Mexican Muralism

First Things First...

The Mexican mural movement, or Mexican muralism, began as a government-funded form of public art—specifically, large-scale wall paintings in civic buildings—in the wake of the Mexican Revolution (1910–20). The Revolution was a massive civil war helmed by a number of factions with charismatic leaders—Francisco Madero, Venustiano Carranza, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, to name a few—all of whom had very specific political and social agendas. After the Revolution, then, the government took on the very difficult project of transforming a divided Mexico of maderistas, carrancistas, villistas, zapatistas, and so on, into a coherent nation of mexicanos. To do so, it needed to create an official history of Mexico in which its citizens would find themselves, and it needed a medium that could propagate this to a largely poor, illiterate populace. Enter Mexican muralism.

Out of a host of Mexican artists, three emerged as its most devoted, celebrated, and prolific, to the extent that they came to be referred to as los tres grandes (“the three greats”): José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949), Diego Rivera (1886–1957), and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974). While the mural project employed a host of artists from across the country, the influence and prominence of Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros was so great that it makes sense to limit a discussion of muralism largely to them for an introductory lecture on the topic. Each had a different personality, ideology, style, and sphere of influence, and a well-developed survey on Mexican muralism can be taught through their works.

This unit is an excellent opportunity to talk about the ways that artistic representation expresses cultural values: in the 1920s when muralism began, there was a concern with defining a new “Mexican” character. This often led to themes of mestizaje (celebration of Mexico’s mixed-race heritage), but also recognition of the native value of the indigenous Indian.

Stemming from a 1921 manifesto written by Siqueiros, muralism was pitched as an art of social and political engagement. Muralism provides a chance to talk about the intersection of art and politics, which may seem commonplace to your students now, but was widely debated throughout the twentieth century. What is the goal of art? To what extent is art supposed to be autonomous and separated from everyday life? Does art that has a function cross the line from art to propaganda, or is there a hazier area between the two that is explored in works like these?

Another major theme to discuss is the value of public art in society. What does public art accomplish? If muralism is monumental and public, how are its conditions different than small, private works of art that are made for consumption by the art market and institutions like museums?

Background Readings

David Alfaro Siqueiros, Echo of a Scream, 1937, pyroxyline on wood.

Background readings on Mexican muralism may also provide an opportunity to discuss the theme of art and politics. For example, authors who believe that art and politics should remain separate tend to favor the “apolitical” Orozco over the more ideologically determined works of Rivera and Siqueiros, while leftist authors may overly romanticize the latter two’s art; one must read critically. Desmond Rochfort’s Mexican Muralists (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998) falls into the first category: though it is often used as the go-to survey text, it is strong on Orozco and Rivera, but perhaps unnecessarily critical of the more politically and artistically radical Siqueiros. Leonard Folgarait’s Mural Painting and Social Revolution in Mexico, 1920–1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) is an excellent alternative treatment of the so-called “heroic period” of Mexican muralism—from the end of the Revolution to the end of the progressive regime of Lazaro Cardenas, at which point the Mexican presidency became much stricter about the course of muralism, limiting artistic choice. The Folgarait, Alejandro Anreus, and Robin Adele Greeley edited Mexican Muralism: A Critical History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012) also provides shorter thematic essays that cover the main three and also give an idea of how muralism evolved past 1940, until (and beyond) the death of last remaining grande Siqueiros in 1974.

