Mexican Muralism - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Mexican Muralism
Mexico's Traditional Murals
Mexico has a long tradition of mural painting. This legacy dates back to the pre-Hispanic period with an ancient civilization called the Olmecs, which produced some of the earliest known painted art in South America. This tradition continued under Hispanic rule as murals were used to introduce the Mexican people to the stories and ideas of Catholicism. From this point on, mural painting became one of the most dominant forms of art in Mexican culture, a countrywide tool for means of expression. This precedence provided a readymade platform for the politically motivated and fostered the birth of the Mexican Muralism movement.
The Mexican Revolution
The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 with a political revolt against the tyrannical president Porfirio Diaz. This spurred a decade long civil war, led by a number of charismatic individuals whose personal political agendas frequently determined the course of the revolution. These leaders consorted with a group of radical intellectuals, including the artists José Guadalupe Posada and Gerardo Murillo, the latter was more widely known as Dr. Atl. In 1906, Dr. Atl had written a manifesto expressing a desire for a new art movement in Mexico that which would speak to the interests and realities of the Mexican people. This document was an important precursor to the Mexican Muralist movement, and was seen and admired by his artistic acquaintances, including artist Diego Rivera. Dr. Atl is generally credited with conceiving of the first modern mural for the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, Mexico's oldest secondary school construction had begun in 1910 but it, along with the idea of the mural, was postponed due to the revolution and was never completed in that location.
When the Mexican Revolution ended in 1920, Diaz had been overthrown and a new government came into rule, which would eventually establish itself as the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). The new government's aim was to establish a new era for Mexico and its newly empowered people, and one of the ways it planned to do this was through art.
A Government-backed program
In 1920, the new government decided to follow in Dr. Atl's footsteps, and commissioned a large number of public works of art which would promote and support the values fundamental to the revolution and to help establish a new identity for Mexico. This new identity was based on Mexico's rich historical traditions as well as a sense of moving forward into the modern age.
Importantly, most Mexicans at the time were illiterate, and promoting the new government's message could not be accomplished through traditional media such as pamphlets and newspapers. Instead, the government communicated their cause through large-scale murals in public places which could be seen by many. The murals' aesthetic appeal would also help Mexicans adapt to the new regime by affecting an overall sense of pride and cultural beauty within the communities as a whole. The murals were usually painted with themes glorifying the Mexican Revolution, recalling Mexico's early pre-Hispanic heritage and promoting the ideals of the new government. In order to create these murals, the government employed some of the best Mexican artists of the day. Some of these artists, including Diego Rivera, had spent time in Europe before the revolution, and were well acquainted with the European realism movement overseas in which artists used painting to demonstrate the dire conditions of the downtrodden working classes. This was a key influence on the revelatory style of the Mexican Muralist movement.
Los Tres Grandes
David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, and Diego Rivera became the leaders of the muralist movement in Mexico and became known internationally as "los tres grandes" or "the big three." Rivera was the most famous of these artists. He incorporated European Modernism and elements of Cubism into his work combined with Mexico's bright colors to depict his people, and particularly the working class, as noble and glorious. Orozco, who had fought in the revolution, drew from European expressionism to portray the suffering of mankind, the horrors of war and the fear of a future dependence on technology in very straightforward ways. Siqueiros was young and radical, using progressive techniques and materials in murals that oftentimes blended visions of science and machinery to convey progress. Although all three men had different political beliefs and ideals, they agreed that art, as the highest form of expression, should be a vital part of Mexico's new post-revolutionary identity. They saw art as a vehicle for education and for the improvement of society. They formed the influential Labor Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors as a body, which could glorify the Mexican people and bring their artistic efforts to wider attention.
Escuela Nacional Preparatoria
The government's initial efforts went toward commissioning murals for the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria. The school was a key stepping-stone for anyone hoping to join politics or Mexico's intellectual scene. Diego Rivera, already an established artist, was chosen to paint a mural of The Creation for the school's auditorium. This was a transitional work by Rivera, which laid the groundwork for the Mexican Muralist movement.
The government also commissioned a number of other Mexican artists to create murals for the school, including José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Fernando Leal and Jean Charlot. While Leal and Charlot were not as well known, nor as inflammatory and controversial as "los tres grandes", their participation showed that Mexican Muralism was a countrywide movement adopted by a number of artists who had previously worked in a range of different styles. Following the success of the large-scale project at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, the mid 1920s consequently saw an explosion of mural works across the country and the artists involved quickly gained international recognition for their unique styles.
Mexican Muralism in the USA
By the end of the 1920s, the influence of Mexican Muralism began to spread, particularly to the United States. After gaining success and recognition in Mexico, all three of "los tres grandes" spent some time in the US. This was partly because cracks were beginning to show in the idealism popularly expressed in Mexico immediately after the revolution. The words and actions of the government no longer aligned precisely with those of the artists they employed and, while the initial period of Mexican Muralism was characterized by the artists' freedom to express themselves, the government increasingly sought to control the subjects depicted in the murals they commissioned.
