Becoming Modern, Becoming Tradition
Women, Gender, and Representation in Mexican Art
Becoming Modern, Becoming Tradition
Women, Gender, and Representation in Mexican Art
“This important research will add significantly to the understanding of this period of Mexican history.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Winner of the 2011 Association for Latin American Art book award, an affiliate of the College Art Association.
“This important research will add significantly to the understanding of this period of Mexican history.”
Adriana Zavala is Associate Professor of Art History at Tufts University.
List of Illustrations
1. The Eternal Feminine: Self-Sacrifice, Modesty, and Discretion
2. Fin de Siglo: Modernity and the Culture of Decadence
3. Pupilas and Mestizas
4. Santa, La India Bonita, and Mexican Maternity
5. Desnudas, Amazonas, and Tehuanas
6. Double Portraits: “Sons (and Daughters) of La Malinche”
On February 7, 1926, Guillermo Kahlo took a photograph of his youngest daughter, Frieda (this spelling and its significance will be explained in chapter 5). The portrait (fig. 1) shows Frida Kahlo at the age of eighteen, less than six months after she suffered the fateful accident that ruined her health, compelled her to hide her progressively more damaged body beneath voluminous skirts, and inspired much of her iconography. Contrary to the image we have of Kahlo today, crystallized in the artist’s innumerable self-portraits, in which she wears the elaborate costume, braided hairstyle, and handcrafted jewelry of indigenous Mexican women, in this photograph Kahlo exemplifies urban bourgeois femininity. She is the quintessential modern girl wearing a knee-length satin dress, white silk stockings, and fashionable heels. The straight tailoring of her dark dress with its striking orientalist motif at the neckline is set off by her short, slicked-back hair, styled in a short version of the fashionably modern “bob.”
This portrait, like the much-reproduced gender-bending photograph of 1927 in which she appears wearing her father’s three-piece suit, reveals that Kahlo had already developed a predilection for original sartorial self-fashioning. While much commented on in contemporary popular culture today, Kahlo’s use of clothing, particularly indigenous costume, as a way of engaging in the cultural debates of the day bears recontextualization. Today, in the context of her widespread international popularity, Kahlo is often described as having a deep, natural connection to Mexico’s indigenous cultures. However, whether in her work, or in that of any of the artists I examine, the idea that the “ethnic” body—in the Mexican context, the indigenous body—is a given, or transparent, is false. While Kahlo’s political ideals as a Communist made her sympathetic to the plight of the disenfranchised, her appropriation of indigenous costume was a mode of mexicanizing her heritage and her art.
Kahlo was a member of the intellectual elite, but in contrast to her modern appearance in 1926, in her best-known self-portraits she is rooted in Mexico’s indigenous culture (fig. 2). In the twentieth century, the issue of integrating or incorporating indigenous people into the mainstream, defined as culturally Hispanic and nominally white, was essential to national unity and vital to fulfilling the “revolutionary ideal.” As a result, Mexican intellectuals like Kahlo assigned important symbolic value to Mexico’s indigenous heritage. Concurrently, however, to maintain social hierarchies and to facilitate, ideologically, the incorporation of the ethnic and racial Other, Indians were stereotyped as passive and childlike. They were effectively subordinated and thus nonthreatening.
In the Mexican context, there was an early—and convenient—slippage between ethnicity and so-called biological race such that Indians could be incorporated and transformed into homogenously national mestizos, the term for a person of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage. In her analysis of the gendering feminine of indigenous Mexicans, Julia Tuñon reminds us that if in patriarchal contexts Woman was, as Sigmund Freud would assert, the dark continent, the Indian Woman became the Mexican nation’s double Other. After all, in Mexico City as elsewhere, “women were to nature as men were to culture.” While indigenous men were, optimally, to be erased, incorporated, and subsumed as mestizos, indigenous women came to symbolize national authenticity. Indeed, they presented, as Tuñon asserts, the “ideal metaphor for both the feminine and the indigenous conditions.”
Thus, as in Kahlo’s work, but certainly much earlier, key archetypes, and eventually stereotypes, of Indianness as female were codified. Among the most essential of these types was the Tehuana, whose distinctive headdress, called a nupil grande or bida:niró, Kahlo appropriates in Diego on My Mind (Diego en mi pensamiento; fig. 2). Indigenous to the southern Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the Tehuana since the nineteenth century had been considered Mexico’s own tropical temptress par excellence. This was partially the result of a misconstrual of Tehuantepec culture as matriarchal and as conserving free sexual mores. During the postrevolutionary era, the Tehuana became the most iconic rendition of the Mexican woman. Mexican women participated in this discourse by adopting the Tehuana’s distinctive costume in a gesture of nationalist cultural solidarity, not to be mistaken with solidarity to the cause of indigenous autonomy. Other essential types, whose origins were rooted in the nineteenth century and earlier, were the china poblana, a kind of morally loose working girl from the state of Puebla who had ambiguous ties to indigenous culture, and a range of homogeneously pretty Indians, whose authentic femininity was codified pictorially in paintings, murals, photographs, and films. With indigenous woman as the sign for cultural authenticity, her conceptual opposite was considered to be the modern, foreign feminist. Public and intellectual discourse often warned women to be wary of embracing that ideal and its habits, such as smoking, driving, drinking, and working outside the home.
In this book, I will reconsider these norms and hierarchies within the realm of the visual to offer a critical reexamination of the symbolic function of woman—and of femininity—in modern Mexican art and visual culture. Thus I approach Guillermo Kahlo’s photograph of “Frieda” as more than evidence of a moment in Kahlo’s personal history. For me, the photograph can be deciphered for insight into the way that women’s lives, their social identity and their symbolic charge, changed in the sociopolitical context of postrevolutionary Mexico and before the Mexican Revolution of 1910 as well. In effect, women’s lives changed despite constant pressure, even within revolutionary Mexico, that they preserve the sanctified space of the home and of national culture. In addition, the more women’s social roles changed, the more some image makers sought to show them as timeless and unchanging, as constants and as symbols of tradition in a rapidly modernizing society.
