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