Revolution, Renaissance, and the Mexican Muralists

Raul Alonzo examines the impact of the Muralist Movement on the Mexican Revolution

Part of Diego Rivera's "History of Mexico"
Part of Diego Rivera’s “History of Mexico”

New Horizons are Born from Paint and Fire: The year 1910 sounded the death knell for the old ruling order of Mexico, ushered along to it’s end by the victorious cries of “tierra y libertad!,” that rang throughout the countryside. This was also the year that Gerardo Murillo, who would go on to be baptized “Dr. Atl,” the Nahuatl word for “water,” painted the first modern mural in Mexico, mere months before the first shots of the Revolution were fired.

Prior to the Revolution, the artistic output in Mexico was stagnated by the rule of the dictator Gen. Porfirio Diaz. The ruling classes embraced the art of the “Old Masters,” namely those of the imperialist and colonizing powers of Europe.

In essence, with the painting of that first mural, and the subsequent teachings and influence of Atl and others, artistic revolution would coincide with political revolution in Mexico. The question then was one that forwarded a bold task before the nation: how shall a new identity for a nation reborn take root?

Enter Jose Vasconcelos. A writer and philosopher, Vasconcelos was appointed to the position of Secretary of Education by the new president Alvaro Obregon Salido and was tasked with helping foment a flourishing of the arts in Mexico – one that embraced the indigenous past while celebrating the gains of the Revolution. As part of this task, Vasconcelos commissioned artists from around the country to erect murals in public spaces – not simply for the benefit of the affluent few, but for the enjoyment of the masses.

These early artists continued down the path taken by Dr. Atl, as well as others like cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada, and would take the art world by storm, changing the artistic output in the region forever.

Los Tres Grandes: Few would argue with the notion that the three giants of the Muralist movement were Jose Celemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera. The three would go on to paint magnificent murals across Mexico in the United States, with vivid scenes adorning the walls of the National Palace of Mexico City, Palacio de Bella Artes, and Dartmouth College.

Jose Clemente Orozco: Orozco was 27 when the Revolution began, unable to serve on the frontlines due to a childhood accident involving gunpowder that resulted in the loss of his left hand. Though he identified as a communist, Orozco’s work was often balanced between his passionate idealism and pessimism with regard to humanity. According to the PBS “American Master’s” episode on him, the carnage of the revolution left him desirous of something beyond the material creations made through socially-constructed ideologies. Concepts of race and nationality drew the ire of his brush strokes and he sought to outline the trajectory of the self-destruction of humanity.

“Like victims of amnesia we haven’t found out who we are. We go on classifying as Indians, Creoles and mestizos, following blood lines only, as if we were discussing race horses, and the effect of the classification is to divide us into implacable artisan groups, the Hispanists and the Indigenists, who war to the death.”

Utilizing the fresco technique practiced by many of his contemporaries, Orozco’s murals include “The Epic of American Civilization” at Dartmouth College, the politically-charged murals that adorn the first, second, third and stairwell of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria and the Hospicio Cabanas in Guadalajara – considered the Sistine Chapel of the Americas.

David Alfaro Siqueiros: While Orozco may have been sidelined during the Revolution, Siqueiros seemingly breathed nothing but zealousness for the ultimate victory of the toiling masses. At the age of 15, he led a six-month student strike at San Carlos Academy against administration’s the teaching practices – and won. He worked to unseat the military dictator Victoriano Huerta in 1913, attaining the rank of captain and starting the Congress of Soldier Artists in the process. He helped launch “El Machete,” the official newspaper of the Mexican Communist Party, and departed to Spain to fight against the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. He would eventually become secretary general of the Revolutionary Painters, Sculptors and Engravers Union – of which Orozco and Rivera were also members.

His ardent militancy, however, would see him side with the Stalinists during the Stalin-Trotsky split that would divide communists internationally. In 1940 he led an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the exiled Bolshevik revolutionary.