Like other social actors, women were at the center of debates of the gendered, classed, and raced social order. My approach to Kahlo’s work and the work of the other artists I discuss is thus informed by my training as a social historian of art with a firm commitment to poststructuralist feminist theory. In short, although the photographic portrait of “Frieda” signifies a great deal about Kahlo’s personal history, especially when read among the diverse group of images that form the visual core of this book, including paintings, advertising images, photographs, films, that portrait serves as a key to unlocking more relevant issues that extend beyond the popular fascination with Kahlo.
Pelonas and Indias
At the time of her accident on the streetcar, on September 25, 1925, Kahlo was one of only thirty-five female students of two thousand at the National Preparatory School (Escuela Nacional Preparatoria). Under the aegis of the Ministry of Public Education, the school offered the best education available, particularly in the sciences, and Kahlo was on a track to study medicine (a career aspiration derailed by her accident). As we see in the photograph, Kahlo’s intellectual inclinations are hinted at by the object in her hands—not yet a paintbrush and palette but a book. According to her biographers, she was an avid reader and so precocious that at the age of fifteen, in November 1922, she submitted and had published a poem titled “Memory” in the illustrated weekly magazine of the Mexico City newspaper El Universal. She was also a member of a notoriously rebellious group of young intellectuals at the school, comprised of seven boys and two girls, known as Los Chachuchas for the caps they wore. Period sources attest to her rebelliousness and her penchant for flouting the gender prescriptions of the day. First, for girls, she was highly educated. Her father, Guillermo (Wilhelm), born in Pforzheim, Germany, and who emigrated to Mexico in 1891, is said to have favored her above her sisters. Second, her unusual sense of sexual freedom has also been widely noted, yet none of her biographers has made a correlation between these traits in Kahlo’s personality and the burgeoning freedoms that many young women who lived in Mexico’s urban centers claimed, particularly in the years immediately following the Mexican Revolution. The tendency to treat Kahlo as a singular phenomenon has led most commentators to overlook the fact that she was not alone in claiming such freedoms, nor was she alone when she later donned the accoutrements of Mexico’s indigenous women.
As the photograph attests, Kahlo, in 1926, epitomized the emancipated young woman who adopted the latest androgynous fashions, shed the corset, smoked, learned to drive, participated in sports, cut her hair, and in so doing insisted on access to more intellectually challenging pursuits such as education, or, among the working class, a more visible place in the urban workforce. Indeed by the mid-1920s, such young women, called pelonas (or baldies), became the talk of the town. In her investigation of “the war on las pelonas,” Anne Rubenstein notes that in Mexico City in the 1920s cutting one’s hair and adopting the flapper style was a trend attributable to the spread of silent film and as such it represented a “commitment to the modern.” Young women who modeled themselves on the English-speaking world’s “modern girls” or the French garçonnes were variously hailed and resented for their modern affectations and their challenge to Mexico’s conservative, traditionally Catholic, patriarchal social order.
In mid-1924, social anxiety over the emancipated young women appears to have reached a high point when several young pelonas were purportedly attacked and abducted and their heads shaved. According to newspaper accounts, the culprits were male students from the National School of Medicine and Kahlo’s own alma mater, the Preparatoria. In the rapidly modernizing environment of Mexico City, the fact that young bourgeois women like Kahlo cut their hair should not have come as a surprise. After all, the Mexican middle and upper classes had long followed European and U.S. fashion trends. However, as Rubenstein notes, when working class, dark-skinned young women, in other words, women whose origins were phenotypically closer to Mexico’s Indians, began to cut their hair, alarm bells rang. The reason being that now not just gender but seemingly inalterable class and race hierarchies were under assault as well.
As a student at the Preparatoria, Kahlo was no doubt aware of the controversy. Period photographs show that she cut her hair, joining pelona ranks as early as 1921, and in letters written in 1924 to her boyfriend, cachucha leader Alejandro Gómez Arias, she makes several ironic references to pelonas, going so far as to include caricature self-portraits as a pelona. Indeed, in a letter to Gómez Arias dated January 1, 1925, Kahlo alludes to the controversy: “The pelonas are over with.” As Rubenstein notes, this was the refrain of a popular rhyme. Given Kahlo’s personal affiliation to the “club,” it might also be read as a lament.
Rubenstein argues that what was really at stake in the public debate over the pelonas was their open association to the socially modernizing and more egalitarian aspects of the postrevolutionary political project, citing, for example, state-sponsored physical fitness and hygiene projects. I will argue that the pelona controversy is only part of a complicated story. After all, wasn’t one of the key projects of the postrevolutionary state the affirmation and revalidation of Mexico’s indigenous heritage? At least in official culture, Mexico’s Indian Woman occupied a more important place on center stage. Didn’t Kahlo, after 1929, shed her modern look for the dresses of Mexico’s indigenous women?
In recent years, historians have asked what the Mexican Revolution of 1910 achieved. They have asked whether it was a revolution for Mexico’s subaltern groups, namely, indigenous Mexicans, and within that query feminist historians have asked whether the Mexican Revolution was a revolution for women. The Revolution was initiated by Francisco Madero, a wealthy northern landowner, as a call to arms to overthrow the thirty-year dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1884–1911) and to demand recognition of the liberal Constitution of 1857, particularly in regard to political participation. With Madero’s assassination in 1913, however, the Revolution quickly escalated into a decade-long civil war between a variety of ideologically distinct factions with a variety of goals. Among the most successful leaders were Pancho Villa in the north, Emiliano Zapata in the south, who led the peasant faction and advocated large-scale agrarian reform, and Venustiano Carranza, who, as president, ratified a new constitution in 1917. In triumphing over the populists Villa and Zapata, Carranza began to implement the new constitution, which was a mixture of Porfirian-era liberal policies with some collectivist measures. In an effort to mollify conservative detractors, however, Carranza ordered the assassination of Zapata. In 1920, the former revolutionary general Álvaro Obregón managed to get elected and maintain the presidential chair for a full four-year term. Resentful of Carranza’s support of another candidate in the presidential election, Obregón ordered Carranza’s assassination, perpetuating, as others did after him, the revolutionary culture of violence. However, Obregón also oversaw the implementation of reforms under the Constitution of 1917, and under the aegis of his newly founded Ministry of Public Education and its minister, José Vasconcelos, programs such as literacy campaigns and the creation of monumental public murals were initiated. Obregón’s administration is thus credited with launching a revolutionary cultural reinvention, Mexico’s “renaissance.”
