing from 1947. By representing Cuban traditions using the angular, geometric forms developed by his colleagues abroad, Lam created a new, revolutionary interpretation of his homeland.
Over the following decades, many Latin American artists gravitated toward geometric abstraction. A group of artists including Carlos Cruz-Diez, Jesús Rafael Soto, and Gego were inspired by kinetic art, an international movement that suggested motion visually. While most artists in the group used bright colors and eye-bending forms, Gego—one of the few women in the group—developed a unique style. In an untitled print from 1966, she used sketchy overlapping marks and juxtaposed the presence and absence of form, in contrast to the rigid lines and jarring colors typically used by her male contemporaries.
Gego is one of several female artists in A Graphic Revolution whose work attracted the attention of critics and paved the way for other Latin American women during the late 20th century. Like Gego, Afro-Cuban artist Belkis Ayón experimented with printmaking at a time when there were relatively few opportunities for women to do so. During her brief career, Ayón almost exclusively depicted Abakuá, a secretive fraternal society established by African slaves in 19th-century Cuba. Because the founding myths of the group were not well known and it had no visual tradition, Ayón invented her own. I Always Return shows the faceless figure of Sikán, a princess from Abakuá mythology who was sacrificed following an act of betrayal, floating imposingly over three other figures. Made using collography—Ayón’s preferred technique, which embosses images into a sheet of paper—the print captures the drama and mystery of the artist’s national traditions.
A Graphic Revolution closes with a group of works by contemporary artists confronting issues of Latin American identity. In his print Hasta La Casta, for example, Texas-based artist Michael Menchaca combines imagery from sources as wide ranging as video games and ancient Mayan codices to comment on immigration between Mexico and the United States. Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes likewise uses a variety of formal elements—color, pattern, and texture—to evoke the movement and energy of her country’s music and traditions such as Carnaval. These contemporary examples reveal that the practice of using the graphic arts to explore national identity continues and that the revolution that started a century earlier remains active today.
Cleveland Art, March/April 2020