Students showcase collection findings in 2021 Undergraduate Research Expo

With over 6,000 works in The Block Museum collection, there are countless opportunities to ask questions and pursue areas of research depth. Throughout 2021 our Curatorial Undergraduate Research Assistants Janitza Luna and Joyce Wang have supported the museum by seeking information about artworks within our collection database. As they became familiar with the collection, one particular work caught their eye, inspiring deeper inquiry that eventually became a stand-alone research project.

Working with Kathleen Bickford Berzock, Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs, as a faculty advisor, the pair developed a research abstract that was accepted for Northwestern University’s Undergraduate Research and Arts Exposition running May 26-27, 2021. “We are proud of the spirit of inquiry and discovery that Joyce and Janitza have brought to their work at The Block Museum. Their project exemplifies how the museum is a laboratory where students contribute meaningfully to our daily work” Berzock notes. Throughout their research the project supported by Melanie Garcia Sympson, Curatorial Associate. Sympson commented on the student’s work at themuseum.

Joyce and Janitza have immersed themselves in the deep object-based and cross-disciplinary research that we use to open up a work of art within its artistic, historical, political, and social contexts. Through this process, a print like this becomes a vehicle for investigating much wider issues.

– Melanie Garcia Sympson, Curatorial Associate

Research Abstract: Modernist Displays of Mestizo Identity in Covarrubias’ “Mexican Street Scene”

Miguel Covarrubias ( Mexican, 1904 – 1957), Mexican Street Scene, c.1940. Lithograph, 12 1/2 x 10 in. Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Gift of Anthony and Carolyn Donato. 1997.16.

“Mexican Street Scene” by Miguel Covarrubias, a print in The Block’s collection, lacks essential research about the complexities of the print itself, the artist’s intentions, and its possible audiences. Our work attempts to understand what Covarrubias was trying to convey in the artwork, considering his expertise in anthropology and his influential role in modernist circles moving between the U.S. and Mexico. Our research methodology included observing the lithograph directly, reading the artist’s own writings, and researching secondary sources to contextualize the historical and social implications of the print. Covarrubias’ artistic style reflects his global experiences and interdisciplinary interests. “Mexican Street Scene” depicts a general image of two traditionally dressed people in an ambiguous setting. This artwork, alongside other modernist work from the period, attempts to visualize a national Mexican identity for international audiences that were often far removed from the subjects of the art. In post-revolutionary Mexico, the upper and middle classes borrowed the aesthetics of rural and Indigenous culture as a way to differentiate themselves from the European aesthetics of previous regimes and to give an impression of a unified racial group. While mixed European and Indigenous culture, known as mestizaje, played a vital role in creating a national image, representations of rural subjects could often be reduced to stereotypes and generalizations in artworks. Understanding Covarrubias’ work contributes to our understanding of other works in The Block’s print collection, many of which include stories of revolution, identity, and labor in different contexts. 

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