Most leading Latin American artists had been influenced by Europe until the late-19th century, when the figures began acknowledging their own uniqueness. This process reached its zenith in the 1920s, with the Mexican Mural Movement.
The Mexican mural movement was born in the 20s, right after the Revolution (1910-1917) as a vehicle to represent the government's ideology and its vision of history. Along with other political, social and institutional changes which the country went during these post revolutionary years, there was a substantial change in art: Many Mexican artists demanded a new School of Art in order to break with any kind of academicism, and to create "real" Mexican art that would strengthen and reaffirm Mexican identity and the values of the Revolution. In 1913 President Victoriano Huerta appointed Alfredo Ramos Martinez director of the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas, it was him who started the reform. Gerardo Murillo (also known as Dr. Alt) later became one of the first painters to rely heavily on Mexican themes.
The most important patron of the Mexican Mural Movement was José Vasconcelos, president ¡lvaro Obregón's Secretary of Public Education, during the late 1920s. Vasconcelos urged artists to paint murals as part of a broader effort to reinforce the knowledge of revolutionary history. The main purpose was to highlight and magnify Mexico's history, its pre-Columbian past and its national identity.
The government commissioned artists to decorate buildings with images of the cultural history of the country. Some of the first murals commissioned by Vasconcelos were in public buildings such as the chapel of San Pedro and San Pablo. Artists involved in these murals included Dr. Alt and Roberto Montenegro. The patios of the National Preparatory School were commissioned to José Clemente Orozco, Fermín Revueltas, Ramón Alba de la Canal and Jean Charlot. Diego Rivera began to work on the Bolivar Amphitheater in 1922. The following year, in 1923, David Alfaro Siqueiros was commissioned to work in the Colegio Chico.
Three figures were considered the artistic leaders of the mural movement in Mexico. They were internationally renowned and their work masterfully defined the essence of the movement. These three painters were José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. They believed art was the highest form of human expression and a key force in social revolution.
José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949)
Orozco was born in Zapotlán, Jalisco, on November 22, 1883. When he was only seven years old his family moved to Mexico City, where he studied in La Academia de San Carlos (Saint Charles Academy). He became one of the great Mexican muralists. Contemporaries admired the social and political themes represented in his murals. Orozco met José Guadalupe Posada in an early stage of his life, and Posada's influence remained present in all of his work.
In 1922 Orozco began working on new projects with Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Their early murals painted together in these early 1920s, can be divided into two groups: The first consisted of works commissioned by Vasconcelos and completed before the end of his term in 1924, which represented his ideological and aesthetic vision. Desmond Rochford mentions Diego Rivera's first mural
painted at the Bolivar Amphitheater as an example of this first group. The second group consisted of works (some also commissioned by Vasconcelos) that moved toward a more openly didactic, political and populist art, with which the Mexican mural movement has come to be popularly associated (Rochford, 33.)
Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros together created the Labor Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors, with the goal of seeking to recuperate the art and mural painting sponsored by the Mexican government. The three painters shared the idea that art had to be public and for the people. They devoted themselves to large-scale murals in which they illustrated the history Mexico, its people, its society and the Revolution. They wanted to see the ideals of the Revolution put into practice in order to improve Mexican society.
When Orozco painted murals in the National Preparatory School (1923-1926), he chose the walls on the big patio. He used the first floor to deal with social criticism, and he developed themes related to the revolution on the second floor. On the ground floor, he erased some of his first murals in order to create works such as
(1923), the only Orozco mural that remains at the school today. On the ground floor he painted more radical, "revolutionary" images such as
Destruction of the Old Order
(worker, farmer and soldier). The paintings in the stairwell dealt with the conquest, and with allegories about indigenous communities and evangelization:
His work at the National Preparatory School was interrupted twice: in 1925 to paint
in the main staircase of La Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles) in Mexico City, and in 1926 to work on another mural in the Escuela Industrial de Orizaba (Workers Education Center of Orizaba) in the state of Veracruz, an interpretation of the post-revolutionary period titled
Orozco moved to the United States in 1927 after his frescoes at the National Preparatory School were received negatively. He soon created paintings which showed the dehumanized and mechanical character of the big city, and which explored revolutionary Mexican themes. He worked in several colleges and universities: At Ponoma College in Claremont, California he painted the first murals in the United States; at the New School for Social Research in New York City he created an allegory of ideal human social orders; and at the Baker Library in Dartmouth College, New Hampshire he painted murals documenting American History. These frescoes represent Orozco's vision of America in two main parts. He painted the first part representing the pre-Columbian civilization, and on the second part he represented the post-Cortez America, starting with the conquest and ending with a portrayal of contemporary America formed by the constituent parts of its Hispanic and Anglo-Saxon experience. (Rochfort, 103)
Back in Mexico he worked on a big project in the Fine Arts Palace. From 1936 to 1939, he worked in Guadalajara, where the identity of Mexico as a country and its history was considered an evolving process. He undertook one of his most important works at Guadalajara's Hospicio Caba–as, a cycle named
The Spanish Conquest of Mexico.
