Saturday 27 July 2013

Mexico and Hugh Casson, Royal Academy

Today I saw two wonderful exhibitions at the Royal Academy. Mexico: A Revolution in Art looks at a period of great political and social change from 1910-1940, documented by photographers and painters of the time. Not all of the artists were Mexican though; many well known international figures made short or extended visits to Mexico at this time, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paul Strand and Edward Burra.

The photographs in the introductory room relayed the harsh realities of the revolution. Images by Walter H. Horne and others, showing firing squads, public executions and bodies lying in the street were turned into postcards and sold to American troops. They’re powerful, but at the same time I found their amateurish nature easier to handle than some of the paintings in the exhibition that represented death. There was also a shot later in the exhibition taken by Robert Capa for Life Magazine, named First Fatality on the Day of the Presidential Election (annoyingly, I can't find it online!). Although taken by a more experience photographer, death here is both fascinating and intriguing to the viewer as well as the people surrounding the body in the photograph.

However, the highlights of the exhibition in my opinion were the paintings that, for me, really symbolise Mexican art. Diego Riviera’s Dance In Tehuantepec is full of colour and life, depicting a great celebratory atmosphere in his signature style. There is piece by Riviera’s assistant, Jean Charlot, named Coiffure that also brought a smile to my face. But there was one thing missing, a thought shared by every visitor I’m sure, until I walked into the last room. The final piece of the exhibition, hanging right by the door was a small but perfectly formed miniature self-portrait by Frida Kahlo from 1938 (even the postcard in the gift shop was bigger than the original!). I’ve loved Kahlo and her work for such a long time, seeing one in the flesh always gives me a little excited shiver!

Tucked away in the Tennant Gallery is a sweet exhibition dedicated to the life and work of Sir Hugh Casson, architect, painter, illustrator and President of the Royal Academy from 1976-1984. The collection includes his stage designs, architectural drawings (my favourite was the Elephant House at London Zoo), watercolours and sketches of London and Oxford, and other little drawings for family and friends, which are absolutely charming. Like other illustrators of his generation, you can tell from his style what a cheerful, fun-loving man he must have been. I also loved seeing the Riviera set of Midwinter pottery that he designed, as we have a plate hanging on our wall at home!

I signed the visitor’s book as I left, and noticed that someone had written in it “Massively overrated, I’m afraid!”. Personally I agree with the message underneath which simply read, in big capital letters, “BULLS**T!” If you’re in the Royal Academy seeing the Mexico or Summer Exhibition, definitely make a trip here too.

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