The “golden age” of Mexican cinema shines again at new McNichols exhibit

A visual feast for photo and movie lovers, this traveling show gains new meaning when paired with the Biennial of the Americas.
4 min. read
Mauricio Maillé, director of arts at Visuzles de Fundatición Televisa, inside “Under the Mexican Sky,” an exhibit on the work of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa at the McNichols Building. Sept. 12, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) mcnichols building; art; biennial of the americas; denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty;

"Under the Mexican Sky," an exhibit on the work of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa at the McNichols Building, part of the Biennial of the Americas. Sept. 12, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

On Thursday an exhibit on Gabriel Figueroa, perhaps Mexico's most famous cinematographer, opens at the McNichols building as the Biennial of the Americas also begins.

While "Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa, Art and Film” is a traveling show, its display in conjunction with the Biennial emphasizes how the Mexican and American "golden ages" of cinema were intertwined. It's an apt artistic venture for those interested in the Biennial's mission to show how culture and economics in the western hemisphere may be inseparable.

A portrait of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa at work is pasted onto a wall at the McNichols building. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Through December 23, on the third floor of the McNichols building, towering movie projections and enlarged frames from Figueroa's work transform the space into a cathedral of imagery. A young Clint Eastwood rests a hand on his holster, a man with arms outstretched stands atop a tower surrounded by an endless desert, Dia de los Muertos skeleton puppets dance beneath hanging strings. Upon entering, audiences are awash with sights and sounds.

As he worked on Tuesday night to ready the exhibit, co-curator Alfonso Morales said these images and symbols not only spurred a golden age in Mexican cinema, they also contributed to the creation of modern Mexican identity through film.

With 50 years of Figueroa's work under one roof, he said, the exhibition is a "compendium of the Mexican history of cinema.”

Alfonso Morales, co-curator of "Under the Mexican Sky," points out Figueroa's early work as a still photographer on Mexican movie sets. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

His career began during an explosion of filmmaking in Mexico that was due, in part, to the United States' involvement in World War II. As American filmmaking took a backseat to the war effort, the creative void left by Hollywood's absence gave Mexican artists a chance to flood the hemisphere with new work.

Figueroa's style, in turn, was informed by Hollywood's own golden era. He spent some time working for American filmmakers as he learned the craft, most notably becoming the apprentice of Gregg Toland, a favorite of Orson Welles who worked on the legendary "Citizen Kane." Figueroa, Morales said, brought Hollywood ideas back home and imbued them with Mexican heritage to create what the curator calls a “new movement in cinema."

As the two countries' cinematic legacies grew, Figueroa was called upon to shoot his home country for American directors and actors including Eastwood in "Two Mules for Sister Sarah" and Henry Fonda in "The Fugitive."

Images of Clint Eastwood (left) in "Two Mules for Sister Sarah" and Dolores del Río and Henry Fonda in "The Fugitive," examples of Figureroa's work in American filmmaking. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

His career would stretch into surrealism and pop art, bring him to work with equally important directors and generate numerous awards, including an Oscar nomination. "Los Olvidados," or "The Young and the Damned," would be the second film ever recognized by UNESCO as a "Memory of the World."

If you like movies or photography, this free exhibit is a feast for the eyes and well worth a visit. If you're interested in the Biennial of the Americas, there's lots to appreciate in that Figueroa's work touched cinematic development on both sides of the border.

Mauricio Maillé, director of arts at Visuzles de Fundatición Televisa, works as "Under the Mexican Sky" is installed. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

And Alfonso Morales agrees. Filmmaking is an “international language,” he said. "There are no borders in cinema.”

The Biennial was created to "recognize and build upon the important economic and cultural ties in the Americas," according to its website.

Massive enlargements of film from "La Perla," an adaptation of a John Steinbeck story released in 1945. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Color pop art by Gabriel Figueroa from the 1960s. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Curators Alfonso Morales (left) and Héctor Orozco, in "Under the Mexican Sky" during installation. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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