A Brief Relation of the Production of Fernando Gamboa

October 8, 2016

This is one of several articles commissioned for and published in conjunction with the 2016 Seminario Fundación Cisneros, Show & Tell. Read the editorial text to learn more about the other commissioned articles that are or will be published.

Fernando Gamboa (1909–1990) is recognizable as one of the most fervent promoters of culture during Mexican modernity; his influence expanded and dominated for nearly the entire 20th century, leading to his coronation as the “inventor of Mexican museography.”[1] Some recent analyses of his trajectory see his work as a foreshadowing of art curatorship in Mexico. For me, Gamboa was all this and much more; his cultural agency went beyond exhibitions and installations in museums with their permanent collections.

Along with notable public servants like José Vasconcelos, Carlos Chávez, and others, Gamboa’s work involved the state-sponsored implementation of the ideology of modern Mexico that the post-revolutionary state spread throughout the world; a world still distant from a globalism in which art and culture serve as calling cards and diplomatic bargaining chips. What the Mexican government had conceived as a cohesive cultural identity, Gamboa transmitted in the form of exhibitions and public policy.

Fernando Gamboa had a modest and courageous beginning. He got his start with an education in the arts that he received from the then-prestigious Academia de San Carlos. Perhaps Gamboa’s most notable productions as a visual artist are the mural paintings that he left to the National Graphic Workshops building along with Pablo O’Higgins, Leopoldo Méndez, and Alfredo Salce in the mid-1930s. It was in that same decade that he began his first curatorial efforts. During the Spanish Civil War, Gamboa traveled to that country as part of the Mexican League of Revolutionary Authors and Artists to attend the II International Congress of Anti-Fascist Authors, which took place in Valencia in 1937. Within that framework, and emerging as an expert as a result, he presented the exhibition “A Century of Mexican Political Engravings.”[2] 

Library of the Confederación Revolucionaria Michoacana del Trabajo, Morelia, Michoacán. Unknown photographer, 1936. Archivo de la Promotora Cultural Fernando Gamboa, A.C.

After this, Gamboa encountered in exhibitions a communicative model that he could utilize to disseminate national culture on an international level. The guiding thread of nearly all of his exhibitions was an understanding of Mexican history as an uninterrupted compendium, from pre-Hispanic cultures to present-day art; a progressive succession reaching its zenith in utopian modernity.

“Throughout its different historical periods and its varied artistic expressions, Mexican art, from the ancient indigenous cultures to our own time, has maintained the same creative potency, tied closely to the life and spirit of the people…The exhibition responds to a chronological conception of the development of our art, highlighting the culminating moments of each era.”[3] Under this summary vision over the course of several decades, Gamboa organized tens of astonishingly successful traveling exhibitions that categorized Mexican art into the three historical periods that served as the exhibition’s nuclei: the pre-Hispanic era, the Spanish colonial period, and modern Mexico.

This model was undoubtedly Gamboa’s most significant contribution to national museography. He replicated it tirelessly, ensuring that the archeological and pictorial heritage of the nation passed through the primary European and U.S. capitals, as well as through the Mexican pavilions organized at international fairs such as Brussels in 1958, Montreal in 1967, Osaka in 1970, the New York World’s Fair in 1965, and others. Gamboa put together each of these exhibitions and pavilions, some under the auspices of the Mexican government and others in which he acted as a nearly omnipotent cultural official. Today it would be difficult to imagine our pre-Hispanic heritage going on a world tour with the speed with which it took place under Gamboa’s leadership.



Mexican Pavilion at Brussels World's Fair (Expo 58), 1958. Author unknown. Archivo de la Promotora Cultural Fernando Gamboa, A.C.

Long before that omnipotence, in the 1940s and as part of his early production, Fernando Gamboa conceived of and explored a private cultural affairs institution called the Mexican Society of Modern Art,[4] which operated thanks to the sponsorship of the oligarchy and the cultural elite.[5] The headquarters for the Society of Modern Art was established in a location on Avenida Reforma (one of Mexico City’s busiest avenues), and there Gamboa presented five memorable exhibitions between 1944 and 1946: Pablo Picasso’s first exhibition in Mexico, an exhibition of pre-Hispanic masks, another of Mexican landscapes, another of the master works of European painting, and an individual show on Manuel Álvarez Bravo.