"La Marcha de la Humanidad en la Tierra y hacia el Cosmos," otherwise known as simply "La Marcha De La Humanidad" by Siqueiros
“La Marcha de la Humanidad en la Tierra y hacia el Cosmos,” otherwise known simply as “La Marcha De La Humanidad” by Siqueiros

Despite his tolerance of Stalinist authoritarianism, his work was adently focused on human struggle and the overcoming of oppression by the proletariat – featuring masterful images of masses of people and strone with passionate optimism for the future. His masterpiece is often regarded to be the Polyforum Cultural Siquieros in Mexico City, designed in the 1960s and housing the world’s largest mural works and one of Siquiero’s last before his death: “La Marcha de la Humanidad.” Visitors to the mural can crowd onto a rotating stage that can hold up to 1000 as a light show and narration about the work seeks to arouse the sort of triumphant passion Sequeiros intended for all humanity.

Diego Rivera: Next to Frida Khalo, Rivera is probably one of the most well-known of the Mexican artists. His body of work, which spans across the hemisphere, provides a good reason as to why. Evoked in his art is a strong attachment to Mexico’s indigenous past, such as the mural depicting the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan in the National Palace. Also is a strong jolt of social and political influence, fomented by Rivera’s Marxist leanings, such as with his murals “In the Arsenal,” which depicts Frida Khalo and photographer Tina Modotti distributing arms to campesinos beneath a banner evoking Emiliano Zapata’s slogan “Tierra y Libertad.”

One of his most notorious murals is “Man at the Crossroads” (full name: Man at the Crossroads Looking with Uncertainty but with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a Course Leading to a New and Better Future). The mural depicts a worker at the controls of a machine in the center of the machine with two visions of the future on either side of him. One depicts what Rivera saw as the debauchery of the wealthy elites, the supression of the working class under the clubs of the police, and the utter despodence of war. The other depicts a May Day parade, of a united human race in which oppression, hunger and war were eliminated.

The work was commissioned by the United States’ top “patrons of the arts” at the time – the Rockefellers, Nelson Rockefeller in particular, to be painted on the main lobby of the RCA building in what would eventually be Rockefeller Center in New York. It wouldn’t be the scenes of disorder in capitalist society that would move the young billionaire to pull the plug on the project, but Rivera’s decision to include Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin as one of the labor leaders.

In one of the most flagrant acts of censorship in the history of muralism, Rockefeller had the torn down after Rivera refused to alter the image. As Rivera recounted in a radio interview:

 “Let us take as an example an American millionaire who buys the Sistine Chapel, which contains the work of Michelangelo… Would that millionaire have the right to destroy the Sistine Chapel?… In human creation there is something that belongs to humanity at large… No individual has the right to destroy it.”

Prior to the destruction, in a scene reminiscent of Rivera’s images, crowds came to chant their support of the artist, only to be disbursed by the billy clubs of mounted police.

A Culture of Resistance: The Mexican mural movement would boast many other names throughout the twentieth century, and beyond. The Work Projects Administration art projects saw the painting of murals throughout the Southwest, including those painted by Antonio Garcia for the Corpus Christi Cathedral and academy.

The movement would also go on to inspire those in the Chicano Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, with Latino’s throughout the Southwest rediscovering their cultural heritage through art projects involving formally trained and self-taught artists, community volunteers and teenagers. Lasting examples can be found throughout Texas, including in El Paso, Austin, San Antonio and Houston.

The reverberations of the Revolution have not been lost on the youth, as exampled by the ardent student activism against the return of the PRI party in Mexico – the party that abandoned the aims of the Revolution to embrace neoliberalism and oligarchy.

As a new generation seeks to take the reigns of their collective destinies, to look at their revolutionary heritage esconced in the murals of the past can serve as cultural inspiration needed in charting the future.

“Revolution, Renaissance and the Mexican Muralists” is the first installment of the Art as Resistance series. It was originally published in Issue One of Strike Magazine.

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