Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Don’t Say It, Paint It – Mexico’s Muralist Movement

Painted by Diego Rivera -- Palacio de Gobierno
I’ve always been a fan of art, and even though I can’t use a paint brush to save myself, I can appreciate the talent and patience it takes to create a masterpiece. What intrigues me more, though, are the stories behind the work, and some of the most fascinating I’ve discovered are from Mexico, especially the work of the Mexican muralists.

In 1910, two-thirds of Mexicans lived in abject poverty and slavery had grown to incredible proportions. On Mexico’s Independence Day, President Porfirio Diaz, ordered indigenous people off the street so they wouldn’t mar the joyous festivities. On that same day the writers and philosophers Antionios Curo, Alfonso Reyes, and Jose Vasconcelos banded together to establish The Athenaeum. Highly educated and well-versed in culture, these men issued a manifesto on the day of Mexico’s 100th anniversary of independence from Spain. “The community that terrorizes over man forgets that men are persons, not biological units.”

The words scribed by the men of The Athenaeum inspired an entire generation of painters who changed the face of Mexican art forever. Three artists who were at the forefront of that change were David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and Jose Clemente Orozco. However, the political revolution had only just begun and Mexico wasn’t ready for a cultural revolution – not yet, anyway.

Painted by Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera left Mexico for Italy and discovered fresco painting (watercolour on damp plaster), which later influenced his work when he returned to Mexico in 1921. David Alfaro Siqueiros left his art studies to fight in the revolution as a teenager, and later travelled to Paris on an art scholarship. This is where he met Rivera, who encouraged him to get in touch with his country’s rich cultural past. Siqueiros returned to Mexico in 1922. Prior to the revolution, Jose Clemente Orozco studied art at Mexico’s San Carlos Academy, just like Rivera and Siqueiros had in their early years, but Orozco gained his reputation through drawing unflattering portraits of the teaching staff who told him he couldn’t draw. He left the school to work as a political cartoonist and draftsman, and afterwards, participated in the revolution, but couldn’t fight because of a missing left hand. Orozco never left Mexico.

In 1920, the incoming president, General Obregon, asked the Secretary of Education and founding member of The Athenaeum, Jose Vasconcelos, to unite the illiterate country of Mexico. Vasconcelos suggested painting murals as a way to reach the masses as it had worked well for the Mayans and Aztecs. Vasconcelos commissioned Mexico’s best artists to paint murals throughout the country, but it was Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco who became most renowned for this type of work.

The artists from this time period believed art educated and bettered people, it wasn’t some vehicle for exploring fantasies and indulgences. Their paintings had a purpose. Rivera introduced the fresco painting technique, and everyone adopted it in their work but as time wore on, styles and ideas chopped and changed. All the while, the artists worked collaboratively, but despite their close teamwork, each artist had his own style, techniques and views. Without looking at the signatures on the work, most people who have studied the mural artists of Mexico can recognise who painted what. 

Painted by David Alfaro Siqueiros
Rivera used his knowledge of modernism from his time in Europe and combined this with the art of ancient Mexico. Initially using bright colours, Rivera captured hectic market scenes, but eventually he took to using greens, reds, browns, and oranges to make the murals look more like the authentic indigenous murals. Through Rivera’s themes of celebrating Mexico’s culture, he encouraged the indigenous people to embrace their heritage. Even today, Rivera’s work has a lasting effect on people, especially Mexicans, who like to see their country through Rivera’s eyes.

Siqueiros soon abandoned traditional fresco work, and experimented with enamel and duco. He painted with bold lines, exaggerated perspectives and integrated traditional Mexican art with his new techniques. His splattered, poured, and sprayed paint on his murals and became the first of the muralists to experiment with acrylics, resins, and airbrushing. He based his subject matter on socialist ideals and modernist forms, and incorporated science, machinery, and technology into his art. 

Orozco’s work was a stark contrast to Siqueiros. Where Siqueiros believed in a science fiction future, Orozco concentrated on depicting man’s growing dependency on technology and his fear for the future. Human suffering, and, the bloodiness of the Mexican Revolution, including firing squads and pillaging, were the subjects of Orozco’s murals. In Orozco’s eyes, Mexico was a country full of savages and as a result, people, more than likely from the government, vandalised and white-washed his work. In the late 1920’s Orozco travelled to California to paint a fresco mural at Pomona College in Claremont, California. These days, art experts consider it to be as important as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in Rome. 

It would take an impossibly long time to visit every mural painted by these unique artists with strong messages. During my time in Mexico I managed to see a handful of these murals, but if you only ever get to see one in your life, you are more than likely going to be in awe from the power behind this magnificent artwork that tells the story of a significant time in Mexico’s history.

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