Xavier Icaza’s Untimely Avant-Garde

Christian Gerzso

Art announces the birth of a new culture. It reeducates, points out new paths, and depicts those who experience and confront […] the present tragedy—the meaning of the hour.
                        – Xavier Icaza, “La revolución mexicana y la literatura”[1]

Anxiety over belatedness was common among avant-garde artists in the early twentieth century, and Mexican vanguardists were no exception. In a call to young Latin American artists in 1921, Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros lamented their “untimely” artistic production, withdrawn from the “new European tendencies” (above all, the work of Paul Cézanne) and subject to the most commercially seductive influences, such as art nouveau and aestheticism, which were “poisoning” Latin American youth (17). These concerns led Siqueiros to call for an art that would be able to capture modern life: “the sober and practical engineering of modern buildings, devoid of architectural complications” (18). Yet, unlike other Mexican vanguardists who irreverently rejected every artistic movement from the past – most prominently, poet Manual Maples Arce in his first estridentista manifesto, also of 1921 – Siqueiros sought to reconcile classical aesthetics with what he perceived as the sobriety of modern mechanics and engineering. In this way, Siqueiros’ avant-garde was at once future oriented, trying to catch up to some of the latest developments in European art, such as cubism and futurism, and drawn to the scale and symmetry of classical and pre-Hispanic architecture. This synthesis of ancients and moderns has prompted some critics to establish parallels between Siqueiros’ work and the aesthetics of the so-called rappel à l’ordre after World War I, and its move away from the violent ruptures of prewar avant-gardes.[2]

My aim has less to do with providing an all-encompassing definition of Mexican or Latin American avant-gardes, as some critics have already done in compelling ways,[3] than examining the tensions and contradictions of some of the attempts at defining revolutionary art by Mexican artists and intellectuals writing after the armed conflict of the 1910s. These efforts faced the challenge of deciding what kind of cultural and artistic production would match the revolutionary politics of an event already in the recent past, while seeking to fulfill the potential of the Revolution in the future. Thus, artists like Siqueiros writing in the 1920s and 30s were pulled in several directions: concerned, on the one hand, with practicing a disruptive and anti-bourgeois art that would keep up with the latest vanguards, and on the other, with reconciling past and present cultural production in the process of building the institutions of the post-revolutionary state. For the purpose of this essay, I will focus on a lesser-known instance of these efforts: Xavier Icaza’s 1934 lecture, “La Revolución mexicana y la literatura.” Delivered at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City right after its inauguration, Icaza’s lecture was concerned with enlisting the revolutionary art of the recent past in order to complete the process of the Revolution in the near future. But, unlike Siqueiros, Icaza had to overcome his deeply held ambivalences regarding the possibilities for this revolutionary project. While his lecture ends on a hopeful note, the meaning of the Revolution is still in the process of being decided, according to his view. In this way, Icaza’s notion of revolutionary art is paradoxical in two ways: it not only comes after the Revolution, but it contains a revolutionary potential that remains vague.

