Friday, January 3, 2014

Mexico City a nibble at a time

Eight years after moving to Mexico its capital city remains an impenetrable riddle that Stew and I, who are both confirmed fans of big cities, have barely begun to decipher. Mexico City can be as grand as any European capital but also as chaotic and intimidating as any place you'd find deep in the Third World.

Last week we parachuted in for two days primarily to see a photo exhibit called "The Mexican Suitcase" hanging at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildelfonso (Calle Justo Sierra #16, a couple of blocks from Mexico City's Zócalo, until Feb. 9). San Ildefonso was built in the 16th Century as a Jesuit seminary and then underwent numerous reincarnations that included a medical school, a law school and an army barracks before being converted into a museum and cultural center in 1992.

Treasures within treasures: Murals cover most of the interior walls of
the College of San Ildenfonso. 
It's a great exhibit but when we left, near closing time, I realized we hadn't seen the rest of the museum the interior of which is covered with works by Mexico's most famous muralists. Or for that matter the Museum of the City or the Templo de La Enseñanza, located—along with a maze of dozens of other colonial buildings—within a few blocks of the show we had come to see. It may be that Mexico City is best understood and enjoyed through small, savory nibbles rather than any grand tour.

The so-called Mexican Suitcase is actually three small boxes containing 4,500 negatives of photos, mostly of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro (Capa's romantic and professional companion) and David Seymour, which had disappeared for approximately seventy years.

Even now it's not entirely clear how the boxes made their way from Capa's studio in Paris, to Marseille, and into the hands of Mexican diplomat who brought them to Mexico City where they were held, unknown, by relatives of the diplomat. A filmmaker in Mexico eventually inherited the negatives and revealed their existence in 1990. In 2007 the negatives were donated to the International Center for Photography in New York, which digitized the images and put together this exhibit.

Despite their travels around the world,
the 4,500 negatives suffered little damage. 
This odyssey of the Mexican Suitcase reminded me of that of Evita Peron's embalmed corpse, which over a period of twenty years traveled from Buenos Aires to Milan and Madrid before showing up back in Argentina.

The images in the Mexico City exhibit impressed me as remarkable for several reasons.

The trio, and particularly Capa, may have launched the entire genre of war photography as we understand it today: up close and very personal. No telephotos or second-hand reports involved here.

"If the photograph is no good it's because you were not close enough," Capa once said. In fact, all three of photographers were killed while covering wars in various parts of the world. In 1954 Capa stepped on landmine while covering the war in Indochina; Taro was accidentally hit by a tank near Madrid in 1937; Seymour died in Suez in 1956 while on assignment for Newsweek magazine.
Girl with dolls at a refugee camp. Photo by
David Seymour. 

They were close enough to their subjects alright, not only physically but politically and ideologically. There's no pretense of professional distance or objectivity. They were propagandists for the leftist Loyalists, along with an international battalion of writers, artists and intellectuals such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and André Malraux, who were opposed to the fascist forces of Francisco Franco, who had the backing of Hitler and Mussolini.

To my eye, the photos in this exhibit show not just the heroic or military side of war but above all its impact on ordinary citizens, including images of bodies at a morgue, a funeral cortege, and the defeated faces of Loyalist combatants after the war was lost and they fled to refugee camps in France.

On the way out from the exhibit Stew and I ran into the monumental murals by José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera  and David Siqueiros and other Mexican muralists that cover practically all the inside walls of the museum where the photo show was hanging. Clearly we have got to come back here, to this museum and this colonial heart of Mexico City for another nibble at its treasures, which we've barely started to appreciate.
Young soldier (unfortunately I didn't jot down
who took the photo)

In fact for some time I've been hatching a secret plan to really explore the Metropolitan Cathedral by slipping one of the guides a $500 peso note so he can take us not just to the usual tourist stops but to the back rooms, nooks and catwalks of that immense structure. Bribery may not be a very moral sightseeing strategy, particularly of sacred places, but I'm sure God would understand.

Another reason to bring us back is that with a senior discount card the bus trip from San Miguel to the capital aboard a luxury bus is US$28 round trip and entrance to the museum is free. With the money we save I might raise the ante to the guide at the cathedral to $750 pesos.

A section of "The Aristocrats," a huge mural by Orozco.