Anita Brenner was a woman who straddled many worlds. She was multi-cultural before the word was invented. In fact, her footprint is deeply embedded in Mexican art, literature, world history, the muralist movement, tourism and politics. So, you wonder, why have you never heard her name before? If it weren’t for Susannah Glusker, I too, would be unfamiliar with this influential woman, who was way ahead of her times.
The late Susannah Glusker has published two books on Anita Brenner: Anita Brenner: A Mind of Her Own and the more recent Avant-Garde Art and Artists in Mexico: Anita Brenner’s Journals of the Roaring Twenties, redeeming the historical role of this activist-author, while simultaneously providing a fascinating glimpse into a Mexico of another era — the effervescent 20s, touching on the role of women living in a post-revolutionary Mexico.
Brenner was the daughter of Latvian immigrants who moved to Mexico seeking a better life. They settled in the city of Aguascalientes in the late nineteenth century due to a mining boom which created a pole of attraction. She was born in 1905 and raised there until the age of 11 when the family moved to Texas given the threat of ongoing revolts which eventually gave way to the Mexican Revolution.
Brenner became a noteworthy intellectual of her time, freely moving between many circles both in the U.S. and Mexico. Her influx of ideas, her exceptionally lucid, eloquent and versatile writing style which ranged from art reviews, travel reports and children’s stories allowed her to entertain while educating, bridging the gap among people of different backgrounds. Her prodigious passion for explaining Mexico to an English-speaking public gave her an edge during tumultuous times for Mexico and the world, making her so much more than a simple journalist or political activist.
Her interests crossed many boundaries – art, Mexican traditions, Jewish issues in Mexico, human rights – making her hard to pigeonhole. Writer Malcolm Gladwell would consider her a “connector,” based on his Tipping Point classification, i.e., part of “a community who know(s) large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions … They usually know people across an array of social, cultural, professional, and economic circles, and make a habit of introducing people who work or live in different circles.”
She hobnobbed with people whose names are easily recognizable today, including artists Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Frida Kahlo, Francisco Goitia, Carlos Merida, Jean Charlot, Miguel Covarrubias, William Spratling, Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, as well as intellectuals of her times such as Frances Toor, Alma Reed and Carlos Fuentes. As a journalist for the Sunday New York Times and The Nation, she interviewed major figures such as Leon Trotsky and Miguel de Unamuno to name a few!
In fact, Brenner was instrumental in bringing Trotsky to Mexico. Although she never formally adhered to any political party or ideology, being too much of a free-thinker to fall into one specific group, she actively participated in the International Committee for Political Prisoners and other radical groups. After interviewing Trotsky in Paris, she was contacted to help get him political asylum since his life was endangered in Europe. Cabling Diego Rivera, they worked the appropriate channels to get Trotsky sanctuary in Mexico.
It was Anita Brenner who introduced Jose Clemente Orozco to Alma Reed. The stormy, taciturn, idiosyncratic artist, today dubbed one of the “Three Great Muralists,” alongside Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, eventually cultivated a long-standing friendship with Reed. Thanks to the connection Brenner established between the two, Orozco found a patroness and anchor who arranged contracts for the painter, which led to commissions at the New School for Social Research, Pomona College and Dartmouth University.
She is also responsible for convinced German-born Jewish artist Mathias Goeritz to stay in Mexico after Diego Rivera bitterly attacked him in the local press. The name Goeritz might not ring a bell, but undoubtedly you have seen his works if you have been to Mexico. He designed the iconic 5 tower abstract sculpture which greet commuters on the Periferico bordering on Ciudad Satelite (along with architect Luis Barragan). He also designed the modern stained glass windows in the Metropolitan Cathedral in downtown Mexico as well as those in the Cuernavaca Cathedral, and participated in creating the Experimental Eco Art Museum, which recently reopened its doors as a gallery. Goeritz participated in several public art projects such the Friendship Route (La Ruta de la Amistad), a series of 18 enormous abstract sculptures which still dot the southern segment of the Mexico City Periferico commemorating the ’68 Olympics.
Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, director of silent masterpieces such as Battleship Potemkin (1925), October (1927) and several historic epics, was said to have been inspired by Anita’s first book Idols Behind Altars for his non-political work Que Viva México! Unfortunately, due to a series of financial and logistics mishaps, Eisenstein eventually abandoned this ambitious film project before it was finished. Diego and Frida referred to Eisenstein’s work as “moving frescos.”
Idols Behind Altars (Brenner’s first title published in 1929) remains today a fascinating compilation of essays covering the historic, religious and artistic aspects of Mexico spanning pre-Columbian times to what was at the time it was written a burgeoning modern muralist movement.
Her second book Your Mexican Holiday (1932) was a travel guide published back when travel in Mexico was considered exotic and difficult given a lack of infrastructure. Brenner began sharing her knowledge of the generosity and warmth of Mexico’s people and its impressive sights (pre-Hispanic ruins, amazing countryside landscapes, an emerging world-class artists’ moment and unequaled food) and eventually revived this thread in an English-language monthly magazine Mexico/This Month, as founder, editor, financial backer and writer. Her pioneering efforts in this sector were so outstanding that she was eventually recognized by the Mexican government.
Anita Brenner moved in many circles, comfortable in both the academic world as well as the literary world. With a PhD from Columbia University, she published an ambitious chronicle of Mexico’s complex revolution summarized in 100 pages of text supplemented with 184 photos entitled The Wind that Swept Mexico. This masterpiece remains surprisingly fresh and relevant even today, providing a candid portrayal of the revolution, recognizing its failure from the point of view of the campesino peasant class, the inefficient handling of land tenure, the role of a meddlesome church, etc.
With one foot in Mexico and another in the US, one foot in a staunch Roman Catholic society and another in a strong Jewish tradition, Brenner never shied away from complex, controversial topics. She became a spokesperson for the underdog, be it Mexicans bad-mouthed by the American press or the Jewish minority in a predominantly Catholic country. She wrote on touchy subjects such as the expropriation of the Mexican oil industry (in 1938), and William Randolph Hearst’s expansive land holdings in Mexico, as well as his meddling in Mexican politics in hopes of retaining his land by sending journalists to Mexico to write unfavorable reports and distorted information. Her point of view was always clear and consistent, unconcerned with gaining popularity. And her articles and books wielded great impact at the time they were published. It comes as no surprise that her opinionated, feisty personality combined with her bilingual background spurred many a debate.
With her untimely death in 1974 (caused by a car crash), she left several projects unfinished, including a children’s book on the life of Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Guerrero (who was shipwrecked and lived in the Yucatan peninsula 8 years prior to Hernan Cortes’s arrival), and a novel on Luis de Carvajal (who belonged to a well-known family of marranos or Jews who converted to avoid the persecution of the Holy Inquisition, only to eventually become its victim).
Brenner was at risk of falling into historical obscurity if it weren’t for the late Susannah Glusker, whose biographical works on her mother has rekindled her historic importance. Thanks to Glusker’s vivid childhood memories of family friends including Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Anthony Quinn and Henry Moore among others she was able produce cogent, well documented books that portray an accurate account of the life of Anita Brenner.
Unfortunately, Glusker passed away earlier this year, but she achieved her legacy to save Anita Brenner from historical limbo. I have chosen to resume my blog Mexican Museums and Mavens in tribute to my dear friend Susannah Glusker and her remarkable mother Anita Brenner, both role models for me and future generations.