Samuel Wagen-Magnon: The “Tree of Modern Art”

Miguel Covarrubias. Author unknown. Under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1miguel-covarrubias.jpg

Miguel Covarrubias. Author unknown. Under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1miguel-covarrubias.jpg

The “Tree of Modern Art” as Prime Object or Replication? Miguel Covarrubias Between Art History and Anthropology

Starting from the “Tree of Modern Art” by Miguel Covarrubias published in 1933 in Vanity Fair, this presentation will investigate the sense of genealogies for Modernism, their roots, ramifications, ends and limits, at a moment where this artistic concept was still experimental, adapted and debated through international and interdisciplinary contexts. It will also seek to bring out the emergence of the “contemporary” in relation to the “modern” to define the understandings of time implied and to apprehend, through the blurring of official and popular cultures, “what was contemporary” (Richard Meyer).
Best known as a caricaturist and aside from some fashionable exoticism and stereotypes, Covarrubias was also a notable figure of Mesoamerican studies and was recognized for his research on the Olmec culture, which he popularized with his controversial thesis of a “mother culture”. He is associated with a generation of artists such as Adolfo Best Maugard, Jean Charlot, Salvador Toscano, William Spratling or Wolfgang Paalen (with the journal DYN) whose engagements with anthropology and archeology stand out the tangled links between the elaboration of modern arts and those of (pre)historical pasts. By studying objects according to their uses and functions, recognizing “operational sequences”, observing declinations, variances and disseminations, they consider objects as generators of new conceptual frames constantly reinvented. These “memories of the future” cross time and space through the solutions they provide. Thus, artistic creations reveal historical processes and coincide with the simultaneous “phylogenetical” reunification of multiples and potential development phases. Confronted with many contradictions, considering the violence of acculturation and the assimilation of indigenous peoples to the official discourses of mestizaje, these artists’ art histories think modernity not only as a temporal or cultural label but as a critical concept to think about the relations between the past and the future, the possibilities they conceal, and as a condition of existing amidst different objects, peoples and situations.

Samuel Wagen-Magnon earned a diploma of museology from the École du Louvre and a MA from the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris. He is currently graduate assistant in contemporary art at the University of Lausanne where he teaches and started his PhD research.


1 Antwort

  1. Samuel Wagen-Magnon sagt:

    The «Tree of Modern Art» as Prime object or Replication ?
    Miguel Covarrubias between art history and anthropology.

    Starting from the «Tree of Modern Art» by Miguel Covarrubias published in 1933 in Vanity Fair, this presentation will investigate the sense of genealogies for Modernism, their roots, ramifications, ends and limits, at a moment where this artistic concept was still experimental, adapted and debated through international and interdisciplinary contexts. It will also seek to bring out the emergence of the «contemporary» in relation to the «modern», to define the understandings of time implied and to apprehend, through the blurring of official and popular cultures, «what was contemporary» (Richard Meyer).

    The encounter between the acceleration of modernity and the expansion of history into deep time formed an antihistoricist attitude emerging in the 20’s with post-colonial ethnography and contributed as well to the construction of Latin-American contemporaneity. In Mexico, industrial exploitations (railroad, oil) and technological experimentations (photography, cinema) were concomitant with archeological discoveries of Pre-Columbian civilizations. Material culture, in his ability to mediate past, present and future, provided sites for cultural appropriations and “Pan-American” exchanges. In a present constantly engaged with newly mobilized geographies and pasts, close to prehistoric artifacts, ancient materials and techniques, art history, although being strongly questioned hereby, became a crucial stake for (ultra- and alter-)modern narratives in which artists will play important roles. Witnessing the multiplication of times and spaces, artists became active producers of art histories not only by being involved in the production of copies and facsimiles or by assembling collections but also with elaborated scientific research, publications and museology works. Best known as a caricaturist and aside from some fashionable exoticism and stereotypes, Covarrubias was also a notable figure of Mesoamerican studies and was recognized for his research on the Olmec culture, which he popularized with his controversial thesis of a «mother culture». He is associated with a generation of artists such as Adolfo Best Maugard, Jean Charlot, Salvador Toscano, William Spratling or Wolfgang Paalen (with the journal DYN) whose engagements with anthropology and archeology stand out the tangled links between the elaboration of modern arts and those of (pre)historical pasts. This will bring us to consider the interest of these artists for Franz Boas’ «diffusionism» and cultural relativism, their relations with art historians and archeologists such as Paul Westheim, Alfonso Caso or Matthew Stirling, the theoretical writings of Sergei Eisenstein on history and creation, up to the development of George Kubler’s Shape of Time.

    Rather than fixing art within teleological evolutionism or primitivist essences, these studies disrupt linear chronology and hierarchies. By studying objects according to their uses and functions, recognizing «operational sequences», observing declinations, variances and disseminations, they consider objects as generators of new conceptual frames constantly reinvented. These «memories of the future» cross time and space through the solutions they provide. Thus, artistic creations reveal historical processes and coincide with the simultaneous «phylogenetical» reunification of multiples and potential development phases. Confronted with many contradictions, considering the violence of acculturation and the assimilation of indigenous peoples to the official discourses of mestizaje, these artists’ art histories think modernity not only as a temporal or cultural label but as a critical concept to think about the relations between the pasts and the futures, the possibilities they conceal, and as a condition of existing amidst different objects, peoples and situations.

    Miguel Covarrubias, Nopal genealógicos de las culturas mesoaméricanas, n° 31199, Archivo Miguel Covarrubias. Sala de Archivos y Colecciones Especiales, Dirección de Bibliotecas, Universidad de las Américas Puebla, México.

    http://catarina.udlap.mx/xmlib/projects/covarrubias/index.html

    http://catarina.udlap.mx/xmlib/projects/covarrubias/browse/item.jsp?repository=amc&key=amc_exposicion_udlap_carpeta_iii_caricaturas_fotografias_y_notas_27.xml&path=/db/xmlibris/Sala%20de%20Archivos%20y%20Colecciones%20Especiales/Fondo%20Moderno/Archivo%20Miguel%20Covarrubias/Exposici%F3n%20UDLAP:%20Carpeta%20III%20-%20Caricaturas,%20fotograf%EDas%20y%20notas/

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