If fortune or adventure brings you to Mexico City, it's more than likely you'll be flabbergasted by the murals on its walls. The realistic presentations of peasants, revolutionaries as well as gods of the ancient Aztec civilization vibrate in the sun. And, chances are, they'll be forever engraved on your mind.
The origin of the Mexican Murals is a fascinating story, but to better understand this background, reviewing a bit of the country's history helps.
Among the many tribes peopling the plains and heights of Mexico, the Aztecs came to the fore sometime around the year 1000 AD. They lived in the central part of Mexico, and being a highly sophisticated tribe, laid the foundation for Tenochtitlan, today's Mexico City, sometime around the middle of the 13th Century. Their other accomplishments include laying down a network of trails large and advanced enough to accommodate travel and transport; advances in agriculture; the development of a military hierarchy; creation of a strong judicial system; and firmly establishing their religion.
But Hernan Cortez and his Spanish troops destroyed the Aztec empire in a few short years, beginning in 1519. The Aztecs thought that Cortez was the reincarnation of their god Quetzalcoatl and offered only light resistance. The Spaniards converted the Indians to Catholicism, built fabulous churches, and exported Mexico's wealth--its gold and silver--to their own coffers.
At long last, the proud and restive Mexicans achieved independence from Spain in 1821 and the country soon became a republic. However, the decades-long civil wars that followed stripped the country's wealth and energy.
Exhausted by the bloodshed, the country fell to the rapacity of the French Government. Napoleon III established a scion of the House of Habsburg, Maximilian as emperor. Predictably, Mexico was unwilling to tolerate foreign domination, eventually rising again to install a new government dedicated to land reform and liberty. But it was not smooth sailing, and the next decades, were marked by periods of disorder and rule by despots.
The dictatorial rule of Porfirio Diaz which lasted for a period of 30 years was brought to an end in 1910. Ten years of civil strife followed and "larger than life" figures like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata emerged to color the canvas of Mexican history. Throughout this turbulent history, recurring themes were struggles over the status of Indians, redistribution of land, and control of Mexico's natural resources.
The revolution which ended around 1920 brought with it the elimination of the second grade status of the Indians. The cry of "terra y libertad" (land and freedom) was heard. Law and order were established.
Turmoil, Revolution, and Art
The prominent Mexican artists of the early 20th Century looked back at the turbulent history of their country, and found many themes to draw upon, especially the ideas and ideals of the latest revolution. They relished the myths as well as the highlights of this history. And although some of the artists came from middle class or upper class backgrounds, their sympathies were with the Indians, the proletariat and the farm workers. Their subjects were men working on sugar plantations, soldiers guarding barricades, women selling flowers, and the like--all placed amidst local plants and animals.
Other themes were the principle Aztec deities, metaphysical presentations of the earth and its elements, but overall, theirs was an art of protest. The principle subjects were poor workers and the disenfranchised. Ordinary Mexicans were shown revolting against the imposition of a regime they had despised and had fought against, finally winning that struggle.
The new government, which required the support of the largely illiterate population in order to implement its programs, turned to the country's artists to promote its messages. The artists, in turn, were delighted when they learned that they would have a vast canvas for their work--the walls of Mexico City's premier buildings as well as major edifices in other large Mexican cities such as Guadalajara. Such huge "canvases" for their work allowed them to virtually create a universe of their own.
Mexico's leading muralists chose to work in fresco, a very old form of painting on plaster. Examples of frescoes go back to ancient Crete, an island off Greece where they were discovered not too long ago. Frescoes also adorned caves and temples in ancient India. Italian frescoes survive from antique Italy, including in the remains of a house of Pompeii a city destroyed by volcanic eruptions centuries ago. Frescoes adorned the European churches of the middle ages as well as those of the Renaissance. Think of the "Last Supper" in the cathedral of Milan.