In 1930, José Clemente Orozco was invited to paint a mural at Pomona College in Claremont, California marking the arrival of Mexican Muralism in the US. Diego Rivera also moved to the US that same year and gained commissions to paint murals all over the country, only returning to his native country four years later. David Alfaro Siqueiros was exiled from Mexico in 1932 and moved to Los Angeles, where he painted several well-known murals. The arrival of these artists created a sensation in American art, and murals quickly became a popular form of public art in the US. In Mexico, as the 1940s approached, mural painting became more aligned with private patronage under a growing bourgeoisie; by this point, muralism had evolved a long way from its revolutionary socialist beginnings.
Mexican Muralism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Because the Mexican Muralist movement was spurred by the Mexican Revolution and succeeding civil war, one of its key aims was to shake up art in the same way that the revolution had shaken up Mexican society. Mural painting was ideal for inspiring revolutionary fervor in a mostly-illiterate population, due to its narrative content and availability in public places, eschewing the traditionally elitist environment of the museum.
As well as rejecting the traditional places for showing art, the movement hoped to reject all the conventional trappings of artistic production. To this end, they chose to paint directly onto walls with painting materials inspired by traditional native Mexican wall paintings. The resulting murals were shaped according to the architecture of the designated space, rejecting the usual rectangular shape of the canvas that had come to dominate Western art. Similarly, the production of murals under government commissions meant that the art produced was not for sale, undermining the traditionally dominant art market.
In the initial post-revolution years of the Mexican Muralist movement, artists were generally given free reign to choose their subjects and express them in whichever way they preferred. Many of the artists involved were ardent socialists or communists, believing in the power of the working classes and in the equal distribution of wealth. Some artists, such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, applied their socialist approach to their artistic process, dividing up tasks and rewarding his assistants equally. Others, such as Orozco, subtly incorporated socialist imagery into their murals, such as the hammer and sickle.
As the post-revolution government sought to cement its control in the late 1920s, however, they began to attempt to restrict artists in the subjects they could depict. As a result, Rivera chose to adapt his style, but others, such as Siqueiros, were exiled for their strong political views.
Despite Mexican Muralism's socialist beginnings, many of the artists involved in the movement later became fascinated by the capitalist industrial innovations demonstrated by companies in the US. Most notably, Diego Rivera made a series of murals in Detroit depicting men working in harmony with machines to create the ultimate fusion of human labor and contemporary technology. Others, such as Siqueiros, saw the innovations of technology as a double-edged sword, although Siqueiros remained fascinated by the imagery of industry. In his mural for the Electrical Workers Union, he painted an image of the power of electricity combined with a politically motivated depiction of the "machine" of war causing death and destruction.
The main religion of Mexico was Catholicism, brought in as part of the earlier Spanish rule over the country. However, it was a form of Catholicism that incorporated the imagery and rituals of indigenous Mexican religions. For many Mexican Muralists, including Diego Rivera and Fernando Leal, this combination of Western and native religious rites was something that made the Mexican identity unique, and they explored this in several of their works. Yet, they didn't necessarily treat religion in the same way. Rivera's Creation and Leal's Los Danzates de Chalma, both painted in 1922, depict different forms of religious integration. Rivera's mural suggests a mystical approach to assimilating Western religious imagery with portrayals of native Mexicans as Adam and Eve, while Leal's uses a Post-Impressionist style to highlight a real event in a local Mexican village which he felt was emblematic of Mexico's unique form of religion.
Later Developments - After Mexican Muralism
The influence of Mexican Muralism on art was most evident in the Americas. Visits to the US by Mexican Muralists such as Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros helped influence President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Public Works of Art project, administrated through the Works Progress Administration. It was intended to provide employment for artists and craftspeople during the Great Depression, and to create morale-lifting murals and sculptures for public buildings. It took inspiration from the post-revolutionary Mexican government's program of public murals and even employed some of the Mexican muralists in the US, including Rivera. On the flipside, Mexican Muralism also influenced the rise of American Social Realism during the Great Depression as artists began to sympathize and express the ugly realities of the working class and the gap between the rich and the poor. This included Ashcan School artists such as Edward Hopper, known for showing a decidedly New York perspective of life. It is also encompassed other artists like Reginald Marsh whose paintings portrayed the carnivalesque underbelly of the social classes; the New York School's Philip Guston with his cartoonesque renditions of existential angst, and documentary photographer Dorothea Lange, renowned for capturing authentic faces from the Dust Bowl.
The muralists had even further reaching influence from their positions within the US. For example, when living in New York, Siqueiros gave experimental art classes, and one of his students was Jackson Pollock, whom he encouraged to continue in his experiments, which would become the beginnings of Abstract Expressionism. Like Siqueiros and the other muralists, Pollock rejected the traditional usage of the canvas, but rather than dispensing with it entirely, Pollock began creating wall-sized works and painting with the canvas on the floor.
In 1931, five of Diego Rivera's murals were featured in an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, gaining him widespread appreciation in the US. In 1933, after his mural Man at the Crossroads was destroyed by its Rockefeller Center patrons for the inclusion of an image of Lenin, students working on the San Francisco Coit Tower mural went into protest alongside other artists across the country. Some art lovers even tried to get it moved, prior to its destruction, to the Museum of Modern Art.
Mexican Muralism would also serve as inspiration for the Chicano art movement.
In Mexico and South America, mural painting continues to be a dominant art form, particularly notable in the proliferation of street art projects in many Central and South American cities.