Saturday, March 12, 2011

murals r us

If you visit Mexico City and never see a mural, you should have your eyeglass prescription rewritten.

Murals are to Mexico what stained glass is to Catholics.  And there is a connection there.

The church realized that most of their congregants were illiterate, and those who were not were not enlightened enough to read scripture.  So, rather than give them the Word, the church served up their version of scripture in various art pieces in churches – the highest being stained glass windows.

Mexican artists faced a similar problem.  How could they best convey their visions of history to the public.  That musing is not devoid of its own history.

Most of those artists started thinking about instructing the public in political correctness as a result of the Mexican Revolution.  It does not seem possible now, but the Revolution was seen as a successful cousin of the Russian Revolution.  And lines of Mexican politicians and artists were soon to earn the dubious distinction of being Lenin and Stalin prize winners.

The artists had a new mission in that environment.  How to reach out to the public to teach the lessons of of historical determinism.

Thus was born Mexican Muralism.

I always tried to initially view art pieces stripped of their historical contexts.  What does the art say – merely as a piece of art.

That is almost impossible with Mexican Muralism.  Almost all of the big names were Communists who sublimated their art to the political message.  They did not see a distinction between the two.  Art is politics.  Period.

Some of the muralists were good artists without regard to their politics.  Others put politics first and their art subsequently suffered.

Diego Rivera (or to use his full aristocratic moniker:
Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez) was part of the second group. 

His early works showed a lot of promise.  Like most early muralists, he painted Mexico pre-conquest cultures.  In his case, he developed a stylization with a connection between his viewer and the art.

But that period came to an end in the 1930s.  Diego became an artistic tool of the Mexican Revolution and the Mexican Communist Party.  And, because he loved revolutionary power, he soon became a political hack painter for the Mexican government.

If you examine his murals in the National Palace, you will see flashes of artistic genius.  But that genius is trapped in Hegelian handcuffs that celebrate the inevitable paradise of the Mexican Revolution.

His fabled Man at the Crossroads, originally commissioned for the Rockefeller Center, is a perfect example.  Admittedly, the version we now see on the walls of the
Palacio de Bellas Artes is a Marxed-up version to satisfy Diego’s hurt pride about his lost piece of art.

The story is that Nelson Rockefeller rejected the mural because Lenin’s face appeared as a driving force in man’s constant progress of subduing the earth.  It is hard to believe that such an innocuous portrait could cause such a furor.

The future vice president would have had a better argument that the piece was not really art.  It is merely a Classics Illustrated version of history.  And not a very interesting one.

Marxism is not very big on subtleties.  And that is clear from the dialectic that Diego sets up.  On one hand, he portrays capitalism as little more than shallow women and corrupt men.


And his conclusion of the world living in socialist peace is just as comical.  The whole gang is there.  Mark.  Engels.  Trotsky.  There is some question whether Diego was still a crypto-Stalinist at the time.)


But there are some better muralist artists – all of them who were willing to maintain a bit of artistic integrity by criticizing their political masters.

David Alfasri Siqueiros was an unrepentant Stalinist – to the extent that he planned one of the assassination attempts on Leon Trotsky in Mexico City.  It failed, but not for lack of trying.  It was a brutal gangster hit.

Sisqueiros was quite the art theorist.  His goal was to have his art seen and appreciated by people who would then bring about a true proletariat revolution in Mexico.

Even with that mindset, he managed to find room in his paintings for his voice.  That may simply say that he is more Nietzsche than Marx.  But you can actually see his love for humanity in his art.


But even his work pales when compared with that of José Clemente Orozco.

Along with Rivera and Siqeiros, Orozco was one of the big three of the Mexican Muralism movement.  But, just as Siqueiros thought Mexico had sold out the Revolution by becoming too bourgeois, Orozco believed the revolution had completely lost its way with bloody revenge.

His Katharsis mural on the wall of the Palacio de Bellas Artes is a good example of that style.  You can feel the pain that the Revolution brought to Mexico. 

The figures in his mural are symbols, but there is no doubt they are also living people.  Where Diego Rivera’s composition looked staged, Orozco’s composition is less self-aware – and far more likely to pull the viewer into the piece.


But my favorite is Rufino Tamayo.  He combines cubism and impressionism in a mural style that causes the viewer to think.  There are no easy answers.  But he is incredibly accessible.

There are two of his murals at the Palacio de Bellas Artes.  I tried to capture one in its natural setting. 

They are best viewed from a distance.  But the lighting plays havoc with photographs.  But here it is.  One of my favorite pieces in the Mexican Muralism movement.


Those of us who live in Mexico have a tendency to take these murals for advantage.  They are everywhere.

But they are worth examining.  For their artistic value.  For their history.  For their politics.

And they are certainly a good starting point to discuss Mexico’s recent past.  I am certain we are about to do that.


John said...

Personally I think Frida and Diego are great painters - LOVE their stuff. I have read the several books on Frida - so maybe that helped?

Your photos of the paintings are very well done amigo - whether you like them or not ;-)

Nita said...

I have viewed murals and paintings in Mexico without your excellent help. Where were you when needed?

Kim G said...

I always find a *GREAT* incongruity between Diego's lifestyle, wealth, power and ego and his leftist politics. In fact, to the extent that it's hard for me not to think of him as a poseur. If you're ever back in DF, go visit Anahuacalli, a monumental building which in addition to being a museum for his enormous collection of pre-Colombian art, was supposedly also to be his final resting place. If that's the case, it's a fitting monument to such a stupendous ego.

But it's a fantastic museum, and you can also catch Mexico City's nearby automobile museum as well, since it's between the subway stop and Anahuacalli.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where we really don't like the idea of avowed communists living in luxury while the proletariat struggle.

Steve Cotton said...

With my nose in a book trying to get a grip on murals. And I will continue the struggle to learn more.

Steve Cotton said...

I suspect Diego could not cut the moorings of his aristocratic past. But inconsistencies can be part of this complex world. Even Steve the libertarian has no problem taking his government-generated pensions.

Felipe Zapata said...

Ah, the Workers' Paradise. I'm still awaiting it.

Marc said...

Once again I learned a great deal from an interesting post. Thanks for your insights and opinions on Mexican muralists. Our opinions do not always coincide on these, but I appreciate your research and well-thought-out comments. Food for thought...and delicious.

Steve Cotton said...

Diego wouldn't have lied to us, now, would he?

Steve Cotton said...

Thanks, Marc. And that is all I am offering -- my perspective. And how I got to it.

Alee Robbins said...

Steve, I enjoyed your walk through 20th century Mexican history by way of these murals. Currently, I'm reading Los Años con Laura Dìaz (Carlos Fuentes) which incorporates the muralists into the storyline vis a vis the ideologies, politics and quirky personalities that informed much of their work. Interestingly, the first chapter opens with a Mexican film maker visiting venues in Detroit, where these same muralists also left an indelible mark. I recommend the book highly because it juxtoposes history, art, culture, society and Mexican idiocyncracies into a fascinating look at twentieth century life in Mexican from none other than Carlos Fuentes.

Steve Cotton said...

On the read list it goes.

Alee' Robbins said...

Great - I hope you don't finish it before I do. I'm reading it in Spanish so it's going a bit more slowly - but it's oh so delicious. I'm loving the story line!

Steve Cotton said...

With the time it is now taking me to get through books (with all of my travels), I doubt I will even come close to beating you. Even if you were transcribing each word.