When we think about Mexican art at the beginning of the 20th century, all our attention might go to the Muralism; following the conflict that began in 1910, many leftist intellectuals began advocating for a democratic political change, and artists did their part mostly by painting socio-politically charged murals for the largely uneducated public.
However, there was another creative way to reach the people, used by "the Big Three" Mexican Muralists - Diego Rivera (1886-1957), José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) - in parallel with their mural-making.
"The three greats quickly realized that their greatest accomplishments as artists, their murals, could not be seen properly by everyone," says Lyle W. Williams, Curator of Collections at the McNay Art Museum. "They sought a way to make their work better known, particularly in the United States. Printmaking was a logical choice. They published many of their prints in New York, largely for a US audience."
Mr Williams is also the person behind Los Tres Grandes: Obras de Rivera, Siqueiros y Orozco at the McNay, an exhibition offering a rare opportunity to see nearly all of the prints by "the three greats", juxtaposed with a selection of artworks by the next generation of Mexican printmakers from the collaborative 1937 print workshop El Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP).
Indeed, Mexico has had the longest printmaking tradition in all of Americas. Between the 1920s and the 1940s it had its golden age, with Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros painting propaganda murals on government buildings and creating posters and prints of the everyday life in Mexico - here comes to mind Rivera's marvelous 1932 lithograph of the hero of the Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata.
Another Rivera highlight is Sleep from 1932, on view in the McNay exhibition. Mr Williams shares: "In the image, a family sleeps huddled together. The soft curves that delineate heads, the arc of an arm, the collar of the mother's blouse all have a quiet quality that repeats throughout the composition giving a sense of slumber."
On view in San Antonio, TX there will also be Orozco's Rear Guard from 1929, also known as On the Road, depicting women carrying children and guns. Orozco only made about fifty lithographs and etchings, but his condemnations of war are poignant, carrying a unique aesthetic sensibility.
As for Siqueiros, probably the most political of the three greats, there will be his 1931 portrait of William Spratling, artist and silver designer, among others.
Accompanying the prints of Los Tres Grandes will be the artworks of El Taller de Gráfica Popular, or People's Graphic Workshop. Building onto the legacy of Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros, they sought to use art as a tool in the advancement of revolutionary social causes.
"The works of the Taller de Graifica Popular, which was founded in Mexico City in 1937, show how the tradition established by the three greats got interpreted by the next generation of Mexican modernists," explains Mr Williams. "Most of these works date to the 1940s and deal with the history and aftermath of the Mexican Revolution."
On display at the McNay there will be masterful lithographs and linocuts by one of the founders, Leopoldo Méndez, but also other artists belonging to the collective, like Francisco Mora and Jesus Escobedo.
The McNay has one of the strongest collections of Mexican modernist prints in the world, started in the late 1920s when the Museum's founder Marion Koogler McNay purchased Diego Rivera’s painting Delfina Flores.
"The McNay’s founding director John Palmer Leeper considered Mexico's mural cycles the most important works of art in the Western Hemisphere. He wanted a way for the McNay's collection to recognize that and since murals can't travel, he focused on collecting prints by the Mexican muralists instead."
In 2000, the McNay also acquired all of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's duplicates of prints by Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco, deepening its commitment to Mexican art. "This acquisition joined the TGP objects to create one of the most important collection of Mexican modern prints to be found anywhere," says Mr Williams.
Los Tres Grandes: Obras de Rivera, Siqueiros y Orozco is on view in the Frost Galleries of the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio through January 3, 2021.
Featured image: José Clemente Orozco - Rear Guard, 1929. Lithograph. Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Museum purchase with funds from the Cullen Foundation, the Friends of the McNay, Charles Butt, Margaret Pace Willson, and Jane and Arthur Stieren. © José Clemente Orozco / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SOMAAP, Mexico. All images courtesy the McNay Art Museum.