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The Mexican Mural Movement

Mexican Muralists

Mexican Muralists. The Mexican mural movement was born in the early 1920s in the wake of revolutionary changes happening in Mexico.

The Mexican mural movement was born in the early 1920s in the wake of the Mexican Revolution. The country had just endured a decade of civil war which also ended more than 30 years of a dictatorship that concentrated 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 course for Mexico. To help achieve that goal, Obregon’s Minister of Education, Jose Vasconcelos, began awarding government funded art commissions to paint large scale murals on government buildings.

As President, Obregon also faced the challenge of uniting a largely illiterate population, alienated for years from education and politics by a dictatorial government 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 idea of a Mexican artist was that of an introspective individual or an outside, selling canvases for decoration and creating art simply for art’s sake. Suddenly, the Mexican muralists touched on a part of the Mexican psyche that captured the spirit of revolution and providing bold imagery that often offered a clear message to that everyone could identify with. Oppressed for years under the dictator Porfirio Diaz, the image of the glory of their indigenous forefather’s empires would convey a new spirit of creating a 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 (The Three Great Ones). 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 perspectives. The work of Rivera and Siqueiros often glorified the revolution while Orozco was much more critical of the violence that it caused. 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 their 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 lasting influence of the Spanish conquest, Mexican independence and contemporary culture. The murals call on Mexicans to celebrate their roots and take pride in their cultural identity and to always remember and respect the struggles, injustices, triumphs and achievements that make up Mexico’s rich history.

Some of the most famous murals can be found outside of Mexico, surprisingly. There are famous examples painted by Diego Rivera in San Francisco, California (his first commissions for murals outside of Mexico). His Allegory of California can be found inside the Pacific Stock Exchange and the Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City is located at the San Francisco Art Institute. He also painted a series of panels called Detroit Industry inside the Detroit Institute of Arts.  David Siqueiros' only work in the United States is located at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. The work located there is called América Tropical and measures 80-by-18 feet. This controversial painting depicts an crucified indigenous Mexican beneath an American Eagle with two sharpshooters on the side taking aim at the eagle. Controversial from the beginning, this work was painted over. It is now in the process of restoration and open for public viewing.  Finally Jose Orozco painted murals in various American locations most notably The Epic of American Civilization found at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. This compelling narrative covers the history of the Americas ending with our industrialized society. He also painted a mural in the Frary Dining Hall at Pomona College in California called Prometheus. This work was commissioned for $5,000 but when Orozco arrived to begin work, less than $1,000 was raised—mostly by the students. Unwilling to turn around he asked "Do you still have a wall?"  While having his room and board covered by the university, he stayed and completed the work earning in the end $2,500.

The immediacy of this form of art has had a lasting effect on the Mexican people’s image of their country, their history and themselves. The mural format has also helped shape the image that many people around the world have of Mexico. This universal art form has served to educate, transmit political, social and nationalistic messages. Through the work that is still on display today we can see a stylized vision of ancient empires, the horrors of war, the dangers of industrialism and the fight for freedom, justice and equality.