The Labyrinth of Solitude: The Art of Manuel Alvarez Bravo

The photographs of Manuel Alvárez Bravo speak specifically of Mexico, as the photographs of Walker Evans speak of America, and those of Bill Brandt speak specifically of England. Therefore, although Bravo is, and has always been wholly conversant with the international language of photographic culture, non-Mexicans must work to attain a full understanding of his vision. Europeans and others can respond immediately to the surface directness and formal clarity of his images, yet what may be seen as his dark idiosyncracies could easily be misconstrued, for they constitute not simply a highly developed personal voice, but a profoundly intimate and intellectually astute view of his own society.

To the North American and European, as the poet and Mexican patriot, Octavio Paz, has stated, ‘a Mexican mystery.’ Mexico has always remained on the margin of Western history, the elder statesman of the Third World. To the Western visitor, in particular the visitor from the United States, seeking to glean to some small understanding of a physically close yet psychologically remote neighbour, the Mexican seems so unknowable.  As Paz remarks, the Mexican temperament seems one chiefly of silence and withdrawal, punctuated by moments of unforeseen violence and emotion which suddenly swell, explode, and then lapse just as quickly into stillness, remorse, and self-defeat.

And to Western society, in which the last vestiges of religiosity have been firstly sublimated, and then effectively dissipated, Mexican Catholicism exerts an almost prurient fascination. It is not the moribund modern Christianity with which Westerners are largely familiar, but the surface crust of a complex deposit of intervening mythic strata, retaining the most primitive cosmic beliefs and embodying significant traces of the occult.

Bravo’s work would seem to confirm this initial diagnosis. It is enigmatic, sharply ironic, haunting, ritualistic, refined, desperate. It attracts and yet repels, a nominally perfect summation of all our preconceptions about Mexico. We are tempted all too readily to dismiss these qualities as merely exotic, and view the work as a highly coloured, even bizarre travelogue. But that would be to deny the imagery’s internal weight and its universality.

The primary virtue of Bravo resides in his ability to transcend the narrowness of his theme, and of his chosen medium. He is doggedly provincial, yet he deals with big issues. His art is rich, unsentimental, serious, intellectually rigorous, and profound. His subject is his culture, his own sense of culture. His point of entry, more often than not, is that culture’s mythology, a complex, convoluted mythology. But all mythologies have universal aspects, so we might be touched at the intuitive level even if intellectually Bravo’s implacable Mexicanness can sometimes elude us. Like all the very best photographers – and he stands, I believe, at the highest level – Bravo amplifies the specific, and the local, without denying the universal.

For example, one of the most striking features upon initial contact with his work is his apparent obsession with death, an undoubted expression of his Mexican sensibility, yet obviously a fundamental concern for us all. Bravo’s preoccupation with the morbid is a central, but for Westerners a disturbing leitmotif, for this whole issue has been consciously repressed by Western society. It has been repressed even in the visual arts, a subject left out on the fringe, the province only of a few wild men and women in the avant-garde. Our disinfected, sanitised middle-class culture, founded upon the positivist credo of mankind the tamer of natural forces, has served to gradually alienate the West from nature and cocoon us from death, which is denied by the expedient of hiding it behind closed doors. Our society consumes nature as if it were inexhaustible. All our actions would seem to betoken the fact that we ourselves are not inexhaustible.

Thus I think that many western viewers might shy away from the full implications of a key work – perhaps the key work – in Bravo’s oeuvre, his powerful and disturbing Obrere en Huelga Asesinado (Striking Worker Assassinated) of 1934. Our sophisticated, surrealist inflected sensibilities will of course allow us to deal quite comfortably with the less overt significations of death in Bravo’s work – the weathered cemetery walls, ethically hewn coffins, sugar skulls and candy cadavers, glowering gothic shadows and ghastly grinning mummies. But the uncompromising directness with which Bravo has pictured this young worker’s bloody body, especially the uneasy intimacy with the deceased into which he draws us, touches the raw nerve of secret fears and unacknowledged taboos.

And there is, I believe, a further dimension of disquiet in relation to this particular image. Although at first glance this is a documentary photograph, Striking Worker is one of the first widely published photographs by an artist-photographer in which death has been treated in such a strictly literal manner. What is possibly more acceptable in one context is not in another. We will not necessarily accept from an Edward Weston what we would from a Don McCullin.

It is clear, however, that Striking Worker lies at the heart of Bravo’s vision. It is an image that must be scrutinised at length, and engaged – dare one say embraced? – with vigour before one might arrive at a clearer understanding of Bravo’s investigation of his culture and the human condition.

Mexican death is the mirror of Mexican life,’ wrote Paz – a mirror that is sharply focused and brightly reflecting while the West’s is dark and clouded. Through all of Mexican life runs a much keener awareness of the continued presence of death, the mythic undercurrent that André Breton described as ‘the great message of the graves . . . (which) charges the air with electricity.’ The history of Mexico is a chronicle of death, a legacy of cruel gods, but even crueller men. So Striking Worker is an image that metaphorically marks the ever-pervading shadow of the pre-Cortesian civilisations and the Conquest, signifying the anguish of a society that, almost masochistically, has torn itself apart again and again in an endeavour to finally escape the bitter residue of colonial repression.

