Strange visions: surrealist photography in Mexico

Sammy Dalati
La mujer que sueña [Woman Who Dreams] by Flor Garduño, 1991. All objects illustrated are courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art, New York.
Mexico’s surrealist painters and writers are well- known; perhaps less familiar are its surrealist photographers. Now on view at the Flint Institute of Arts after making its debut at New York’s Throckmorton Fine Art gallery last year, Surrealismo: Ojos de México (Surrealism: Eyes of Mexico) surveys a century of Mexican photography through thirty- four black-and-white images by native and immigrant talents such as Lola and Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Rosa Covarrubias, and Kati Horna.
Tanque No. 1 [Tank No. 1] by Tina Modotti, 1942.
A symbolism-rich style that sprung from the theories of Sigmund Freud, surrealism was brought to Mexico after World War I by European artists such as Luis Buñuel and by returning expats like Diego Rivera. They encountered a land devastated by its own modern conflict, the Mexican Civil War, and undergoing radical changes— during the long life of Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902– 2002), considered the father of Mexican photography, the population of the country would swell from 15 to 100 million. With its striking juxtapositions of haves and have-nots, traditional life and industrialization, it’s little wonder Mexico appeared to surrealism’s founder André Breton as “a surrealist place par excellence” when he visited in 1938.
Parábola óptical [Optic Parable] by Manuel Álvarez Bravo, 1931.
Somewhat surprisingly, aside from a few convention- ally oneiric photos (semi-nude women next to cacti or iguanas; a group of staring Piero Fornasetti–style eyes plastered on the glass facade of an optician’s shop), much of the mid-twentieth century work on view seems, in retrospect, less surreal than documentary. A pair of faceless metal smelters, their features swallowed up by rag masks and protective goggles in a photo by Héctor García; Tina Modotti’s picture of a person dwarfed by a gigantic gas tank—this was Mexican reality. The words of Paul Valéry come to mind: “Any view of things that is not strange is false.”