Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Leopoldo Méndez: Revolutionary Art and the Mexican Print by Deborah Caplow

4-star text, 2-star pictures
Leopoldo Méndez is one of the greatest printmakers of the twentieth century, yet in the U.S. he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry! From the early 1920s to the mid-1960s he produced a prolific output of beautiful and powerful woodcut prints which illustrated the plight of the Mexican working class, demanded political and social reform, condemned Fascism, and promoted peace. He definitely merits a book that will bring deserved recognition to his impressive body of work. This book is only moderately successful in achieving that goal. The main problem with this book is one of design and execution. This is a 6 x 9 scholarly monograph masquerading as a 9 x 12 coffee table book. As a coffee table book, it fails; as a monograph, it’s quite successful.

The book is generously illustrated, but only about half the illustrations are works by Méndez. The rest are photographs or artworks by his associates, or those who influenced him. The selection of works by Méndez is very good. Unfortunately, they’re not reproduced very well. Although this is a big book, 9 x 12 inches, the illustrations are relatively small; almost all are 4.5 inches wide or less. Instead of scanning the woodcut prints as black and white line art, to accentuate the stark contrast of light and dark in Méndez’s work, the prints are scanned as grayscale, which adds a dull gray halftone pattern over the entire image, killing the contrast and in some cases interfering with the fine detail of Méndez’s line work. There is a color section in which the images are larger and, for the most part, of better quality, but it’s only 16 pages long.

The main attraction of this book is its text. This is the most detailed examination of Méndez in the English language, and perhaps in any language. Caplow goes beyond Méndez to provide an overview of the entire history of art in Mexico following the Revolution. While this gives us valuable perspective on the era in which Méndez lived and worked, at times it makes him seem like a supporting character in his own biography. The depth of detail in this book is truly impressive. In addition to mining every printed source on Méndez, Caplow also interviewed several of his colleagues. The only fault I can find with the writing is that Caplow feels the need to describe in detail every one of the hundreds of illustrations, even to the point of often stating the obvious.

If you want to see big, beautiful reproductions of Méndez’s work, get your hands on a copy of Leopoldo Méndez: Oficio de Grabar, by Francisco Reyes Palma. If you want to learn everything you can about Méndez—his life, his art, and his times—Caplow’s book is a rewarding read.

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