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McNay exhibit of Mexican prints explores the radical potential of popular art

The image is unmistakably, enigmatically Emiliano Zapata. Defined by bold, stark lines, he gazes forward under his furrowed brow, upper lip covered by his distinctive bigote. And his eyes - his piercing, penetrating eyes. The look befits the leader of the Revolución, Revolution with a capital R. His compañeros move behind him, a million campesinos, one-tenth of Mexico's population, who leave the ravages of war and turmoil to search for work in the mines, fields, and factories of this northern nation, which welcomes their labor yet still rejects our presence.

Complex and layered with meaning, Sarah Jimenez' lithographic print Zapata finds him standing at a crossroads: between agrarian reform and industrial revolution, between exiled workers and their Chicano progeny, between promise and reality. Caught between triumph and tragedy, his face registers neither hope nor disappointment, but rather conviction and understanding.

Already an icon at the time of his assassination-by-betrayal, Zapata's image has inspired artists for the better part of a century. "Estampas Nuevas," the McNay's exhibit of recently acquired Mexican prints, reflects both the enduring popularity and importance of this peasant from Morelos. For example, Ignacio Aguirre's powerful linocut of Zapata shows him standing amid stalks of corn. He is armed, with weapons both literal and symbolic: one hand holds his rifle while the other sows the seeds of change-may they take root in the ground beneath his feet.

These two artists are joined-perhaps overshadowed-by images from Mexico's "tres grandes": Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, the three masters of Mexican muralismo. In addition to their distinctive takes on Zapata, each has several other works on display. Not surprisingly, they excelled in their limited forays into printmaking. (Rivera created only 12 lithographic prints in his lifetime, all studies for a mural project; of these prints, the McNay has 11 its their collection.) Printmaking shares with muralismo a sense of immediacy and accessibility; irrespective of the medium, Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros created public art with a political edge. But they weren't the only ones, and they certainly weren't the first.

In the decades leading up to the 1910 Mexican Revolution, José Guadalupe Posada created an estimated 20,000 prints and broadsheets which educated and informed the public, challenged government hypocrisy, and documented everyday life in all its harshness and beauty. Posada's work clearly


February 4 to
March 23, 2003
McNay Museum
6000 N. New Braunfels
influenced Leopoldo Méndez. His Los Colgados is a harrowing depiction of hanging bodies (as its title implies), as relevant to Mexico's post-Revolution countryside as it is to the American South or South Texas during the first decades of the twentieth century. It's a serious reminder of the downside of war, the price paid for the dream of a better life.

Méndez was a contemporary of the three muralists (and a fellow Communist Party member); along with Luis Arenal and Pablo O'Higgins he founded the Taller de Gráfica Popular in 1937 to explore the radical potential of popular art. Jimenez, one of the few women in the Taller de Gráfica Popular (and the sole female artist at the McNay exhibit) maintains fond memories of those days. Now in her late-70s, she has lived long enough to witness the rise of radical art and revolution in Mexico - and to see its exciting promises go unfulfilled. •

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