Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico at the Skirball Center, Los Angeles

Once the dust of Mexico settles on your heart,

you will have no rest in any other land.

On September 13, I joined Patrice Wynne and Gloria Orenstein at the Skirball Cultural Center in West Los Angeles for a curator-led preview tour of this landmark exhibition, Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico.

The exhibition runs through February 25, 2018.

The term promised land is rooted in a vision of freedom and liberation.  Emotionally, it has meaning for peoples seeking release from oppression who want a secure life where one can become fully realized without restraint. Jewish identity is intertwined with Israel as the promised land. African-American slaves looked to the north as a promised land. Oppressed peoples throughout the world continue to seek asylum in America, their hope of the promised land where opportunity and justice prevail. (We must be vigilant.)

Tina Modotti captures Anita Brenner in black and white

Anita Brenner (1905-1974), a Mexican-born Jewish writer who lived and worked during the Mexican Renaissance, saw the country adopted by her Latvian parents as a promised land for intellectual and artistic expression. Her own experience with prejudice and discrimination helped give her voice to bridge understanding.

Mexico was a haven for immigrants escaping Europe throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Even today, Mexico has a welcoming immigration policy. Her people are a blend of indigenous, Spanish, African, Filipino, Chinese, German, and French — representing waves of conquest and immigration. Jews sought haven in Mexico when the gates were closed to the United States of America. (Thank you, Mexico!)

Diego Rivera, Dance in Tehuantepec, watercolor

Brenner was an integral part of the circle of Mexican modernists in the 1920s and played an important role in promoting and translating Mexican art, culture, and history for audiences in the U.S.

Jean Charlot, The Massacre in the Main Temple, fresco, Collegio San Ildefonso

Born during the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), Brenner was close to the leading intellectuals and artists active in Mexico at the time. These are names we know well: painters José Clemente Orozco, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jean Charlot, and photographer Tina Modotti. There were others whose name we do not widely know in the USA, including Rivera’s second wife, Guadalupe Marin, Frances Toor, Nahui Olin, Luz Jimenez and Concha Michel.   

Abraham Angel, La India

Art historian Karen Cordero says they would meet at Sanborn’s Casa de los Azulejos to talk about politics, social injustices, women’s rights, feminism, and other issues.

The exhibition introduces us to Brenner as an important figure who has been heretofore obscured by the more illustrious in her circle.  An influential and prolific writer on Mexican culture, Brenner is best known for her book Idols Behind Altars: Modern Mexican Art and Its Cultural Roots (1929). 

Cover of Mexico this month, February 1956

Her work is rooted in the shaping of post-Revolution Mexico, when a new identity for a new nation needed to be reassessed to reflect the persistent indigenous culture behind the Spanish conquest. The Revolution brought with it the need to create political, social and cultural change and artists turned to folk art as inspiration to re-imagine past with future.

Mathias Goeritz, Satellite Tower. He was close to Luis Barragan, architect.

She was also instrumental in creating cultural tourism for Mexico — promoting cultural exploration as a vacation activity by publishing the cultural travel magazine, Mexico this month. We can consider her a pioneer in learning about the people who live where you visit.

The Skirball’s exhibition includes a narrative of Brenner’s life. It features pre-Columbian art, paintings, prints, photographs and drawings by Miguel Covarrubias, Jean Charlot, Edward Weston, Leonora Cunningham, Maximo Pacheco, Lola Cueto, Abraham Angel, plus those we are more familiar with: Kahlo, Rivera, Orozco.

Lithograph by Orozco

Charlot was a disciple of Rivera who contributed to the murals at the Secretariat de Publica Education (SEP). He was in love with Brenner; they could never reconcile religious differences and did not marry, though they remained lifelong friends.

Cultural map of Oaxaca, Mexico/this month

Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico is part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles, taking place from September 2017 through January 2018 at more than sixty cultural institutions across Southern California. Pacific Standard Time is an initiative of the Getty.

Gloria Orenstein, Norma Schafer and Patrice Wynne at the exhibition

Footnote: Los Angeles County has the second largest Jewish population and the largest Latino population in the United States.

Thank you to the Skirball Cultural Center for background information and photographs.

2 Responses to Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico at the Skirball Center, Los Angeles

  1. ‘This was truly an exquisite exhibit and it brings us such inspiring information about Anita Brenner, whose work must truly become known here in the states. This exhibit was definitely the dream her daughter, Suzannah, whose writings about her mother was her mission, and has now brought this dream to life. A beautiful testimony to an important woman ‘s work sharing the culture of Mexico’s history and arts with the U.S. . A multi-talented woman whose writings and life created a legacy that is important for all to learn about now with this incredible exhibit, …a marvel to behold. Do not miss it at the Skirball! You will be in awe of a life so well-lived , and so accomplished,–in so many fields and with such passion and distinction. Gloria Orenstein

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