Each of the muralists also spent some amount of time in the 1920s and 30s in the United States, and their art and politics possessed a decidedly different value when marshalled outside of the Mexican governmental apparatus. Anthony Lee, “Workers and Painters: Social Realism and Race in Diego Rivera’s Detroit Murals,” in Alejandro Anreus, ed., The Social and the Real: Political Art of the 1930s in the Western Hemisphere (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2006), 201–20 is an excellent treatment of Rivera’s work at the Detroit Institute of Art as it relates to art and social engagement. Robert Linsley’s “Utopia Will Not Be Televised: Rivera at Rockefeller Center,” Oxford Art Journal 17.2 (1994), 48–64 handles the political situation created in 1933 by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s decision to have a radical Communist paint a mural in the heart of New York City, and the fiasco that occurred when Rockefeller decided to censor it. Linsley discusses art and censorship while deftly avoiding the sensational tone with which the event had been discussed for the previous sixty years, focusing on what was actually in the painting and what information Rivera encoded there. James Oles, “Orozco at War: Context and Fragment in Dive Bomber and Tank (1940)” in Renato González-Mello, ed., José Clemente Orozco in the United States, 1927–1934 (Hanover: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College Press, 2002), 186–205 discusses the “apolitical” Orozco’s anti-imperialist, antiwar painting Dive Bomber and Tank, painted on-site in the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1940, bringing art together with themes of social justice, imperialism, and war, among others. Any of these would serve as straightforward, coherent texts to assign to students as fodder for discussion, and each work is included in the Content Suggestions below.

As for web resources, Renee McGarry and Ananda Cohen Suarez (who authored the Art of the Americas before 1300 lecture for AHTR) host the extremely useful Latin America Visualized website, which features links to museums with significant Latin American collections, to prominent libraries and online archives for Latin American sources, and—more specifically—to those dealing directly with Latin American art. Mexican muralism is represented by a majority of these institutions that deal with modern art, and—due to muralism’s oft-historical bent—even those dealing with ancient art can be equally valuable. One of the many resources they link to, the Documents of 20th-Century Latin American and Latino Art website maintained and populated by the International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is especially rich in digitized primary sources for modern Latin American art, including muralism.

Content Suggestions

This lecture takes a mostly chronological trajectory from Mexican muralism’s genesis in 1921 through the major painters’ early experiments to the height of the movement’s national and international popularity around 1940. The main questions for this lecture are:

  • How are the values and history of post-Revolutionary Mexico reflected in muralism?
  • How can the political be expressed most effectively through artistic means?
  • How might we sum up muralism’s contribution to twentieth-century art?

In an hour and fifteen minutes, these questions can be investigated through many paintings and comparisons, including:

  • Diego Rivera, Creation, 1922–3, Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, Colegio de San Ildefonso, Mexico City. [v. Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, c. 1305.]
  • José Clemente Orozco, Maternity, 1923, Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, Colegio de San Ildefonso, Mexico City. [v. Raphael, Sistene Madonna, 1512–4.]
  • Orozco, The Trench, 1926, Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, Colegio de San Ildefonso, Mexico City. [v. Picasso, Seated Nude, 1909–10.]
  • Rivera, History of Mexico, 1929–30, 1935, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City
  • David Alfaro Siqueiros, Plastic Exercise, 1933, Basement of “Los Granados” (private home of journalist Natalio Botana [1888–1941]), Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • Rivera, Detroit Industry murals, 1932–3, Detroit Institute of Arts. [v. Coatlicue, c. sixteenth century CE]
  • Rivera, Man at the Crossroads, 1933–4, Rockefeller Center, New York City. (destroyed; re-painted as Man, Controller of the Universe, 1934, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City.)
  • Orozco, Modern Migration of the Spirit and The Departure of Quetzalcoatl, scenes from the Epic of American Civilization mural cycle, 1932–4, Baker Memorial Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire
  • Siqueiros, Collective Suicide, 1936, Museum of Modern Art, New York. [v. Jackson Pollock, Landscape with Steer, 1936, MoMA.]
  • Siqueiros, Echo of a Scream, 1937, MoMA
  • Siqueiros, Portrait of the Bourgeoisie, 1939–40, Sindicato Mexicano de Electristas, Mexico City
  • Orozco, Dive Bomber and Tank, 1940, MoMA

