The Mexican mural movement was born in the early 1920s in the wake of revolutionary changes happening in Mexico. The country had just endured a decade of civil war. The war ended more than 30 years of a dictatorship that guaranteed wealth and power to a small group and left Mexico’s vast majority with limited freedom and challenging economic conditions. Popular revolutionary figures such as Francisco “Pancho” Villa and Emiliano Zapata helped bring about changes that resulted in a new government, headed by President Alvaro Obregon, which hoped to offer a new vision of Mexico. To help achieve that goal, Obregon’s Minister of Education, Jose Vasconcelos, began awarding government funded commissions to paint large scale murals on government buildings.
A new President Obregon also faced the challenge of uniting a largely illiterate population, alienated for years from education and politics by a tyrannical dictator and later devastated by the violence of the war. Mural art could educate, promote political ideology and foster a sense of pride in a new Mexico. The movement would also carry on a legacy of mural painting in Mexico that long predated the Spanish conquest. The new murals would recall indigenous roots and ancient mural masters of civilizations such as the Aztec and Maya.
The muralist’s use of art as a tool to unify, educate and radically change an entire nation’s sense of identity was something very new to western art. The movement emerged at a time when the artist represented an introspective individual, possibly separated from mainstream ideals, selling canvases to decorate homes, and creating art simply for art’s sake as the impressionist’s statement on art’s purpose claimed. Suddenly, the Mexican muralists began capturing the spirit of revolution and providing bold imagery that often offered a clear message to a population oppressed for years under the dictator Porfirio Diaz: we will reclaim the glory of our indigenous forefather’s empires and create a great new Mexico together.
Three Mexican muralists emerged as the most recognizable artists of the movement; Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco. They collectively became known as “Los tres grandes”. Since the government commissions granted the painters full artistic freedom, the style and political views of each of these three make their work clearly identifiable. They all expressed themselves with unique visual language that offered widely different views. The work of Rivera and Alfaro Siqueiros often glorified the revolution while Clemente Orozco was much more critical of the violence that it caused. Clemente Orozco’s work, which depicted the horrors of Mexico’s bloody war, earned him criticism for its graphic nature.
While their opinions and styles differed, their work shared certain elements. One reoccurring theme common to the muralist’s work includes historical imagery which tells the tale of Mexico’s past, offering detailed depictions of: its rich traditions of indigenous civilizations, the devastating effects and permanent influence of the Spanish conquest, and finally independence and contemporary culture. The murals call on contemporary Mexicans to celebrate their roots and cultural identity, and to always remember and respect the struggles, injustices, triumphs and achievements that make up Mexico’s ancient and recent history.
The immediacy of the visual art would have a lasting effect on the Mexican people’s image of their country, their history and themselves. The Mexican murals also helped shape the image that many people around the world still have of Mexico’s ancient empires, admirable fight for freedom and justice, and the modern nation’s movement toward a promising future.