Idols Behind Altars

February 22, 2020 Anita Brenner Tina Modotti Mexico Art Modernism

Anita Brenner, photographed by Tina ModottiAnita Brenner, photographed by Tina Modotti

In 1929, the Mexican-American writer Anita Brenner published Idols Behind Altars, a book that introduced North Americans to the history of Mexican culture, from pre-Columbian times forward.” Luckily, the book is available online from, and it’s surprisingly poetic for an art history volume.

I love the introduction for its descriptions of Mexico itself.

Mountains, plants — ancient breeds, century plants, cacti, maize and calabashes — and the people, all have a tense, animal vitality. The maguey grows spikes like claws on its grey-green fibrous muscles; the maize is toothed; fruits and flesh are of the same firm blood-filled texture; and the people state facts and face them without sentimental or ethical apologia. Who stays long enough cannot escape the demands of this integrity. He may hate it, and feels impotent to scratch upon it; or he loves it with passion. He is in both cases bound to it. Women particularly find themselves tormented, and people who cannot abandon the notions brought with them from elsewhere.

With an intellectual axe to grind, this land which takes such liberties with time and space, which jazzes the social scale, which shifts into many faces, and is nevertheless a unit, becomes madness. The visitor’s mind scurries from one interpretation to another, while his being goes to pieces or evolves.

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