Due to the didactic bent of the Mexican government’s project, muralism began under the Secretariat of Public Education, headed by José Vasconcelos. Vasconcelos chose the artists but gave them a great deal of autonomy regarding style and subject matter. Fledgling wall paintings like Rivera’s Creation and Orozco’s Maternity—though fully realized attempts at murals—thus feature little, if any, of the social and political matter for which Mexican muralism is known. However, these works are still pivotal to the mural project. For one, Creation was one of the earliest large-scale public paintings in the Americas to contain actual indigenous bodies as Adam and Eve rather than white-skinned figures, showing Rivera’s—and more broadly, muralism’s—respect for and engagement with the native population of Mexico. Both Rivera and Orozco also displayed their knowledge of the precedent of Italian Renaissance murals as well, with Rivera’s taste for Giotto showing itself in the two-dimensionality of his figures and the celestial sky that recalls the ceiling of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Maternity, while still retaining a palette and expressionistic style characteristic to Orozco (dark reds, browns, ochres), recalls images of Christ and the Virgin Mary such as Raphael’s Sistene Madonna, with deep folds of drapery, a defined triangular composition, and its use of ultramarine tones in the Virgin’s garment.

Despite the early influence of the Italian Renaissance, each of the main three painters was also well-versed in modern currents in art: Rivera had spent most of the 1910s in Europe; Siqueiros traveled there from 1919–21; and, though he didn’t reach Europe, Orozco studied these movements through reproductions in Mexico. Thus, though muralism was a national project, the work of these three artists gave Mexico—which had previously been viewed as something of a cultural backwater—an internationally recognized movement with a unique contribution to twentieth-century modernism.

With works from several years later like The Trench, Orozco moved on to what is considered his mature style, which retained his expressionistic handling while incorporating the formal lessons of Cubism, exemplified in the attached PowerPoint by Picasso’s Seated Nude. As the comparison shows, Orozco’s composition in The Trench owes to a new, modernist conception of space and potentially time, as it has been suggested that he depicts not three revolutionaries, but one man in three positions. The cruciform posing of the middle figure, reminiscent of the martyred Christ, indicates that this revolutionary is dying; the anonymity suggested by his covered face allows the viewer to mourn all victims of the Mexican Revolution, whatever their allegiance. Significantly, Orozco witnessed the Revolution’s bloody events firsthand in a journalistic capacity in the army of presidential hopeful Venustiano Carranza. Given Orozco’s later self-professed apolitical nature, it stands to reason that The Trench is a pacifist work created by a conscientious objector to the notion of war who refused to glamorize the events of the Revolution.

If Orozco held an ambiguous attitude toward political heroes, Rivera’s History of Mexico shows that he was willing to celebrate their place in Mexico’s pantheon. Of los tres grandes, Rivera’s straightforward rendering proved to be the most influential for the next generation of muralists. History of Mexico exemplifies his mature style, which continued to look to the spatial perspective of proto-Renaissance painters like Giotto (the figures seem stacked upon each other, as if they don’t share a common platform), as viewed through the modern compositional techniques of the Cubists and the post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne. Rivera deftly manipulates space in History of Mexico, creating a spiral composition that begins with the founding of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (your students may recognize the eagle with a snake in its beak perched atop a cactus at the center of the image from the center of the modern Mexican flag), moving down and to the left (to the Aztecs), then continuing counter-clockwise through the Spanish Conquest, indoctrination by the Catholic Church, and the independence movements of the 1800s before finally arriving at the Mexican Revolution at the upper left.

Though this structure may seem difficult to grasp at first to your students, you may point out that composition is a difficult issue in the construction of a monumental work. Siqueiros, for example, would argue that the laws of composing a mural differed drastically from those governing a small easel work, and that most mural failures were the result of improper planning done by artists who treated a mural simply as they would a much larger easel painting. The three arches in which History of Mexico resides added an additional obstacle to its realization, and—rather than clumsily trying to unite the three—Rivera cleverly chose to place three different events from three different time periods in the arches, emphasizing the tripartite structure in a manner that further suggests the three vertical stripes of the Mexican flag. In the mural itself, caricatures of fat priests, European military dictators, and corrupt bureaucrats contend with Mexican heros (for example, Hidalgo at center), constitutional proposals (Constitution of 1857, top-right; the Plan of San Luís of 1905 and Zapata’s Plan of Ayala, top-left), and exploited peasants and workers who agitate for “Tierra y Libertad” (“Land and Liberty”).

