Mexican Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa Exhibition Hits LACMA

Courtesy of LACMA
Gabriel Figueroa

The exhibition titled "Under the Mexican Sky" will be presented with a film series alongside the Figueroa retrospective.

A woman is breaking down, in terror and sadness, her face pixelated through the relief of the screen door directly in front of her anguished face.  To the right of this film projection is a photograph of the vanguard cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, bare-chested, with his eye pressed to the back of the film camera seemingly trained on the grief-stricken woman flickering before you. You have just entered the exhibition “Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa -- Art and Film” at LACMA. This is an exhibition of passion, an exploration of how art can approximate the desire, tragedy and longing of the human condition. It is Mexican. It is American. It is the product of a beautiful collaboration between two countries that have been torn apart by bricks, wire and lead-headed politicians who cannot stop the immigration of art across the boundaries of law, land and time through the magic of film.

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Celebrating the life’s work of Gabriel Figueroa (1907-1997), “Under the Mexican Sky” is a mesmerizing melange of film, photography, paintings, drawings, prints, correspondence and ephemera surrounding the work of the great "Gaby." There is a tender letter from the director John Huston to his "dear friend Gaby" in a group of materials loaned to the exhibition from the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. This is but one of the remarkable connections that Figueroa generated on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border. Figueroa came to the States from Mexico City in the 1930s to study with Academy Award winning cinematographer Gregg Toland. Highly regarded by fellow industry professionals, Figueroa shot over 230 films including Night of the Iguana for Huston; The Fugitive by John Ford; and Two Mules for Sister Sara. Works in the exhibition by great muralist painters like Diego Rivera and photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo help contextualize the expressionistic cinematography of Figueroa.

When asked about the pioneering quality of the Figueroa exhibition -- integrating film into the galleries beside paintings, photographs and sculpture -- LACMA Director Michael Govan had the following to say: "We have introduced hundreds of hundreds of moving images into our exhibition program in the last year. Moving images are one of the most powerful art forms that has ever existed -- we all agree on that." He continued, "It is very present and it also helps us think about our society -- the way we think now. The politics, the culture that is in this [exhibition] is as important as what is in any other medium."

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Govan had more thoughts about the way the many looped film segments operate within the exhibition. "In a museum you are telling stories of art history and you often have to use fragments. And fragments are beautiful.  And nowhere else have I seen such beautiful film fragments than those of Gabriel Figueroa, because he seemed to think in those pictures -- those short moving images," he said.  "Also, it's the application of curatorial practice to film. There are how many paintings, drawings and sculptures  -- infinite amounts. And what curators do is start to cull through them. And now there are so many images within moving images that it is important for the curatorial practice to start to sift and sort those and highlight as we do in the other media. I think in the earlier days of cinema there weren’t so many things that you couldn’t see them all. It was humanly possible to see most of the moving images made at one point in history. And now, that’s inconceivable, just like with art. And so now the curatorial practice helps to highlight and focus."

A dramatic documentary about the work of Figueroa was shown earlier this year at LACMA. A "greatest hits" of Figueroa, Miradas Múltiples (La Máquina Loca) was directed by filmmaker Emilio Maille. In the lush black-and-white tribute scored by Michael Nyman, many legendary cinematographers --  including Janusz Kaminski, Javier Aguirresarobe, Darius Khondji, Eduard Grau, Anthony Dod Mantle, Pascal Marti and Vittorio Storaro -- discuss the influence of Gabriel Figueroa on their craft.

LACMA is currently presenting a number of film series alongside the Figueroa retrospective. "Luis Buñuel and Gabriel Figueroa: A Surreal Alliance" runs through Oct. 19; "Que Viva Mexico -- Cinema Before the Golden Age," Nov. 15-16; "Under the Volcano -- Figueroa and Hollywood,"
Nov. 22-23;  and "Another Dawn -- Mexican Cinema Today," January 2014. More information is available on the LACMA site.