After a fourteen year absence from Mexico, Rivera decided to return home and participate in what we now know as the Mexican Renaissance. At this time the new minister of public education , Jose Vasconcelos, initiated a national program of popular education which included adding mural art to public buildings. In 1921, he offered Rivera an indoor wall at the National Preparatory School, part of the University of Mexico. Just before Rivera began work on his first mural, he and other artists traveled to the Yucatan to study Mayan ruins at Uxmal and Chichen Itza . They also visited the Isthmus of Tehauntepec. Here Rivera made numerous sketches of the indigenous people. Rivera spent months figuring out the dimensions and proportions of the wall, making sketches and experimenting with the best way to fuse colors to the wall. After his preliminary work he spent a year creating the mural on a surface of almost a thousand square feet. Rivera called the mural Creation . The mural contained figures that were over twelve feet high. These figures were in harmony with the huge pipe organ that surrounded them. However, Rivera was unhappy with the work; he felt that it was too Italian in technique and lacked any trace of the beauty of Mexico. In spite of how Rivera felt, the mural caused great excitement. Although some made fun of the painting, no one could ignore it. (10)
The Mexican art movement was really underway and Rivera, even before he completed Creation , was negotiating for a fresco series in the Education Building. At the same time David Siqueiros and Jose Orozco, among others, had been awarded other walls in the Preparatory School. Almost every painter in Mexico was being underwritten by the Education Department. It was the beginning of a “Mexican Renaissance”. Word began to spread throughout the continent and many painters from other countries came to Mexico to study and work in the Mexican art movement. They came to paint walls and be a part of the great fresco revival. Isamu Noquchi, Pablo O’Higgins and George Biddle were three of the well known artists who were involved in the Mexican mural movement.
In 1923 Diego Rivera began a series of 124 frescoes on the courtyard walls of the Ministry of Public Education. The building was three stories high, two city blocks long and one block wide. It took Rivera over four years to complete the work. During this time, as busy as he was, Rivera also completed thirty-nine frescoes at the Agricultural School in Chapingo. But it was his work at the Education Building that made him famous throughout the Western world and really began a revival of mural painting . The work is divided into two parts - the Court of Labor , which depicts the industrial and agricultural labors of the Mexican people as well as their art, sculpture, dance, music, poetry, and drama; and the Court of Fiesta, which depicts popular festivals and folk ballads. In addition to his murals in the Ministry of Public Education and the Agricultural School at Chapingo, Diego Rivera created beautiful murals at Cuernavoca, the National Palace, the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City and the Hotel Reforma banquet hall. All of these were painted over a span of fifteen years. Diego Rivera felt that his murals in the Education Building constituted the entire history of Mexican civilization and social structure.
In 1929 Rivera was appointed the head of the Department of Plastic Crafts at the Ministry of Education, a position which he held until 1938. With the help of Jose Orozco and David Siqueiros, Rivera created the Labor Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. Rivera and his assistants painted 235 individual fresco panels covering 15,000 square feet. These panels depicted his political views of cultural, historical and popular Mexico. Rivera received what would be comparable to two USA dollars for a mural painting. He supplemented his income with easel paintings which he probably sold to American tourists.
The three artists devoted themselves to painting large scale murals. They wanted to put art in the public domain. The artists wanted the victory of the Revolution to be told to the entire public. This devotion led to a movement that lasted about fifty years. The Mexican mural movement is one of the greatest artistic achievements of the twentieth century. The themes of the murals were of Mexican society and revolution. The murals often told historical stories that began with an Aztec past, leading to the glorious revolutionary present. This was the first time that the story was told this way, and the past was interpreted in light of modern politics. The murals reflected artistic influences such as surrealism and cubism. The mural paintings were created in the fresco technique and were done in harmony with the surrounding architecture. They were usually done in bright, bold colors with strong imagery.
The mural movement did have predecessors. It can be linked to Jose Posada, the printmaker known for his socio-political "calaveras" (prints using skulls and skeletons). As we already know, Posada had a great influence on Rivera.