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Textured Lives: Women, Art, and Representation in Modern Mexico.

In Textured Lives Claudia Schaefer sets out to challenge the conventional view of Mexico as a unified nation moving steadily toward democracy and industrialization by exploring the works of four female Mexican artists--a painter and three writers--who represent critical periods in twentieth-century Mexican history. Through her analysis of the art of Frida Kahlo, Rosario Catellanos, Elena Poniatowska and Angeles Mastretta, Schaefer exposes the tension between the established institutions of power and the often subversive cultural production by women.

Schaefer writes in her epilogue: "These women's physical and social bodies, their psychological portraits, their self-representations, and their choice of words and images are seen to be battlefields on which several skirmishes are being fought at once. Their sites of confrontation include the encounters between activity or questioning and passivity or acceptance, between protest and silence, between the self and the Other, between change and stasis, and between participation and observation." The self-perceptions of the women Schaefer studies challenge the "official" male vision by offering alternate views that are habitually suppressed by the prevailing institutions. But these women question not only the "party line," but also the conventional modes of expression. They examine critically and recast the traditional genres, such as self-portrait, autobiography, memoirs, and the like, in order to communicate a new, previously unarticulated self-awareness.

Frida Kahlo emerged as an artist during the period of postrevolutionary nationalism that emphasized "Mexicanidad" and collectiveness. A victim of polio at age six and of a serious accident in her teens, Kahlo suffered from ill health all her life. Fascinated by her tormented body, she became her own favorite subject, but her self-portraits do not present the traditional, male, idealized view of women; instead, they are studies in physical deterioration and pain. In a rapidly modernizing world, her long Tehuana dresses, which she wore, in part, to hide her crippled leg, were a symbol of traditional Mexico and of Kahlo's solidarity with the people. At the same time, her "otherness" turned her into a kind of cult figure. Although some of Schaefer's interpretations of Kahlo's paintings are open to question, the author does show how the artist was trapped between her political idealism and her need to affirm herself through constant examination of her pain.

Rosario Castellanos represents postrevolutionary Mexico through the 1970s. Schaefer focuses on her essays, rather than on her fiction and poetry, analyzing these pieces as both self-explorations and cultural commentaries. Castellanos continues the nineteenth-century tradition of "literary journalism"--a genre that combines reporting, autobiography, and novelistic techniques such as dialogue. Schaefer sees Castellanos as a woman entrapped by the social body as well as her own body; her work and also her attempted suicide are a search for a space, "beyond alienation from society and away from her own body." Schaefer notes certain opposing social and personal forces that lead to a kind of psychological fragmentation in Castellanos--she was disillusioned by programs that called for the acculturation of the native populations yet resulted in their annihilation.

Schaefer studies Elena Poniatowska as a representative of the transitional period of the seventies, during which the oil boom peaked and profits from the oil industry were channeled into the hands of the wealthy few, thereby intensifying class divisions. Instead of the rights of the underprivileged, the focus became individual rights. Poniatowka reflects this new emphasis on self-realization; in books such as Querido Diego, te abraza Quiela and Gaby Brimmer the theme is individual liberation. Both books deal with marginal women; Quiela is Angelina Beloff, Diego Rivera's abandoned, Russian-born lover; Gaby is an invalid. Poniatowska redefines the traditional role of author by becoming an intermediary for persons who would otherwise have no voice. Using journalistic techniques, she reconstructs and reinvents them for the reader, making their uniqueness the true focus of her narrative, rather than the need for social or radical change.

Angeles Mastretta's 1985 best-seller, Arrancame la vida represents the feminism of the last few decades as well as the post-modernist fascination with popular culture. Mastretta's title is from a bolero popular in the 1930s and 1940s, a period of intense modernization and industrialization. In Mastretta's book the protagonist, Catalina, becomes increasingly aware of her own unwillingness to comply with traditional sexual roles. Catalina's clash with her husband--who represents the old Mexico of machismo and intense nationalism in the guise of Revolutionary fervor--becomes a kind of social rebellion, an integral part of her search for self-definition. Mastretta uses popular music to punctuate the critical moments in the life of her heroine. Schaefer shows how Mastretta's novel reflects her country's transition into a "new Mexico" in which international influences predominate. On the one hand, Mastretta highlights the problem of the modern woman as individual; on the other, she must deal with Mexico's response to foreign cultural pressure. The popular song serves a dual purpose: it is both a vehicle of expression for the individual and a reflection of the larger society.

Claudia Schaefer has written a fascinating, well-researched, thought-provoking book that contributes greatly to our understanding of the relationship between artists and their cultures in general, and Mexican women artists and their culture in particular.
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Author:Silva, Aroldo Souza
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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