Women Representation in arts: Mexico 1920–1940
Collage containing “Maduración”by Diego Rivera, “Self-portrait” by Nahui Olin, “Woman portrait” by Diego Rivera, “Work allegory” by María Izquierdo, and a photograph of Mexican Soldaderas.
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The history of art consists of centuries of creation at the hands of male artists. This does not mean that there were no women who painted, drew, wrote or created music, but that those who were involved in artistic activities have not been openly recognized in the history of art, by being hidden after an imposed anonymity, or even by the exclusion of their creations from the term “work of art”, by considering that their talents had a status of “craft” or decoration rather than “fine art”. Men self-proclaimed themselves as the competent authority, directing, executing and qualifying art. For centuries, women have been unable to represent themselves freely through art, not having the possibility or recognition of being able to express their desires, their ideas, and their vision. The female identity was the one assigned.
Marián Cao (2000) explains that, from a superficial point of view of art history, it might seem that art has revolved around women as being the preferred object of study by a large number of figurative artists. In other words, they served as a model of a beautiful object. The identification of beauty as the main quality of women and the objectification of it are parallel, just as historically art and the ideology of societies are closely related.
When it comes to visual arts, at the beginning of the 20th century, women artists sought their own representation through self-portraits. Thus, they tried to build their own image, independent of the “male gaze”, of stereotypes or limiting roles.
Through self-portraits Carmen Mondragón, María Izquierdo, Frida Kahlo, Lola Álvarez Bravo, Remedios Varo, among other female artists in Mexico, found a way to express their realities, beyond the romantic version of womanhood in those changing times.
While comparing and interpreting some of the works by women in visual arts after the Mexican Revolution, to artworks by male artists from the same time frame, I found two elements in both of the representations. First, the ideal figures or wishes of what a woman should look like, behave or be seen, and second, the expression of those conflictive structures that may be limiting or undermining her. Both of these elements are seen and projected differently through the eyes of the male and the female artists point of view.
Men seemed to base their representation of women on qualities like beauty, the delicate balance between innocence and passion, motherhood, youth, fertility and so on. Meanwhile works of art by women, represent qualities such as bravery, courage, strength, freedom, or independence. However, this does not mean that it is all black and white when it comes to representing women. Both the male and female representation of women may also share some elements and meanings, for example, the duality of candor and sexual drive, or free will and submission.
Reviewing the second element of comparison, the (social, political, stereotypes or traditional) structures that limit or restrain women: I also found out that the works of male and female artists have some points in common. However the analysis sheds a light on the main differences in representation, and the very well justified need for women to be integrated as art creators. While in many cases, Diego Rivera, Roberto Montenegro, and Miguel Covarrubias may find sadness, frivolity, melancholy, aging and the end of sexuality as moments in a woman’s life to frown at, for the women painters other issues may be more pressing. Such as uncertainty, fear, violence, and grief.
Regarding other artistic forms of representation, women’s participation in the Mexican Revolution is a good example of historical exclusion and romantization of their involvement.
Many women joined the military, not only following their men around the country, but also working as nurses, soldiers and generals. The female soldiers have been represented through literature, music, photography and murals. One may hear the many “Corridos” [mexican folk songs] about the “Soldaderas” [women soldiers of the Revolution], and get the idea that they were admired and loved by many. This is a fact that comes with a parallel reality, the systematic denial of the contributions through anonymity, the perpetuation of stereotypes like the one of the female tenderness and natural ability of caring for children and the ill, as a restriction to other forms of participation, and the narrative of “Soldaderas” being a sheer support of the male soldiers.
The representation of women in the beginning of the 20th century by men through music and literature, reflect, just like in visual arts, the presence of several abilities related to motherhood and obedience. Carlos Monsivaís (2007), a Mexican writer and critic, claimed1 that “the Revolution was a matter for men, and women are the decorative background of the long confrontations that result in a nation of men with an attached reserve of women”.
Through literature, journalism, and even political ranks, women contributed not only to the Mexican Revolution, but also to their rising fight for equity2 giving voice to their concerns, ideals, and forging of an identity through their own representation.
The ways in which women are represented is a reflection of the era in which these expressions were created. To a certain extent they are also a reflection of the tastes, preferences and desires of androcentric societies. The main meaning of each expression captures the perspective of the men who represented them, and the society in which they lived. It is precisely through the contrast between the roles of the time, and their desire for change, that the self-representation in arts in Mexico came to a rise during the first half of the 20th century.
1 In the foreword of “Sex in Revoution: Gender, Politics and Power in Modern Mexico”.
2 Macias (1980) emphasizes the role of three Mexican women and their intellectual contributions to the Mexican Revolution: the journalist Juana Belén Gutiérrez de Mendoza (1875-1942), the teacher Dolores Jiménez y Muro (1848-1925), and the President’s private secretary Venustiano Carranza, known for her feminist profile, Hermila Galindo de Topete (1896-1954).
Luz C. Araiza holds a Master Degree in History of Mexican Art from Universidad Autonóma de San Luís, México, and a Bachelor in International Relations from El Colegio de San Luís. Among her main research interests are women representation, identity and culture.
Araiza Avila, L. C. (2020) «Representation and self-representation of women through visual arts in Mexico: 1920-1940» Thesis to obtain a Master’s Degree in History of Mexican Art from Universidad Autónoma de San Luís Potosí, UASLP, México.
Araiza Avila, L. C. (2019) «Soldaderas and Corridos: Women of the Mexican Revolution». Universidad Autónoma de San Luís Potosí, UASLP, México.
Cao, M. (2000) Creación artística y mujeres. Recuperar la memoria. Madrid, Narcea.
Macias, A. (1980) «Women and the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920». The Americas 37, n.o 1 : 53-82.https://doi.org/10.2307/981040.
(2007) «Sex in Revolution: Gender, Politics and Power in Modern Mexico»
Monsivaís, C. (2007) Foreword. In Vaughan, M.K., Cano, G., Olcott, J.H. (Ed.) «Sex in Revolution: Gender, Politics and Power in Modern Mexico». [From when the symbols did not reveal the genre: Women and the Mexican Revolution]. Duke University Press.