Simultaneously, however, the revolutionary state actually adopted a stance that rewrote Mexican society in conservative ways as well. In terms of women’s emancipation, the era was a study in contradiction. As Mary Kay Vaughan has argued, “The Mexican Revolution of 1910 was a quintessentially patriarchal event,” and yet, as we will see, women were gradually able to open new social spaces for themselves. By the 1930s, even government reformers envisioned a “modernization of patriarchy.” Yet efforts for women’s emancipation were only partially successful. They did not dislodge the traditional structure of the family or the notion that the domestic realm was an extension of the patriarchal state, an idea crystallized during the long reign of liberalism that encompassed the Porfiriato, as the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz was known. Deprived of citizenship under the revolutionary Constitution, Mexican women did not obtain universal suffrage until 1953.
The truth remains that upper-class males, socially identified as white, maintained their position of privilege and access to power at all levels. They did so by acting as agents of the Revolution, assuming a patriarchal concern for the subjects of the Revolution: peasants, Indians, working-class Mexicans, and women. Further, despite the state’s endorsements of Mexican womanhood, normative racialist and gendered rhetoric persisted. That context is essential to understanding the apparent contradiction between Kahlo’s decidedly modern self-fashioning in the early 1920s and the seemingly countless celebrations, in visual culture and elsewhere, of Mexico’s Indian woman that emerged at the time. How are we to reconcile Mexican women’s urge to be modern with the countless images in murals, easel paintings, and photographs of beautiful, passive, premodern, corn-fed indias bonitas (pretty Indians), including those by Kahlo’s future husband, Diego Rivera? And how do we account for the persistence of this imagery well into the 1940s, a period when Mexican politicians declared the Revolution “complete,” and pushed Mexico toward economic, social, and industrial modernization?
In 1921, the leading Mexico City daily, El Universal, the same newspaper that published Kahlo’s poem in 1922, organized a beauty contest. Rather than celebrating emancipated modern girls like Kahlo, the contest was conceived to search for Mexico’s prettiest and most traditional Indian girl, whom it dubbed the “India Bonita.” María Bibiana Uribe was declared the winner and her picture eventually appeared on the cover of the newspaper’s illustrated weekly magazine (color plate 1). Indeed, just as Kahlo was aware of the pelona controversy in 1924, she would surely have seen El Universal’s coverage of its search for the “India Bonita.” Curiously, however, despite her numerous, subsequent self-portraits in the guise of the beautiful Indian woman, her relationship to the discourses played out in postrevolutionary civic rituals like the “India Bonita” contest have remained unexplored. Today, Kahlo reigns supreme (particularly outside Mexico) as Mexico’s India Bonita, something that she definitely was not either in ethnic or racial terms, her appropriation of that image notwithstanding. But we should not take Kahlo’s use of that image at face value either. For example, in Diego on My Mind, Kahlo adopts the costume and the mystique of the Tehuana and, in so doing, makes several allusions. First, she masks her own artistic genius behind her husband’s, figuring herself not as artist but as bride, even if ambiguously so. Second, she cultivates a personal iconography in which her own mixed heritage (German/Mexican) is subsumed by her celebration of indigenous culture.
Kahlo’s creative appropriation needs to be understood in the context of both postrevolutionary indigenismo and the discourse of racial fusion, or what Nancy Leys Stepan describes as “constructive miscegenation,” known in Mexico as mestizaje. Indigenismo is a nationalist racial and cultural ideology that both venerates and appropriates Mexico’s pre-Conquest and contemporary indigenous culture to construct a symbolically unique Mexican identity, useful to the process of national unification. Mestizaje is the Spanish equivalent of “miscegenation,” but in the Latin American context it refers more specifically to the cultural and racial mixing among people of Spanish and indigenous origin. In other words, a mestizo is a person of mixed Hispanic and indigenous heritage. “Constructive miscegenation” implies that through a process of careful selection and breeding, so-called undesirable races will be improved. As Stepan notes, this term was not employed in nineteenth-century European racialist discourse, but the idea was.
In the Mexican context, indigenismo and mestizaje purport to celebrate in distinct ways Mexico’s “suffering” Indian race, but as nationalist ideologies they are also steeped in contradiction. They appear to be about symbolic inclusion through various processes of fusion, but they are simultaneously about continuing practices of social exclusion and hierarchy. As Carolyn Dean and Dana Liebsohn have cogently argued, such constructs are “not so much the natural product of an ‘us’ meeting a ‘them’ but rather the recognition—or creation—of an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’” In the postrevolutionary era, both discourses were central to the project of reinvigorating and redirecting the long-standing effort to incorporate Mexico’s Indians into the Europeanized mestizo and white population.The goal was not to recognize indigenous people as ethnically distinct autonomous groups; instead, under the aegis of indigenismo, homogenized Indianness was celebrated as the root of a unique national identity, termed mexicanidad. At the same time, an ossification of indigenous culture occurred. Under indigenist policies, those denominated as Indians were deemed by non-Indians as obstacles to progress, needing to be civilized and modernized—in other words, controlled.Through a range of state-run programs, so-called Indians were divested of whatever traditional life ways they preserved, many of which were more accurately the vestiges of nineteenth-century rural life; these efforts were accompanied by attempts to indianize the peasant class in the interest of conjuring a unified national culture and, in the process, stabilizing their relationship to the elite. Under the best circumstances, the aim of “thoughtful indigenistas” was, in Alan Knight’s words, “to mestizo-ize the Indians and, at the same time, to indianize the mestizos, to create a national synthesis on the basis of reciprocal contributions.” Moreover, an individual’s ascription to the category of “Indian” was not only highly subjective, but was usually determined by a member of a higher social class. Thus indigenismo and the discourse of mestizaje were top-down projects. Members of the ruling intelligentsia defined the salvageable aspects of Indianness.