After years of neglect, over the last few decades the Mexican avant-garde group Estridentismo, or “Stridentism,” with whom Icaza participated, has been the subject of enthusiastic attention.[4] Estridentismo irrupted on the scene when Maples Arce pasted reproductions of his aggressive manifesto, Actual No. 1, all over Mexico City in December 1921. Soon after, writers Germán List Arzubide, Luis Quintanilla, Salvador Gallardo, and Arqueles Vela joined Maples Arce. In addition, Estridentismo proved to be an intense and fruitful collaboration between these writers and visual artists like Ramón Alva de la Canal, Jean Charlot, Germán Cueto, Leopoldo Méndez, and Fermín Revueltas, among others. Critical focus on Estridentismo has responded to an interest in assessing the cultural field in the post-revolutionary moment beyond the three big names in Muralism (Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco), on the one hand, and the literary group of the Contemporáneos, on the other (formed by Jaime Torres Bodet, Jorge Cuesta, José and Celestino Gorostiza, Salvador Novo, Carlos Pellicer, and Xavier Villaurrutia, among others).[5] Study of Icaza’s work has benefitted from this increasing focus on Estridentismo; however, this was not always the case: Luis Mario Schneider ignored Icaza in his groundbreaking studies of the 1970s and 80s, which were responsible for spearheading further studies of the movement. Schneider’s omission may have had to do with the fact that it is difficult to ascertain the degree of Icaza’s participation with this avant-garde group. In 1926, Icaza wrote for one of the estridentista publications, Horizonte, during his time in Xalapa, Veracruz, when the city had become the hub of estridentista activity thanks to the support of Veracruz governor at the time, General Heriberto Jara. Moreover, one of Icaza’s best known and regarded works, the generic hybrid Magnavoz 1926, was published by the Talleres Gráficos de Veracruz, run by the estridentistas; his famous novel, Panchito Chapopote (1928), was also written during this period of contact with estridentismo and of intense creativity for Icaza, and the editions of both Magnavoz and Panchito Chapopote were accompanied by woodcuts by Alva de la Canal. Yet, List Arzubide does not mention Icaza in his account of the group, El movimiento estridentista (1926), and as Serge Zaïtzeff points out in his study of Icaza’s correspondence, we have little information documenting his relationship with Maples Arce and the other estridentista members.[6] Still, critics of Icaza, both today and from Icaza’s own time, insist on how Magnavoz 1926 and Panchito Chapopote exhibit some of the main tenets of Estridentismo: a fascination with the noise of modern technology, a vanguardist disregard for generic distinctions, combining elements of the manifesto with drama, narrative, and the essay in humorous and fiercely irreverent depictions of post-revolutionary politics and society, and a likening of aesthetic innovation to political revolution.[7]

The estridentista equation of aesthetic with political disruption stands out the most out of these elements. Vicky Unruh, in her impressive study of Latin American vanguards, cautions against “seeking too literal links between political confrontations and class struggles played out on Latin American’s streets in the late teens and 1920s and the contentious encounters with audiences, readers, and one another provoked by literary vanguardists through confrontational manifestos, experimental creative texts, and engaging performance events” (6). As she rightly points out, the confrontations led by these vanguardists, including the estridentistas, unfolded “on the realm of culture and art” (7). Yet, in spite of this distinction between political and cultural confrontations, the estridentistas themselves insisted on associating formal experimentation with revolutionary politics. As Icaza contends in his 1934 lecture, innovative literary technique already contains a “social” element of disruption and critique (13). This curious statement, which is at the core of Icaza’s argument, leads Elissa Rashkin to observe in her study of Estridentismo that “Icaza’s characterization of the avant-garde is, not surprisingly, somewhat unique” (215). However, Rashkin does not elaborate on this crucial aspect of Icaza’s work: his own conception of revolutionary art and his efforts at bridging the political and the aesthetic. For this reason, Icaza’s lecture and the development of this notion merit a closer look.

Icaza delivered “La revolución mexicana y la literatura” during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, when some of the most radical policies of the post-revolutionary state were put in place. Chief among them was the nationalization of the oil industry in 1938, which would be ratified by Icaza himself, as a member of the Supreme Court. Trained as a lawyer, Icaza first worked for the British-owned El Águila Oil Company during the 1920s. However, by the 1930s, he helped found the Universidad Obrera and was appointed to the Supreme Court. Thus, his lecture “reflects changes” in Icaza’s political leanings during this period, as Rashkin has pointed out (216), and is prompted by the sense that the radically egalitarian project initiated by the armed conflict of the 1910s could finally come to fruition during this decade. To be sure, if we went back to Unruh’s cautioning, we should be wary of equating the effects of Icaza’s literary writings with his political work. Nevertheless, in his lecture, Icaza himself insists on the need to complete the revolutionary process in the realm of culture. In fact, these were the terms in which some political leaders viewed the role of culture and education in the period. On the back cover of the first number of Horizonte in 1926, Jara’s government “exhorts” the public to support the foundation of the University of Veracruz as “part of the program of the Revolution,” even though the University would not be established until 1944 (Horizonte 35). In the opening sections of his lecture, Icaza extends the political role of culture to include an art capable of revealing “possible solutions” to the economic and social challenges facing the nation after the Revolution (12). Returning to the dominant metaphor of Magnavoz 1926, where he had fancifully depicted the political debates of the 1920s as a series of radio transmissions broadcast from giant loudspeakers placed on the country’s tallest volcanoes, Icaza characterizes intellectuals as “the magnavoxes of the world”: a vanguard shaping “the birth of a new culture” (12-13), including its institutions, like the Universidad Obrera he helped found.