Another approach to large-scale mural composition is seen in the work of Siqueiros, who was perhaps the most technically, compositionally, and politically radical of the three. Siqueiros contributed many ideas to the mural movement, but he is best known for his claim that revolutionary art required revolutionary techniques and materials. This led to a rejection of the traditional fresco techniques used by the other muralists—which required five-hundred-year-old techniques and materials popularized during the Italian Renaissance—and an emphasis on using new technological and chemical advances in his work. In Plastic Exercise, one sees evidence of Siqueiros’s commitment to these principles, if not yet of his vehement political engagement. The swirling nude female bodies that seem to swim through Plastic Exercise were created through several means. First, they are painted on concave walls, a situation to which Siqueiros had to adjust his composition. Owing to talks Siqueiros had with Sergei Eisenstein while the Soviet filmmaker was in Mexico in 1931, he accomplished Plastic Exercise through the use of electric image projectors, casting sketches onto the concave walls and then tracing compositional lines. This was also among the first images he painted with pyroxyline, a chemical lacquer used to paint automobiles that Siqueiros would later apply to walls using a commercial spray gun.

Though he was the only grande to enhance his work through the use of technology, Siqueiros was among a host of painters in the early twentieth century who showed a fascination with and belief in technological progress as a means toward creating a better world. Though this idea was soured for many by the atrocities of World War I, certain artists and intellectuals still held to the belief that technology could ultimately be an agent of positive progress. As each of the three muralists traveled to the wealthier United States to make murals in the 1930s, the advanced industry in the U.S. became fodder for this belief. Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals, which depict Henry Ford’s River Rouge automobile plant in largely positive terms, belong to this tradition. Separated into two sections (on the north and south walls of the room), Rivera’s murals depict powerful laborers working on spotless machinery. Horizontal friezes above the factory scenes contain geological imagery and allegorical figures connected to the soil, suggesting that modern automobiles, which are made out of and powered by the harvesting of subsoil metals and petroleum, are as much the earth’s bounty as planted crops. As a political message, this would connect urban factory workers with rural agricultural producers on the basis of their work and social class. The inclusion on the right side of the south wall of a large machine resembling a famous Mexican statue of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue could be taken to connote something near-mythic in Rivera’s appreciation of technology. It also stands as a potential tongue-in-cheek warning by the artist that the machine should not be taken as such a panacea that it becomes an object of worship.

Due to Rivera’s Communist politics, his (relatively tame) Detroit Industry murals were protested by local conservative groups. The true fiasco, however, awaited him when he painted Man at the Crossroads in Rockefeller Center. On the surface, John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s decision to commission a mural on technological progress from the most celebrated painter in Mexico (and perhaps, at the time, the entire Western Hemisphere!) for New York City’s most emphatically modern building project makes absolute sense. However, Rivera’s politics quickly became an issue, and his inclusion of a portrait of Russian Revolutionary Vladimir Lenin is generally taken as the reason why Rockefeller ultimately decided to have the work whitewashed and removed. The work itself is an allegory of the positive and negative uses of technology by different classes of people, with “Man” at center, behind the controls of a giant machine. While the myriad bits of information embedded in Man at the Crossroads could be teased out—and, as with many of these murals, an entire lecture could easily be taught on this one painting alone—its significance today may lie more in its censorship on political grounds, and the contact that it has with critical issues surrounding the commissioning and display of public art.

