I have had the greatest attraction towards art that has been created for social advocacy and change. I am awe-struck when reading about historic art movements that helped to define and move society towards change. The movement that continues to hold my interests in this way is the Mexican muralist movement. The Mexican muralist movement was the artistic reaction to post-revolutionary Mexico. National rejection of the dictator Porfirio Diaz in 1910 sparked an intense social and cultural upheaval lasting until the 1920s. Ignited by a kaleidoscope of ideologies, the Mexican Revolution involved those associated with labor, agriculture, and revolution insisting Mexico fight for social justice and collective labor rights. The stability, yet continued struggles after the Revolution carried Mexico to a new era of social change. The popularity of the Mexican muralist rose whilst the people of Mexico strove for social change.
The three major figures of Mexican muralism were Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco. They used art as a tool to maintain a national identity for the people of Mexico. Aesthetically pleasing, marvelously proud, Siqueiros declared, “the art of the Mexican people is the most wholesome spiritual expression in the world, and this tradition is Mexico’s greatest treasure.” These three young artists were referred to as ‘Los Tres Grandes,’ the three great ones. Committed to forming an art of national identity, the muralist remained unapologetically loyal to the history, culture and psyche of the Mexican people. This is the genius of the Mexican Muralist movement I applaud, for it was genuinely born from the social consciousness.
The artists of this movement worked from a deep social awareness stemming from Mexico’s cultural and historical situation. Based on an upbringing during a dictatorship, to the rise of the Mexican Revolution, the muralists of the early 20th century hold a distinctive position in the art world. It is referred to as the “mural renaissance” in the visual arts for it characterizes Mexico’s history, ideology and nationalism. The muralists took art out of the museums and used public buildings as canvases in order to ensure the peoples exposure to, and stimulation by, these large-scale works. With the support and funding of Jose Vasconcelos, the president of the University and Minister of Education at the time, the artist worked liberally, free of any artistic rules or constraints. The murals educated as well as inspired anyone who looked at them; from workers and farmers, to the educated and uneducated as well as government officials and political rebels.
Flooded with native images, the murals comprise a variety of artistic modes. Whether allegorical, realistic, or satirical, the murals send out compelling messages about the conflicts and aspirations of the people of Mexico. The significance of the merging social classes by means of art is best explained by Jean Charlot (an assistant of Diego Rivera) for, “when native and middle class share one criterion where art is concerned, we shall be culturally redeemed, and national art, one of the solid bases of national consciousness, will have become a fact.”
Despite artistic conflicts and definitive styles, the overall intention of these great artists was to convey social and political messages to the people of Mexico and to the world. The natural and bold vibrant colors of Mexico highlighted the nationalistic and revolutionary ideas provoking the visual senses. Writer Elena Poniatowska writes of Mexico’s colors stating, “If there is color there is culture; if there is color,” as rich as the sunset hues seen in mural art, “there is a mind that had to investigate how to incarnate an idea through painting.”
All large in scale, the figures in Mexican muralist art have defined striking bodies and moving facial expressions complimented by the vibrant colors of Mexico’s natural landscapes. The themes of the murals include everything from depictions of the Day of the Dead, May Day in Moscow to allegorical themes such as the Virgin of Guadeloupe and Prometheus. Panels of murals presented illustrations of daily life, to blazing depictions of the Revolution, to surreal images of allegory and symbol.
Although Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco are frequently discussed together as representatives of the same movement in art, their convictions and principles vary. Internationally popular yet undisciplined in his personal life, Diego Rivera worked to express modern Mexico and hoped to inspire the people to fight for their indigenous identity. As the passionate expressionist, Siqueiros devoted his mind and artwork to the communist party and politics. Spending time in prison, linked with assassinations, and unabashed in his beliefs, this enraged man painted furiously in order to inspire social and political change. Class struggle, workers rights and the day to day struggles; these were the contemporary issues concerning Siqueiros. Then there was the enigmatic Jose Clemente Orozco who was not the charged activist type, but more of a distant and bookish philosopher. Mocking his contemporaries for relying on facile hope and simple solutions, Orozco’s mind struggled with obscure, pessimistic thoughts about the human condition. Amongst issues of class division and workers rights, to democracy and Mexican identity, the muralist associated with, and painted for, a variety of factions.
I will always be intrigued by the socially conscious artist, like the muralists, because of their inspiration, intent, and psyche. Mural art is the tool used to chip away and reveal the shared struggles of the people of Mexico during post-revolutionary times. Transitioning from living through Revolution, to facing the challenges of industrialization, capitalism and other hegemonic presences, mural art helped to express Mexico’s identity. Turn to the muralists of Mexico to understand a complicated period of Mexico history, embrace the genius of merging art and society, the genius of the Mexican muralist.