Manuel Alvarez Bravo came of age during the long and bloody Mexican Revolution. Some revolutions can easily be explained as a war between two distinct factions. Not the Mexican Revolution, which was marked by constantly shifting alliances as the conflict roiled from region to region. The Mexico that emerged from this period was defining itself within its borders and to the rest of the world, especially its neighbor to the north.
Thousands of refugees had fled and resettled in the United States, and President Wilson had become embroiled in the conflict on several occasions. This led to a tenuous relationship which had to be smoothed as, during Mexico’s period of stabilization, the government flirted with Leninism. (Famously, Lenin’s comrade Trotsky would later be assassinated in Mexico City under Stalin’s orders.)
It was in this time of upheaval and transformation that Bravo began photographing his homeland. A sense of transformation, mixed identity and liminality pervades Bravo’s photographs, but it is not explicitly political. Rather than documenting the vicissitudes of power, Bravo focused his lens on oddities of the era that yet feel timeless—a distinctly modern Mexico still reconciling with its distant and recent past.
The Surreality of 1930s Mexico
At the The Frye Art Museum, a collection of silver gelatin prints from across Bravo’s career are on display, but many of the most striking came from early in his career. His photos from the 30s are among his most surreal, and it is little wonder that influential surrealists like Breton found in him a kindred spirit. Bravo also found praise with poets, including Xavier Villaurrutia, who dubbed him poeta de la imagen.The museum picks up on this moniker, titling the exhibition Mexico’s Poet of Light.
Indeed, there is a poetic, even cinematic sensibility to much of Bravo’s work. This is evident from the opening of the exhibit, with the isolated display of his 1935 work “Retrato de lo eterno” (Portrait of the Eternal). Young Bravo was predisposed to lyrical titles for his works, but he also delivered on them.
In “Retrato” an enrobed woman sits in near darkness gazing into a small mirror in her hand. A beam of light catches her profile, her hand, a swath of her clothing, her cascading hair, and gives just a hint of the bare space that she occupies. This is as proper an emblem of eternity (as conceived by the human mind) as ever I have seen.
In most cases, his symbolism was not so specific and earnest. He allowed the images to be as they are: strange, inscrutable, and yet so commonplace they might be beneath our notice. For example, the spontaneous surrealism of urban advertisement with two disembodied legs painted on a brick wall (“Dos pares de piemas” c. 1930). An ornate Box of Visions (“Caja de Visiones” ca. 1938) almost looks like a dilapidated house at first until you see a woman’s head peering from within its “roof.” In “Ventana al Coro,” the half-lit textures of the irregular architecture have the flavor of a Max Ernst painting.
A Place and Time Between Ages
The need to rebuild and modernize after the revolution led to a universal tension in twentieth century western cultures: tradition versus progress. Both “tradition” and “progress” are slippery terms that can mean many things to many people, and we often resort to mere aesthetic and technological objects to sort between them.
In Bravo’s work, we see this sorting occur in his portraits of modernizing Mexicans in association with more “ancient” objects. In some cases, we see him earn that designation, “poet of light.” Exhibit A: “Dia de todos muertos” (ca. 1932) in which a young woman holds a decorative skull (AMOR painted onto its forehead), with a bolt of light descending over her right shoulder. The image could be read countless ways, but a certain reckoning with time itself seems the most crucial.
In “La Visita” (ca. 1935), Bravo photographs lifelike models of the three Magi in what is presumably a church…but it is apparently not during Epiphany. The three figures kneel empty-handed, staring blankly ahead at nothing. The Catholic Church’s convoluted involvement with the Revolution (a political involvement much more than a spiritual, pacific one) only added to questions of faith—and the loss of it—that arose in force during the last two centuries. Again, Bravo is not explicit, but the emptiness of the Magis’ offerings is conspicuous.
The artist Frida Kahlo sat as a model for Bravo several times, and at The Frye we see one portrait of her from 1940, taken in Coyoacán (the same borough and year in which Trotsky was killed). Bravo’s composition here is clearly informed by classical portraiture. Whereas such portraits would often include a skull as a memento mori, Bravo places what appears to be an Aztec head, a sculptural fragment, behind Kahlo. The memory is not of human mortality, but the persistence and flux of history, art and culture.
Later Works, Less Focus
Among the later works by Bravo, it is hard to find the poetry and sensibility that informed his young work. In some cases, he finds a sinister and unique visual rhyme that continues that thread of tension between ancient and future forces, such as “Carrizo y tele (Reed and television)” from 1976. Most are still beautifully shot, but more flat and banal in their subject matter.
Among his candid street photos, by far the most beautiful is, again, an earlier work: “Qué chiquito es el mundo (How small the world is)” from 1942. Bravo’s value ranges tend toward high contrast and go quite dark, an in this work the dominant shape is that of white linens hung on a rooftop. One has to look closely to make out the figure of a man and woman passing each other on the street. What seems an insignificant moment in a suburban setting takes is charged with romance and melancholy by Bravo’s control of light.
Bravo never lost his formal prowess, but he seemed to lose his eye for eternity. Perhaps his view of Mexico just became more banal and familiar around him. Perhaps he simply grew bored and sought out the banal for its frankness, rather than the affectations of poetry. Whatever the case may be, the later works lack for something.
His striking “Angel del temblor (Angel of the quake)” offers another possibility: Bravo’s sensibility was best at finding peace among crisis and violent transformation. Without that, he gets listless.
In “Angel,” he looms closely over the shattered remains of Mexico City’s famous Angel of Independence, erected in 1910. That date was significant as the beginning of Mexico’s war for independence, but that year was also the start of the Revolutions to come. The angel appears so much like Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus,” which Walter Benjamin described thus in 1940:
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Though a symbol of independence, the angel in Bravo’s image is also a symbol of human catastrophe, which, as when shattered by the movement of earth itself, is far beyond individual control. It demands humility more than despair…an eye that can still see eternity in a woman sitting alone in the dark. Bravo’s eye turned to the more immediate over time, but in this show at The Frye, time dissolves for the moment, and we can glimpse Bravo’s vision of eternity anew.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo: Mexico’s Poet of Light is on display at The Frye Art Museum through December 31.