Revolution is a big word, but this exhibition is quite small. The sterile gallery on the top floor of the RoyalAcademy features the large, luminous orange skirts of Diego Rivera’s Dance in Tehuantepec and the muscular shoulders of Jose Clemente Orozco’s Barricade.
Striking and impressive, these paintings also hint at a void where the great murals of Rivera, Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros should be. Of course the murals cannot be moved from the walls of Mexico, but a photograph, or a scaled down reproduction might have palliated their absence.
Robert Capa documented political events such as First Fatality on Election Day, July 1940, Henri Cartier-Bresson snapped striking workers and ghostly prostitutes waving awkwardly from windowsills and Laura Gilpin captured the deep shadows on the stones of the Mayan site of Chichen Itza.
These outsiders were self-consciously photographing a country in political turmoil. Scattered amongst them are paintings by Mexican artists, who were simply expressing what they knew.
Rufino Tamayo painted Mandolins and Pineapples, and Frida Kahlo painted herself. Her tiny Autorretrato – the size of a photo-booth portrait – waits patiently at the very end of the exhibition.
Frida Kahlo did not paint the revolution – she painted her own sad eyes and traditional Mexican clothes and jewellery. I think curator Adrian Locke chose this small, underrated portrait because it speaks of religious iconography – like the Virgin Mary – showing how Kahlo has become an icon through her work.
She is an unlikely heroine – a disabled woman who painted herself out of loneliness and became the face of post-revolutionary Mexico – a symbol of contradictions, otherness and beauty.
Edward Burra, El Paseo, c. 1938, Watercolour on paper, 133.3 x 111.8 cm, Private collection, Photo Private collection / © Estate of the artist, c/o Lefevre Fine Art Ltd
Diego Rivera, Dance in Tehuantepec (Baile in Tehuantepec), 1928, Oil on canvas, 200.7 x 163.8 cm, Collection of Clarissa and Edgar Bronfman Jr., Photo Collection of Clarissa and Edgar Brontman Jr., courtesy of Sotheby’s, New York / © 2013 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums, Trust, Mexico, D.F. / DACS.
Roberto Montenegro, Mayan Women, 1926, Oil on canvas, 80 x 69.8 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1941, Photo © 2013. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence
José Chávez Morado, Carnaval en Huejotzingo (Carnival in Huejotzingo), 1939, Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 96.5 cm, Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, Gift of Dr. & Mrs. Loyal Davis, Photo Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Loyal Davis, © DACS 2012