Yet, in spite of reiterating the importance of this relationship, Icaza’s conception of “revolutionary” art and politics remains vague throughout his lecture, and the connections among the two, tenuous. The reason for this is that he must contend with a dual sense of belatedness. First, the armed conflict of the 1910s preceded revolutionary literature, unlike the Mexican Independence, which had been “prepared” by Enlightenment thought (26). In the case of the Revolution, Mexican artists and intellectuals were late to arrive to this crucial political event and could not help lay the ground for it: “it was a Revolution of the masses. Its origin was instinctive. […] It was the intellectual who followed the Revolution. The Revolution did not follow him and was not even prepared or led by him in its beginnings” (30). Mexican intellectuals, according to Icaza, had to make sense of an event that preceded its theoretical groundwork: the Revolution had to “be analyzed in retrospect in order to establish its thesis” (24). Thus, the literature that Icaza identifies as revolutionary functions as a kind of manifesto in reverse: instead of performing a new political reality at the moment of its irruption in the public sphere, it had to match the energy of the event after the fact. Such was the paradoxical nature of the Revolution, according to Icaza, that it was only two decades later, in the 1930s, that “truly revolutionary policies” were being enacted, slowly moving from the phase of the armed conflict “into a revolution of the conscience” (25).

Revolutionary art then was “post-revolutionary” (25). For Icaza, this explains why Mariano Azuela’s Los de abajo (1915), the canonical novel of the Revolution, was still “fragmentary,” “un-theoretical,” and merely descriptive: “it embodies our typical struggle: guerrilla warfare, cruel, anarchic, infused with fatalism and indiscipline” (34). In Icaza’s reading of Los de abajo, Azuela neither “condemns nor justifies” the participants in the bloody conflict (35). Icaza contrasts Azuela’s novel with Diego Rivera’s later murals, where the proletariat has become “a symbol of the Revolution.” Unlike Rivera’s synthetic frescos, encompassing all of the conflict, Azuela’s characters seek neither to “embody, nor justify, nor preach” the Revolution (36). Crucially then, Icaza sees the full meaning of this uprising emerging only in retrospect. It is important to emphasize the paradox contained in Icaza’s argument: the new culture is already late. At the end of his lecture, Icaza attempts to solve this paradox by insisting that the Revolution in fact remains incomplete and that it can only be fulfilled if led by an intellectual vanguard.

Secondly, Icaza’s lecture itself is late to the scene, not only more than a decade after Maples Arce’s first manifesto and Siqueiros’s “Llamamientos,” but almost a decade after the heated debates on national literature of 1925, which canonized Los de abajo, as well as Icaza’s own Magnavoz 1926 and Panchito Chapopote. This means that in theorizing revolutionary art and literature, Icaza must provide a definition broad and malleable enough to be able to include his own oeuvre within it. His definition then has to do more with the general political content of these avant-garde works, as well as their engagement with popular genres, than with specific formal considerations. Consistent with his two most prominent works, especially Panchito Chapopote, Icaza insists that Mexican avant-garde art, and he does label it “vanguardist,” must seek its roots in “folkloric” forms: “[this literature] discards the unnecessarily complicated infrastructure of realism. It employs direct images and short phrases. It is suggestive and inspired by the people. It nurtures itself from their songs, music, and dances” (38). The brief and truncated style of Panchito Chapopote, constantly interrupted by “sones” and other popular songs, where the narrator fiercely derides American and British companies exploiting Mexican oil as much as he mocks his own Mexican protagonist, certainly responds to Icaza’s later conception of vanguardist literature. But Icaza does not follow this statement with a more detailed account of avant-garde form. Instead, he turns to the content of these works by insisting that vanguardists “combat imperialism, Junkerism, retrograde and outdated nationalism, and outmoded contemporary society” (42). Moreover, Icaza does not elaborate on the specific political position that would emerge from these “leftist tendencies,” and simply reiterates that vanguardist artists depict these views by employing an “advanced technique” (43). Significantly, Icaza includes a wide array of artists, forming a “group without a group,” in what seems a deliberate attempt at reclaiming a phrase that the Contemporáneos had used to refer to themselves. In this alternative “group without a group” to the political left of the Contemporáneos, Icaza includes Azuela, Martín Luis Guzmán, JoséMancisidor, Nellie Campobello, and the muralists, in addition to the estridentistas.