Orozco saw greater success for his murals in the United States, possibly because they tended to be done under the auspices of academic institutions that had a greater stake in protecting intellectual property. After notable murals in Pomona College in California and at the New School for Social Research in New York City, Orozco painted his Epic of American Civilization cycle in Baker Memorial Library at Dartmouth College. At Dartmouth, Orozco both historicized and problematized the “discovery” of the Americas by European explorers and the centuries that followed. In the scene Modern Migration of the Spirit, Christ is depicted having destroyed his cross, standing proudly and powerfully before the heaped-up symbols of political and religious ideologies. Though the facets of Christ’s face recall a somewhat Byzantine (pre-Renaissance) manner, the body of Orozco’s messiah is curiously non-European, perhaps indicating an indigenous figure to mirror the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl, who faces Christ from The Departure of Quetzalcoatl on the opposite wall. The arms of the flailing priests who banish Quetzalcoatl in Departure become gun turrets and mechanical elements in Migration, suggesting Orozco’s antiwar stance and his belief in the power of individuals to resist the ideological constraints that attempt to force them into defined positions. Anita Brenner’s groundbreaking 1929 book on Mexican culture, Idols Behind Altars, featured the work of the muralists and made the claim that—after Spanish contact—indigenous religion was not eliminated but merely went into hiding, manifesting itself in the fervor of Catholic rituals that were actually acted out by Natives in faith toward American deities. Orozco’s collapsing of Christ and Quetzalcoatl has something of this idea bound within it.

In February 1936, Orozco and Siqueiros traveled to New York City as the Mexican delegates to the American Artists’ Congress Against War and Fascism. During the talks, Siqueiros spoke to the need for technological advances in art making. The Artists’ Congress supported him by putting him at the head of the Laboratory for Experimental Techniques in Art in Union Square in April, where he would reside and teach until he left to fight in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. It was in this momentary haven under the specter of Fascism that he created the smaller, non-mural works Collective Suicide and Echo of a Scream, and both show his continued commitment to modern technology in art. Collective Suicide, which is a very abstract work for Siqueiros, depicts a legion of Aztec warriors (left) committing suicide as a form of resistance to the Spanish conquistadors (right) represented on horses, led by the lone white figure of Hernán Cortés. The wild, volcanic background of the painting was created by what Siqueiros called the “controlled accident” of letting highly plastic automobile paints pool together, then manipulating them with chemical thinners and commercial air brushes—the swipes of the air brush can be seen throughout. He also used a stencil and spray gun to create the Aztec and Spanish figures. As a result, Collective Suicide stands as an anti-imperialist, antiwar image at the dawn of World War II in Europe. Notably, the future Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock was among the students at the workshop, and his dripping of paint stems directly from the freedom of experimentation promoted by Siqueiros. Pollock’s work Landscape with Steer, made there, shows his own experimentation with the air brush.

Echo of a Scream is another product of Siqueiros’s technical experimentation and his political engagement. This powerfully direct image of a suffering child in a bombed-out and broken landscape derives partly from a 1925 National Geographic image Siqueiros saw of a crying child on his mother’s back in Africa. By removing the child from that context, Siqueiros created an image of the universal suffering caused by war and imperialism. His “echo” of the child’s scream through the doubling of the child’s head relates to his willingness to expand painting in a “cinematographic” direction after his talks with Eisenstein (see Plastic Exercise, above). Siqueiros’s use of the air brush created the polished quality of the child’s body. This metallic sheen connects it to the shiny metal surrounding it, showing the dehumanizing effect of war and imperialism. Given that Siqueiros left for Spain immediately after the completion of this painting, one might develop an interesting discussion by comparing it with Picasso’s Guernica, painted later in 1937.

Many scholars consider Portrait of the Bourgeoisie to be Siqueiros’s most successful mural painting; it certainly stands as a tour de force in mural composition. In the stairway of the Electricians’ Union in Mexico City, Siqueiros created a work of art that responded to the movements of an active viewer, taking into account a plethora of potential viewpoints. A constant theorist and innovator throughout his career, Siqueiros referred to this compositional technique as polyangular perspective, and placed it as painting’s answer to filmic montage. If you direct your students’ eyes carefully, they will see how Portrait of the Bourgeoisie occupies three walls and the ceiling of the stairwell; you can see the seams where the walls touch each other and the ceiling. To help your students understand how the perspective works, you can show them the intense diagramming Siqueiros undertook with projectors to compose this massive undertaking (see Slideshow below).