Over the course of the same decade, Gamboa took part in different types of cultural affairs work that elevated Mexican heritage and surpassed museographic standards—thus, I reiterate that Gamboa’s agency went beyond curatorship. This is verified by looking at the archaeological expedition he organized as an operative of the National Institute of Fine Arts in 1949 to document and study the then little-known Mayan ruins of Bonampak, to which he invited a multidisciplinary team of artists, writers, photographers, archaeologists, and others.

Lacandona women in Bonampak, 1949. Photographed by Colette Urbajtel. Archivo de la Promotora Cultural Fernando Gamboa, A.C.

That same year Gamboa, by way of a detective-like research process, traveled personally to California, USA in order to investigate and later recuperate objects of national heritage from the voluminous assortment of paintings and sculptures that had been illegally extracted from Mexico. The event was covered widely in the print press of the era, and the works’ return to the country concluded with an exhibition that was inaugurated by the president of the republic. In this way, Gamboa gained ever greater fame as a protector of Mexico’s heritage.

His personality took on mythical dimensions when he became involved in the heroic recovery of a set of works that was threatened to be destroyed by flames—sparked by the angry popular uprising in response to the assassination of social leader Eliécer Gaitán in Colombia. The works had traveled to the country to be exhibited as part of the IX Pan-American Congress, organized by Gamboa in 1948. Chronicles of the events testify that Gamboa, in the midst of the crossfire and conflagrations provoked by the uprising in the Palace of Communications, took hold of the Mexican flag and brought three boxes containing the works from the exhibition to the embassy. Later that night, he stood guard at the Palace of Communications to watch over the remaining works that he had been unable to transport to the embassy.[6]

In later decades, from 1972 to 1981, Gamboa worked as director of Mexico City’s Museum of Modern Art. In a short time his leadership led to an invitation to Carla Stellweg to establish the journal Artes Visuales (Visual Arts, 1973-1981), which the museum would publish and sponsor, and which is generally considered to be the most important and influential publication of its kind in Mexico during the 1970s. Edited by Stellweg and designed by Vicente Rojo, it focused its content on avant-garde art connected to Latin American conceptualism, postal art and non-objective expressions defined by Juan Acha at that time.

Roundtable at the Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico, August 1973. Photograph by Paulina Lavista. Archivo de la Promotora Cultural Fernando Gamboa, A.C.

Artes visuales confirms and demonstrates Gamboa’s close contact with that which would later be historicized as Mexican contemporary art, in spite of the fact that his work as a curator and adviser was always focused on promoting what is now known and classified as Mexican modern art. The more than 600 foreign exhibitions of Mexican artists that Gamboa undertook have brought him recognition as the father of Mexican museography.

Pink Room at the Museo de Arte Prehispánico Rufino Tamayo, Oaxaca, Mexico. Every room is a color from Tamayo's palette. Photograph by Alejandro Gamboa, 2015

Between Mexico City’s Museum of Modern Art and the Tamayo Museum there is a tree-lined corridor. There, in 1996, a sculpted bronze bust of Gamboa was ceremoniously placed upon a pedestal in his honor. Just two years ago, whether as a symbolic theft or mere vandalism or petty crime, his effigy was stolen…at the dawn of a new century.

[1] Gamboa was dubbed with this title by the intellectual, Octavio Paz.
[2] This points to the fact that Gamboa was commissioned by president Lázaro Cárdenas to enact the Mexican policy of asylum for Republican Spanish exiles. Gamboa himself organized the transportation of refugees to the port of Veracruz on three ships: the Sinaia, Ipanema and Mexique, as well as another ship, the De Grasse, to New York.
[3] Inaugural speech by Fernando Gamboa at the “Exhibition of Mexican Art in Paris” in 1952. Cited from the book Fernando Gamboa. Embajador del arte mexicano [Fernando Gamboa: Ambassador of Mexican Art], published by Conaculta in 1991.
[4] The artistic education of the Mexican populace and the elevation of its general cultural level, as well as the promotion and stimulation of the creation of national art were the primary objectives of the SOCIETY OF MODERN ART,” thus expressed in the first catalogue published by the SAM on the occasion of the Picasso exhibition in 1944.
[5] Associates included Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Inés Amor, Alfred H. Barr, Luis Barragán, Adolfo Best Maugard, Luis Cardoza y Aragón, Dr. Alfonso Caso, Henry Clifford, Miguel Covarrubias, Carlos Chávez, José Chávez Morado, René d’Harnoncourt, and many others.
[6] Among the works he managed to save were pieces by Dr. Atl, Juan O’Gorman, José Clemente Orozo, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siquieros, Rufino Tamayo and José María Velasco, among others.  

Translated by Phillip Penix-Tadsen