Courtesy of one of our summer interns, Ailie Pankonien:
Throughout this summer the Meadows Museum has hosted the exhibition, “Modern Mexican Painting from the Andrés Blaisten Collection.” There is a range of subject matter on view, from landscapes, portraits, and still lifes to abstract and surrealistic scenes, woven together by the shared exploration of Mexican national identity in the modern, post-Revolution era.
As an intern here at the Meadows for the last couple months, I have had the opportunity to see the exhibition more than once. With each procession through the galleries I notice something new, but upon each visit I am also drawn to the same few paintings, each time more transfixed than the last. One such piece is the large-scale oil painting Collecting Flowers (Recolección de flores), by Alfonso X. Peña. Across a large canvas, over three by five feet in size, figures work in a lush forest-like landscape. In the foreground a man and woman gather flowers as two fabric-draped and flower-laden women walk into the receding landscape in the background. The scene is portrayed in sumptuous jewel tones, figures and flora formed by patterns of layered brushstrokes. One of the things that first attracted me to this painting was the colors: rich blue-greens, purples, teals, browns, and especially the female figure’s bright coral, pink and blue clothing.
Although the colorfully rendered figures and scenery are modeled, each shape and fold of fabric also appears to be outlined, and the effect this has is flattening. There is a graphic quality to Collecting Flowers, perhaps influenced by X. Peña’s early start as a cartoonist for a periodical in Tamaulipas, where he grew up. It is as though the painting is constructed from layer upon layer, like a pop-up book. In the background two women walk, surrounded by nature, positioned behind planes of hills, leaves, and a cluster of huge calla lilies. A tree trunk curves behind the man and woman working in the foreground, and the entire scene is framed on either side by trees, purple flowers, and large green leaf faces.
Peña spent his twenties in New York with a group of Mexican modernist artists, including Rufino Tamayo, whose work is also on view in this exhibition. During his career Peña painted murals and exhibited paintings in Mexico, the United States, and across Europe. Like other artists in “Modern Mexican Painting from the Andrés Blaisten Collection,” he seems to have applied modern influences from Mexico and overseas toward a dialogue with his own sense of cultural identity. Other paintings by Peña in the Andrés Blaisten Collection, such as Mercado (Market), on display in the same gallery at the Meadows, are focused on simple scenes of daily life and work, often with small details that help to situate the figures in Mexico.
Collecting Flowers is a romanticized story of Mexican people working in a beautiful, rural Mexican landscape. It is certainly enchanting. The natural space the figures occupy appears magical to me – quiet and softly shaded by immense trees, far away from the modern city. Everything in this place is organic and curvilinear, and the leaves and flowers all seem oversized, perhaps an emphasis on the special nature of their surroundings. It is fantastical, and yet not unreal, as trees and calla lilies truly can be that strikingly large. Peña thus presents an idealized yet still realistic picture of Mexico.
Of course, this painting is only one of eighty in “Modern Mexican Painting from the Andrés Blaisten Collection” at the Meadows Museum, and it will not be on view much longer. The chance to see this and other answers to questions of national identity in the first half of the twentieth century ends on August 12.