Mexican Muralism Movement
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Mexican muralism was the promotion of mural painting starting in the 1920s, generally with social and political messages as part of efforts to reunify the country under the post-Mexican Revolution government. It was headed by “the big three” painters, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. From the 1920s to about 1970s many murals with nationalistic, social and political messages were created on public buildings, starting a tradition which continues to this day in Mexico and has had impact in other parts of the Americas, including the United States, where it served as inspiration for the Chicano art movement.
In 1921, after the end of the military phase of the Revolution, José Vasconcelos was appointed to head the Secretaría de Educación Pública. At the time, most of the Mexican population was illiterate and the government needed a way to promote the ideals of the Mexican Revolution. It was Vasconcelos’s idea to have a government-backed mural program for this purpose. Similar to mural use in the pre Hispanic period and during the colonial period, the purpose of these murals were not simply aesthetic, but social, to promote certain ideals. These ideals or principles were to glorify the Mexican Revolution and the identity of Mexico as a mestizo nation, with the indigenous promoted as well as the Spanish. The government began to hire the country’s best artists to paint murals, calling some of them home from Europe including Diego Rivera. These initial muralists included Dr. Atl, Ramón Alva de la Canal, Federico Cantú and others but the main three would be David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera. His time as secretary was short but it set how muralism would develop. His image was painted on a tempera mural in 1921 by Roberto Montenegro, but this was short lived. His successor at the Secretaría de Educación Pública ordered it painted out.
The muralists differed in style and temperament, but all believed that art was for the education and betterment of the people. This was behind their acceptance of these commissions as well as their creation of the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors. Mural in the Palacio de Bellas Artes by Rufino Tamayo.
The first government sponsored mural project was on the three levels of interior walls of the old Jesuit institution Colegio San Ildefonso, at that time used for the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria. However, most of the murals in the Escuela National Preparatoria were done by José Clemente Orozco with themes of a mestizo Mexico, the ideas of renovation and the tragedies of the Revolution; Fernando Leal painted [“dancers of Chalma”] “Los danzantes de Chalma”, no earlier than 1922. Opposite that mural, Jean Charlot painted La conquista de Tenochtitlán (Conquest of Tenochtitlan) by Jean Charlot—invited by Leal.
By far, the three most influential muralists from the 20th century are Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Siqueiros, called “los tres grandes” (the three great ones). All believed that art was the highest form of human expression and a key force in social revolution. Their work defined the movement taking over from Vasconcelos. It created a mythology around the Mexican Revolution and the Mexican people which is still influential to this day, as well as promote Marxist ideals. At the time the works were painted, they also served as a form of catharsis over what the country had endured during the war. However, the three were different in their artistic expression. Rivera’s works were utopian and idealist, Orozco’s were critical and pessimistic and the most radical were those of Siqueiros, heavily focused on a scientific future. The differences among the three have much to do with how each experienced the Mexican Revolution. Rivera was in Europe during the revolution and had never experienced the horrors of the war. Because of this, his art primarily focused on what he perceived to be the social benefits from it. Orozco and Siqueiros both fought in the war, which subsequently resulted in a more pessimistic approach to their artwork when depicting the revolution; with Siqueros’ artwork being the most radical and focused on the scientific future. Miguel Hidalgo abolishing slavery by José Clemente Orozco
Of the three, Rivera was the most traditional in terms of painting styles, drawing heavily from European modernism. In his narrative mural images, Rivera incorporated elements of cubism. His themes were Mexican, often scenes of everyday life and images of ancient Mexico. He originally painted this in bright colors in the European style but modified it to more earthy tones to imitate indigenous murals. His greatest contribution is the promotion of Mexico’s indigenous past into how many people both inside and outside of the country view it.
Orozco also began with a European style of expression. However his art developed into an angry denunciation of oppression especially by those he considered to be an evil and brutal rules class. His work was somber and dire, with emphasis on human suffering and fear of the technology of the future. His work shows an “expressionist use of color, slashing lines, and parodic distortions of the human figure.” Like most other muralists, Orozco condemned the Spanish as destroyers of indigenous culture, but he did have kinder depictions such as that of a Franciscan friar tending to an emaciated indigenous period. Unlike other artists, Orozco never glorified the Mexican Revolution, having fought in it, but rather depicted the horrors of this war. It caused many of his murals to be heavily criticized and even defaced. View of the Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros in Mexico City
Siqueiros was the youngest and most radical of the three. He joined the Venustiano Carranza army when he was eighteen and experienced the Revolution from the front lines. Although all three muralists were communists, Siqueiros was the most dedicated, as evidenced by his portrayals of the proletarian masses. His work is also characterized with rapid, sweeping, bold lines and the use of modern enamels, machinery and other elements related to technology. His style showed a “futurist blurring of form and technique.” His fascination with technology as it relates to art was exemplified when he emphasized the mass communications visual technology of photograph and motion picture in his eventual movement toward neorealism. His radical politics made him unwelcome in Mexico and the United States, so he did much of his work in South America. However, his masterpiece is considered to be the Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros, located in Mexico City.