He created a conceptual review of historical Mexico, which represented the indigenous world, the heroic, and the religious inspiration of the conquest, and the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz before 1910.
Some other murals Orozco painted between 1939 and 1949 included:
, painted in 1940 in the Museum of Modern Art in New York;
Allegory of Mexico
in the Gabino Ortiz Library in Jiquilpan in 1940;
painted seven years later at the National Teacher's School in Mexico City;
Juárez, the Church and the Imperialists
painted in 1948 at The National Museum of History in Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City; and his final mural called
Hidalgo: the Great Mexican Revolutionary Legislation and the Liberty of Slaves
painted in 1949 in the Chamber of Deputies'Government Palace in Guadalajara.
He died in Mexico City, in 1949, but his work remained well known, and extremely influential, throughout the 20th century.
Diego María Rivera was born in Guanajato in 1886, but his twin brother died a couple of years later. The Rivera family moved to Mexico City where Diego entered the National School of Fine Arts (old Academy of San Carlos) when he was 11-years old. At his father's insistence, he enrolled in a military college but this adventure only lasted two weeks. Diego went back to San Carlos as a full time student. His teachers at the academy included Félix Parra, José María Velasco, and Santiago Rebull. All of them influenced Diego, but it was José Guadalupe Posada who exerted the greatest influence on the young artist. Rivera involved himself in political movements to oppose dictator Porfirio Díaz; in 1902 he was expelled because he took part in student protests.
In 1907 Teodoro Dehesa, governor of Veracruz, offered Diego Rivera a scholarship to study in Europe. He first went to Barcelona, where he studied for two years with the painter Eduardo Chicharro Agüera. He made friends with leading members of the Spanish avant-garde movement. In this prolific period, he produced a large amount of paintings, some of which he sent to Teodoro Dehesa as evidence that he was learning and improving.
Two years later Rivera went to Paris, Ghent and London. After a brief trip to Mexico, he settled in Paris, where he studied with the painter Victor Octave Guillonet. He met artist like Juan Gris, Picasso, Braque and Modigliani. His work then began to transition into cubism, as Rivera devoted himself to the cubist movement from 1913-1918. In 1918, after a controversy with some artists, he rejected cubism and returned to the classic forms.
In 1920 Rivera went to Italy, a trip that marked a change in his artistic style. There he studied the Renaissance, discovered Italian frescoes, and started conceiving of the possibility of painting for a larger public. He began to emphasize the idea of popular art which all the people could enjoy. This idea coincided with some of the concepts Vasconcelos, new minister of Public Education in Mexico, was establishing with his national program of popular education that included painting of murals in public buildings. Diego Rivera soon returned to his country after fourteen years in Europe.
Vasconcelos commissioned Rivera's first mural, called
and painted in 1922-1923 in the Bolivar Amphitheater, in the National Preparatory School in Mexico City. This work stylistically revealed the great influence of Italian and Byzantine painting. Neither the theme nor the style was conceived within any popular or revolutionary Mexican tradition. The mural instead represented the dual male-female idea of creation, showing natural elements like fire, water or air.
Between 1923 and 1928, Rivera began painting some of his most important creations, a series of frescoes on the Ministry of Education in Mexico City and the National Agricultural School at Chapingo. These murals took on Mexican themes, and they represented the most significant stage in the development of the Mexican mural movement as a radical public art. (Rochford, 51)
By the time Diego had completed his work at the Ministry of Education, he and his assistants had painted 235 fresco panels, an area of 15,000 square feet. The building was divided in different sections, each with a set of courtyards and two floors. Rivera divided this space by different themes: "The Courtyard of Labor" -he depicted industrial, agricultural and artistic labors of the Mexicans-, "The Courtyard of Fiestas" -Mexican traditions, religious and political festivals-,
Agrarian and Proletarian Revolutions
From 1929 to 1935 Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco started painting a series of murals about the history of Mexico in the National Palace. Those murals were meant to reflect on the nation's past in order to explore and promote the layers of national meaning derived from the mistreatment and domination of indigenous peoples by Europeans since the colonial period. Two of the four cycles of murals were painted by Rivera and the other two by Orozco. Nowhere was the dual process of cultural institutionalization and emergent national identity more keenly articulated than in Rivera's
The History of Mexico
. (Rochfort, 84)
Almost at the same time, the artist was commissioned to paint another mural by Dwight Morrow, the United States Ambassador to Mexico, in the Cortez Palace in Cuernavaca. This mural was significantly smaller than the one in the National Palace. In this piece, Rivera once again illustrated the history of Mexico by using the history of Cuernavaca as a metaphor of the conquest of the country.