At the heart of Icaza’s conception of vanguardism, hence, lies another paradox: while it must “point out solutions” to economic and social problems, it must also be a “spontaneous” creation (12, 15). In other words, while avant-garde art is committed to a collective goal, it must remain decidedly un-programmatic. At the same time that Icaza stresses the importance of art’s political engagement he emphasizes its unorthodox playfulness, especially by borrowing from popular sources: the new novel, he argues, must not merely “cite the rumba,” but must itself be a “tropical book, written with the undulating rhythm of the rumba” (43). In this respect, Icaza’s lecture differs significantly from Muralism, especially from Siqueiros’s position with which I opened this essay. As he states in his 1932 lecture, “Rectificaciones sobre las artes plásticas en México,” Siqueiros advocates the need for a strong intellectual vanguard in order to “serve the proletariat” (61). But, crucially, by this he not only means to “express the will of the masses, their objective conditions, and the revolutionary ideology of the proletariat,” but to do so by creating a new taste for them (61). Since, in his view, “the proletariat [was] the final receptacle of the bad aesthetic taste of the class that dominates and exploits it,” only “an educated minority” could express its political aims through art (60). Unlike Icaza, who two years later would make the case for “folkloric” vanguardism, for Siqueiros these popular arts, which he disparagingly calls “Mexican curious,” using the expression in English, were already degraded forms at the service of an emerging tourism industry (54-55). Thus, as politically dogmatic as “serving the proletariat” may sound to us today, Siqueiros’s aim was to create an art that not only fiercely critiqued industrial capitalism but that, to use Icaza’s own words, pointed out “new paths” in no ambiguous terms. Though both expressed a degree of contempt toward the mass, Siqueiros’s sought to transform and guide it toward a specific political goal, whereas Icaza attempted to capture its contradictions.

Icaza’s mix of the political with the playful and spontaneous allows him to include Magnavoz 1926 and Panchito Chapopote, which he wrote at a time of political disillusion unlike the enthusiasm he would exhibit later in his lecture. In 1925, Icaza returned to Xalapa after spending about six months in Europe, mainly with Alfonso Reyes in Paris. In June 1926, after a year and a half of literary inactivity, Icaza confessed his deep disappointment upon his return to Mexico in a letter to his friend, Carlos Díaz Duffoo Jr.: “my journey to Europe has eliminated my fleeting Mexican enthusiasm. […] I find myself without a compass: I cannot exalt anything and feel I have neither the capacity nor the right to anything, for I am the son of a barbarous, inferior, and sentimental people – above all, sentimental, very sentimental” (Zaïtzeff 146). In Magnavoz, which he wrote around the time of his letter to Díaz Dufoo, Icaza attempts to combat his disillusion and end on a hopeful note, while depicting the chaos he perceives. This generic hybrid, which Icaza subtitles “Mexican speech,” opens with a prologue by the author, and then offers a mix of theater, narrative, and the essay. As characters in a play, different actors in the Mexican public sphere offer four speeches stating their positions, showing how the resolution of the armed conflict was still up for grabs: Italian journalist Luigi Barzini (World War I correspondent and Mussolini supporter) delivers the fascist position advocating foreign investment; Lenin makes a case for Communism; José Vasconcelos represents “mystic” idealism, and Diego Rivera speaks for autochthonous nationalism. All except Rivera deliver their speeches through giant loudspeakers in Icaza’s depiction of the post-revolutionary public sphere as a series of loud and competing radio transmissions. At the end, Magnavoz attempts to mitigate the disruptive effect of this noise by employing a narrator who frames these interventions and offers the final speech, trying to make sense of the confusion.