The facts behind the taking of Striking Worker are perhaps more mundane, yet no less typical. Bravo had been on an out-of-town photographic assignment and was returning to Mexico City by train when he happened upon the subject that was provide him with one of his most enduring images. In the square fronting the provincial railway station lay the corpse of a striker, shot during disturbances the previous day and left as a blunt warning to others. Bravo quickly took his picture, feeling a sudden ‘strong compulsion’ to capture this image, so redolent for him of his country’s past. We might fancy that he saw in the serene countenance a reincarnation of an Aztec priest, face fiercely painted and long, rank hair matted with the clotted blood of now revenged victims.

Certainly, Striking Worker could be viewed as a direct exorcism of Bravo’s experience as a child, when the corpses littering the streets during the 1910 revolution left, by his own admission, a searing impression upon his mind. Clearly, it would seem to be an image of expiation and atonement. This young man, Bravo seems to have determined, should not have died in vain. At the very least a memorable image became his memorial and his epitaph, long after the particular struggle in which he was engaged was forgotten.

This is a personal, intimate view of death, as the critic A. D. Coleman has pointed out. We do not look down upon the body disinterestedly or voyeuristically, in the manner of the dispassionate reporter. We are down there beside it. We visually embrace it, as would a comrade, a friend, or a lover. It is a death felt, and a death shared.

Death for the Mexican, especially violent death, is a constantly reiterated part of the theatre of living. To die well is a matter of some pride, for the event of death is seen to have its own grandeur and poetry – ‘La Nostalgia de la Muerte’, as the poet Xavier Villarrutia put it. There is in Striking Worker a sense of this pride, an undeniable feeling – which I share fully with Coleman – of ‘lift.’  There is an upward sweep to the structuring of the image which imparts the sensation of raising both body and spirit, a feeling which, coupled with the half smile we fancy flits across the worker’s face, approaches ecstasy. This is as much a part of Striking Worker, and would seem as much a source of its discomfort and fascination for the Western viewer as its horror, its sadness, its outrage.

Bravo’s investigation of the Mexican spirit, inherent in the nature of his medium, is directed through an examination of the material world. His work is documentary in that sense, and yet Bravo, like others of the Mexican School, is concerned with symbol and metaphor, with an exploration of both the visible and invisible forces that shaped society. Bravo records simply and directly, but he suggests, gently and insidiously, with the most basic of materials – the line of a crack in a wall, the set of a body, a shaft of sunlight. A potent combining of the literal with the metaphorical has given Bravo a special, and important place amongst the poets and painters who began to question their cultural heritage after the momentous revolution of 1910. ‘Alvárez Bravo has preferred photography to painting,’ said Diego Rivera. ‘It is possible that he may be right. In his work he arrives at conclusions which before him nobody in Mexico dared to imagine.’

One other figure at least dared to reach similar conclusions. Octavio Paz was a friend and contemporary of Bravo, and as a key to the photographer, we might investigate Paz’s anguished paean to the Mexican condition, Labyrinth of Solitude. Or vice versa, for the poet’s work in that book is an almost uncanny parallel. In many instances, Paz would seem to be describing specific images by Bravo.

Neither Paz nor Bravo essay exhortations of defiance and hope, unlike Rivera and Oroxco, those prophets of proletarian revolt. Their message rather is bleak, mordant, pessimistic. For even after the 1910 Revolution, the road to Mexicanism has proved a long and painful one. Ancient conflicts have not entirely been thrust aside. Wounds have been cauterised by the fires of successive revolutions, but not entirely healed. A legacy of ideological conflict, coupled with the harshness of the land itself, has permeated the Mexican consciousness and produced that indefinable but nevertheless real aura of threat described so memorably by D. H. Lawrence: ‘Something so heavy, so oppressive, like the folds of some huge serpent that seemed if it could hardly raise itself.’

The Mexican, writes Paz, views life as a combat. But whereas in other societies, the tribulations of life are there to be challenged with spirit, in Mexico the emphasis is upon defensiveness, upon retreat into a shell of sullen silence. Mexico tends to be a closed society, where relationships are hedged with suspicion and irony, masked by formality and reserve.

Bravo distils such qualities in his imagery. A major characteristic is its secretive, almost furtive nature, which lends it an air of repressed intrigue. We seem always to come upon the scene after the crime has been committed – literally so in Striking Worker. We happen frequently across the remnants of what appears to be some dread ritual, but are given only the most peripheral of clues as to its essence. People who have perhaps participated in the rites give no hint of having done so, for people seldom meet, or touch in a Bravo photograph. Communication of any kind is minimal; there is little contact, little intimacy. There is hardly any intimacy, even in his overtly sexual images, and he can be the most subtly sexual of photographers.

