Mexico City has many art museums. Perhaps the weakest is the one that should be its best, the Museo Nacional de Arte. For a national institution that has almost 3,800 works of art from the 16th through the 20th century, it had little of interest when I saw it and few visitors. Well, little of interest to the usual museum patrons. A rather strange room on the first floor contained many sculptures like “Malgré Tout” and other works of graphic, almost kinky sexuality.
The problem begins with the building. The National Museum of Art is in the one time Palacio de Communicaciones. With its palace-like staircases and a massive interior courtyard, it might have been grand a century ago but not now. And it’s certainly not a space to effectively display art, even those oversized visions of 19th century Mexico. A lot of them are by an artist, José Maria Velasco, who specialized in landscapes showing the verdant valley where Mexico City is now. His scenes are probably accurate but too reminiscent of other artists, like Constable. However, there was one great work of art on display, a painting that all by itself was almost worth the price of admission.
The guide books raved about the Museo Nacional de Arte, making me look forward to seeing it. My Eyewitness Travel called it “the most important Mexican art collection in the world”. That’s probably just travel book hype. There were footprints on the floor leading to a small, temporary exhibit of Diego Rivera’s work. If Mexico has a national artist, it’s surely Rivera. The couple bending over below is by him, but this image is not in Mexico’s National Gallery, it’s part of a mural in the National Palace. If I hadn’t seen it prior to entering the national gallery, I wouldn’t have thought Rivera, Frida Khalo’s husband, was much of an artist. Photography was forbidden in the Museo Nacional de Arte, so I can’t demonstrate.
That’s also why I can’t show you the great work of art, “The Torture of Cuauhtémoc”, that made my visit worthwhile. It sounds grim and it is. Leandro Izaguirre painted it in 1893. After yet another Mexican 18th century war, the national cultural emphasis shifted temporarily to pre-hispanic Mexico. Cuauhtémoc was the last Aztec Emperor. In a vivid painting called “El Suplicio de Cuauhtémoc”, he’s shown being tortured by the Spanish. Their faces show cruel indifference, while the Aztec with his feet literally in the fire demonstrates defiance. This unforgettable image was exhibited at the 1894 Columbia Exposition in Chicago, the subject of the great book Devil in the White City that is reportedly being made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.