Artworks and Artists of Mexican Muralism
Progression of Art
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 - 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