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Painting and Politics: The Mexican Muralist Movement and Beyond

Painting and Politics: The Mexican Muralist Movement and Beyond


For the next couple of weeks, we’ll be focusing
on the intersection of art and politics in Latin America, or how art and politics have
influenced one another. The engagement of artists with the political
world around them has been particularly strong in Latin America, and their style has had
a profound influence on artists around the world. Let’s first look at the Mexican muralist movement,
whose style of publicly oriented and politically-engaged art was really unique in the world at the
time, and had influence far beyond its national borders. This painting is one example, a piece called
“The March of Humanity,” by Davíd Alfaro Siquieros, painted in 1971.
The chairs in the lower-left of the photo reveal the size of this work.
The enormity of these murals was characteristic of the group.
The piece includes mural painting and painted polyform sculpture.
The themes represent the Mexican nation as dynamic, progressive, proud of its heritage,
and also forward-looking. The Mexican muralist movement emerged in the
wake of the Mexican Revolution, which spanned the period of 1910-1921.
The Mexican Revolution, which was a complex, ever-shifting struggle, involving several
armies pursuing different goals, was nevertheless united in its opposition to President Porfirio
Díaz, pictured here. Díaz had ruled Mexico from 1876-1911 in dictatorial
fashion, leveraging policies to promote an export-oriented plantation economy.
Through legal and illegal means, large landowners pushed peasant farmers off their lands, thereby
accumulating large landholdings, and essentially obliging landless peasants to become wage
laborers working in exploitative conditions. At the end of the Revolution, the new government
that emerged, called the Institutional Revolutionary Party had the goal of promoting national unity.
It did so by promoting the notion that Mexico was a mestizo (mixed Indian and Hispanic)
nation and by promising social equality. The new minister of education had an idea
that this national unity could be cultivated through the public display of political art.
The minister commissioned artists to paint murals in public places, murals that would
instill a love of the nation, defined as mestizo, unified, and equal.
Three of these muralists are particularly well-known, and we’ll look at some examples
of their work. The first of the Mexican muralists was José
Clemente Orozco. I’ve been able to see many of his works in
person, and he’s probably my favorite of the group, because of the passion conveyed in
his work. This is Orozco’s portrait of Father Miguel
Hidalgo. It is an enormous mural painted on the ceiling
of the grand staircase of city hall in Guadajalara. You can see the banisters around the sides.
As you ascend the staircase, you look up at there is this enormous image of the priest
above you. And that gives you a sense of how overpowering
this image is. Father Miguel Hidalgo was a leader of Mexico’s
strike for independence from Spain. He led the famous cry for independence on
September 16, 1810, and September 16 is celebrated every year as Mexico’s Independence Day. Another of Orozco’s famous works was actually
painted at Dartmouth College, in the basement reading room of the library, in a narrative
circle on the walls. This work, called the “Epic of American Civilization,”
contains several panels, each representing a different epoch in Mexican history.
When I worked at Dartmouth, my office was in this building, and I would love to sit
in this reading room and take in these images. I want to show you a few of these panels.
The first is of the “Pre-Columbian Golden Age,” in which we see a common theme of the
Mexican muralists, which was pride in the ancient indigenous civilizations, in an attempt
to recuperate their memory, or to push back against the scorn that had been directed at
the prehispanic civilizations during the colonial period.
This panel shows the indigenous people as working in harmony with nature, and also industrious
and strong. (Note the heating grate in the top center,
which reminds you that this is in a library.) This panel also represents the Pre-Columbian
Golden Age, and shows ancient Mexican gods, including Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent,
here represented in the time when he was still a man on earth, and according to myth, with
his lighter skin and beard. In this panel, Quetzalcoatl, the feathered
serpent, departs from the world of men, heading east, from which he would return once again,
according to the prophecy. This panel depicts the practice of Aztec human
sacrifices to the gods, in which the heart was extracted and offered up to sustain Quetzalcoatl
and others. This panel shows the arrival of Hernán Cortés
in Mexico, carrying his sword, accompanied by the friar with his cross. (You can see
the door into the hallway on the bottom left.) This panel represents the period of the Revolution.
To the left are the wealthy allied with the army, hoarding the nation’s riches.
In the center, rising above them, is one hero of the Revolution, Emiliano Zapata, who fought
for land redistribution, under the slogan, “Land and Liberty.”
The buildings in the background represent the promise of industrial progress. This next panel demonstrates the strength
and power of industrial progress, but its overpowering nature also hints that technology
had the potential to crush the soul of workers. In this panel, Orozco warns against the “gods
of the modern world,” or science. The skeletons of the educators, of the woman
and the skeletal babies in jars suggest that adoration of science has the potential to
kill the soul of humanity. The robes of the educators in the background
point to Orozco’s audience. The crimson robes are of Harvard, the blue
ones are Yale, suggesting that Orozco wants to warn those at the Ivy League schools (Dartmouth
included) that they should not forget the soul of humanity. The second most famous of the Mexican muralists
was Davíd Alfaro Siqueiros. His biography reveals the political context
of his work, and as we will see, many of the events that shaped his life and work were
shared by other artists of this time. Siquieros was a soldier, who fought in the
Mexican revolutionary army. After that, he was commissioned by the new
government to paint murals to reach the Mexican people.
His commitment to equality and social justice then led him to volunteer to fight in the
Spanish Republican Army against the fascist forces.
Many of his paintings warned about the rise of and the evils of fascism.
Having studied painting in Europe, he was very influenced by Expressionism and Futurism,
but he adapted these styles to reflect a Mexican sensibility.
He was also an innovator, using quick-drying industrial paint, spray paint on cement (both
reflecting his faith in industrial progress), and he combined sculpture and painting in