As ideologies, both were implicated in the desire of the political elite to eliminate the perceived, destabilizing diversity of Mexico’s population, with only the symbolically useful aspects of pre-Conquest and contemporary indigenous culture remaining to give authenticity to Mexican identity. But as others have argued, thinly veiled behind the concept of incorporating Indians (by civilizing or Christianizing them) were the goals not only of modernizing and transforming them into a Western subject but also of whitening them. Yet at the same time, too much modernization, whether at the level of gender, class, or race, was perceived as threatening to Mexico’s cultural integrity, stability, and autonomy.
The same held true for the Mexican woman. As Gabriela Cano has observed, under triumphant liberalism in nineteenth-century Mexico, the feminine ideal was defined through “concepts that conveyed the sense of national belonging and that noted the differences between the sexes.” Cano notes that “la mujer mexicana” was perceived by nineteenth-century liberals as the repository of national culture. This category of “woman” (conceived as a corporate entity) received renewed attention in the postrevolutionary context when debates over women’s enfranchisement, freedom, sexuality, and, crucially, their reproductive capacity intensified yet again. Insofar as their reproductive capacity could be mobilized to serve the goals of the revolutionary state, there emerged the concept of what Stepan calls “matrimonial eugenics.” As such, despite the emancipatory rhetoric of the postrevolutionary era, mixed messages lay at the heart of a range of strategies intended to assimilate Indians and to encourage women to resume their place within the domestic environment. Along similar lines, Mary Louis Pratt has argued, “Women inhabitants of modern nations were not imagined as intrinsically possessing the rights of citizens; rather, their value was specifically attached to (and implicitly conditional upon) their reproductive capacity.” In Mexico, this continued to be so, especially after the decimation of the population during the Revolution. Thus, in the context of revolutionary indigenismo and mestizaje, gender, like race, was imbricated within a signifying system that fixed what appeared to be natural sets of values. Just as indigenous people were resignified as bearers of an “Other” culture/race or, as the proletarianized class, women were resignified as bearers of social modernization and, conversely, as bearers of tradition. The overlap in these structures of signification and exchange inspired my interest in examining the representation of Mexican woman, particularly the female body coded as Indian or as modernized.
As demonstrated by El Universal’s “India Bonita” contest, in the postrevolutionary era “ideal Mexican womanhood” was equated not with women’s emancipation but with ideal female Indianness. The roots of this idealization are anchored in what historian David Brading has called “official indigenism,” a project that has to be understood in the context of national reconstruction but also from the perspective of gender. When revolutionary intellectuals and government agents championed mestizaje as a strategy for national unity, they were seizing on the idea that a single culturally and racially mixed ideal could be at the heart of the nation’s revolutionary strategy for modernization. Modernization of the mestizo ideal was to be instrumentalized not just through “constructive miscegenation,” but through hygiene programs that included pre- and postnatal care, sex education, and the eugenic and behavioral prevention of venereal disease and other ills, including alcoholism, malnutrition, sexual promiscuity, and deviance. Given the investments in eugenic theory (so that miscegenation might result in a strengthening rather than a weakening of the race), it should come as no surprise that indigeneity was fashioned conceptually (even if implicitly) as feminine and the Hispanic/European element as masculine.
This gendered framework originates in the union (whether real or imagined) of the Spanish conqueror of Mexico, Hernán Cortés, and his indigenous interpreter and concubine, Malintzín, who when construed as archetype and myth is referred to as la Malinche. Despite having been given as a slave to Cortés and the violence implicit in their union, Malintzín was made to symbolize national betrayal. Somewhat paradoxically, with la Malinche as Mexico’s own “Eve,” Indian women were rendered as vessels for producing the ideal hybrid nation, at least at the symbolic level. If the notion of Indian womanhood as authentic appeared to sustain the alignment of woman with nature, in curious ways it also advanced the conception of the treatment of women as testifying to society’s degree of civilization as well. In other words, the image of ideal Indian womanhood also signified that Indians were potential Mexicans, capable and worthy of being civilized. Indeed, the adoption of a range of eugenic strategies in order to create an optimally blended and therefore unified nation required the concomitant management of gender roles. Women, indigenous and otherwise, were devalued and men were identified with the conquering culture. It is essential to recognize, however, that in Mexico as elsewhere, the construction of passive femininity/active masculinity can and must also be traced to the rise of positivism in the mid-nineteenth century, and without question to the colonial period as well. Thus I argue that the racialization of femininity in the postrevolutionary era was in part a response to the attempt of late nineteenth-century bourgeois women to claim equal rights as men.
Gender and the Symbolic Processes of National Becoming
Drawing on feminist theory, I follow Joan Scott’s proposition that an analysis of symbolic systems is a useful tool for historians concerned with offering a more comprehensive understanding of how gendered identities are constructed and reaffirmed socially. In concert with Scott, emerging from successive generations of feminism, art historians have demonstrated how gender identity is constructed not just through social organization, economics, and politics but also through “historically specific cultural representations.” In particular, my study draws inspiration from Griselda Pollock’s description throughout her scholarship of the ways that “looking, seeing, and representing visually” are imbricated in processes of constructing difference. It also draws from her, and others, the assertion that language matters. As Pollock reminds us, “‘Femininity’ does not invoke any empirically experienced notion of women [but] refers to a position within language and in a psycho-sexual formation that the term Woman signifies.” It is a “position, therefore, and not an identity, a fiction produced within a [social and visually discursive] formation.” In other words, Pollock examines various kinds of images of women to show us that they do not merely reflect preexisting, real, socially produced categories. Instead, “woman” and “femininity,” according to Pollock, are “something of which its definite Other, masculinity, speaks, dreams, fantasizes.” Similarly, history does not equate with truth but rather with interpretations of events as told from particular subject identities. Pollock thus reminds us that there are many “histories,” and we must be attentive to “whose stories are told, and in whose interests.” Such awareness invites us to “read differently.” Finally, Pollock points out that femininity is also a “structure and realm of experience [that] women subjects need to explore,” particularly as that experience has for centuries and in myriad contexts been configured by “patterns of discourse and psycho-sexual formation under phallic Law.” That phallic system was and is as entrenched in Mexico as anywhere.