Political fights in Mexico changed Rivera's career. Expelled from the Communist Party and criticized as a "false revolutionist" in his country, Rivera decided to go to the United States in 1930, where his reputation was completely different, and where he was considered the leading figure in Mexican muralism. He painted murals in San Francisco (at the Stock Exchange and the San Francisco Art Institute), Detroit (Detroit Institute of Arts). But probably the best-known mural was
Man at the Crossroads
commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller in the Radio Corporation Arts Building in the Rockefeller Center. In that New York location, Rivera shocked Rockefeller and others by painting the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin. Rockefeller asked Rivera to remove Lenin's image and replace it with an anonymous figure, but the painter refused, and the mural was covered and then destroyed in February 1934.
The next project for Rivera was in the New Worker's School in New York, where he created a series of 21 small murals titled
Portrait of America
. He represented some of the heroes of the American history such as Benjamin Franklin, Thoreau, Emerson…
Back in Mexico, Rivera painted a recreated and smaller version of the
Man at Crossroads
in the Palace of Fine Arts in 1934. Some other notable murals by Rivera included the ones he painted in the National Palace in Mexico City from 1942 to 1951; A
Dream of a Sunday Afternoon In Alameda Park
, in the Alameda Hotel's main lobby in Mexico City or
A History of Medicine
in La Raza Hospital, 1953.
Diego Rivera died in Coyoacán November 24, 1957.
David Alfaro Siqueiros
Siqueiros was the most controversial of the three Mexican mural masters. An active critic of the government, he went to prison several times for his radical views, and he was forced to go into exile. He was extremely creative and innovative, and always interested in new materials and techniques. Like Rivera and Orozco, Siquieros also firmly believed in using art as a public statement.
David Alfaro Siqueiros was born in Ciudad Camargo, Chihuahua in 1896. Like many Mexican painters of his generation, he studied at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City, where he participated in a year-long student strike to force changes in teaching methods in 1911. The students succeeded in their demands and a new director was appointed, Who transformed the teaching methods and opened an open-air School of Santa Anita which Siqueiros briefly attended. When he was 18 years old, under the influence of Dr. Alt, Siqueiros joined the Mexican Revolutionary forces of the constitutional armies led by Vetustinano Carranza. He became captain in only two years.
The late-1910s saw Siqueiros refining a new artistic vision. In 1918 he came into contact with a radical group of painters and organized the
. The artists met and discussed the function and role of the revolutionary art. Their important discussions eventually shaped the ideological framework for the mural artists' activities during the 1920s. In 1919 Siqueiros traveled to Europe, where he met Fernand Lèger in Paris, a figure who influenced the Mexican artist greatly. Although there is little extant work from his period in Paris, Siqueiros appears to have been absorbed by Cubism, Cezanne and the Italian Futurism. (Rochfort, 30.) Siqueiros went to Italy in 1920 where he discovered Baroque paintings that would influence his murals later on.
His experiences by 1920 led Siqueiros to publish "Manifiesto para los Artistas de América" in the magazine
in Barcelona. This manifesto was a synthesis of the multiple conversations and views he had shared with Diego Rivera in Paris, and it would have a big impact on the mural renaissance in Mexico. Siqueiros went back to Mexico in 1922 and began his first murals in the Colegio Chico. While
did not concern itself with revolutionary themes, Siqueiros, Rivera and fellow painter Xavier Guerrero were busy founding the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors to defend artists' interests. Siqueiros and Guerrero edited the union paper called
, for which Rivera wrote articles. The seventh issue of the paper included the Syndicate's Manifesto written by Siqueiros.
Siqueiros finished the
Burial of the Sacrificed Worker
in el Colegio Chico in 1924. This mural represented a dramatic change in the painter's style. This mural and those to come later represented the realities and demands of the post-revolutionary years, creating social and political context. This same year his position as a painter on the public role came to an end. Puig Cassauranc, Vasconcelos' successor as Secretary of Public Education, did not tolerate the Syndicate's attacks on the government and suspended the muralists' contracts. Siqueiros'contract was terminated. The artist moved to Guadalajara, where he worked with Amado de la Cueva who was an old friend form el
Siqueiros, like Rivera, suffered from the political-fighting that affected post-Revolutionary Mexico. In 1930, Siqueiros was expelled from the Mexican Communist party and sent to prison for his participation in a May Day demonstration. He was released in November, but he was exiled internally and sent to Taxco (a silver mining town). There, he created a great amount of studio work and met many intellectuals and artist who were key to his artistic growth. He was forced to leave Mexico in 1932 as a result of him leaving his exile without permission. He traveled to Los Angeles where he painted three murals after a six-year break from mural painting. He painted Street Meeting at the Chouinard Art School, Tropical America at the Plaza Art Center and Portrait of Mexico Today in a film director's home. The political content of Tropical America, which depicted the domination of Latin America by the United States, nearly led to his deportation, and Siqueiros decided to travel to South America to paint murals. After spending time in Montevideo (Uruguay), he painted the experimental Plastic Exercise in Buenos Aires (Argentina), which made no explicit political or social demands. Siqueiros was forced to leave Argentina as a result of having attended a union meeting restricted to him by the Buenos Aires police.