He allows us only to glance, to speculate. This furtiveness is necessary. We must avert our gaze, as Bravo’s subjects avert their gaze, for to open out is to drop one’s guard. So, in many cases we do not see their faces. They remain hidden, by an arm, by a shawl, by washing drying on a line, and most of all, by the omnipresent shadows that pervade Bravo’s imagery.

Bravo’s world is a world of shadows, yet unlike the shadows of many photographers – black, solid, essentially negative – they are not merely a negation of light, a spatial counterpoint, but a force in themselves. And like most things Mexican, the symbol is paradoxical, double-edged. Bravo’s shadows are both a refuge from wordly misery, and a trap – blind, stifling cul-de-sac for the spirit. A womb and a grave.

In Trampa Puesta (Baited Trap), 1934, menace lurks in the shadows, and even the simplest act of buying fruit signifies an act of aggression, of taking away from another. The fruit sits in the open sun, arranged like a votive offering to the force which gave it life. The fruit sellers. violators of nature, lurk in the shadows, their faces typically hidden. Thus Bravo sees even this commonplace act as a ritual with an attendant aura of violence.

Yet in this image and many others by Bravo, it can be difficult to discern just who is the aggressor and who the aggressed. One is left in some doubt, for example, by the enigmatic Los Agachados (The Crouched Ones), a 1934 picture of five mysterious figures slumped at a bar, their backs to the camera, their heads blanketed by yet another looming shadow. There is great weight and sadness in the image – and more. Details such as the sinister chains binding the bar stools together, and the sinister truncating of the figures, amplify the quiet desperation with a hint of imminent violence. The enticing shadows of the bar and its anaesthetising pulque are clearly not the haven of forgetfulness they first seem, but just one more cage out of which the disinherited must periodically break with explosive rage.

One major image is perhaps a summation of the significance of shadows in Bravo’s oeuvre – a portrait of a Mayan Indian, entitled En El Templo Del Tigre Rojo (In the Temple of the Red Jaguar), 1949. Here, in a photograph of sublime pathos, a match for Dorothea’s Lange’s Migrant Mother, the shadows symbolise only one thing – refuge and withdrawal, solitude and hiding. The whole picture is a potent demonstration of the hermetic impulse in the Mexican, especially in the Indian and the Mestizo. The Indian’s passivity, his stoic immovability in the path of the Spanish conquerors, have left their mark upon Mexican society. Stoicism and reserve remain the most cherished of Mexican virtues. Even the Indian’s work song is sung in a low voice because, as in the poem by Alfonso Reyes: ‘Words of rebellion cannot be heard well from between clenched teeth.’

The Conquest, and then the later conflicts which periodically racked Mexico have left their legacies of displacement and fear. And so, says Paz,  the Mexican tends to seek the shadows of solitude and anonymity. His face becomes an impassive mask. His courtesy and his formality is barbed. He is afraid to glance at his neighbour, because the wrong glance might trigger the passions of a troubled spirit. So he withdraws, contracts, dissembles, and like the Indian in the Temple of the Red Jaguar, becomes a phantasm, a shadow himself. A silent pillar in the temple of the old gods.

‘. . . He blends into the landscape, until he is an indistinguishable part of the white wall against which he leans at twilight, of the dark earth on which he stretches out to rest at midday. He disguises his human singularity to such an extent that he finally annihilates it and turns into a tree, a wall, silence and space.’

If Bravo’s world is a world of shadow, it is, paradoxically, also a world a space, the endless space of the central Mexican plateau. Here, in an austerely beautiful but inhospitable landscape, overlooked by the violent twins, Popocatapetl and Ixtaccihuatl, man is at his most insignificant. Bravo sees this as a land shimmering on the edge of eternity, a land haunted by both animate and inanimate spirits that are far from friendly, and far from being at peace. Here, ghosts of lost souls and fallen empires, embodied in gaunt, twisted trees, wrinkled roots and jagged cacti, inhabit a landscape of calm dread, as in Y Por Las Noches Gemia (And by Night it Moaned), 1945.

Thus both the spaces and shadows of Bravo’s landscape are redolent of the Mexican condition. His imagery, almost paraphrasing the parallel words of Paz, forms what the poet has termed a complex ‘labyrinth of solitude.’ Bravo’s fragmentary, yet sure and cogent vision, speaks of past attempts to destroy one world and construct another. It bears witness to past failures – to reconcile Indian with Spaniard, Christianity with animism, past with present, individual with humanity, life with death. In the end, however, Bravo always returns us to that ultimate moment of solitude and final conciliation. Only death bring the unity of self with the universe. Only death effects a sure release from earthly misery and injustice. That is the central metaphorical meaning in the perhaps bleak, but finely observed photographs of Manuel Alvarez Bravo.

BJP 1974 (revised 2001)