The Marvellous Real:

Art from Mexico 1926 – 2011

Review in Canadian Art, February 12, 2014 

To walk the corridors and linger among the exhibits of The Marvellous Real is to encounter aspects of Mexico largely unimagined by the hordes of sun and sand seekers from above the 49th parallel. This exhibition, currently on view in the Audain Gallery at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, is a tantalizing survey of works covering eighty-five years of Mexican art on loan from the privately funded FEMSA Collection, sponsor of the Monterrey Biennial, whose mandate is to acquire and circulate the best of the nation’s contemporary art.

The Marvellous Real was curated by anthropologist Nicola Levell who took as her organizing principles the theories of Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier. Carpentier’s 1926 visit to Mexico as a twenty-one year old, during which he met both Diego Rivera and Clemente Orozco, led to his view that the cultural productions of Latin Americans were distinctive from those of Europeans. The encounter led Carpentier to reject surrealism as a Western construct whose roots were found in psychoanalysis and Bretonian manifestoes. The work of the surrealist “dream technicians become bureaucrats” he derided as “a monotonous junkyard of sugar-coated watches, seamstresses’ mannequins, or vague phallic monuments.” Instead Carpentier wrote “our own marvelous real is encountered in its raw state, latent and omnipresent, in all that is Latin American. Here the strange is commonplace.”

Where the surrealists looked to the innermost recesses of the subconscious for their material, Latin Americans found it intertwined in the ambiguities and contradictions of everyday life, no less remarkable because it is ordinary. According to Carlos Fuentes this “spontaneous fusing of myth and fact, dream and vigil, reason and fantasy has always been an everyday reality in Mexico and Latin America.” These contradictions Carpentier believed, could best be expressed through the Baroque that he defined not as a period style, but as a creative spirit that recurs throughout history, representing the “maximum expression of a given civilization.” With its “horror of the vacuum,” its drama and artifice, light and shadow, the Baroque gives artistic form to the myriad hybrid cultural influences at work in the Americas.  Canadians familiar with the impulses behind the Group of Seven to establish a distinctive national art will also recognize the desire among Latin American artists of the same period to find their own chromatics in the landscapes of Mexico and to reclaim their own history.

Organized according to Carpentier’s conceptual categories of “ontologies,” “mythologies,” “technologies,” “ecologies,” and “archeologies,” each accorded its own gallery off a central corridor, The Marvellous Real cuts across the fractured silos of Western art schools represented at the show’s start with a piece by Adolfo Patino: Escualas del arte (Schools of Art), 1992. Its three towers of art history have plinths built alternately with piles of books on Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, and Andy Warhol. Entering the exhibition visitors are seduced by its ink black walls and elegant white moldings that frame the text like a salon of the bizarre. At the entry way a sound recording issues grainily from a gramophone as the grip of the everyday gives way to the delight afforded by rooms filled with a selection of works in every conceivable medium. Intermingled with the selections from the FEMSA Collection are pieces from MOA’s own collection of ethnographic objects such as masks, here presented among their compatriots as artworks in their own right, albeit anonymously.

Among the historical works are pieces by Remedios Varo, Rufino Tamayo, Leonora Carrington, Tina Modotti, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Frida Kahlo, whose critical reflection on her time in New York reportedly contains a microscopic face of Lenin on the Statue of Liberty in Mi vestido cuelga aqui (My dress hangs here), 1933. Other standouts include Paula Santiago’s Lim, 2000, a fragile dress-like construction made of rice paper, human hair and blood, that hovers somewhere in the liminal zone between apparition and accusation. In the same gallery Miriam Medrez’s folk-inspired tableaux of ceramic figures climbing wooden paddles dipped in sand evokes narratives of migration in Trayectos (Journeys) 1998. Nearby Eloy Tarcisio’s richly layered painting on felt: Torzos, cabea y corazon (Torsos, Head and Heart) 1992, manages in a single temporal leap to evoke both Aztec human sacrifice and the drug wars.

For those who embrace objects Betsabeé Romero’s Serpiente (Serpent) 2004, four Firestone tires whose treads have been carved with the motif of the sacred plumed Quetzal serpent will not disappoint, neither will Claudia Fernández’s El alimento (Nourishment) 1996, an installation of ordinary household objects made extraordinary with excessive speckling, like a domestic universe gone mad for enameled cooking ware. Likewise, to stand in front of Boris Viskin’s massive encaustic Sísifo (Sisyphus) 1994, whose dark and blasted landscape only gradually reveals the presence of a forlorn figure pushing a tiny cart, is to be simultaneously reminded of our tentative existence in the world, and to reconsider the achievements of Anselm Keifer whose work seems merely grand by comparison.

The Marvellous Real contains many such rewarding encounters but a single review can only touch on a few highlights. It remains for those fortunate enough to make the journey to the Museum of Anthropology to engage through its art with a Mexico that is complex, poetic, and unforgettable.

The Marvellous Real: Art from Mexico 1926 – 2011 was on exhibit at the UBC Museum of Anthropology until March 30, 2014.

Note: The Frida Kahlo painting will leave the exhibition on February 28th .


Works Cited:

Carpentier, Alejo. “Lo barocco y lo real maravillisso,” 111-32. Quoted in Levell.
Fuentes, Carlos. “A New Time for Mexico,” 16. Quoted in Levell.
Levell, Nicola. The Marvellous Real: Art form Mexico 1926-2011. Figure 1 Publishing: Vancouver, 2013.


  1. Patino, Adolfo, Escualas del arte (Schools of Art), 1992
  2. Kahlo, Frida, Mi vestido cuelga aqui (My dress hangs here), 1933
  3. Santiago, Paula, Lim, 2000
  4. Medrez, Miriam, Trayectos (Journeys), 1998
  5. Tarcisio, Eloy, Torzos, cabea y corazon (Torsos, Head and Heart,) 1992
  6. Romero, Betsabeé, Serpiente (Serpent), 2004
  7. Fernández, Claudia, El alimento (Nourishment), 1996
  8. Viskin, Boris, Sísifo (Sisyphus), 1994