“The community that terrorizes over man forgets that men are 'persons', not biological units.” These were the words spoken by the leaders of Mexico’s political revolt in 1910 that would come to influence the country’s biggest art movement as well - Mexican Muralism. As the nation-wide revolution against the tyranny of President Porfirio Díaz was slowly building up, a small intellectual community was led by Antonio Curo, Alfonso Reyes and José Vasconcelos, together with graphic artist José Guadalupe Posada and Gerardo Murillo, also known as Dr. Atl and the creator of the first Modern mural. These highly educated and cultured men were of immense influence on an entire generation of Mexican muralists that continued their work a decade later all the way through the 1970s. It was an uprising that let art speak in its name; indeed, it is probably safe to say that no other movement proposed and produced art for the people quite like the Mexican mural painting, intertwined with its nation and tradition with such dedication and vision.
After the Mexican Revolution, which had dictator Porfirio Díaz and his regime overthrown, and the political turmoil that followed for the next few years, Mexico saw the creation of a new party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional - the PRI. The land was finally in the hands of its own workers, but there was so much to be done: the new government sought to establish a brand new Mexican society, founded on its rich tradition but very much forward-looking. Since most of the population was illiterate, an effective way to change that would be through the creation of visual messages that would not only appeal aesthetically, but that would also promote certain ideals. And so, Mexican muralism became a vital part of the country’s new industrialist identity in the making, under the full support of those in charge of it. But despite this kind of groundbreaking endorsement, these murals were very controversial for their time, and they often included elements of Marxism.
Although the mural movement stretched out all the way through the 1970s, the Mexican muralists produced the most significant paintings in the years between the 1920s and the 1950s. Their work was remarkable in many ways and as such it has brought art to its highest level of purpose and perhaps even aesthetics. Undisputed by the state, and even getting along with it - at least for a while - it was above all public and free, made accessible to the people and not just a few wealthy collectors. These large-scale paintings graced the walls of centuries-old colonial buildings, prestigious schools and national offices, as they depicted indigenous Mexican culture, the fighting and the outcome of the Revolution, the mixed-race mestizo identity and all things related to traditions of Latin America and Mesoamerica.
The muralists were completely free in their choice of topic and technique, as they all believed art is the highest form of human expression, and because their murals carried a political message, Mexican muralism became a form of social realism at its finest. The artists, including “los tres grades” Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, portrayed the Aztec warriors battling the Spanish in their fight for the independence, humble peasants fighting in the Revolution, common laborers of Mexico City using fresco, encaustic, mosaic of glass, ceramic and metal, and sculpture-painting. They worked in the country’s urban areas and were prominent political activists overall, dedicated to creating modern Mexico. Their communist backgrounds and the respect for Marxism and class struggle, however, were often visible in their murals, although always subtly and never quite radically.
We wouldn’t be able to talk about Mexican muralism as we know it today without its three key muralists: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Legendary, innovative, daring and incredibly patriotic, these gentlemen were “los tres grandes” - the three great ones who had continued the work of José Vasconcelos which used art as the most powerful tool in cultural and social revolution. With various styles and temperaments, yet with the same visions, los tres grandes all graduated from the prestigious San Carlos Academy, studied in Europe and were inspired by its modernist painting, although in different amounts. They influenced each other greatly, even though Diego Rivera was not quite accepted by the other two given he never fought in the Mexican Revolution, yet he dared to depict it. Nevertheless, their murals were a result of a collective spirit, because in the end - it was all about art and the people.
Of the three great ones, Diego Rivera was perhaps the most famous, and the most traditional artist. He incorporated much of European Modernism in his work, particularly elements of Cubism, which he later toned down on in an effort to recreate the flair of indigenous murals. Driven by Mexico’s bright colors, Rivera depicted his people as noble and glorious, saluting their history and heritage and paying homage to the hard workers in the most respectful way. His murals are the most recognizable ones even today, both by those living in and out of the country standing as an extraordinary visual diary of Mexico in all its diversity and honesty.
Drawing from the European expressionism, José Clemente Orozco was perhaps the most dire of los tres grandes. In the manner of a dark prophet, he emphasized human suffering and cruelty, leaving nothing unsaid when it came to the horrors of the Mexican Revolution, in which he fought. Orozco was no idealist, his intentions were to show that not everything is pretty and great in his homeland, and this often exposed him to much criticism. His murals were often defaced and even threatened to be whitewashed by the government for their explicitly straight-forward content, and he himself was proclaimed “sick” by a number of art critics. Another aspect of Orozco’s work is the fear of mankind’s ever-growing dependency on technology and the incredible power it will have over us in the future.
The youngest and the most radical, David Alfaro Siqueiros was also the most innovative, having used unusual techniques such as pyroxlene, a commercial enamel and Duco, a transparent automobile paint. He was also among the first to experiment with acrylic, resins and asbestos. A fan of “accidents” in his painting caused by color or the very act of creation, the artist incorporated science, technology and machinery into his work while still holding on to the primary task of conveying a message to common people. The art of Siqueiros evoked speed and progress, but also the kind of political vision that was not well received by the authorities in Mexico, or the United States - which is why today most of his murals can be found in South America.
As one of the most important movements of public art and the arts of the 20th century in general, Mexican muralism had the main role in bringing mural painting back as a respected and wide-spread artistic form with a strong social intent. Its ideas also found their way to other parts of the Americas, like Guatemala, Ecuador and Brazil. But perhaps the movement’s greatest influence can be seen in the United States, where many Mexican muralists spent time and created seminal paintings, including los tres grandes who practically paved the way for other artists to come and work there. Orozco was the first to make murals there in the late 1920s, at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and later in San Francisco and New York as well. Diego Rivera left some important pieces in Detroit, while Siqueiros’s most notable paintings are still on the walls in Los Angeles.
Mexican muralists also served as an inspiration for the Works Progress Administration program introduced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, whose 1933 Public Works of Art Project saw 3600 artists create murals and sculptures for public buildings across the United States. Although their depictions weren’t political, the intention to make art public and accessible to all remained the same. Mexican muralism also helped the creation of the Chicano movement, established by Mexican-American artists in the 1960s who wanted to form their own aesthetics in the country and to illustrate their own struggles and social issues. Needless to say that the revolutionary mural painting of Mexico opened many doors for the street art and graffiti movement of today, in South America and beyond, as it proposed public art as a legitimate form of artistic expression embraced by the people and free of limitations.
Editors’ Tip: Mexican Muralists: Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros
Now legendary, Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros are the men that have emerged as the most prominent figures of the famed Mexican mural movement, which lasted from the '20s through the early '70s and was hailed as the most significant achievement in public art of the 20th century. The dramatic story of the movement is told here in a fascinating history of the artists, accompanied by over 100 spectacular color reproductions of the murals. Showcasing popular as well as lesser-known works from around the US and Mexico, this is the first high-quality paperback to do justice to a subject that will captivate every lover of Mexican art and culture, Rivera fan, and art historian, as well as anyone who appreciates a beautiful, intelligent art book.
Featured images in slider: Diego Rivera - El Hombre en la encrucijada, 1934 at Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City; David Alfaro Siqueiros - Torment and Apotheosis of Cuauhtémoc (detail), 1950-51 at Museum of the Palace of Fine Arts; José Clemente Orozco - The Epic of American Civilization, 1932-34; Ramón Alva de la Canal - El desembarco de los españoles y la cruz plantada en tierras nuevas; Roberto Montenegro - The Tree of Life or the Tree of Science 1920s at the Museo de la Luz, Mexico City; The Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros. All images used for illustrative purposes only.