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Invitation to a Viewing : ESSAYS ON MEXICAN ART, By Octavio Paz, translated by Helen Lane (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $22.95; 259 pp.)

June 27, 1993|Christopher Merrill | Merrill is the author of the forthcoming "The Grass of Another Country: Journey Through the World of Soccer" (Henry Holt)

The intimate relations between modern poetry and painting, sundered in the wake of the Second World War, are what Octavio Paz seeks to restore in these essays. The Nobel Laureate's poetry and defenses of his craft, his writings on politics and culture, his literary and historical explorations of his homeland (Mexico) and the world at large, all rank among the most important works of our time. Paz's new book will reveal to his English-speaking audience that he is also a first-rate art critic. "Today the artist must confront himself," Paz asserts. "Faced with a society that has lost the very idea of meaning--the market is the perfect expression of nihilism--the artist must ask himself to what purpose he writes or paints." Convinced that this "is the one question that counts," Paz asks it here in many different ways.

Heir to two traditions of poets writing about art, French and Mexican (Baudelaire, Apollinaire and Breton on the one hand; Tablada, Villaurrutia and Cardoza on the other) Paz envisions a community of poets and painters like the one that existed between 1830 and 1930, a fellowship of artists and writers arguing with, inspiring, influencing and explaining one another. Among other things, the shift of the art world's focus from Paris to New York and the acceleration of history in political and economic terms destroyed that fabric of relations. "Poets have ceased to be the conscience of modern art," Paz readily admits. "But does modern art still have a conscience?" Perhaps not. Yet he is quick to remind his readers that in the Modern Age "the adventures of art have been the adventures of freedom," and insofar as he offers himself up as a defender of certain artistic acts, he also serves as a moral compass. "Essays on Mexican Art" is a treatise on freedom, artistic and political.

Paz has schooled himself in Mexico's artistic heritage--sacred and profane, architectural and popular--as well as in the great studios, galleries and museums of the world. "My learning was also an unlearning," he writes. "I never liked Mondrian, but through him I learned the art of stripping down to the barest essentials. Little by little I threw most of my beliefs and artistic dogmas out the window. I realized that modernity is not novelty and that being truly modern meant returning to the beginning of the beginning." He returns, of course, to Mexico, and it is there that he hopes to rebuild "the free community of artists--poets, musicians, painters, and sculptors--with which the modern movement began."

Thus the works of artists attempting to uncover Mexico's buried realities are what most interest Paz. Central to his understanding of his country's history are the Spanish Conquest and the Mexican Revolution, the first of which reduced the populace "to a sort of spiritual orphanhood" while the second caused "an explosion of the underground life of Mexico." And it was the country's artists who grasped the ways in which the Revolution "was a return to the source . . . a rebeginning." Curiously enough, this "discovery of Mexico by Mexicans" occurred, according to Paz, thanks in large part to the European aesthetic revolution, which began with the Romantics and which "taught us to see the arts and traditions of other peoples and civilizations, from Oriental and African ones to those of pre-Columbian America and Oceania." That is what enabled a number of modern Mexican artists to explore their own heritage and turn their findings to their own uses.

Paz dwells at length on the muralists--Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozsco, in particular. He sets them in their historical context, celebrating their signal place in 20th-Century art; quarrels with the didactic impulses and ideological underpinnings of Rivera's and Siqueiros' work; praises Orozsco for his determination "to say no to the great modern simplifications" and so affirm, however tragically, that "the human being who appears in his painting is victimized and a victim as well"; and traces the ways in which these artists influenced the American Abstract Expressionists. Although it is fashionable to dismiss the achievement of the Muralists, Paz is more concerned with describing both their successes and failures, insisting on delving into the core of their work in order to appreciate its enduring significance: This century's finest examples of public art belong to them--and to the world.

But Paz saves his best writing for the work of his friend, Rufino Tamayo. What does this work mean to the poet? "Destiny: sign: constellation: Tamayo's place and likewise his signs as he begins his exploration of the world of painting and that other, more secret world, that is, his being as a man and as a painter. Points of departure toward oneself." In these pages Paz eloquently re-enacts journeys into Tamayo's worlds, and here he makes plain his own working methods: "Criticism is not even a translation despite the fact that this is its ideal: it is a guide. And the best criticism is something less: an invitation to carry out the one act that truly counts, seeing."

"Essays on Mexican Art" amounts to a grand invitation to see. To read this book is to join a passionate guide for a journey through a new world, the world of the beginning.

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