“These prints, which flooded the streets, lampposts and walls of Mexico, reflect the frame of mind of the men and women who began to change the identity of the country.” The Mexican ambassador opening this exhibition was inspired. However, would the average student visitor feel similarly?
The exhibition consists of prints by many different artists, in black, white and red. Even though each print comes with an explanation, details of the Mexican revolution itself are missing, leaving the uninformed visitor to make up their own story out of the wood engravings, lithographs and linocuts. The Mexican revolution lasted from 1910 until 1920, after which the Socialist government encouraged art as a vehicle to carry out its values. The first prints show grim men with large moustaches and sombreros in their revolutionary struggles. As the socialist party established itself more firmly, the moustaches and sombreros disappeared, but the grim men keep struggling, against imperialists, fascists and the like.
The story about how the exhibition came into being is a rather curious one, as Anthony Griffiths of the British Museum recounted: an unnamed donor offered to buy a collection for the museum upon hearing that they did not have one. Griffiths jumped at the chance, and put the collection together in less than twelve months. The Mexican printmakers would not have approved of the role of capitalism here: money is generally depicted with a swastika on its back. Understatements are not popular: Japanese emperor Hirohito is the head of a spider, a tram system breaking down is a fat man stuffing himself with money, and people are either in agony or in ecstasy.
If a bit dramatic, the pictures all carry a clear message of passion and struggle. Perhaps used for propaganda, perhaps brought together in a capitalist way, but inspiring nonetheless.
‘Revolution on paper: Mexican prints 1910-1960’ is a British Museum Tour. It shows in the Djanogly Arts Gallery of the Lakeside Arts Centre 20 November- 27 February 2011. Admission free.