If my own subjectivity inspires me to adopt a conscious position of “reading” the images I do “as a woman,” it also determines a complex mode of seeing. As feminists have established, to study images of women in a variety of media (whether by men or women) requires attention to “the gaze” and “the look.” These are complex concepts that, if no longer contentious, continue to undergo refinement insofar as they relate to visual production and the formation of subject positions. The theory of the gaze stems from Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” first published in 1975, in which the male gaze was aggressive and “phallic.” Since then, her theory of the gaze as male has been much reconsidered and refined such that “visual pleasure” is now theorized as neither exclusively male nor heterosexual. In most of what follows, I examine images by male artists that do operate within the framework of a voyeuristic or “phallic gaze,” yet several, particularly those by María Izquierdo and Frida Kahlo, suggest an appropriation of the (active) “look” and allusions both to a female gaze as well as female experience of the phallic gaze.
Despite three decades of scholarship in the field of feminist art history, and despite some important exceptions, the work on postrevolutionary art and visual culture in Mexico has not paid sufficient attention to the relationship between gender and power, not to mention race and power. This problem is not exclusive to the history of Mexican (and Latin American) art. As recently as 2001, Sueanne Caulfield noted that “gender analysis has not been as central a concern in the different national historiographies in Latin America.” She adds, however, that this is changing as a new generation of gender historians has begun to enrich the scholarship on the family, sexuality, race and ethnicity, labor, politics, and everyday life. These changes are beginning to take hold as well in art-historical studies.
Feminist methodologies demonstrate that symbolic systems, such as those that support raced and gendered social orders, are complex and fraught with contradiction. My intention here is to show that while Mexican society undoubtedly changed as a result of the decade-long revolution, what emerged as the gendered and raced social and symbolic order was in some ways simply a new version of the nineteenth-century dominant order, dressed up, so to speak, in revolutionary and indigenista clothing. In what follows, I examine how the writing and rewriting of gender roles in pre- and postrevolutionary Mexico relied on processes of visual signification (symbolic systems) that had been seen before. The revolutionary intelligentsia (male and female) (re)represented gender in order to, as Scott states, “articulate the rules of social relationships [and] construct the meaning of experience.” How, and why, they represented gender and race is what interests me here.
Thus, I consider the ways that visual expressions of gender and race in Mexico were and are, in Scott’s words, ways of “signifying relationships of power.” Rather than seeing these images as mere fabrications, I attempt to understand them as embedded in what Benedict Anderson and many others working off and in response to Anderson have described as the “imagining” or creation of the community of the nation. After all, nations are relatively recent inventions and systems of representation are essential to their maintenance. It is important, however, to keep in mind that a community is comprised of both citizens and those without the full rights of citizenship. In Mexico, this included women and indigenous people. In that context, Anne McClintock’s argument in Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest is relevant. McClintock writes that while the “invented nature of nationalism has found wide theoretical currency, explorations of the gendering of the national imaginary have been conspicuously paltry.”
As expressed in countless paintings of the postrevolutionary decades, as well as events such as the “India Bonita” contest, not to mention murals, photographs, and films, ideal masculinity was industrious and concerned with the public, collective sphere; in contrast, ideal femininity was maternal (pious, pure, domestic, and submissive) and thus concerned with the private sphere. Men were charged with rebuilding the nation, while women were charged with repopulating (as mothers) and reeducating (as mothers and teachers) a new generation. In terms of the feminine symbolic order, it was usually the indigenous ideal rather than modern emancipated womanhood (frequently cast as foreign) that signified a unified and (re)productive Mexican nation. As I demonstrate here, Mexico’s indias bonitas rather than its pelonas came to incarnate authenticity, distinguishing Mexico from the United States and Europe, and it was they who were the exemplars of postrevolutionary femininity.
Given the efforts of women to achieve social emancipation both before and after the Revolution, how did the archetype (or stereotype) of the beautiful Indian woman influence those efforts? Tracking legislation, economic empowerment, and social advancement, as many scholars have done, is one way to address this question, but the slippery terrain of representation offers valuable insights as well. There is little doubt that the celebration of indigenous Mexico within the postrevolutionary symbolic order resulted in scant material benefit for Mexico’s indigenous people. The contemporary political situation of indigenous communities continues to demonstrate the contradiction between symbolic importance and lack of political power. The uprising of the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional in Chiapas on January 1, 1994, attests to this imbalance. Despite policies conceived to incorporate and acculturate Indians into the mainstream, they remain marginalized politically, socially, and economically. Just as the story of Mexico’s social transformation continues to evolve and change, it also begins in the decades before the Revolution. After all, even if life did change radically around 1920, many of the issues pertaining to the rights of the disenfranchised, including women and Indians, and their place in the social order were already under debate well before the Revolution. And despite important gains, many issues remained unresolved decades after the postrevolutionary era.
Against this background, I will consider how Indians and women were exalted symbolically and their image used to authenticate national life, support social unity, and reinscribe traditional morality. In some instances, it was Indian womanhood rather than the image of the ruler that stood for the postrevolutionary state’s rhetorically populist, inclusive political orientation because, as Magali Carrera has argued in regard to nineteenth-century allegorical depictions of “Liberty,” woman was selectively an apt substitute for the “historically tainted . . . old body politic.” Here I will argue that after the Revolution, this substitution functioned to mask and yet sustain the paternalistic structure of the Mexican state.
Rich in detail and seeming to exemplify postrevolutionary Mexico’s rediscovery of its indigenous culture, images such as Kahlo’s Diego on My Mind and, more broadly, the image of the beautiful, dark-skinned, frequently nude, eroticized Indian woman beg for a critical revision. Yet as ubiquitous as these images are in murals, easel paintings, advertising, and film, they tell only half the story.
In the 1920s through the 1940s, the image of idealized Indian womanhood served to promote not only the incorporation of Indians into a “cosmic” (or utopian) mestizo mainstream, but it was also deployed to counter the aspirations and longings of modern Mexican women. As a symbol for authentic Mexico, the image of ideal Indian femininity redirected the impulse for modernization, and degeneration, which included, most threateningly, feminism and the adoption of mass urban culture and habits. In Mexico, the term degeneración was employed in the U.S.-European racialist sense in reference to racial mestizaje as the source of racial and social degeneration. But it also referred to unchecked cultural, political, and economic influences, especially from the United States. Women’s bodies were seen as sites within which degeneration and, in contrast, regeneration were catalyzed. Symbolically they were repositories upon which these potentialities were inscribed. That dichotomy makes it essential to consider the significant presence in visual culture of the fallen woman, connoting both moral and cultural corruption. If Indian womanhood represented the nation’s positive potential, modern woman signified sexual awareness. Not surprisingly, there was fine line between the modern woman and the prostitute.
