Mexican Muralism Movement (1920s-present)
Mural by David Siqueiros (1952-56)
The Renaissance of mural painting in Mexico (beginning in the 1920s) was a form of Socialist Realism, promoted by the Mexican authorities, in order to reunify the country during the revolutionary upheavals of 1910-29. Although it began during the presidencies of Alvaro Obregon (192024) and Plutarco Elias Calles (192428), it was led by Mexico's leading modern artists of the time: Diego Rivera (1886-1957) - husband of Frida Kahlo (19071954) - Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), who between them created a a whole new mythology surrounding the Mexican Revolution. The Mexican Muralism movement - effectively, a form of public art with a socialist message - is still in existence although it lost momentum in the early 1960s. During this period, public buildings across the country were decorated with murals using a variety of artistic techniques including encaustic as well as fresco painting, and a quantity of mosaic art. Coinciding, initially, with similar propagandist campaigns in the Soviet Union, it was (and remains) one of the few nationwide political art movements to occur in the West, inspiring others like the Chicano Mural Movement. It also coincided with the formation (in 1929) of the National Mexican Party (PNM), later renamed the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which ruled Mexico for the rest of the twentieth century. Other Mexican painters involved in the wall painting movement included: Alfredo Ramos Martínez (1871-1946), Roberto Montenegro Nervo (1885-1968), Amado de la Cueva (1891-1926), Ramon Alva de la Canal (1892-1985), Pedro Nel Gomez (18991984), Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991), Fermin Revueltas Sanchez (1901-1935), Juan O'Gorman (1905-82), Federico Heraclio Cantu Garza (1907-89), Jorge Gonzalez Camarena (1908-80), Alfredo Zalce Torres (1908-2003), Jose Chavez Morado (1909-2002), Jose Raul Anguiano Valadez (1915-2006), Desiderio Hernandez Xochitiotzin (1922-2007), and others. Foreign muralists who participated included: Ben Shahn (1898-1969), an important figure in the Social Realism movement in the United States; the Irish artist Pablo Esteban O'Higgins (born Paul Higgins Stevenson) (1904-83); and the French-American Louis Henri Jean Charlot (1898-1979).
An important pioneer of Mexican mural painting was the Guadalajara-born artist Gerardo Murillo (1875-1964), who signed his works "Dr. Atl". Trained in the prestigious Fine Arts Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City, he received a grant from President Porfirio Diaz to study painting in Europe, where he duly joined the socialist movement. After his return, he promoted the idea that Mexican art should depict Mexican life, rather than imitate the conventions and themes of European art, as decreed by the Academy. To this end he successfully lobbied the authorities to be allowed to paint murals on the walls of public buildings. He was joined by several others, including the cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), whose graphic art mocked the establishment and its identification with Europe. Gerardo Murillo also championed young painters like Diego Rivera and Francisco de la Torre, as well as the importance of indigenous Mexican themes, folk art and colour schemes that would later appear in murals across the country. He was supported in this by several oppositional groups and intellectuals, interested in promoting new cultural and aesthetic ideals in Mexico, including the influential thinker and writer Jose Vasconcelos (1882-1959), noted for his philosophy of "indigenismo", and the writer and reformist Alfonso Reyes Ochoa (1889-1959).
Murillo continued to work throughout the first decade of the Mexican revolution (1910-21), painting murals and inspiring the coming generation of artists. Then, in 1921, Jose Vasconcelos was appointed director of public education, and conceived the idea of a government-backed program of public art in order to promote the ideals of the Mexican Revolution. Above all, the idea was to promote a new, united and forward-looking country, keen to modernize for the benefit of all Mexicans. To this end, the education ministry quickly hired the best artists in Mexico to paint murals, even recalling some of them home from Europe. Among the first to be involved - in addition to Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros - were Ramon Alva de la Canal, Roberto Montenegro Nervo, Fermin Revueltas Sanchez, Amado de la Cueva, Alfredo Ramos Martinez and his pupil Federico Heraclio Cantu Garza.
These artists all differed in their style of painting and their outlook on life, but each believed that art was the highest form of human expression and a vital element in social revolution. In 1923, they established the Syndicate of Revolutionary Mexican Painters, Sculptors and Engravers, and its newspaper, El Machete, which proclaimed the necessity for a "collective art" to supercede the reactionary "individualist" art of the bourgeois. This was why murals were so popular: they were public, available for everyone to enjoy: not just a few wealthy art collectors.
This injection of leftist ideology into the aesthetics of the mural campaign was made easier by the agreement - made between the education ministry and the muralists - that the painters involved should have complete freedom of expression. This led directly to the appearance, in some of the wall paintings, of Marxist motifs, and pictures illustrating the struggle of the working class against their bourgeois oppressors. (Rivera and Siqueiros were committed communists.)
The first mural project of the campaign involved the interior of the old San Ildefonso College. After this came the decoration of the Palacio Nacional, the interior walls of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Escuela Nacional de Medicina, the Escuela Nacional de Chapingo and the Secretaria de Educacion Pública building, and many others.
The movement was most active from 1921 to the mid-1950s, at he same time as the country transformed itself from a largely illiterate rural society to an industrialized one. Despite the influence of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the murals were a controversial phenomenon, particularly those with blunt socialist messages.
The mural movement forms part of the Mexican School of Painting and Sculpture (Escuela Mexicana de Pintura y Escultura), although it remains a rather amorphous, sometimes contradictory element. The key characteristics of Mexican muralism include the following: first, most participating artists worked in urban areas of the country, either painting and/or teaching, with the financial support of the government; second, most were formally trained and many were graduates of the San Carlos Academy; third, most were political activists, and felt themselves to be involved in creating a new national identity. Fourth, the art they created was not for sale, but for public enjoyment. Characteristic themes depicted in the murals included: the promotion of indigenous Mexican culture; aspects of the Mexican Revolution; the communist struggle for social justice; the mixed-race mestizo identity; Latin American and Mesoamerican cultural history. Painting techniques used included fresco and encaustic or hot wax painting, while some artists created decorative art with mosaics made out of glass, ceramic or metal.
The main legacy of Mexican muralism to modern art was to reintroduce mural painting back into mainstream 20th century art, especially as an expression of social values, or as a way of advancing a political agenda. Its example may have influenced the US government-sponsored arts programs of Roosevelt's WPA and Farm Security Administration, during the 1930s. In any event, detached as it was from the unique horrors of the Great War and the Holocaust of World War II, Mexican muralism contrasted noticeably with the flight into abstract art (via movements like Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel) adopted by many other 20th century painters during the period 1930-1960. Even today, more than a century since Gerardo Murillo first started painting murals, wall painting continues on government buildings, churches and schools in almost every part of the country. Paradoxically, its guiding principle (free public art available to all, and an end to individualist bourgeois painting) was stolen by the "individualist" graffiti artists of 1970s New York.
For details of other celebrated mural paintings, see the following resources:
Chapel Murals (c.1303-10) by Giotto.
Chapel Murals (1424-8) by Masaccio
degli Sposi Murals (1465-74) by Andrea Mantegna
Last Supper Mural (149598) by Leonardo da Vinci
Mural (1508-12) by Michelangelo
Judgment Mural (1536-41) by Michelangelo
of Athens (Scuola di Atene) (1509-11) by Raphael
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FINE ART