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Avant-Garde Art and Artists in Mexico

Avant-Garde Art and Artists in Mexico
Anita Brenner's Journals of the Roaring Twenties
Foreword by Carlos Monsiváis

With more than six hundred images by photographers and artists including Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jean Charlot, Agustín Jiménez, Agustín Casasola, Rufino Tamayo, José Guadalupe Posada, and Lola Álvarez Bravo, this journal by the author of Idols Behind Altars and The Wind That Swept Mexico constitutes a spectacular visual and verbal portrait of the “Mexican Renaissance” of the 1920s.

Series: William and Bettye Nowlin Endowment

January 2010
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901 pages | 9 x 10 | 597 b&w and color illus. |

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The Mexican Revolution—that violent, inchoate, never-quite-complete break with the past—opened a new era in Mexican art and letters now known as the "Mexican Renaissance." In Mexico City, a coterie of artists including Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros explored how art could forward revolutionary ideals—and, in the process, spent countless hours talking, gossiping, arguing, and partying. Into this milieu came Anita Brenner, in her early twenties already trying her hand as a journalist, art critic, and anthropologist. Her journals of the period 1925 to 1930 vividly transport us to this vital moment in Mexico, when building a "new nation" was the goal.

Brenner became a member of Rivera's inner circle, and her journals provide fascinating portraits of its members, including Orozco, Siqueiros, Rufino Tamayo, and Jean Charlot, with whom she had an unusual loving relationship. She captures the major and minor players in the act of creating works for which they are now famous and records their comings and goings, alliances and feuds. Numerous images of their art brilliantly counterpoint her diary descriptions. Brenner also reveals her own maturation as a perceptive observer and writer who, at twenty-four, published her first book, Idols Behind Altars. Her initial plan for Idols included four hundred images taken by photographers Edward Weston and Tina Modotti. Many of these images, which were ultimately not included in Idols, are published here for the first time along with stunning portraits of Brenner herself. Setting the scene for the journal is well-known Mexican cultural critic Carlos Monsiváis, who offers an illuminating discussion of the Mexican Renaissance and the circle around Diego Rivera.


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Scholarly Illustrated

  • Foreword: Anita Brenner: The (Multiple) Story of Origins (by Carlos Monsiváis)
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • The Context in 1925
    • November 1925: Getting Started
    • December 1925: The "Familia"
  • The Context in 1926
    • January 1926: Working for Gruening
    • February 1926: Posing for Weston
    • March 1926: Casting Off the Spirits
    • April 1926: Pátzcuaro
    • May 1926: Book Contract Comes Through
    • June 1926: San Agustín Acolman
    • July 1926: Gorgeous Weston and Modotti Stuff
    • August 1926: Posing for Jean
    • September 1926: Orozco's Mural Interrupted
    • October 1926: Goitia's Xochimilco
    • November 1926: Día de Muertos
    • December 1926: Pacheco Exhibition
  • The Context in 1927
    • January 1927: With the Family in San Antonio
    • February 1927: Appendicitis
    • March 1927: Getting into Secret Files
    • April 1927: "You Are Too Young!"
    • May 1927: Exploring Yucatán
    • June 1927: Nacho Asúnsolo vs. Diego Rivera
    • July 1927: Posing for Tina Modotti
    • August 1927: Hacienda La Llave
    • September 1927: Moving on to New York
    • October 1927: Enrolling at Columbia
    • November 1927: Transition
    • December 1927: Full-fledged Anthropology
  • The Context in 1928
    • January 1928: Promoting Mexican Art
    • February 1928: Journalism Reemerges
    • March 1928: Music
    • April 1928: Writing for the Encyclopedia
    • May 1928: The Chalma Dream
    • June 1928: Cultural Identity
    • July 1928: Journalism and Philosophy
    • August 1928: Publisher Found
  • The Context in 1929 and 1930: Published, Doctorate Awarded, and Married
    • January 1929: Mella Murdered
    • March 1929: Social Whirl
    • May 1929: Visiting the Rockefellers
    • June 1929: Meeting Prince Charming
    • July 1929: Giving Siqueiros a Hand
    • August 1929: All about David
    • September 1929: Idols behind Altars Published
    • October 1929: Being an Author
    • November 1929: Overload
    • February 1930: Catching Up with Academia
    • March 1930: Guggenheim Grant and a Wedding
  • Epilogue
  • Appendix
  • Glossary
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Anita Brenner Selected Bibliography, 1924-1930
  • Index

Journalist, historian, anthropologist, art critic, and creative writer, Anita Brenner (1905–1974) was one of Mexico's most discerning interpreters. She is known for her landmark books Idols Behind Altars, Your Mexican Holiday, and The Wind That Swept Mexico.