I will argue that the boundaries between the two principal archetypes of femininity—the traditional indigenous woman imagined as pure and the modern woman conceived as corrupted—were fluid and abstract. They were mutually constitutive, one relying on the other for definition. However, as frequently as the modern woman was a harbinger of degeneration, for some intellectuals she also signified resistance to overdetermined nationalist identity and the diverse forms of oppression that attended such discourse. In other words, the pictorial foregrounding of the female body—whether as an india bonita or as a pelona—was neither neutral and transparent, nor was it necessarily benign. An isolated narrative about Mexican artists’ nationalist rediscovery and pictorial foregrounding of indigenous culture, which is offered in many accounts of Mexican art, misses the complexity of the cultural, political, and social discourses at play.
Given the context I trace above, my analysis incorporates a complex body of images. In recent years, art historians have increasingly turned to the expanding visual field of images in contemporary life and to interrogating a wider range of historical images. This is true in Mexico as well. Under the rubric of visual culture, we routinely study images—like beauty contests and advertisements—that exceed the boundaries of fine art, describing our field as the history of images in addition to the history of art. This enables us to break free of long-standing assertions that art is principally about aesthetic experience. My approach to visual culture, therefore, is a response to what Norman Bryson, Michael Ann Holly, and Keith Moxey described in Visual Culture: Images and Interpretations—as a category and a theory that argues for a “history of images rather than [a] history of art.” I find such a reframing of the visual useful because my interest lies less in great aesthetic works and more in uncovering the social meaning of images in Mexico. Building on the methodology of social art history, Clark Hulse and Peter Erickson have argued cogently that W. J. T. Mitchell’s description of the “social construction of visual images” can be “extended and reversed,” such that “if visual culture is the study of the social construction of visual experience, then equally it is the study of the visual construction of social experience.”
Similarly, my analysis in the Mexican context of gender, race, and representation as interrelated phenomena is grounded in the understanding that art and visual culture operate in a dynamic interrelation with politics and ideology. Visual images are always mediated and are therefore rarely, if ever, transparent reflections of sociohistorical phenomena. The images that we produce neither mirror nor mask our social reality; instead, they help us both to order and produce reality. In other words, even beyond spatial and temporal origins, visual culture is more than mere epiphenomena to political, social, and economic change; rather, it is a primary matrix (among many) within which we can study change.
In pre- and postrevolutionary Mexico, pictorial expression was integral to the consolidation and negotiation of political and cultural power, social differentiation, incorporation, and exclusion. Social experience in Mexico City was as much a result of creative expression as it was its source. Thus traditional easel painting, monumental public murals and films, and images in the popular press, as well as more intimate images such as photographs (documentary and artistic) and watercolor painting, contributed to both the expression and the construction and reconsolidation of social experience. The contradictory nature of the history I tell warrants paying particular attention to how these ideas were expressed pictorially, understanding the visual as a form of language. Like any language, the visual—across a range of media—has its own rules and conventions, but it is ever in dialogue with other forms, institutions, and social spaces within which meaning and power are negotiated, contested, affirmed, and challenged. Thus, I treat with caution the notion that Mexican art was transparently didactic, or that it offered exclusively an ennobling image of Mexico’s Indians. Rather than viewing modern Mexican visual culture as ideologically consistent, I examine with even greater interest the moments of rupture. What emerges is the fact that in pre- and postrevolutionary Mexico City, visual articulations of the female body caused significant interpretive tension and confusion. In order to analyze the representation of women in relation to the rise of women’s consciousness, revolutionary politics, nationalism, and modernity, studying a variety of images can help us understand how each of these concepts developed and were transformed over time. The long-standing assumption has been that a nationalist sensibility and, with it, modern Mexican art and culture began with the close of the Revolution, around 1920, with a sudden upsurge in populist consciousness. In fact, the story begins much earlier.
More accurate accounts now hold that the origins of Mexico’s modernism reach back into late nineteenth-century academic traditions, which did not simply die out with the exile of Porfirio Díaz in 1911. Temporally, the images I examine are bounded roughly by the years 1850–1950. While most of the artists I discuss were active after the Revolution, we will also see that the templates of ideal femininity that they deployed—more accurately, archetypes and stereotypes—were in place well before the postrevolutionary decades. Thus, I will try to recapture the moment when young artists at the academy of San Carlos in Mexico City began turning their attention to contemporary, everyday life (bourgeois and working class), considering it worthy within the purview of high art. This was also the moment when they began a pictorial rediscovery of Mexico’s vanquished indigenous past, undertaking conceptual and visual reworkings of that past in order to reconcile it within the positivist construction of a modern republican nation-state.
In order to establish a context for understanding the visual and ideological conventions that inform the representation of women in Mexican art, chapter 1, “The Eternal Feminine: Self-Sacrifice, Modesty and Discretion,” examines conceptions of bourgeois femininity as expressed in magazines written for and by women. In nineteenth-century Mexico City, ideal femininity was defined as much by what women should not do as by what they should; two of the key issues were women’s literacy and working outside the home. If in the postrevolutionary era the imagined citizens of revolutionary Mexico became the working class (male and female), then it is necessary to look back and understand the structuration of the bourgeois ideal in order to understand the transformation, as well as the continuities, of that ideal. One might assume that the differences between the two ideals were extreme. I argue that they were not.
My point of entry will be the ways in which gender divisions were imagined and reinforced visually in the context of academic pictures produced for a bourgeois, principally male, consumer. In their studies of academic pictures of and by women, Stacie G. Widdifield and Angélica Velázquez Guadarrama consider how these images visualized and inculcated a bourgeois ideal whereby upwardly mobile men were imag(in)ed as patriots and intellectuals and women as mothers and homemakers. As they argue, images of women were a principal tool not just in the continued limitation of their social roles but in the definition of male roles as well.
