by Marita Adair
Avant-Garde Art and Artists in Mexico: Anita Brenner’s Journals of the Roaring Twenties (University of Texas Press, 2010) had it’s first public outing in San Antonio last week.
Edited and compiled by her daughter, Susannah Glusker, the splendidly illustrated work in two volumes, includes the years 1925 to 1930 when Mexico, fresh from Revolution, experienced a torrent of renewed appreciation of its history, culture, art and artists. Anita Brenner, then age 20 to 25, and intelligent beyond her years, became embraced early by the inner circle of that brilliant renaissance. The diary she kept swirls with the names of Mexico’s literati of the time, their gatherings, and her daily life and work as translator and writer. The book finishes in the 1940s as this renaissance matures and changes along with Brenner’s ever broadening world.
Glusker’s two other books inviting the world into her mother’s life and times include: Anita Brenner: A Mind of her Own (University of Texas Press, 1998) and Anita Brenner: Vision of an Age (Editorial RM, 2005) authored with Carlos Monsivais. Avid students of Mexico recognize Anita Brenner’s name from her groundbreaking books Idols Behind Altars (1929) written when she was 24, The Wind That Swept Mexico (1943 ) at 38, her guidebook Your Mexican Holiday 1932) published at 27, and her magazine Mexico this Month (1955-1971). Her voluminous literary output also includes books for children illustrated by renowned artists in Mexico.
Without doing the numbers it’s easy to overlook the full scope of Anita Brenner’s powerful drive to learn, experience, and accomplish. Such focus. Despite being cut off financially when, instead of finishing college in the U.S. as her father wanted, at 18 she hied to her beloved Mexico in time for induction into Mexico’s cultural renaissance that changed her life. Besides those early accomplishments mentioned above, at 25 she won a Guggenheim Fellowship, 1930-1932, to study Aztec art in Europe and Mexico, while also marrying. At 29, two years after finishing the Guggenheim, she completed a Ph. D in Anthropology from Columbia University,without first earning a bachelor or master’s degree. She spent 17 years in New York before returning to Mexico to live and work.
When I literally crossed paths with Glusker, just before she spoke about the book at the Instituto Cultural de Mexico in San Antonio, I had come to hear her talk about the new book. In that brief moment of quiet, before she was swarmed by San Antonio relatives and well wishers, I inched in a burning question. “Through the journals, did you learn things about your mother that you never knew?” She answered part then, and part during her talk that followed. Her mother was known by many people in many different ways. Michael Mehl, who introduced Glusker to the audience, worded the thought as “universal ownership of Anita.”
In our evening with Glusker she described the beginning process of reading her mother’s journals as part curiosity and part invasion of privacy. The voyeur in me is overjoyed that curiosity won..
While she wove a picture of Brenner, and the people who frequented their home, and/or who were mentioned in the journals, photographs appeared on a central screen, flanked by two screens displaying photographic portraits of Brenner by Edward Weston and Tina Modotti..
Famous names populated Brenner’s world: Dr. Atl, Francisco Goitia, Jose Clemente Orozco, Jean Charlot, Frida Kahlo, David Siquieros, Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Carlos Merida and others including “the fat man” Diego Rivera. When the portrait painted by Diego Rivera of Peter, Glusker’s brother, appeared, she quipped “I found reasons to escape being painted by the fat man,” mentioning his unpleasant body odor. Such are the memories from a child’s point of view. So undazzled by fame.
Near the end of her presentation Glusker said, “I must confess, the most interesting part of her life was her personal life.”
When question time I asked if there were questions she wished she’d asked her mother. Someone else mentioned her relationship with her mother. Like so many of us, she described their life as busy, stretched between overseeing the farm in Aguascalientes, Brenner’s writing obligations, and Glusker raising her own family. Then she reflected, “We don’t make time to talk to our parents when we can.” Later, in reference to her relationship with her mother, she added, “I didn’t have unresolved issues when she died; we were friends.”
And finally almost in answer to the unasked question “Do we ever really know our parents,” appearing on the screen was the famed Edward Weston photo of Anita Brenner’s nude backside bent into a pear shape (one of several similar poses taken the same day). The Brenner who Glusker knew was “prudish” and had written that she believed sex would destroy her creativity. An idea held by Brenner, age 20 in 1925, when the photo was taken. “This is the mother I didn’t know.” she said of the photograph. She recounted that her mother barely mentions the day in her journal. Weston’s journal, however, describes the event in detail. He was shaving. She wasn’t expected. It was inconvenient, etc. But when he saw the pose, his artistic eye seized the moment..
Susannah Joel Glusker teaches Mexican Women of Note and Mexican Art of the Early Twentieth Century at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.
Anita Brenner’s papers are held at the University of Texas, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas. A full description of the Brenner archives can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/27yzqv8
Charles C. Kolb provides a thoughtful review of Glusker’s A Mind of Her Own at: http://tinyurl.com/2376ryf