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Manuel Álvarez Bravo: The Poetics of the Invisible

For decades during his lifetime and since, much was written about the life and photographic career of 20th century master Manuel Álvarez Bravo. For the most part, however, these writings have taken the form of exhibition catalogues, addressing the same set of iconic images, rather than proposing insights regarding the artist’s depth of thought and visual instincts. This exhibition attempts to fill these lacunae.

Bravo was equipped with what we might term an extraordinary thinking eye. His oeuvre, spanning more than eight decades, could be encapsulated in three words: dreams, visions, metaphors. Common to all is a sense of enigma, which the artist saw as a fundamental aspect of life. “Down here”, he once wrote, “everything is symbol and mystery.”

Indeed, Álvarez Bravo’s work sways between dream and reality, illusion and fantasy, imagination and the imaginary. His photographs are fictions based on reality, an imagery of paradoxes by which he created a spectral theater of life in Mexico. Each of Álvarez Bravo’s photographs could be seen as a vivid illustration of Lacan’s Borromean Knot in which the three orders of the real, the symbolic and the imaginary are tightly interdependent.

Usually writers and critics confined his work to the 1930s and 1940s, the period they identified as the height of his creativity. Nothing could be further than the truth; he worked almost to the last days of his century-long life, passionately and creatively.

As a visual poet deeply in love with literature, Álvarez Bravo offered in his photographs a rare combination of the visual and the verbal, the latter through the captions. These two elements complemented each other and expanded the scope and meaning of the images, while paradoxically and simultaneously explaining and obscuring their deeper significance. To truly appreciate his work one must therefore embark on a slow process of deciphering the symbols and clues strewn throughout them, especially since many of them are deeply rooted in Mexican art, culture and mythology.

Endowed with the tender humanist gaze he turned on his beloved country, not to mention a similar attitude to life altogether, Manuel Álvarez Bravo documented everyday Mexican life with its little dramas all the while making politically charged images. As an accomplished story teller he often revealed a plot without bringing viewers to specific conclusions but rather keeping them wondering, making them accomplices in search of an ending. Meanwhile, his captions explode and expand into additional dimensions with new and larger meanings.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s art was the result of a burning desire to comprehend existence, the world, the hidden and the unattainable. His work may be imagined as an algebraic sequence formed by the association of images complementing each other, adding up to personal perplexing formulas endowed with mystery.

The proposed exhibition takes as its source a long period of research together with extensive interviews with the photographer, his family and acquaintances, conducted during the 1980s. This material was recently complemented with new knowledge, given the rare opportunity to review the entire archive of nearly 40,000 photographs and private notebooks. Based on this new and comprehensive information, the exhibition, together with its publication, redefines Álvarez Bravo’s life and career through a wide selection of hitherto unknown and unpublished material, complemented by small selection of his famous iconic images. The exhibition sheds new light on his genius and reveals the personal logic and uninterrupted continuity of his photographic creativity. Unpublished variants of many of his iconic images provide fresh and unexpected insights into his approach and mode of work.

Exhibition Partner

The exhibition is supported by the Fundación Televisa and the Manuel Álvarez Bravo Archives.
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