The daughter of Anita Brenner and author of the book Anita Brenner: A Mind of Her Own, Susannah Joel Glusker teaches "Mexican Women of Note" and "Mexican Art of the Early Twentieth Century" at the Universidad Iberoamericana, translates, and writes for various publications.


The most striking thing about Anita Brenner's journals is the similarity between the late 1920s and our time in the early part of the twenty-first century. On the lighter side, we find the return of the use of the expression "sweet" from 1929 to our times. Yet a number of mentions are sobering, among them the intervention of U.S. armed forces in Nicaragua and China; the atrocious massacre of Jews in Palestine; the issues of church rights; and the concerns about oil in Mexico, the revolution in Venezuela, and the coffee and banana interests in Colombia.


Anita's notes are personal, intimate, and intellectual. She does not mention the stock market crash in 1929 or the beginning of the Great Depression. She is more philosophical in her musings and less concerned with daily affairs than with her own growth and relationships.


While she is candid in reporting flirtations and love interests, she is highly discreet in discussing the issues of her sexuality. She mentions that the two most important men in her life at that time, Jean Charlot and my father, David Glusker, read the journals. She does not share their reactions. We know that Charlot wanted her to keep writing her "notes," as she refers to her journal, and that my father was jealous of her relationships with other men.


As a whole, the diaries reflect a process of growing, learning, and developing as a person. Her tone and the concerns she writes about change gradually through her years in Mexico, from late 1925 to September 1927 when she enrolls in Columbia University in New York. In Mexico she learns from Jean Charlot, Manuel Gamio, Ernest Gruening, and others as she gathers information to launch her career as a journalist.


We learn from her experiences about the role of the clergy in Mexico, the presence of pre-Spanish Conquest religious practices, and the power struggles between political forces. We know that the Jewish hierarchy in the United States is not happy with Mexico as a place for Jews to settle, even though the United States has closed its doors to immigration. The "church" is not the building you pray in but a power struggling to retain its property and influence in education.


A twenty-year-old young woman is our source of information about the lifestyle of artists and intellectuals as well as the relationships between people who work for oil companies and government. Success as a journalist, selling articles to the Nation and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in New York, brings a gradual increase in self-confidence, although the income from these publications is not enough to drop other jobs and activities. At the same time, there is an undertone of resentment toward her father, who is not supportive of her lifestyle and activities.


When Anita arrives in New York in 1927, she shifts her focus from Mexico, its art, and its people to a larger arena of the world of anthropology and Latin America. She widens her horizons by reading for her classes and working as Latin American editor for the Nation. She is successful and respected as she grows into a circle of friends now referred to as the Menorah Journal Jewish intellectuals of New York.


Friends made through contacts with people working at the Menorah Journal develop into new communities with whom Anita will later participate on behalf of the Spanish Republicans and what today is known as human rights.


Anita's father's financial support while she is a student releases her to spend more time writing about her role in society than about Tina Modotti's negative vibes because Anita owed her money.


Anita maintains her Mexican friendships along with those among the New York Jewish intellectuals, just as she straddles her interest in anthropology with her activity as a journalist. No value judgment is attached to one over the other; just as Diego Rivera would remain a lifelong friend, so does Elliot Cohen.


There is a constant thread of meeting and socializing with artists and intellectuals who would become famous. Yet without batting an eyelash, Anita describes and analyzes them with a great sense of humor. The same is true of her love for parties, which began in Mexico in the 1920s and ended the day before she died in a car accident on her way to Aguascalientes.


The lack of commitment to a specific political party is balanced with a drive to defend the underdog, be it the indigenous people of Mexico who need to be accepted and recognized by an English-speaking audience, Diego Rivera, or, a few years later, the political prisoners and Spanish Republicans.


As a woman, Anita matures and changes from being interested in flirting to becoming one who cares about making a commitment. She is aware of her attractiveness and resentful of being considered a body or a conquest. The attempts to inveigle her into a sexual relationship are a constant theme; virginity is a fact that she mentions without concern or fear of losing it.


In New York, Anita the woman faces a new reality, when her future husband is wary of her success as a writer and questions her interest in a nice Jewish doctor from Brooklyn—a man afraid that he is not up to her intellectual standards.


Maturity and objectivity seep through in the last chapter as she plans her projects: the books that lie ahead. Among these is an autobiography that she describes as "a version of my own romantic period—1922-1929—called 'Adventure.'"


Thinking about writing her autobiography, she shares the process of integrating her Mexican roots into a new reality and identity. Her plans are no longer focused on survival or paying the rent but on stories she wants to share. She had received a Guggenheim grant to study Aztec art in Europe and in Mexico. The issues of her father picking up the tab or helping her are gone. Once Anita meets the love of her life, there are more gaps between dates and fewer doodles in the text.