The mural itself is a condemnation of Fascism, which—in the Marxist mindset—is the last resort of capitalism. Thus, Siqueiros and his mural team painted images indicating connections between money, oppression, imperialism, war, and the manipulation of the masses with an armed figure of resistance arising (notably, along the same path as the stair-climbing spectator) to put an end to these injustices. Siqueiros’s polyangularity would be an influential theory for a number of later Latin American artists whose works might be categorized as installation art. It might be worth pointing out to your students the privilege that an artist might place on the freedom to move one’s body given many Latin American countries’ histories of military dictatorships that limited choice at home and the possibility of emigration abroad.

A last work that supports freedom of choice, not only in its subject matter but also its composition, is Orozco’s Dive Bomber and Tank. Painted on site at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1940, Dive Bomber and Tank depicts a metallic junk heap created by the collision (on the painting’s six horizontally placed canvases, at least) of the two titular war machines. When analyzed closely, however, one quickly notices that the panels don’t exactly line up; the machines are impossible to visually complete. Given Orozco’s apolitical nature, his antiwar stance, and the lack of insignia on either plane or tank, James Oles has made the claim that the subject of this painting is “chaotic fragmentation itself.” (see “Orozco at War” in the above Background Readings)

To bolster this claim, Oles noted that, upon giving the finished work to MoMA, Orozco suggested a number of different configurations in which the painting could be presented—rearranged, in groups of two or three that were separated from each other, and so on—even going so far as to provide MoMA with photographed groupings of canvases. This is where one can speak of the possibility of freedom of choice in relation to Dive Bomber and Tank. If you’re interested in taking a sidebar with your students about the tendency of institutions to de-politicize or de-radicalize art in the service of the “unique art object”, you might point out that—contrary to Orozco’s wishes—MoMA has never shown the work in anything but its present, “correct” configuration, partially suppressing its meaning, preferring to assert it as a formal masterpiece.

Indeed, the advent of World War II would somewhat “end” muralism, as U.S. economic supremacy and anti-Communist policy after 1945 (and into the Cold War) reduced the market for and interest in the politically charged work of Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros. In Mexico, a definite shift to the right of the political spectrum would also create an unwelcome situation for their championing of art and leftist politics. This is why many surveys of Mexican muralism—and this survey lecture—end at 1940, though you should stress to your students that this should not be taken as a dismissal of later muralism, as the movement continued at least until the death of Siqueiros in 1974, and potentially beyond. The mural form has been taken up, for example, by Chicano artists in the United States since the 1970s and 80s, and continues to be used as a vehicle for radical politics today.

At the End of Class...

The need to condense a fifty-year movement that provided work for hundreds of Mexican painters limited this lecture to three pivotal figures. You could have your students choose from a list of lesser-known Mexican muralists and write a short paper detailing some of their works and their contribution to the movement:

Fernando Leal — Luis Arenal — Jean Charlot — Rufino Tamayo — Carlos Merida — Roberto Montenegro — Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo) — Pablo O’Higgins — Antonio Pujol — Jorge González Camarena — José Chávez Morado — Fermín Revueltas — Ramón Alva de La Canal — or others

The Works Progress Administration—a New Deal program during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt—was, among other things, an attempt to keep artists working through the Great Depression, often on public government murals. Roosevelt modeled this idea on the example of Mexican muralism. Another option in an American classroom is to use the website to locate a mural near you for a.) a field trip to discuss an example of public mural painting, or b.) to assign a short paper comparing the work of American WPA muralists to that of their Mexican counterparts. Do they share techniques? Do they share subject matter? Is there evidence that the WPA artists were aware of the visual styles of the Mexicans, and could you point to any possible influence?

Further Resources

Smarthistory on Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera

Frida Kahlo, Frieda and Diego Rivera​, 1931, oil on canvas, 39-3/8 x 31 inches or 100.01 x 78.74 cm (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Jon Mann (author) is a graduate teaching fellow at Lehman College, a PhD Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, and a lecture contributor and editor at Art History Teaching Resources.

Amy Raffel (editor) is a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has a Master’s degree in Contemporary Art history from the Institute of Fine Arts (NYU) and has taught Introduction to Modern Art as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Lehman College since 2010. Currently, Amy is a genome contributor for Artsy and editor and contributor of Art History Teaching Resources.