many of his works. His murals were also massive, and this image
is just one detail from a much larger piece, which documented the dictatorship of Porfirio
Díaz and the Revolution that fought against it. This image is once again a detail from a much
larger mural. This mural conveys the government’s promise
that a centralized industrial development initiative would harness industry for the
good of the nation, lifting people out of poverty, while giving them dignity and ensuring
their safety. This final mural painted by Siquieros at Mexico’s
National Autonomous University, suggests that the national government supports the public
by providing affordable education. Probably the most famous artist of the Mexican
muralist movement is Diego Rivera. Rivera’s work most clearly displays the theme
of Mexico as a mestizo nation. In many of his murals, he paints scenes from
Mexican history that show the multiple cultural sources that fed into Mexican heritage.
This is one panel of a multi-paneled mural called “The History of Mexico” in the National
Palace in Mexico City. Called “The Aztec World,” it shows the capital
of Tenochtitlan and the emperor in the center; Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god flying
in the sky; corn farmers off to the right; warriors fighting in the lower-left; and also,
laborers, scribes, and other artisans. Here is the multi-paneled mural in flattened,
panoramic perspective. Each of the walls surrounding the grand staircase
represents different epochs in Mexico’s history. Here is another panel from the same mural.
It is an homage to Mexico’s workers, reflecting Rivera’s own Marxist sensibility.
Karl Marx takes prominence as the figure in the topic center.
Rivera, as did many others in his time, believed that the new government would ensure workers’
rights, wellbeing, and security. The banner toward the right says “huelga,”
meaning “strike,’ reflecting the fact that Mexican workers at the time were forming unions
to collectively promote their rights. In the bottom center, the woman in red is
his wife, Frida Kahlo, also a painter. As we will see, they frequently depicted one
another in their works. Rivera’s renown led him to be invited to paint
many murals abroad, such as this mural celebrating US industrial workers, in the Detroit Museum
of Art. Rivera also expressed support for Mexico’s
peasantry in many of his works. This scene depicts the redistribution of lands
that occurred in the 1930s, as, following on the promises of the Revolution, the president
called for many of the largest landholdings as well as vacant lands to be redistributed
to village communities. This was, in essence, the revival of the ejido
system of landholdings secured for indigenous communities in the colonial period. In addition to his large, public murals, Rivera
also painted a series of smaller, easel paintings, almost all of which celebrated the quiet dignity
of Mexico’s common people. In this one, a woman grinds corn using the
mano and metate. In this one, the “Day of the Flower,” a flower
seller carries a bundle of calla lilies on his back, and holds prickly pear cactus leaves
in his hands, leaves which are commonly eaten. The women in front are recognizable as indigenous
women because of their braids and how the woman on the right carries her child in a
shawl on her back. In another of his most famous paintings, a
wave of calla lilies nearly envelopes this indigenous woman. Although during their lifetimes, Diego Rivera
was more famous than his wife, Frida Kahlo, today, the opposite is true. Frida Kahlo was not a muralist, but an artist
who created smaller oil paintings on an easel. She was influenced by the surrealistic style
of the Mexican muralists, and she employed many of the same political themes.
Her art was more personal, but still very political.
It has been called proto-feminist and many of her paintings celebrate the indigenous
cultures. She was born in Coyoacán, just outside of
Mexico City. Her mother was mestiza, and her father was
a painter and photographer of German-Hungarian Jewish descent.
Kahlo experienced a great deal of suffering in her life.
She contracted polio at age six, and survived a horrible trolley car accident at age 18.
The accident broke many bones, and an iron rod pierced her uterus.
She had to undergo several surgeries, wear a painful brace, and was thereafter unable
to have children, suffering several miscarriages. One-third of her paintings are self-portraits,
often depicting her physical and/or emotional pain.
She was inspired by many elements of Mexican popular art, including the use of bright colors,
the retablo style of painting (recalling that retablo paintings are those that express gratitude
to a saint for a miracle performed), and indigenous themes.
Unlike most women in middle-class urban neighborhoods at the time, she specifically chose to dress
in traditional indigenous clothes. Here is one example of her work, a representation
of her miscarriage when she and her husband were in Michigan when he was painting the
mural in the Detroit Museum of Art. Note how bleak, cold, and sterile was her
vision of industrial Michigan. Here she is on the US-Mexico border.
Contrast the images of nature, life, fertility, and color on the Mexican side to, once again,
a bleak, cold, industrial, mechanical, polluting United States. Here is a self-portrait in which she is dressed
as a Tehuana. This type of headdress you may recall from
the film, “Blossoms of Fire,” about indigenous women in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
This is another example of how she and her husband incorporated one another into their
work. In this self-portrait, she painted her family
tree, both her mother’s mestiza side and her father’s European side. Another example of the theme of physical pain.
Notice her unibrow. She always painted herself with an exaggerated
unibrow, which many have read as a feminist element of her work—an acceptance of her
face as it was, without editing out any elements that others might read as unfeminine. Another example of the theme of physical pain. Here is one example of how she borrowed the
retablo style of painting. The inscription reads, “Here, I, Frida Kahlo,
painted myself using the image in a mirror. I am 37 years old and it is the month of July,
1947. In Coyoacán, Mexico, where I was born.”
Note again the exaggerated unibrow, as well as the light mustache. In this final image, Kahlo conveys a cosmovision,
or a vision of the universe. She depicts herself as essentially the mother
of her husband, who had been known for displaying a fiery temper and for having affairs, but
then begging forgiveness. She, in turn, is embraced by verdant, fertile
Mother Earth (whom she identifies with Mexico), and they are in turn embraced by Mr. Xolotl,
who, in Aztec mythology, was the god of lightning, who leads the dead to Mictlán, the underworld.

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