Here I read nineteenth-century images alongside moralizing texts that appeared in the emerging genre of women’s magazines. As Anderson and many others have argued, the practice of print capitalism facilitated the imagining of the nation, and this was as much the case in Mexico as elsewhere, where magazines were published for separate female and male markets. Women’s magazines became an important vehicle for women’s education as well as responding to an increased commercial market among the literate bourgeoisie. At the end of the century, several women’s magazines also served as sites for the emergence of early feminism. Yet the degree to which long-standing prescriptions of femininity remained entrenched even there is surprising. Although there were some important exceptions, even magazines published for women by women frequently upheld the fundamental tenets of ideal femininity as submissive, pious, maternal, and self-sacrificing. Although we might expect to find these values promoted in commercial magazines dedicated primarily to domestic arts and beauty and fashion, they appear as well in magazines with a didactic and intellectual orientation.
Chapter 2, “Fin de Siglo: Modernity and the Culture of Decadence,” focuses on the sexually charged and fatalistic images produced by the decadent aesthete Julio Ruelas, the principal illustrator of the literary magazine Revista Moderna, published in Mexico City. Ruelas was also an easel painter, and an examination of his production in both media supports the assertion that these visual forms occupied a mutually informing space. Ruelas spent the better part of his career in Europe. The content and style of his images of woman were hailed in Mexico as harbingers of a cosmopolitan, modern aesthetic. Like his literary counterparts, the modernistas, Ruelas imagined ideal woman as modern, but his image of modern woman was dark and disturbing. For Ruelas, modernity was symbolized through woman’s sexual awakening. Thus, in the tradition of such fin de siècle French artists as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “modern” woman was figured by the prostitute. In Mexico, for propriety’s sake, she was described euphemistically as a “courtesan” and her sole purpose was male pleasure. Both feared and romanticized, the prostitute nevertheless symbolized the challenge of turn-of-the-century intellectuals to Mexican society’s entrenched conservatism, particularly in cultural terms.
The readership of Revista Moderna was principally middle- to upper-class male, and its publication coincides precisely with the years in which feminism gained a foothold among middle- and upper-class women. I will consider the ways in which Ruelas’s imagery is expressive of male anxieties and expectations stimulated by transformations to the gendered social order. While these intellectuals sought to open new cultural spaces for themselves, most did not imagine that privilege extending to women, whose social environment did not extend beyond the home or the bedroom.
In chapter 3, “Pupilas and Mestizas,” I extend my examination of the image of the sexually experienced modern woman, focusing on two artists, José Clemente Orozco and Saturnino Herrán. Two key female types help orient the discussion: the pupila and the mestiza. The term pupila was a euphemism that emerged in the early twentieth century to describe young women who were apprenticed in brothels. Derived from the scholastic term “pupil,” it erased the harsh socioeconomic conditions that forced young women, particularly during the Revolution, into “the life” (la vida). I pair the concept with Mexico’s discourse on mestizaje by examining the contemporaneous and much-celebrated images of women by Saturnino Herrán. Building on the modernista generation’s eroticized image of womanhood, Herrán explicitly mexicanized the erotic by investing his images with the traits of homogeneous Indian and mestizo culture. His work is an example of the efforts of Mexican intellectuals to rescue the concept of mestizaje from its degenerative connotations. In Herrán’s imagination, woman serves to celebrate the mixture of European and Indian heritage. Although he died young, Herrán was successful in creating a modern nationalist prototype of the mestiza and, with her, mestizo culture.
While Orozco is one of Mexico’s premier revolutionary muralists, his early watercolors depicting brothel life in Mexico City have been little studied because they seem inconsistent with his later mural production. In the context of nascent revolutionary nationalism, Orozco’s early works embrace an international aesthetic sensibility, suggesting a critique of the incipient redefinition of modern Mexican art and identity as indigenist, folkloric, and celebratory. Like Ruelas’s images, Orozco’s brothel paintings trade on the vexing issues of morality, sexuality, and modernity, which were at the center of debates over the regulation of prostitution in Mexico City and over changes to the social disorder brought on by the Revolution. As we will see, Orozco’s image of woman operated in the interstices of a conceptual polarization of femininity in which the feminine as virginal or maternal was opposed to a notion of female sexuality as alluring and exotic but unregulated and therefore dangerous. Orozco’s early works materialize in a state of tension rather than resolution the issues that would continue to be negotiated pictorially well into the twentieth century: racial, social, and cultural degeneration versus regeneration, cosmopolitan modernity versus archaizing nationalism, and academic-style realism versus a more individualized and, in Orozco’s case, expressionistic aesthetic vision.
In the context of this book, Orozco’s early works serve as the conceptual hinge. They link my discussion of the formation of a feminine ideal under nineteenth-century bourgeois liberalism and its conceptual pollution in Ruelas’s images to its reinstitution and then the new challenges posed by the artists and images discussed in chapters 4–6.
Chapter 4, “Santa, La India Bonita, and Mexican Maternity,” examines how the body of the indigenous woman, as opposed to the diseased body of the fallen woman, was revived and purified. After the Revolution, idealized indigenous womanhood served as an exemplar for women against the threat of either foreign habits or revolutionary feminism. Yet indigenous womanhood was also eroticized as the potential vehicle for incorporating Mexico’s “Indians” into a mainstream mestizo polity. To that end, I examine the “India Bonita” beauty contest. Rather than simply interpreting it as an example of nascent revolutionary indigenism, I argue that the contest demonstrates the continuity rather than the rupture of late Porfirian ideologies of gender and race.
Although the contest was described at the time as a landmark event in which Mexico’s Indian women, and thus its native heritage, were celebrated, I offer a historical and theoretical critique of the contest, showing how it relied heavily on the period fascination with fallen women as described in the literature of the day, most famously Fernando Gamboa’s Santa (1903), a novel about a naive rural girl who falls into prostitution in Mexico City. The discourse that emerged in the press around the search for Mexico’s “prettiest Indian,” particularly as expressed by Manuel Gamio, a leading intellectual of the revolutionary era and Mexico’s first professionally trained anthropologist, claimed to define a new standard of feminine beauty and comportment for the revolutionary nation.
