No other movement proposed and produced art for the people quite like Mexican muralism, entwined with its nation's history, culture and tradition with such dedication and vision. Spurred by the Mexican Revolution and succeeding civil war, it sought to reunify the country, but also educate the common man through powerful messages of cultural identity, solidarity, oppression, resistance and progress.
Although it started as a government-backed program, it evolved into a fiercely independent movement that intersected art and politics. It also liberated art from the confines of museums and galleries, bringing it into the public space and making it available to all.
The Emergence of Mexican Muralism
Recognized as the first major political, social and cultural uprising of the 20th century, the Mexican Revolution marked a true break from the past and ushered in a more egalitarian age. Allowing art to speak in its name, it also influenced the country’s biggest art movement.
As the nationwide revolt against the regime of dictator Porfirio Díaz was slowly building up, a small intellectual circle led by Antonio Curo, Alfonso Reyes, José Vasconcelos, José Guadalupe Posada and Gerardo Murillo, also known as Dr. Atl, had proposed a manifesto that called for a new art movement in Mexico which would speak to the interests and realities of its people. Proposing a uniquely Mexican artistic voice, this 1906 document came to be an important precursor of the Mexican muralist movement.
As the civil war ended and Díaz was overthrown in the 1920s, the new government strived to establish a new era for Mexico and its newly empowered people. As the majority of the country was illiterate, art became an important vehicle for communicating this new identity in the making—an identity based on the country's rich tradition and a sense of moving forward into the modern age.
Bringing together some of the best Mexican artists of the time, the government commissioned murals that aimed to inspire an overall sense of national pride and cultural beauty within the communities as a whole. However, since the artists were given a full freedom of expression, they were often pushing a more radical agenda in their images, resulting in ideological conflicts with their patrons.
The Mural as a Vehicle for Change
Muralism has had a long tradition in the history of Mexico, with its deepest roots dating to pre-Hispanic traditions of the Olmec people. The Mexican Muralist movement brought this ancient medium back and elevated it to a respected art form that had a strong social potential. With its grand scale, innovative iconography and socially relevant message, these murals reoriented history, recovered lost stories and forged new narratives for the people of Mexico.
Gracing the walls of public buildings all around the country, these grandiose works of public art spoke of the social justice, the values of the Revolution, the indigenous Mexican culture, the mixed-race mestizo identity and the pre-Columbian cultural history. Executed in the realistic pictorial style, they portrayed Aztec warriors fighting for their independence from Spanish colonialists, humble peasants fighting in the Revolution, common laborers of Mexico City, and the people of mixed-race.
As stated in the Manifesto of the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors from 1924, the artists of the movement rejected "all the ultra-intellectual salon art of the aristocracy and exalt the monumental expression of art because such art is public property." Indeed, their murals were, above all, free and accessible to all, undermining the traditionally dominant art market.
Los Tres Grandes
Although the movement stretched out all the way through the 1970s, the most significant pieces were produced between the 1920s and the 1950s. Working across the country, muralists used art as a political weapon in popular struggles for resistance, state modernization, civic participation, artistic freedom and cultural imperialism.Many of them were socialists or communists, believing in the power of the working classes and in the equal distribution of wealth.
Although hundreds of Mexican artists contributed to the movement, on the forefront of the movement were David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera—known internationally as "Los Tres Grandes" or "The Big Three."
The most prolific and historically recognized mural painter in this period, Rivera combined European Modernism and elements of Cubism with the country's traditional bright colors to depict the diversity of the country’s population. His works tackled a variety of themes, ranging from the country's indigenous past to its daily life.
An artist who fought in the revolution, Orozco drew from European expressionism to create a dreary depiction of the human suffering, the horrors of war and the fear of a future dependence on technology.
Another artist who fought in the Revolution, Siqueiros used progressive techniques and materials and a style often described as futurist to convey progress through the combination of science and machinery.Young and radical, he often depicted socialist themes in a direct way, such as the oppression and struggles of the proletariat.
Despite their different personalities, ideologies, styles and spheres of influence, all three agreed that art was the highest form of expression that should be a vital part of Mexico's new post-revolutionary identity. For them, art was supposed to serve as a vehicle for education and the progress of society. Over time, their murals transcended borders, engaging major issues that emerged throughout the Americas during the 20th century.
Mexican Mural Painting in the United States
Besides finding their way into other parts of the Americas, such as Guatemala, Ecuador and Brazil, Mexican mural painting expanded to the United States, especially though the work by Los Tres Grandes. This resulted from the rising ideological disagreements between the artists and the Mexican government who increasingly attempted to impose more control over their themes and subjects. Siqueiros was even exiled from Mexico in 1932 and moved to Los Angeles. Besides exposing their work to a larger audience, their visits to the U.S. had a direct influence upon the development of the country's public art painting.
Orozco, who was the first to travel to the states in the 1920s, created a mural at Pomona College in Claremont, California as well as in San Francisco and New York. Diego Rivera created important pieces all around the country, most notably in Detroit on the city's automobile industry, while Siqueiros' significant murals still adorn the facades of Los Angeles. While living in the U.S., Siqueiros even held art classes in New York in 1936 dedicated to teaching would-be anti-fascist artists about radical new painting methods and materials. One of his students was Jackson Pollock, whom he encouraged to pursue his art experiments that would become the roots of Abstract Expressionism. Among most politically controversial murals was Rivera's Man at the Crossroads, originally painted at the Rockefeller Center in New York under the sponsorship of Nelson Rockefeller. It was immediately whitewashed by its patron for the inclusion of Lenin's portrait.
The movement was also the main inspiration for the Public Works of Art program introduced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, established to create employment for artists and craftspeople during the Great Depression. With the Depression providing an environment for public art with social content, the project brought together 3,600 artists to create morale-lifting murals and sculptures for public buildings across the country.
The Mexican Muralism movement directly inspired the emergence of Chicano art in 1960s California, established to empower Mexican-Americans through the articulation of their history, aspirations and struggles. For them, the recovery of Mexican Muralism was part of a larger recovery of heritage and identity after a century of deliberate deculturalization by the dominant society. As a result, there is still a variety of vibrant murals across the country that investigate identity, indigenismo, pre-Columbian society, and the fight for farmers' rights.
The Lasting Impact and Legacy
Emerging at the intersection of art and politics, the Mexican Muralist movement reintroduced mural painting back into mainstream 20th-century art, especially as an expression of cultural and social values and as a vehicle for change. Art, which was previously available to a few wealthy collectors, was brought back to the public sphere, becoming accessible to all.
Mexican Muralism opened many doors for the street art and graffiti movement of today as it proposed public art as a freeing medium and a legitimate form of artistic expression that can convey meaning and ideas. In Mexico and South America, the mural continues to be a dominant art form, with a variety of street art projects proliferating across the continent. All around the world, public art continues to demonstrate the transformative power that was first recognized by these groundbreaking Mexican artists, challenging the social, cultural and political establishments. It continues to empower and inspire communities to articulate strategies of change outside of traditional institutions.