A vocation is an intuitive calling for a career.
I have spent six years intensively studying the relationship between art, history, socio-political issues, and the space or means in which these subjects collide. It is my vocation to be an art curator at an art museum. It is this career that I try to balance with my fiancé’s military career. Some responsibilities include:
- receiving artwork on loan or purchasing artwork for the permanent collect
- studying artists and the individual works of art for upcoming exhibitions
- selecting artwork for exhibitions under one cohesive theme
- explain these works to a public audience with a variety of experiential backgrounds using text panels and exhibition catalogs.
It sounds simple. However, it is a complex process because the relationships between the paintings differ based on those selected for the exhibition. The text panels alongside the artwork may be the only source of information they have experienced about that artist or artwork. The thesis of each exhibition molds the way the public understands the intertwinement between art history and contemporary politics.
For graduate school, I had to curate a mini exhibition for one of my classes. Below is the exhibition I selected to curate. It is titled: Peak of Pride: Volcanoes in Mexican Landscape Painting.
Explanation of Exhibition:
Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl are two legendary volcanic mountains visible in Mexico City. The common thread throughout the exhibition is the inclusion of these the two volcanic peaks as subject matter in the Mexican landscape paintings. The continuous portrayal of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl in Mexican landscape paintings signifies the sacredness of the volcanoes to both Indigenous cultures and modern Mexicans. The selected paintings contextualize the relationship of the two volcanoes with Mexico from pre-colonialism through modernization. Effectively, Indigenous culture remains relevant. Although Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl are renowned geographical landmarks in Mexico, the two peaks evolved into representations of national Mexican pride.
In the foreground is a romanticized depiction of commerce at Tlatelolco’s marketplace. The focal point of the composition is the darker skin toned man on a throne wearing white garments and holding a fan in the center of the composition. Surrounding this man is a mass of dark skin toned people wearing traditional Indigenous garments. Rivera depicted the people without space between the bodies. Baskets of grains and rice are scattered throughout the composition. Rivera uses linear perspective to depict two receding parallel lines in the center of the composition. Effectively, the focus becomes the ancient Aztec ruin and the two legendary snow-capped volcanic mountains in the background, Popcatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl.
Rivera painted in the Palacio Nacional de México amidst the post-Revolutionary period in Mexico. The federal building is located in the renown Plaza de la Constitución, otherwise known as El Zócalo. In 1928, the elected president, Álvaro Obregón, was assassinated and succeeded by Plutarco Elías Calles. In effect, the National Revolutionary Party was formed in attempt to provide stability and unity in Mexico. However, revolutionary reforms were neglected and censorship became limiting to artists. The Mexican Community Party gained popularity by extreme liberal artist, such as Rivera, in Mexico. Artists began to search for new spaces and audiences to present their work that excluded the patronage of the government. However, Rivera continued to paint public murals due to his international success. Furthermore, modern Mexico still had tension in national identity.
In the fresco, Rivera romanticizes the Aztec culture in Mexico. Tlatelolco was an Aztec city located in the valley of Mexico near the capital Tenochtitlan. The marketplace of Tlatelolco flourished, as depicted by Rivera, due to the trading of luxury goods and food production. Baskets of these goods are in overabundance in the foreground. The people are draped in traditional Aztec clothes and adorned in turquoise, which signifies social status. The buildings in the background allude to a civilization. He purposefully selected imagery to combat the uncivilized stereotype of both Indigenous people and modern Mexicans. By elevating the Aztec emperor in the center of the composition, Rivera is celebrating pre-Hispanic culture rather than Eurocentric ideology or American imperialism.
The painting consists of three narrative panels. Each rectangular panel depicts a personification of the two volcanoes with a red pigment frame. Popocatépetl is viewed as a light skinned woman whereas Iztaccíhuat is a darker skinned man. In the first panel, the man is kneeling behind the kneeling woman. His arms are wrapped around her. The second panel depicts the man with white hair, arms horiztonally stretched, and his back is towards the viewer. The woman is standing and leaning away from her lover. The third panel is just the man sitting on the ground with his forehead resting on the palm of his hand.
The names of the volcanic mountains—Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl–are derived from the Mexican Indigenous language Nahuatl spoken by the Aztecs. Popocatépetl translates to “White Woman,” and Iztaccíhuatl translates to “Smoking Mountain.” The Aztecs personified the mountains in the legend. In effect, an intertwinement between the land, culture, and the people began, and the environment gained importance to both Indigenous and modern Mexicans. According to the legend, an Aztec emperor gave permission to one of his warriors, Popocatepetl, that he could marry his daughter, Iztaccíhuatl, if he returned successful from war. However, a rival suitor lied to Iztaccíhuatl and stated that her betrothed died in battle. Grief-stricken, she transformed into a mountain as did Popocatepetl when he returned to find his love had died.
Herrán was inspired by the Aztec legend of the two lovers who were separated by war and only reunited after death transformed them into the mountains. Each panel visually depicts part of the narrative. However, Herrán alters the legend. In the script written on the bottom of the first panel Herrán incorporates the tension between race. Leading up to the Mexican Revolution in 1910, tension between Indigenous cultures and European influence began in defining Mexicanness. The princess is depicted as white whereas her lover is Indian. Herrán’s variation embodies relevant political issues in modern Mexico within an ancient legend. Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl becomes a representation of national pride in both ancient and modern Mexico. Futhermore, the volcanoes become a reminder of the history of the landscape.