The Aztecs also had a proud fresco tradition. Some of their frescoes featured priests and royalty in their finery, often in regal processions. But their major murals depicted the animals of the Aztec kingdom: snakes, monkeys, dogs, deer and the esteemed jaguar.
Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros
Diego Rivera (1886-1957) was the principal muralist. He was certainly the best known. Born in a small Mexican town he could trace his ancestry in part to Spanish nobility and to Jewish antecedents. His talent was seen early and he received a scholarship for advanced study in Europe. Paris proved to be his obvious destination. Close friendships bound him to the other foreign painters residing in the French capital, particularly to Amadeo Modigliani. He met the cubists and learned a great deal from their all involving transformative art. For approaches to color and for overall presentation, he was much indebted to Paul Gauguin, but he was also inspired by Paul Cezanne. At the urging of the Mexican ambassador he traveled to Italy where he was fascinated by the art, importantly by the frescoes he encountered there.
In 1920 Rivera returned home to Mexico and started an intense program of work under government sponsorship. He is credited with producing as many as 124 murals in a period of eight years, beginning in 1920. Three major creations were for the National Palace in Mexico City, the Cortes Palace in Cuernavaca and the National School of Agriculture.
It was only natural that Rivera's fame should spread to the United States. In 1932 Nelson Rockefeller commissioned him to paint a mural for the RCA Building in New York City's Rockefeller Center. Ominously, previous offers to the decade's leading painters of modern art--Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse--had been rejected.
Rivera reluctantly accepted the commission and designed a mural on the theme of "Men at the Crossroads." It was to document the technical and political advances of modern man. For him, it seemed only natural to combine a portrait of the founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, with a representation of a soldier, a black farm laborer and a white worker. But it was not natural to Rockefeller. Not surprisingly, the idea was rejected by the all powerful client. Rivera insisted on his plan and in a conciliatory note offered to include a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. But Rockefeller would not yield, and so, amid a noisy controversy, the mural was destroyed.
The event was celebrated in a poem by the eminent writer E.B. White in The New Yorker Magazine. 'I paint what I see,' said Rivera, was the title backing the artist's integrity at the expense of the billionaire's stubborn posture.
Rivera's completed and surviving murals in America include a "Portrait of America" in New York City But his most defining work by far is at the Detroit Institute of Arts where he completed 27 panels celebrating the rise of industry in Mid America during the years 1932-1933.
Rivera married numerous times. His most publicized marriage was to the celebrated painter Frida Kahlo. The tumultuous Kahlo-Rivera relationship was portrayed in the 2002 film, "Frida." One somewhat unkind critic dubbed the union that of "an elephant with a dove" given the physical attributes of the two as well as Diego's volatile temperament.
Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) was also committed to the revolution, but was saddened by the brutality of the encounters between combatants. He spent the years between 1927 and 1934 in the United States where he painted murals for the New School for Social Research in New York City. His major United States creation however is the Baker Memorial Library at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, its leitmotif is "The Epic of American Civilization." Here 24 individual panels trace the development of American civilization from the Aztecs to today's industrialized society. The work covers almost 3200 square feet. After returning to Mexico Orozco worked extensively in Guadalajara as well as in Mexico City.
David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) fought actively in the revolution. Like Orozco and Rivera, he also spent a number of years in the United States. He met Jackson Pollock who involved himself in Siqueiros U.S. projects. Siqueiros most famous work in Mexico's neighbor to the north, is "Echo of a Scream" which can be seen at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Not a mural but a painting it depicts a crying baby on a heap of discarded metal scraps. The painting is disturbing, and clearly demonstrates the artist's identification with the suffering of the innocents in any upheaval.
During this period, many Western artists used themes of social inequality and injustice in glorification of the common man. But probably none used these themes as consistently and as effectively as the Mexican muralists.
Fred Stern is a poet and writer on the arts. His poetry collection 'Corridors of Light' is available from Booklink.com and on the web. He has written more than 40 articles on various aspects of the arts for The World & I Online since 2004.