In the prologue to Magnavoz, Icaza acknowledges his disillusion upon his return from Europe: he can only appreciate Mexico’s “ugly appearance, rough and vulgar” (14). And while in the same prologue he is quick to point out how his disappointment begins to dissipate and he is able to “discern the longing for an ideal, hidden behind the opaque, daily struggle” (15), Icaza’s ultimate goal is to be true to Mexico’s contradictions, depicting it as “feeble and strong, endowed with ideal and sin, mediocrity and genius” (13). These contradictions and sense of disillusion permeate Magnavoz throughout. Even though Icaza’s narrator personifies Mexico as finally “willing to be itself” and realize the potential of the Revolution, he portrays the masses that would carry out this project to completion as “dragging about their useless, vegetative existence” (25). Icaza juxtaposes the four political speeches with choruses representing the Mexican public, including a “chorus of the mediocre,” responding with ignorant indifference: “Nobody listens. […] Some dance. Others get bored. Some get rich. Others play at bolshevism, but most play cards” (30). This prompts Icaza’s narrator to gradually withdraw from this boisterous public sphere and turn his attention to “the select group,” or the small intelligentsia to which he belongs (45). Thus, while Magnavoz’s narrator ends on a hopeful note, he expresses his political aim in vague terms: “At the heart of the struggle, in the abyss of sin, there is the vestige of an ideal that is born and which tomorrow shall triumph!” (47). As he will echo in his lecture almost a decade later, the Revolution has at once already happened and still awaits completion in an undefined future.

In her reading of Magnavoz, Unruh explains Icaza’s turn to the “select group,” away from the masses that Siqueiros and Rivera endeavored to represent in their murals, as a crucial ambivalence contained in Latin American vanguardism. As she demonstrates, Latin American manifestos set out to “construct an audience” that was still missing from the public sphere. This is why, within the narrative frame in which the four political speeches take place, she reads Magnavoz as being addressed to a mass audience, “cast as both adversarial and friendly,” while at the level of the narrator himself, Icaza merely addresses an intellectual elite (54-55). In spite of this ambivalence, within its narrative frame Magnavoz does suggest “cultural forms that might abolish the distance between […] art and life,” according to Unruh (54). In her reading, these potentially radical and egalitarian cultural forms are represented by Rivera’s speech, which he delivers directly to his audience, without the aid of radio technology, from the top of the pyramid of Teotihuacán. At the end of his speech, where Rivera calls for the creation of Mexican work, a massive mestizo dance ensues, thereby performing Rivera’s call. However, what ultimately remains, even within the narrative frame of Magnavoz, is the collective mediocrity Icaza points out throughout the text. Right after the mestizo dance, Icaza’s narrator returns to “routine life in Mexico. The revolt has been forgotten. The Revolution must be assessed. […] The unalterable grey panorama continues” (41). Not surprisingly, this persistence of “mediocrity and genius” that Icaza does not wish to ignore in Magnavoz fits his own later description of a revolutionary art that still does not have the tools to offer a “symbol of the Revolution.” Moreover, more than a manifesto, Magnavoz becomes a kind of essay addressed to a small elite, thereby undermining his aim of enacting the radical society he wishes for.

According to Icaza, this society was closer to becoming a reality in 1934 than it was in 1926. The closing paragraphs of “La Revolución mexicana y la literatura” convey a stronger sense of commitment to the revolutionary politics they defend: “At last, we find vanguard intellectuals fulfilling their destiny. And the Revolution is determined to realize itself with intensity […]. And we see workers, conscious of their strength and the historical responsibility that rests on their shoulders, joining those who can guide them. And for the first time in Mexico, joined in intimate relationship, [we find] administrators, intellectuals, professors, and poets, and workers and painters, and vigorous generals and quiet erudites” (48). Icaza, no doubt as a result of his own political work, recognizes a kind public sphere that was absent eight years before. Nevertheless, as this quote also reveals, Icaza’s lecture reiterates some of the language of Magnavoz, postponing a more or less vaguely defined political goal into the near future. Icaza still personifies Mexico as a vague entity, rather than focusing exclusively on its political agents. As he admits some paragraphs before these closing moments, the revolutionary project remains incomplete. In spite of closer approaches in literature, the great literary work that can match the scope of Rivera’s frescos remains to be “written” (45-6). Thus, while intellectuals are closer to “giving birth to this new culture” in “the present moment,” his lecture keeps shifting to an undefined future, in which Mexico would finally be ready to fulfill a process that had started two decades before.