The bulk of the text is the journals that I found in my mother's file cabinet. The entries are both handwritten and typed; the transcription produced nine hundred pages, which I edited, cutting out repetitive or inconsequential material and indicating with brackets and ellipses [. . .] where text was omitted.


All of my comments, contributions, and clarifications are in brackets, including translations of short non-English phrases following the foreign-language phrase. Original languages other than Spanish are identified by abbreviations: FR = French, FR/EN = French/English, FR/SP = French/Spanish, G = German, M = Mayan, NHTL = Nahuatl, SP = Spanish (only in mixed phrases), SPGL = Spanglish, Y = Yiddish. Translations of longer passages and poems in Spanish are found in notes at the end of each month's entries. The words that Anita underlined in her original text are also underlined herein. The italics used for words in Spanish and for titles of artwork or publications are mine. As much as possible, proper names, including people, places, and things (such as numbers and publication titles), are found in the glossary in alphabetical order. However, if a name in the journals is not listed in the glossary, I was unable to identify the person, place, institution, or work.


Anita wrote her journal for her own record, not for publication. Throughout she uses her own brand of shorthand, leaving off the ends of words, writing "tho" or "thru" rather than the complete version, using initials instead of full names, and sometimes just dashing off the first letter of someone's name and leaving it at that. She knew who she was writing about. But to aid the reader, I have completed some of these names in brackets and listed in the glossary the abbreviations or shortened forms for proper names that Anita used most frequently.


I confess that I found it impossible to leave typographical errors and misspelled words within the text; they were distracting from the message, so I silently corrected them. The same is true of the names of some of the people that were misspelled; I chose to correct them. Anita's punctuation was a bit free, often limited to varying lengths of dashes. I therefore added or altered punctuation in some places to aid grammatical sense, meaning, or flow for readers; otherwise, it is as Anita wrote it. Some capitalization was changed to reflect standards used today or to introduce some consistency across all the entries.


Dates were standardized throughout the journals, and those that could be corroborated against a calendar for each year were corrected when necessary. Some were impossible to verify, and these were marked [sic] or with a question mark in brackets after a suggested correct date. Multiple entries on the same date are not necessarily incorrect, as Anita often made more than one entry on the same day as new thoughts or a desire to summarize events arose. The full original text is available at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.


I think of the images in her collection as a visual journal. All the images included were within her files, in the closet, or on her walls. The process of sharing the images as part of a journal enhances her words with a record of what she was seeing around her. They reflect her life.


This book is not intended to demonstrate scholarship in identifying images by Edward Weston and Tina Modotti. While I am fully aware of and respect the ongoing discourse that seeks to be precise about which photographer took which image, I have chosen to follow in my mother's footsteps. The Weston-Modotti images were taken to illustrate two books: the story of the Mexican Renaissance and the catalogue of Mexican art. The two books became Idols behind Altars, and she acknowledged the two photographers together. I am also aware that some images do not correspond to the dates where they are placed, but were taken after the journals were completed. I chose to document her words with these images because they were part of her collection and reflect the text.


These volumes do, however, include many unpublished images, some that were cut from her book when she had to reduce the selection from four hundred to seventy images and others that were in her closet. The previously unpublished images include the work produced at the Open Air schools and that by Máximo Pacheco and José Clemente Orozco. The most unusual of these are the two hand-colored prints that Orozco painted and gave to Anita Brenner.

Anita Brenner, a self-taught journalist and art critic, describes the process of becoming a full-blown professional in these journals. She arrived in Mexico City from San Antonio, Texas, in September 1923 at the age of eighteen, and within a few months had integrated into the circle of artists and intellectuals active in the postrevolutionary period of euphoric nation building. The group included the muralists Jean Charlot, José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, among many others. Unfortunately, her journals before the end of 1925 were lost.


The Brenner journals parallel those of the Californian photographer Edward Weston. Brenner and Weston mention each other, complement and confirm facts, but their approach to life, people, and events is very different. She mentions who was at the party, and he records the menu. They both mention events documented by historians in a casual tone, if at all.


There is, however, information in Weston's journals that complements Anita's text, such as the first sitting for the now well-recognized nude back photograph that is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as the accident that put her in the hospital, where her journal opens.


Anita's narrative in 1925 is written from the perspective of a young woman in her twenties growing and learning during a dynamic period of history. The armed phase of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 was over, and a spirit of building a new nation prevailed. Political forces favoring land reform, labor unions, and secular education faced off with landowners, foreign oil and mineral interests, and people from the ousted Porfirio Díaz regime who were still actively trying to regain power. The conservative Roman Catholic establishment in Mexico struggled to maintain the status quo of educating in rural areas and mobilized against the public education program that the new minister of education José Vasconcelos set in motion.


We begin with Anita's entries at the end of 1925.