In depth: Mexican Muralists

Dramatic artworks adorn the walls of public buildings all over Mexico, with Mexican muralists particularly standing out. These artists have been at it since pre-Hispanic times although many, such as those at Bonampak and Cacaxtla, have only recently been discovered by historians and archaeologists...
AGUASCALIENTES, MEXICO. Jose Guadalupe Posada was a famous political printmaker born in Aguascalientes city
AGUASCALIENTES, MEXICO. Jose Guadalupe Posada was a famous political printmaker born in Aguascalientes city

The explosive murals of the post-Revolution were a new departure; the works of Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco were to become the most powerful visual expression of the emerging modern Mexico, and were to astound the world

Of the Mexican artists who influenced Los Tres Grandes (the three great Mexican muralists), none appears to have been more important than José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913), whose powerful yet humorous engravings reached the very essence and vitality of Mexico’s rich tradition of popular art; indeed, they represent the fullest and most penetrating view of Mexican social life in the years before the Revolution. Posada, whose skeletons were authentically Mexican (a far cry from the foreign models used by artists of his era), laid the groundwork for a whole school of artistry that was vigorous and obsessively nationalistic. The muralist movement remained close to the folk tradition – the so-called Mexicanidad – of Posada’s wonderful, popular engravings.

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The first murals

In 1921, members of President Alvaro Obregón’s new cabinet were keen to spread awareness of Mexico’s history and culture. None more so than the radical education minister José Vasconcelos, who commissioned murals for the walls of a number of centrally located public buildings. And so the Mexican Muralismo movement began and Diego Rivera (1886–1957) painted his first mural at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria in Mexico City.

Rivera was a contradictory painter who aroused deep feelings and controversy. Though an ideologist (he was a Communist, but was expelled from the party), his work is less political than sensual in style, in the tradition of Paul Gauguin, Henri Rousseau, and even Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Rivera’s formative artistic influences were by no means exclusively Mexican. In Europe, he had been in touch with avant-garde movements, and the influence of Cubism is apparent in much of his work from that period. However, as a result of the Russian Revolution, and his stated belief in 'the need for a popular and socialised art,' Rivera distanced himself from the Cubists and sought a more direct and functional artistic style. It is often said that the most important influence on Rivera was not contemporary at all, but came from the frescoes and paintings of the Italian Renaissance. In fact, Uccello’s La Battaglia di San Romano is said to have been one of the most important influences on Mexican mural painting.

Notwithstanding all these European influences, Rivera acknowledged his debt to José Guadalupe Posada by including the engraver’s portrait in some of his most important murals. Rivera was deeply Mexican in his love of color and soft shapes, and in his strong identification with the Mexican native; he was also profoundly influenced by pre-Hispanic architectural form and sculpture. An excellent draftsman and watercolor artist, he created an idealised and sentimental image of a primitive Mexico, inhabited by brown-skinned girls and dreamy children carrying huge bouquets of exotic flowers.

Rivera himself was a colourful character, a constant source of gossip who loved to shock. One of his works, entitled Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park, originally flaunted the words 'Dios no existe' (God does not exist), causing such an uproar among Catholics and church authorities that they had to be removed from exhibition and were expunged.

Diego Rivera mural of an automotive assembly line at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo: James R. Martin/ShutterstockDiego Rivera mural of an automotive assembly line at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo: James R. Martin/Shutterstock

The ideologue

Other Mexican muralists include David Alfaro Siqueiros (1899–1974), who, like Rivera, continued his training in Europe. Unlike Rivera, he had been a combatant in the Mexican Revolution; he was a strong man of action, a political activist who volunteered for the Spanish Civil War, took part in labor struggles, was involved in a failed attempt to assassinate Leon Trotsky, and was imprisoned several times. His paintings reflect his ideological drive, his taste for bold action, even for violence. Massive and muscular, they become a kind of imprisoned sculpture.