WORKS CITED

  • Horizonte: 1926-1927. Mexico D.F.: FONCA, 2011.
  • Icaza, Xavier. Magnavoz, 1926. Xalapa: Talleres Gráficos del Gobierno de Veracruz, 1926.
  • -----. La revolución mexicana y la literatura. México D.F.: Palacio de Bellas Artes, 1934.
  • Rashkin, Elissa J. The Stridentist Movement in Mexico. The Avant-Garde and Cultural Change in the 1920s. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2009.
  • Siqueiros, David Alfaro. Palabras de Siqueiros. Ed. Raquel Tibol. México D.F.: Fondo de Cultural Económica, 1996.
  • Unruh, Vicky. Latin American Vanguards: The Art of Contentious Encounters. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
  • Zaitzeff, Serge. Xavier Icaza y sus contemporáneos epistolarios. Xalapa: Universidad Veracruzana. 1995.

NOTES

  1. All translations of Xavier Icaza’s and David Alfaro Siqueiros’s works in the text are mine.  // back
  2. See Tatiana Flores, “Actual No.1, o los catorce puntos de Manuel Maples Arce,” Vanguardia estridentista: soporte de la estética revolucionaria. México D.F.: CONACULTA, 2010, 73-77.  // back
  3. See Tatiana Flores, Mexico’s Revolutionary Avant-Gardes: From Estridentismo to ¡30-30! New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013, and Vicky Unruh, Latin American Vanguards: the Art of Contentious Encounters.   // back
  4. See Evodio Escalante, Elevación y caída del estridentismo. México D.F.: CONACULTA, 2002; Flores, Mexico’s Revolutionary Avant-Gardes; Rubén Gallo, Mexican Modernity: The Avant-Garde and the Technological Revolution. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005; Elissa Rashkin, The Stridentist Movement in Mexico: The Avant-Garde and Cultural Change in the 1920s; Ignacio Sánchez Prado, Naciones intelectuales: Las fundaciones de la modernidad mexicana (1917-1959). West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2009, 52-9; Luis Mario Schneider, El estridentismo o una literatura de la estrategia. México D.F.: CONACULTA, 1997; and Unruh, Latin American Vanguards.  // back
  5. For an excellent account of the fierce literary strife between estridentistas and Contemporáneos, see Escalante, Elevación y caída del estridentismo, 9-40. As Escalante argues, the Contemporáneos (above all, Villaurrutia and Torres Bodet) were successful in establishing the terms of the debate, especially, according to them, regarding the alleged lack of originality or merit in estridentista poetry, the supposed slavish dependence of estridentistas on their main figure, Maples Arce, and their allegedly opportunistic appeal to socialist politics. These devastating criticisms, in Escalante’s view, contributed in big part to the marginalization of Estridentismo from the literary canon for several decades.   // back
  6. See Serge Zaïtzeff, Xavier Icaza y sus contemporáneos epistolarios, 11-14.  // back
  7. See John Brushwood, Narrative Innovation and Political Change in Mexico. New York: Peter Lang, 1989, 19-21; Carlton Beals, Mexican Maze. Philadelphia: J.D. Lippincott, 1931, 265, 275; Escalante, Elevación y caída del estridentismo, 92-104; Flores, Mexico’s Revolutionary Avant-Gardes, 256-264; Rashkin, The Stridentist Movement in Mexico, 203-221; Ruth Stanton, “Development of Xavier Icaza as Leader in the Estridentista School of Mexican Literature,” Hispania. 21:4 (Dec. 1938), and Unruh, Latin American Vanguards, 50-55.  // back

CHRISTIAN GERZSO was born and raised in Mexico City. He obtained his PhD in English from New York University and is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.