Siqueiros then went to New York City as a delegate to the American Artists Congress, where he started
, an enterprise in which young artists such as Jackson Pollock, Harold Lehman, and Luís Arenal discussed innovative techniques. They shared the idea that to be socially transformative, art needed to adopt new materials, And Siqueiros encouraged his helpers to use commercial paints.
Shortly thereafter, in 1937, Siqueiros left New York to fight for three years with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. The fight against fascism would become an important theme for the artist. After Franco's victory in 1939, Siqueiros returned to Mexico, where he began working on
Portrait of the Bourgeoisie
in the Mexican Electrician's Syndicate. The mural best represented Siqueiros' radical and innovative views on the aesthetics of muralism since he broke with all previous methods and themes used before in the art of drawing murals. He painted a radical social content mural -fascism as a war machine, - with new materials.
After he was imprisoned for participating in the murder of Leon Trotsky, the Mexican government exiled Siqueiros again. With the help of Pablo Neruda, the Chilean ambassador to Mexico, Siqueiros was able to travel to Chillán, Chile, where he was to complete the mural entitled
Death of the Invader
at the Escuela de México. That work echoed Vasconcelos' earlier representation of Mexican history, since Siquieros dealt again with historical heroes who defended the nation's integrity against Spanish subjugation.
Released from his political and contractual obligations in Chile, he traveled through Latin America to gather support from artists against fascism and support for democracies, going to Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama and Cuba. He planned to travel to New York soon after to work with North and Latin American artists to create an antifascist mural. But when the Department of State denied the renovation of his visa, Siqueiros was forced to remain in La Habana. There, he painted a private mural for the Carre–o-Gómez family titled
Allegory of Racial Equality
in 1943. With the assistance of Nelson Rockefeller, he also created a mural for the Cuban-American Cultural Center of Habana titled
Two American Mountains: Lincoln and Martí
Siqueiros returned to Mexico in early-1944 to paint one of his most notable murals,
Cuauhtémoc Against the Myth
. He also established the
Centro de Arte Realístico
(Center for Realist Art.) The mural was painted inside the building designated as the headquarters of the Center, and Siqueiros used the mural's inauguration to publicize the Center's manifesto. (Rochfort, 189.) Several years later Siqueiros painted two other large murals at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City on the Cuauhtémoc theme -- a hero who symbolized Mexico's historical battles against oppression. That same year he painted
, a gigantic work that depicted an enormous female figure erupting from a volcano and breaking the chains of her oppression.
In 1945 Siqueiros started the most ambitious, difficult and frustrating of all the murals, which was never completed.
Patriots and Parricides
was painted in the Ex-Aduana de Santo Domingo in Mexico City (old customs house). The theme of this mural was familiar to the author since it followed the work he had already done at Chillán (Chile) years before: the struggle for national liberty and independence. The idea was to represent the great Mexican figures such as Juarez, Morelos, Zapata on one side of the stairs while on the opposite side, the Mexican traitors such as Santa Anna Iturbide and Victoriano Huerta were to be shown descending into hell. (Rochfort, 198)
In 1950, Siqueiros began to work with more contemporary themes. The exception was
From the Dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz to the Revolution
, a work
painted from 1957 to 1965 in Chapultepec Castle. More representative of Siqueiros' new interests was
Man the Master, not the Slave, of Technology,
painted in 1951 for the Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City. Other major murals painted over the following decade included:
Apologia for the Future Victory of Medicine over Cancer
, painted in 1958 in the Centro Médico of Mexico City;
For the Complete Safety of all Mexicans at Work
in from 1952 to 1954 in the Hospital de la Raza, Mexico City;
The People for the University. The University for the People: For a Neo-Humanist National Culture
painted from 1952 to 1956 in the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, which is an sculptured painting;
Theatrical Art in the Life of Mexico
painted in 1959 in the Jorge Negrete Theater in Mexico City (which remains technically unfinished); and finally,
The March of Humanity
created in 1971 in the Parque de la Lama in Mexico City.
Siqueiros died in 1974 in Cuernavaca, but his large body of work influenced subsequent generations of muralists who still work on commissions and projects.