Egerton depicts a close study of the Iztaccíhuatl’s ridge. Repetitions of triangular planes are in the foreground. The windward side of the volcano extends from the lower half the canvas towards the center at the diagonal. Boulders are along this plane. By depicting another shadow on the lower left corner extending towards the center, Egerton produces dimension and depth. Egerton depicts a gust of wind that sweeps across the high horizon to soften the division on the canvas. The high horizon is a device to display the grandeur scale of the mountain. Only a small gray-blue portion of the sky is visible.
Iztaccíhuatl is an ancient yet active and potentially dangerous volcano that has become an iconic Mexican landmark. In the nineteenth-century traveler artists were allured by the exoticism of Mexico. In the 1830s, Daniel Egerton, a British landscape painter, traveled to Mexico and introduced Romanticism into Mexican art with his companion Baron Gros. On a small canvas he depicts Iztaccíhuatl as part of Mexico’s sublime landscape. The small canvas allows portability for the artist. Furthermore, the small canvas is easier to complete a study of a specific fleeting moment with a specific atmospheric light source from the top of the Iztaccíhuatl’s peak. Although he uses natural light sources and realistic hues, the painting is not intended to document the space, which is evident in the cropping of the volcano in the composition.
Egerton’s representation of Iztaccíhuatl promotes preservation of landscape amidst modernization in Mexico because his depiction provides strength and power to the landscape. Dramatic contrast in hues between shadows and highlights is used to depict the landscape. Also, in comparison to the scale of the mountain in the composition, Egerton would be diminutive. Despite the danger of Iztaccíhuatl being an active volcano, Egerton would have climbed the side of the mountain with his companion Gros to paint this scene. Climbing the volcanoes remains a popular tourist activity in Mexico. Tourism in Mexico triggers the complex issues of identifying Mexicanness on both a national and international stage in the nineteenth-century. Landscape, particularly the two legendary volcanoes, becomes representations of Mexico.
Velasco depicts a picturesque variation of the lush valley of Mexico. In the foreground are three peasants embodied into the landscape. The people are minimized in scale compared to the surrounding environment and appear to be moving away from civilization. In the foreground are mounds towards the left of the composition and parallel rock formations towards the right. Both these structures guide the eye diagonally towards the receding lakes in the center of the composition. Minimized details of iconic architecture are in the background. However, the mountain range and the two volcanoes, Popocatéypetl and Iztaccíhuatl, dominate the horizon line.
The valley of Mexico has been the location for the Mexican capital city for the past seven centuries. Correspondingly, the landscape has evolved and transformed from pre-colonization through the modernization of Mexico. In the distance, small details of an urban environment are depicted. The scale of the civilization in comparison to the grandeur of nature displays the significance and admiration for the land by the people of Mexico. Landmarks, such as Popocatéypetl and Iztaccíhuatl, are incorporated into the space despite the scale of each object being unrealistic to the site of vision at this particular angle. Velasco was a renowned student at Academia de San Carlos. He studied under the Italian landscape painter, Eugenio Landesio, who similarly romanticized the topography of Mexico and who became highly influential on the Academic Mexican landscape paintings.
Velasco paints a picturesque and lush Mexican landscape with a naturalistic light that celebrates Mexico. The painting was exhibited at the world’s fairs in both Philadelphia and Paris. Velasco’s post-Revolutionary landscape painting became an international representation of the beauty in Mexico. The painting also combats the negative reputation that Mexico had on the international stage. The abundance of nature nostalgically portrays historic landmarks and promotes a national pride in the dominating rural landscape in Mexico. Amidst a period of division in social class and ethnic race, Indigenous cultures in binary opposition to European influence, the painting by Velasco becomes a non-ethnic portrait of the country that neither required knowledge of historical context nor contemporary politics to appreciate.
Siquerios depicts the dominating urban grid system that can only be viewed from an aerial perspective. The contrast between black and white provides depth in the composition and three-dimensionality to the diagonal lines and cylindrical shapes. Siquerios uses linear perspective that guides the viewer’s eyes towards the high horizon. In the background are geometrical and cubist-inspired depictions of the two iconic volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl. The use of charcoal provides an industrial aesthetic by referencing machinery rather than the unsaturated colors associated with Mexico. The overlapping of cylindrical shapes provokes a densely populated space and alludes to the chaos of modern urban cities.
Aerial photograph impacted the artwork of Mexican artist Siqueiros. The technological advancements of modernity provided a new perception of the land. Photography became one of the most influential inventions on aerial artwork. Documentation of the landscape required panoramic views of the spaces in Mexico, similarly to satellite photos. By attaching cameras to planes, engineers were able to view the entire layout of the city and provide photos of Mexico from a new perspective. In effect, the streets of Mexico appeared as lines, and the buildings as geometric shapes. Painters, such as Siqueiros, began imitating that perception of viewing the city from this new aerial perspective. Since photography also captured an instant realistic depiction of the landscape, painters also gained more liberty to explore abstract and geometric stylizations of landscape unique to paint as a medium.
Simultaneously, Mexico City in the valley of Mexico has developed into an industrial and urban setting. Rather than an abundance of rural land, the space has become a grid of streets and buildings with a high population. Siqueiros depicts the chaos of urbanization in a geometrical style. By incorporating Popocatépetyl and Iztaccíhuatl, Siqueiros identifies the otherwise abstract landscape as the valley of Mexico. The two volcanoes remain in existence and maintain a strong presence despite the industrialization of the space amidst the modernization of Mexico. In the painting, Popocatépetyl and Iztaccíhuatl also signify historical pride in Mexican landscape. By incorporating the mountains in the background, Siquerios inserts the binary opposition of land preservation and urbanization.
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