In order to understand the transformation of notions of race and culture in the context of the Revolution, I examine how Gamio expressed them in his 1916 treatise on Mexican nationalism, Forjando Patria (pro-nacionalismo). Gamio is critically important because he was a leading proponent of indigenism and also an early member of the Mexican eugenics movement. In addition, his articulation of indigenism dovetailed with José Vasconcelos’s postrevolutionary cultural programs and his concept of a “cosmic” race.
As minister of public education from 1921 to 1924, Vasconcelos was the architect of key postrevolutionary cultural and educational programs, including the public mural movement. His notion of Mexico’s racial composition and his attempt to invert the European racialist hierarchy demonstrates the importance in the period of refuting while simultaneously locating Mexicans within that hierarchy. Vasconcelos described Mexicans as a “fused, cosmic race,” arguing that Mexican society was not subject to degeneration, as some European racialist thinkers had implied. Vasconcelos’s and Gamio’s articulations of Mexican identity included a reconceptualization of Mexican womanhood. Against the imagined, degenerate “fallen” woman of fin de siglo aesthetes like Ruelas, their ideas informed the monumentalized female nudes that appeared in the 1920s in state-sponsored murals by Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco.
Chapter 5, “Desnudas, Amazonas, and Tehuanas,” focuses on paintings by María Izquierdo and her contemporaries, including Rufino Tamayo and Frida Kahlo. Izquierdo was one of the first women artists in Mexico to achieve international recognition. In contrast to Kahlo, who became famous posthumously in the context of feminist art historians’ search for women artists in the 1970s, Izquierdo was considered a premier modernist painter by 1930. She is all the more remarkable for her artistic focus on the female body, which served her as a site for challenging social norms and engaging in the debate about national versus universal cultural values. Set alongside the work of her contemporaries, Izquierdo’s watercolors are unparalleled because they represent one of the earliest focused treatments of the female nude in Mexican art. Her treatment also suggests a resistance to the overdetermined discourse of nationalist indigenism described in chapter 4. Whereas Izquierdo’s images of women resist essentialized notions of “Indianness,” works by several of her contemporaries appropriate and fetishize indigenous femininity.
In fact, whereas Kahlo is typically described as Mexico’s preeminent Surrealist, Izquierdo’s highly complex, symbolic system, within which the unclothed female body plays the central role, was inspired by the early interest in French Surrealism, popular by the late 1920s among Mexico City’s avant-garde. Alongside a group of poets and intellectuals known as the Contemporáneos, Izquierdo’s imagery suggests a desire to expand the roots anchoring Mexican identity. Understood as an articulation of an alternative form of modernity, her work privileged and sustained a more cosmopolitan, less overtly nationalistic understanding of that identity. In this respect, her representation of the female body stands in contrast to Kahlo’s appropriation of indigenous culture.
Izquierdo’s watercolor nudes force a reconsideration of the female nude as solely the object of a phallic gaze and of artistic and cultural fetish, particularly the Surrealists’ conception of woman as fetish-object and their preoccupation with the mutilation of the female body. Thus they also resignify the repulsive yet seductive succubi seen in Ruelas’s drawings and engravings.
In chapter 6, “Double Portraits: Sons (and Daughters) of La Malinche,” I explore the cinematic representation of Indian womanhood, focusing on Emilio Fernández’s indigenist melodrama of 1944, María Candelaria. Like muralism, which was public and monumental, Fernández’s films synthesized key period concerns. In María Candelaria, the image of Indian womanhood resonates with postrevolutionary ideas about the symbolic importance of Indians and designated their place in Mexico’s political, social, and racial hierarchies.
Several narrative strands operate in the film, not least of which is the notion that the much-desired union of Mexico’s racial/cultural duality was perceived in the sociopolitical context of the 1940s as symbolically complete yet, in actuality, it was doomed to failure. In important ways, the film reenacts the process that unfolded in the “India Bonita” contest of 1921. The film, however, advances a very peculiar notion of ideal Indianness because a white film star, Dolores del Río, portrayed the ideal “Indian” beauty. The film is also of interest because it makes an overt association of Indian womanhood with the binary archetype of the virgin/whore. María Candelaria thus bears reassessment in relation to Octavio Paz’s crystallization of this binary advanced in his landmark study of the Mexican character, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950).
It is important to remember that Paz’s dyad is hardly unique to Mexico, relying as it does on the long-standing biblical archetypes of the virgin/whore. According to Marina Warner, “In the conceptual architecture of Christian society, there is no place for a single woman who is not either a virgin or a prostitute.” Thus, in the Western patriarchal tradition, ideal comportment set against promiscuity (or simply willfulness construed as treachery) is expressed symbolically by the Virgin Mary juxtaposed with Eve and a variety of other “Marys,” including Magdalene, Mary of Egypt, and Mary of Bethany, variously described in New Testament accounts as “sinners.”
As a twin ideal (mother/virgin), the Virgin Mary is an impossible exemplar, since sex is necessary for a woman to fulfill her maternal, so-called, destiny. In psychosexual terms, the fallen woman as the alternative archetype representing the danger of sex as corruption and sin is always lurking. In regard to the visual construction of the fallen woman in Mexican cinema, Charles Ramírez Berg notes that “there is no recourse for [these] women but to live, suffer, and die—eternally frozen in contradiction.” In the context of Mexican patriarchy, Paz resignified these Western archetypes in order to trace Mexican “passivity” to the duality of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Malinche as the nation’s treacherous, albeit raped “mother.”
Rather than considering Paz a voice of authority on Mexican identity and psychology, I employ his conception not as truth or testimonial but rather as a bounded period piece useful for revealing the discursive patriarchal construction of visual and intellectual culture in twentieth-century Mexico. Like so many of the images I consider in this book, Paz’s description of Mexican womanhood and of Mexican identity in general is bound up in the legitimizing mechanisms through which, having been “modern” under the Porfirian regime’s project of “peace, prosperity, and progress,” the postrevolutionary state set about to recapture “tradition.”
I wish to acknowledge at the outset the ways in which my account is shaped and conditioned by my own subjectivity as a feminist, a woman, a Mexican, and, in the U.S. context, a Latina. While not necessarily an impartial account, I hope that my training as an art historian has provided me with a sufficiently solid foundation so that I am not overly biased either.