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."
Artworks 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.
Mural - Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, Mexico City
Los Danzantes de Chalma
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.
Mural - Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, Mexico City
The Banquet of the Rich
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.
Mural - Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, Mexico City
The Liberated Earth with the Natural Forces Controlled by Man
This striking mural was painted for the altar wall of a chapel at a Mexican University. It represents the peak of Rivera's style in Mexico; it is much less Italianate than his earlier attempts, instead embracing a muscular, uniquely Mexican aesthetic in bold earthy colors, which recall traditional Mexican art. Shockingly, considering its holy location, the mural depicts a voluptuous pregnant, nude woman, representing a fertile earth liberated through social revolution.
In this work, Rivera further explores the relationship between the results of revolution and natural human progress. The Mexican people, he suggests, will be transformed into the admirable muscular beings of the mural through revolutionary social ideals and the adoption of modern technology and industry. The voluptuous earth-woman is attended by figures representing natural forces: water, wind and fire. Each force has been adapted as being controlled by humans, who both conquer and fertilize the earth figure through their actions, using technology to harness wind power, run factories and utilize hydroelectricity. Some of these actions are represented in a highly sexualized way. As art historian Desmond Rochfort points out, "water is represented by a woman who sits in front of a giant hydro-electric tube which enters the labia of the earth in a symbolic act of penetration."
Mural - Chapel, Autonomous University of Chapingo, Mexico
When José Clemente Orozco was chosen to paint a mural of Prometheus for Pomona College, he was relatively unknown as an artist in the United States. This mural is in fact the first example of Mexican Muralist art in the US, extending the relevance of the movement beyond the borders of the country that originally produced it.
Most murals and public art in the US up to this point were fundamentally decorative in terms of intention and aesthetics. Orozco's designs for Pomona, on the other hand, were bold, dramatic and highly expressive. In Greek myth, Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to humankind, fire being a symbol for wisdom and enlightenment. This was an apropos message for the college, Orozco's heroic rendition of imparting knowledge to the learning masses.
Prometheus combines styles Orozco developed in his native Mexico with the powerful muscularity of a Michelangelo nude, an artist who had a strong influence on him. The composition of the painting works in perfect harmony with the architecture of the room. In fact, when asked how he liked the work in a Time magazine interview, the school's architect Spalding remarked, "I feel as if the building would fall down if the fresco were removed."
Historian David Scott argues that, "in at least one fundamental sense, the Prometheus was the first major "modern" fresco in this country." He goes on to explain, "It revealed a new concept of mural painting, a greatly heightened direct and personal expression. It challenged accepted conventions which decreed that wall decoration should be flat and graceful, pleasant, decorous, and impersonal."
Mural - Pomona College, Claremont, USA
Detroit Industry Murals
Diego Rivera was invited to paint a series of large-scale murals for the Ford Automobile production plant, which he worked on for nearly a year between 1932 and 1933. They are a key example of the evolving tenets of Mexican Muralism, which started as a highly politicized movement motivated by socialism yet had transitioned toward a glorification of American capitalist society. When the Mexican government outlawed the Communist party in 1929, Rivera continued to receive commissions and was concurrently expelled from the Communist party for his lack of protest.
Rivera considered these murals to be some of his best work, and he was deeply inspired by his observation of industry in Detroit. He recalls spending over two months after receiving the commission "in soaking up impressions of the productive activities of the city [...] I walked for miles through the immense workshops [...] I was fired with enthusiasm." Rivera found the machinery and human labor of the industrial buildings highly exciting, and created designs which show people and machines working in harmony, crammed with busy detail. As Rivera historian Linda Bank Downs puts it, "just as the Mexican muralists had painted images that connected ancient cultures of Mexico to contemporary Indian culture, so did Rivera introduce industry and technology as the indigenous culture of Detroit."
Mural - The Detroit Institute of Arts
Portrait of the Bourgeoisie
Although David Alfaro Siqueiros was one of the "big three" muralists, it wasn't until later that he became thoroughly well-known both in Mexico and internationally. One of the key works that propelled him to fame and cemented a later style of Mexican Muralism was his Portrait of the Bourgeoisie. It was painted for the headquarters of the union of electrical workers, who wanted a mural that would cement their position of public importance and power.
As a politically motivated socialist, Siqueiros insisted on a democratic artistic process, in which his team of assistant artists would all be paid equally and take key participatory roles in the decision-making process. The largest part of the mural, the central wall, was strongly influenced by Siqueiros' recent experiences of the Spanish Civil War: it depicts a dramatic representation of the Allied and German soldiers in WWII. In the center we find a machine in control of the conflict, spewing bloodied coins. This can be seen as a representation of the destructive nature of Fascism and Capitalism because as historian Desmond Rochfort points out, "anti-capitalist sentiment [...] tended to identify capitalism with fascism during this period." Rochfort also describes the piece as, "quintessentially a work of the 1930s", indicating Siqueiros' receptiveness of ideas and art outside the Mexican sphere. In fact, Siqueiros' design echoes the photomontage techniques developed by the Surrealists.
Mural - Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas headquarters, Mexico City
Relation of Man and Nature in Old Hawaii
Jean Charlot was one of early artists commissioned for the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria in the early 1920s. He was still painting murals a quarter of a century later, having remained on the periphery of the Mexican Muralist movement. Charlot was French-American by birth and his explorations into cultural self-identification from an outsider's point of view extended beyond the Mexican people and their revolutionary leaders.
In the late 1940s, he was invited to paint a mural for the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. He was interested in the identity of the native people of Hawaii in the same scholarly way he had been with the people of Mexico. Charlot had attended and assisted archaeological digs in Mexico in order to learn more about native culture and art. In Hawaii, he became similarly involved in the island chain's culture, studying its history, customs, and religion. He even learned the language and wrote plays in Hawaiian.
The mural explores the ways in which Hawaiian culture and identity is based upon their relationship with nature, from the flowers around their necks to the trees whose shapes echo their dancing bodies. It's a vital example of the Mexican Muralist tradition being used outside of Mexico to promote another lesser-known culture's rich traditions and unique attributes to the masses. This type of cultural pride piece was not an exultation of industry or political ideas and could be seen in later movements like the Chicano art movement as well.
Mural - University of Hawai'i-Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii
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 US
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.
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