"Untitled" (1949) Leopoldo Mendez

Interwoven in the current exhibit at the Mexican Museum — a three-room collection of “works on paper” by Mexican modernists — is a lesson every San Franciscan should learn.

“Mexico exists here,” said collector Robert McDonald. “It’s a part of American culture.”

The exhibit, titled “Mexico in San Francisco Works on Paper from Diego Rivera to Alejandro Santiago,” features 42 works on paper by Mexican artists who were instrumental in steering a movement that blended politics and beauty — and who spent crucial points of their careers in the United States.

The show runs through Dec. 8.

McDonald said featuring works on paper allows the museum to show a more eclectic sample of work, instead of just 10 large paintings. The works were provided by private collectors from around the Bay Area, including McDonald.

Featuring such important artists is part of an effort to add depth to the museum’s collection, he said. He said the works on paper by masters of the genre, including Leonora Carrington, José Clemente Orozco and Rosa Rolanda, are the kinds of work that give a museum weight.

McDonald’s passion for the artwork was on display as he flitted around the museum, telling stories about individual pieces.

“It’s kind of difficult to know where to start,” he said before walking over to three Diego Rivera lithographs, which Rivera produced while living in New York.

One, titled “Zapata,” depicts an agrarian leader named Emiliano Zapata leading a group of peasants with his blade drawn and a white horse by his side. It is based on a fresco cycle depicting Mexico’s history and painted in the Palace of Cortés, Cuernavaca, Mexico.

“This is probably one of the most famous images by Diego Rivera,” McDonald said.

He pointed to Zapata and the white horse in the painting, standing over a dead soldier. “It’s Zapata leading his white horse to a new world — a new life, a better life,” he said.

“It’s a struggle that’s going on today,” he added, “but done with such poetry.”

Diego Rivera “Zapata” (1932). Photo courtesy of a private collector.

McDonald then glided over to an untitled oil and amate painting by Alejandro Santiago. In it, two horses seem to rear in a frenzy above a couple of misshapen, haunted-looking human figures. The painting hasd undeniable similarities to Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” — not only in its off-black color scheme, but also in its various shades of distress.

“Whereas Picasso’s painting of ‘Guernica’ was largely symbolic, this is the kind of scene Santiago had to have witnessed,” McDonald said.  

He explained that the painting was a depiction of the 2006 Oaxaca Protests, which resulted in the deaths of at least 17 people. “Alejandro saw the killing and the horses run down the cobbled streets,” he said. “It’s the same struggle you see so often in Mexican art.”

Alejandro Santiago “Untitled” (2006). Photo courtesy of the Bond Latin Gallery.

Then McDonald arrived at a series of sketches by Jose Clemente Orozco — who was, along with Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of the co-called “Big Three” Mexican muralists.

“You look at so many American artists and it goes back Orozco,” he said, noting that Orozco’s influence on American abstract expressionism could not be overstated.

“People like Jackson Pollock were basically devoted to Orozco,” he said.

He referenced the broad, slashing strokes in an ink sketch titled “Foreshortened Woman,” which depicts a nude female figure lying down with her back to the observer. McDonald said that Orozco produced many nude paintings and sketches of prostitutes, but when he entered the United States  in 1927, customs burned them.

“So there’s a whole body of work by Orozco that was destroyed when he came to the United States,” McDonald said. He said that may or may not have been a consequence of Orozco’s overt left-wing politics.

Artist Rufino Tamayo “Boatman” (1939) Photo courtesy of a private collector.

But, moving over to piece titled “Boatman” by Rufino Tamayo, McDonald said Mexican art doesn’t necessarily have to be political. He said that Tamayo was among the first to lead a breakaway from the politically-charged “struggle-of-man” discourse of the major muralists.

“He could be political, but mostly it was about an aesthetic,” he said.

In fact, McDonald said, Tamayo emigrated to New York City in 1929 because he was effectively “pushed out” of Mexico by the Big Three.

“He couldn’t get teaching positions, he couldn’t get commissions, because he didn’t [conform] to what their idea of art was,” he said.

McDonald dove into the complexities of most of the works in the museum, but he said wanted people “get off their cellphones,” see the exhibit for themselves — and realize the “complexity of their environment” here in San Francisco. 

“It’s important to politically and culturally — and I’m stressing politically right now — understand that San Francisco was not made by Europeans,” he said. “It was a complex coming together of cultures.”

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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