Art and revolution in Mexico

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"I had never seen such a land, and didn't think there were such lands." Vladimir Mayakovsky

The Mexican Revolution that began in 1910 when Emiliano Zapata launched his land reform known as the Ayala Plan, was one of the great social upheavals of the 20th century.

The corrupt and brutal dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, shaken by a strike wave in the preceding years, was destroyed by the mass peasant armies of Zapata and Pancho Villa. The remnants of the old regime were finally defeated in 1913.

In the following four years a struggle to establish a new order on the ashes of the old raged across Mexico. When the revolution officially ended in 1917, an estimated 1 million people had died and countless more were displaced.

The bravery of those who rebelled - poorly armed, often half starving and many living in conditions "little better than slavery" against an army equipped with the most advanced machine guns and bombs - became legendary.

Mexico was as John Reed, the young American journalist, described it in 1913 as "a land to love ... a land to fight for".

Over the next three decades Mexico attracted militants, artist and intellectuals who wanted to see and experience this emerging "new" Mexico. They wanted to witness and aid the people who had stood up to a hated regime and the imperial might of the US and Europe to build a new society.

Indeed it was the only country that would offer sanctuary to the fleeing Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

And it is the interaction of these visiting artists with the emerging Mexican art movements, that the revolution gave birth to, that a current Royal Academy of Arts exhibition seeks to comment on. It is also here where art is at its most fascinating.

Although this is only a small exhibition - by its own admission it can only be taken as a brief survey - we get a tantalising glimpse of an emerging Mexican culture articulating its own forms of expression.

It is a culture vying to shed off its imperial past, incorporating the rich traditions of its indigenous population while attempting to marry its distinct popular culture with a unique modern voice.

What you get is a small sense of an emerging visual language being shaped by the revolution alongside the work of a number of European and American artists who added to and were influenced by that developing movement.

Tina Modotti's photography is outstanding. She seemed both thrilled to be living at the very heart of modernity and yet displayed a deep understanding and affection for the people and traditions that had made the revolution.

Her work "Telegraph Wires" encapsulates a sense of hope and possibility while "Hands Resting on Tools" reminds you exactly where the source of that hope lies, in a way that the work of Rodchenko would for the Russian Revolution.

Joseph Albers, the young painter and craftmaster of the Bauhaus who emigrated to the US after the Nazis closed down the school in Germany, visited Mexico for the first of a number of visits in 1935. His works included here, "Tenyuca" and "Mantic" among others, are on the surface classic abstract compositions. They are in fact based on his close observations of Mexico's pre-Columbian architecture. Mexico, he wrote, "is truly the promised land of abstract art".

There are dozens of individually enjoyable works: the enigmatic printing of Jose Gaudalupe's "Posada", Philip Guston's "Gladiators", Jose Clemente Orozco's monumental "La Trinchera" (meaning barricade) and Henri Cartier-Bresson's delightfully surreal "Prostituto", to highlight four of many. The exhibition, however, fails to be the sum of its parts.

The same Mayakovsky who the curators quote, who had admired the strange beauty of the land and could praise Rivera's revolutionary murals, also noticed something that the curators miss in among the "poverty, filth and misery" and the "moral and political corruption of the Calles government".

He noted that the revolutionary impulses and hopes that drove those emerging art movements could not thrive in such circumstance and in time would be suffocated.

Mexico: A Revolution in Art 1910-1940 is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London, until 29 September 2013.