Collective Brilliance

Exhibition Review

  • "What May Come: The Taller de Gráfica Popular and the Mexican Political Print"

  • Art Institute of Chicago
  • 04 Jun 2014 - 12 Oct 2014
Leopoldo Méndez, What May Come (Mexico, 1945) (1945), wood engraving in black on grayish-ivory China paper, image 30.3 x 17.6 cm, sheet 42.1 x 32.6 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago. ©2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SOMAAP, Mexico City.

Leopoldo Méndez, What May Come (Mexico, 1945) (1945), wood engraving in black on grayish-ivory China paper, image 30.3 x 17.6 cm, sheet 42.1 x 32.6 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago. ©2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SOMAAP, Mexico City.

From 1937 until the mid-1950s, the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP) workshop produced the most inventive, provocative and topically relevant prints in Mexico. Published as broadsides, posters, books, handbills and portfolios, TGP prints showcased the possibilities of graphic art as a powerful and polemical instrument. Founding members Leopoldo Méndez, Pablo O’Higgins and Luis Arenal stated in their group’s Declaration of Principles that “art must reflect the social reality of the times” but that art “can only truly serve the people if it is of the very highest plastic quality.”1 The Declaration outlined the TGP’s ambitions to make work collectively of a quality that would engage with contemporary issues and events, “serve the people,” contribute to Mexican culture, oppose reactionary forces and establish solidarity with international progressive movements.

“What May Come: The Taller de Gráfica Popular and the Mexican Political Print”advanced the Art Institute of Chicago’s longstanding commitment to collecting and exhibiting the modern art of Mexico. AIC curators in the 1930s and ’40s discerned the historical importance as well as aesthetic value of socially conscious printmaking coming out of Mexico, launching major exhibitions in the mid-40s that introduced the TGP to an American audience. The AIC boasts one of the most significant TGP collections in the United States, a rich repository expertly organized by Diane Miliotes, guest curator of the exhibition, extending her work on the museum’s 2006–2007 two-part exhibition, “José Guadalupe Posada and the Mexican Broadside.”

Leopoldo Méndez’s Portrait of Posada in his Workshop (1956) was this exhibition’s opening salvo, a bracing linocut that honors the TGP’s forefather, José Guadalupe Posada, the influential prerevolutionary illustrator who brought political printmaking to a pitch of aesthetic invention and mass popularity. For 20th–century Mexican artists, Posada was a model for how an artist could communicate sophisticated social criticism to a mass audience using an inventive formal vocabulary. In Méndez’s print he is a sculptural, prophet-like figure, gazing with Old Testament intensity at a scene of injustice outside his window: horse-mounted officials terrorizing a crowd. Méndez emphasizes Posada’s strong, artisanal hands; he clutches his burin like a dagger ready for an upward thrust. Rarely has the concept “art as a weapon” been so concretely visualized.

The title of the exhibition derived from Méndez’s What May Come (1945), an engraving that acts as both a self-portrait and an allegory of the socially engaged artist. Lying foreshortened on a sheaf of pages, Méndez pictures himself as a figure of contemplative melancholy, chin propped on palm, a skeleton’s bony finger guiding his hand. His inner eye hallucinates a symbol-laden landscape: the eagle of the Mexican republic crucified, its talons strangled by the coil of a serpent’s tail, a serpent’s whose jaws disgorge the reactionary powers of church, state and military. What May Come, made at the end of World War II, hints at future horrors if progressive partisans (including artists) do not continue to fight fascism in all its insidious forms.

Leopoldo Méndez, Posada in His Workshop (Homage to Posada) (1953), linocut in black on cream wove paper, image 35.5 x 79.3 cm, sheet 49.8 x 87 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago. Prints and Drawings Purchase Fund. ©2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SOMAAP, Mexico City.

Leopoldo Méndez, Posada in His Workshop (Homage to Posada) (1953), linocut in black on cream wove paper, image 35.5 x 79.3 cm, sheet 49.8 x 87 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago. Prints and Drawings Purchase Fund. ©2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SOMAAP, Mexico City.

With nearly 50 of the 100-odd objects in the show credited to his hand, Méndez dominated the galleries; for an exhibition about a workshop collective, “What May Come” came close to being a one-man show. The co-founders of the TGP, Lusia Arenal and Pablo O’Higgins, made only fleeting cameos—especially surprising in O’Higgins’ case considering the exhibition catalogue describes him as the TGP’s “premiere lithographer.” This is more an observation than a criticism, since on the evidence of the displayed works it is clear that Méndez was the most dynamic and innovative artist to emerge from the group. His formal rigor, expressive use of line and unmatched graphic invention help explain his disproportionate presence, not to mention his leadership role in the TGP.

What May Come had been commissioned by the Art Institute’s Print and Drawings Club in 1945, and the exhibition illuminated the TGP’s cultural connections to Chicago, both through the museum and via artists such as Eleanor Coen and Max Kahn, the husband-wife team who were the first Chicago-based artists to collaborate with the TGP. Coen and Kahn’s presence in Mexico is a reminder of the magnetism of the country for leftist artists in the 1930s, drawn into the orbit of the “Big Three” (Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco) and excited by the aesthetic and political possibilities of mural painting and print media. African-American artists Elizabeth Catlett and John Wilson likewise made indelible images during their tenures with the TGP, images that addressed racial violence using an expressive social realism consistent with the TGP’s approach.

The bilingual wall texts, labels and catalogue highlighted the museum’s ongoing engagement with Chicago’s Spanish-speaking community, progressing beyond the “cultural diplomacy” of the ’40s (in which Mexico was a “good neighbor”) to active collaboration with local institutions such as the National Museum of Mexican Art and the Mexican consulate. The eloquent and accessible catalogue masterfully distills the history of the TGP—a tall order considering the workshop’s complex engagement with geopolitical events in the years before and after World War II.

The galleries offered a broad survey of persistent TGP themes: Mexican life, nationality and history; caricature, satire and the press; antifasism and war. These are complicated issues to parse in a limited space, but “What May Come” was thematically ambitious—appropriate to the reach and sweep of the TGP in its two-decade heyday. The result was a thought-provoking survey of one of the most influential workshops in the 20th century, as well as a testament to the creative vitality and political urgency of mid-century printmaking in Mexico.

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  1. The TGP’s Declaration of Principles is included in the appendix of Art in Latin America: The Modern Era, 1820–1980, ed. Dawn Ades (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 326. []