Siqueiros experimented with a combination of painting and sculpture which he called esculto-pintura. A great innovator, he was constantly trying new materials and techniques. Perhaps his best murals are in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Castle, which offer a powerful interpretation of Mexican history. At the Palacio de Bellas Artes are displayed the best of his easel paintings, but he is best known for the vast, three-dimensional mural in the city’s Poliforum Cultural Siqueiros. Add a visit to both on Insight Guides' Mexico City to the Yucatán holiday; review the full itinerary here

The satirist

José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949), a tragic and passionate artist, is often considered the best of the big three. He was a political skeptic, a biting satirist, but also an idealist who was deeply disturbed by the sordidness of history. Orozco used the mural to convey his troubled feelings; his message transcends the national picture and can be understood by everyone. He has been compared to such German artists as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and Käthe Kollwitz. Orozco, always an outspoken man, denounced the tendency to convert the Mexican Revolution into a bloody farce that would result in new servitude for the masses.

The first important Orozco mural was painted in the early 1920s at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria. Stark and simple, it showed some influence from early Italian Renaissance painting. At the Escuela Preparatoria, Orozco does achieve moments of grandeur, especially in The Trench, a powerful image of war and human struggle. On the staircase of the same building, he painted Cortés y la Malinche, depicting the naked bodies of the Spanish conquistador and Malintzin, his native guide, interpreter, and mistress. The painting makes a clear statement about the relationship between Spain and Mexico, between conqueror and conquered, a theme to which Orozco returned many times.

From 1927 to 1934, Orozco lived in the US and painted murals for Pomona College, California, the New York School for Social Research, and Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. He described the cultural life of the times in his bitter autobiography, and in letters to his friend and fellow artist Jean Charlot.

Back in Mexico, at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Orozco painted Catharsis, whose central figure is a colossal prostitute, the symbol of corruption. Orozco produced many paintings, drawings, and watercolors on the subject of prostitution, viewing the brothel as a place of ultimate horror.

Orozco’s greatest works were produced in the late 1930s in Guadalajara – in the Palacio de Gobierno, the University, and on the walls and ceilings of the Hospicio Cabañas. Here he is at the peak of his power, covering straight and curved surfaces with fiery reds and stark blacks, paying homage to Padre Hidalgo, denouncing political manipulation, and searching for deep and universal symbols.

A 36-foot ceramic tile mural in Monterey, California by contemporary artist Guillermo Wagner Granizo. The piece has since been removed due to a renovation, but is slated to be reinstalled next year. Photo: meunierd/ShutterstockA 36-foot ceramic tile mural in Monterey, California by contemporary artist Guillermo Wagner Granizo. Photo: meunierd/Shutterstock

Other muralists

Jean Charlot (1898–1979) was born in Paris and is another of the early muralists. His Massacre in the Main Temple, a mural completed in 1923 on the stairway of the west court of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria in Mexico City, is generally regarded as the first fresco painted in Mexico since colonial times. Before his move to Hawaii, Charlot painted in other parts of the US, where he helped – with his art, but most of all with his writings – to popularize mural painting during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s early years as president.

Juan O’Gorman (1905–82), a painter and architect of Irish ancestry born in Mexico, transformed the mural into a kind of panorama of miniature scenes. Although they are modern, his paintings are anchored in Mexico’s 19th-century popular art. He is famous chiefly for the murals decorating the Biblioteca Central (Central Library) of Mexico City’s Ciudad Universitaria. Constructed with coloured stone, these giant mosaic-murals describe the culture of the world in a Baroque texture that is surprisingly innocent and fresh.

There had grown up a second generation of muralists, one of whom was Rufino Tamayo (1899–1991), a Zapotec from Oaxaca who died at the age of 92. Never political, Tamayo soon abandoned realism for poetically simplified forms. His decorative murals deal with cosmic and domestic symbology (stars, cats, women) and are indifferent to the direct interpretation of history.

Zacatecas-born artist Pedro Coronel (1922–85) explored much the same ground as Tamayo. His murals are perhaps the best of those painted in recent years. Other mainstream Mexican muralists, whose work is never far removed from realism, include Fernando Leal, Xavier Guerrero, José Chávez Morado, Roberto Montenegro, Raúl Anguiano, Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, Alfredo Zalce, and Jorge González Camarena.

Contemporary murals

The Mexican muralist movement sprang out of the Revolution and, in reality, that emotion is gone and done with. In the second half of the 20th century, the new generations of muralists reacted against the movement that they accused of being too obviously didactic and obsessively nationalistic. But disciples of the great muralists continue to cover the walls of public buildings throughout the country. Visitors will be well served by meandering the grounds of Mexico City’s UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), where many of the buildings display stunning murals for all to see, including works by Juan O’Gorman and Siqueiros.

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