Summary of Mexican Muralism
Originally spawned by the need to promote pride and nationalism in a country rebuilding after revolution, the Mexican Muralist movement brought mural painting back from its staid retirement in the history of ancient peoples as a respected artistic form with a strong social potential. With it, a rich visual language emerged in public spaces as a means to make art accessible to all. It provided an opportunity to educate and inform the common man with its messages of cultural identity, politics, oppression, resistance, progress, and other important issues of the time. It was a fiercely independent movement; many of its early artists rejecting external influences and used this new, vast, and freeing medium to achieve personal expression. This movement proved that art could be a valid communication tool outside the confines of the gallery and museum.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Murals were originally used as a way to spread visual messages to an illiterate population, which opened up new possibilities in the inclusion and cohesiveness of community within a people. Oftentimes these messages promoted pride in cultural identity, rich historical traditions, or political propaganda. The potential in murals bypassed more traditional forms of advertising and pamphlet printing.
- Although the early Mexican murals were inclined toward the favoring of socialism - as did its most important artists including Diego Rivera - they would evolve over time to also favorably portray the industrial revolution, the progress of technology, and capitalism. The mural's role as key gauge of current events cannot be denied.
- Mexican Muralism was a heavy predecessor of today's public art. It liberated art from the art market and its elitism, making it free and available to all people. The opportunities this presented for artists was vast and unfettered. They could now find exposure on a grander stage.
- Many mural artists commissioned by government or other authoritative bodies would come to reject the direction being handed down to them, instead creating work that incorporated some of their own ideas and values. Sometimes this proved highly controversial and sometimes they were allowed to get away with it. This impetus can be seen as an early example of what would later influence the graffiti and street art scenes. It is also interesting to note that in today's social media (Facebook) sphere, the sharing of our opinions - both visual and textual - are called "posting" on our "walls."
Overview of Mexican Muralism
Saying, "The role of the artist is that of a soldier in a revolution," Diego Rivera pioneered Mexican Muralism. He said his portrayals of the revolutionary Zapata and his followers were meant to make "the masses the hero of monumental art."
Important Art and Artists of Mexican Muralism
The Creation was Diego Rivera's first government-commissioned mural painting, chosen for Mexico's oldest high school. Dr. Atl had originally been commissioned to paint the mural before the Revolution took place in 1910, and Rivera's work was both a continuation and advancement of the earlier artist's revolutionary ideas.
The unusual shape of the wall Rivera was commissioned to fill in part determined the artist's composition. The large niche in the middle contains a pipe organ, and Rivera painted the consequent arch with a number of figures to the left and right, with a symbolic image of God reigning over the narrow curve of the arch. The figures of Adam and Eve sitting at the bottom on each side are depicted as naked Mexicans, gazing up at allegorical depictions of the arts and virtues as well as Catholic saints. The admired figures have both the pale skin of Western figures and the darker skin of indigenous Mexican peoples. The message is one of a new cosmopolitan and racially harmonious Mexico rising into the post-revolution age through an assimilation of modern and indigenous ideals.
This mural represents a key moment in the Mexican Muralist movement. Rivera takes the tropes of Italian Renaissance fresco painting he discovered on his travels in Europe, and combines them with a distinctly Mexican aesthetic, joining old and new styles in a unique and highly influential way. Rivera later felt however that he had borrowed too much from the Italianate style and wanted to create an even more "Mexican" aesthetic in the future.
Although Fernando Leal did not gain the fame of the "big three" Mexican Muralists, he was one of the first artists approached to decorate the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, because of his interest in depicting the local Mexican people. His mural is Post-Impressionist in style, influenced by depictions of non-Western people by artists such as Gaugin.
Los Danzates de Chalma depicts a moment Leal heard had recently occurred in a Mexican village. During a ritualistic dance to worship a statue of the Virgin Mary, the movement caused the statue to fall over in its case. This revealed another small statue of the native Mexican goddess of water, which had been hidden under the Catholic sculpture. For Leal, this demonstrated the current synthesis of Catholicism and local religion that was quintessential to the Mexican character. In presenting a Western religious rite as a scene of riotous movement and indigenous colors, Leal offered what the historian Dawn Ades describes as "a new, darker form of Indianism".
Leal was allowed to choose the spot for his mural in the school, and unusually he chose a section of wall above the central stairway. The space was geometrically awkward and dark but a prime example of Mexican Muralism's impetus to use the distinct characteristics of any given architecture as a blank slate outside the normal constraints of canvas, thus upending the hierarchies and traditional formats of art.
This mural was painted in the three-story courtyard of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, commissioned by the post-revolutionary government as part of their mural project for the school. In it, we see Orozco's characteristic caricature style, which was notably different to the Mexican-Italianate style being developed by Diego Rivera. Orozco borrowed this artistic technique from his years illustrating propaganda papers under the direction of Dr. Atl during the revolution. Jose Vasconcelos, who oversaw the mural project, recalled that Orozco was the "only painter who did not obey my orders and who painted what he wished."
The mural depicts a clear political message. The working classes, depicted at the bottom of the mural to represent their position at the bottom of the social order, are busy fighting amongst themselves, leaving the caricatured wealthy to enjoy their luxurious banquet. As Leonard Folgarait puts it, "the ridiculously grotesque distortion of the faces and bodies of the rich trio in the upper register is clearly intended to represent their decadence and abuses of power. They are able to frolic in this manner, not heeding any danger from the working class, because the workers are too busy fighting amongst themselves to pose any threat to their bosses." The workers are using their tools to attack one another in a self-destructive way, rather than using them to build up a better society. This is a vital early example of Mexican Muralist art being used to speak directly to the often-illiterate working classes, in an attempt to improve their conditions of living.
Useful Resources on Mexican Muralism
- Mexican Muralism: A Critical Historyby Alejandro Anreus, Robin Greeley and Leonard Folgarait
- My Art, My Life: An AutobiographyOur Pickby Diego Rivera
- Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: Mexican Modern Artby Helga Prignitz-Polga
- Diego Rivera: The Detroit Industry MuralsOur PickBy Linda Bank Downs
- Mural Painting and Social Revolution in Mexico, 1920-1940Our PickBy Leonard Folgarait
- Mexican Muralists: Orozco, Rivera and SiqueirosOur Pickby Desmond Rochfort
- Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Artby Leah Dickerman and Anna Indych-Lopez
- All you need to know about Mexican muralism and muralistsOur PickBy Angie Kordic / Widewalls
- Mexican Muralists: the big threeBy Rita Pomade / Mexconnect
- How Mexico formed a united national identity through artOur PickBy Ellen von Weigand / The Culture Trip
- Revolution, renaissance and the Mexican MuralistsBy Raul Alonzo / Strike Magazine / August 2, 2013
- Mexican Muralism: social communication tool from revolutionary timesBy Dania Vargas Austryjak / Mexico News Network / October 10, 2015
- Mexican modernism and the politics of paintingOur PickBy Frances Stonor Saunders / The Guardian / June 29, 2013