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Manuel Alvarez Bravo: Optical Parables

Getty Exhibition Celebrates Master Mexican Photograher as He Turns 100
November 13, 2001 - February 17, 2001

Press Preview: Tuesday, November 13, 2001

October 30, 2001

Los Angeles--Manuel Alvarez Bravo: Optical Parables is an exhibition of more than 100 rare photographs celebrating the Mexican artist long hailed as one of the great masters of 20th-century photography. On view from November 13, 2001 through February 17, 2002 at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, this compelling exhibition anticipates Alvarez Bravo's 100th birthday on February 4, 2002, and highlights work that Alvarez Bravo produced in Mexico from the 1920s to the 1970s. Also included are photographs by his contemporaries Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, and Paul Strand who worked in Mexico in the 1920s and '30s. Alvarez Bravo is expected to visit Los Angeles for the opening.

Weston Naef, curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, comments, "Manuel Alvarez Bravo has opened more eyes to the potential of photography as a work of art than any other living artist in all the Americas. The Getty is extremely fortunate to hold and now exhibit many of his finest works. This centennial celebration of the artist's birth is a unique opportunity to honor his distinguished career and to share with the public his power to observe the totally unexpected in his surroundings."

The Getty Museum holds the largest institutional collection in the United States, and perhaps the world, of Alvarez Bravo prints made contemporaneous with their negatives. This exhibition features many of the Museum's holdings and highlights recent gifts and photographs on loan from Los Angeles collectors Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser. The exhibition is co-curated by Roberto Tejada of Buffalo, New York; and Mikka Gee Conway, curatorial assistant in the Getty's department of photographs. Tejada, formerly Octavio Paz's assistant, is an art critic, scholar, and Alvarez Bravo expert who prepared the manuscript for the Getty's forthcoming In Focus book on the artist.

The Artist's Evolution

Manuel Alvarez Bravo (b. 1902) emerged as part of a talented generation of artists with ties to the avant-garde in post-revolutionary Mexico. Throughout eight decades, Alvarez Bravo has continued to make insightful artistic and socially relevant photographs that interpret the complexities of modern Mexican culture. The Getty exhibition traces Alvarez Bravo's evolution as an artist, from his early pictorialist-inspired beginnings, to his refined formalist style, and his later, emotion-driven imagery.

A self-taught intellectual and philosopher, Alvarez Bravo expresses his views visually. His work reflects the radical changes of the era, both illustrating the passage of time and capturing unexpected moments of everyday life in Mexico City and the countryside. He demonstrates a remarkable ability to create photographs that blend social consciousness with poetic imagery. The enigmatic, almost literary, titles of his photographs add to their mystique. His works transform ordinary shapes of hair, hands, or books into protagonists in a dream-world tableau.

Alvarez Bravo began photographing during Mexico's creative ferment of the 1920s and '30s, when the promise of a new, post-war idealistic order attracted a host of international artists including Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein and French surrealist writer André Breton. The photographers Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Paul Strand, and Henri Cartier-Bresson also worked in Mexico City and helped influence his style. Modotti in particular urged the young Alvarez Bravo to pursue his craft. The exhibition will feature selected works by these photographers whose work flourished during the cultural renaissance following the social and political turmoil of Mexico's 10-year revolution.

In the 1930s and '40s, Alvarez Bravo's work evolved as he experimented with different forms. Like Paris photographer Eugène Atget (1856-1927), Alvarez Bravo became fascinated by city street scenes, signs, vendors, and storefronts. Against the backdrop of Mexico City and the contrasts between the visible reminders of indigenous civilizations and the rapidly changing modern landscape, Alvarez Bravo refined his unique photographic style. Many of his works capture the contradictions between urban life and personal solitude. His photograph Obrero en huelga asesinado (Striking Worker Murdered) especially blurs the line between high art and documentation.

During this time, Alvarez Bravo was hired to take photographs for the influential Mexican Folkways magazine and traveled throughout Mexico documenting customs, festivities, and folklore. He went above and beyond the task--his photographs of contrasting shapes in outdoor burial sites, walls, roadside shrines, the cluttered yard of a tinker, as well as the juxtaposition of people, animals, and their surroundings, question perceptions of reality.

Some of Alvarez Bravo's most stirring works explore the surrealist themes of sleep, dreams, death, and the erotic. Although he never considered himself a surrealist, these qualities are demonstrated in the Getty exhibition's 1938 photograph of a woman wrapped in strips of gauze bandages, La buena fama durmiendo (Good Reputation Sleeping), that Breton commissioned for the cover of a surrealist exhibition catalogue.

Related Publication:

Concurrent with the exhibition, the Getty is publishing a new book about Alvarez Bravo in its In Focus photography series. It will be available for $17.50 (paperback) at the Getty bookstore, online at, or by calling 800-223-3431. The In Focus series highlights the Museum's significant holdings of works by major photographers. Each volume contains photographs with commentaries, an introduction, a chronology, and a transcription of a colloquium on the photographer's life and work. Other 20th-century photographers featured in the series are Eugène Atget, August Sander, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz, and Doris Ulmann.

Related Programs:

Alvarez Bravo's Metropolis
Roberto Tejada, independent art critic and co-curator of the exhibition Manuel Alvarez Bravo: Optical Parables, will examine the relationship between the evolving material culture of modern life in Mexico City and the visual challenges the metropolis has posed to image makers, from Alvarez Bravo to present- day photographers and filmmakers.
Harold M. Williams Auditorium, Sunday, November 18, at 4 p.m.
Seating reservations required.

Point-of-View Gallery Talks
Francesco Siqueiros, painter, print maker, and founder of El Nopal Press, will discuss Alvarez Bravo's influence on contemporary Chicano artists. Friday, January 11, at 6 and 7:30 p.m. in the Museum galleries.
Limited to 25 people; sign up at the Museum Information Desk after 4:30 p.m.

The Museum's interactive, multimedia resource, ArtAccess, located in each Art Information Room will offer a special presentation on Alvarez Bravo.

All events are free and open to the public. When seating reservations are required, please call 310-440-7300 or visit

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About the Getty:

The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that features the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Getty Research Institute. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations: the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu.

Sign up for e-Getty at to receive free monthly highlights of events at the Getty Center and the Getty Villa via e-mail, or visit our event calendar for a complete calendar of public programs.

The J. Paul Getty Museum collects in seven distinct areas, including Greek and Roman antiquities, European paintings, drawings, manuscripts, sculpture, and decorative arts, and European and American photographs. The Museum's mission is to make the collection meaningful and attractive to a broad audience by presenting and interpreting the works of art through educational programs, special exhibitions, publications, conservation, and research.