February 2010

From Tavern Walls to Bathroom Stalls,
Mexican Muralism

Mural art is ideology, history, daily life, beauty, conflict, action, even violence.
-Leonor Martinez de Rocha

Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros are sitting at a tavern, drinking and discussing politics and art. Maybe they are penning the Manifesto of the Union of Mexican Workers, Technicians, Painters and Sculptures. They observe a painter painting directly onto the walls of the tavern. This pulqueria painter with his grasp of Mexican traditions inspires the Tres Grandes and the Mexican school of Muralism is transformed.
Diego Rivera
Mural at the National Palace
Prior to the 1920s, Mexican muralist artists explore indigenous subjects with the influence of European painting. When the Mexican government commissions Diego Rivera, he brings murals to the forefront. Rivera gives up the "so called salon painting and all the art of the ultra-intellectual circles" in an effort to create works of art that would be more accessible, both physically and intellectually, to the public. The ultimate goal for the artists is to create a new unity for their country after a decade of turmoil in the Mexican revolution. They want to bring the spotlight back on the people rather than the governmental issues surrounding the war, the primary focus for an entire decade. Artists give homage to the indigenous aspect of Mexico, drawing heavily from Mayan, Aztec and Incan traditions infused with conventional Mexican imagery. Along with the other two members of the great triumvirate, Orozco and Siqueiros, Rivera develops a monumental Mexican national art that primarily focuses on the flora and fauna of the country and its indigenous peoples.

Although Muralism is the undisputed champion of Mexican art during this time, some artists contest its popularity and mass appeal. The move away from muralism begins with Rufino Tamayo, an influential painter in Mexico at the same time as the tres grandes. He contests the popularity of muralism, “although the painting of that time period revealed some distinguished qualities, the preoccupation of its authors to produce, above all, art that was Mexican, lead them to fall into the picturesque, and to be careless of the really plastic problems”. Tamayo is famous for synthesizing his work from a variety of sources, including the work of Gauguin, Picasso and Matisse. He then incorporates traditional eccentric color and texture found throughout Mexican art. Through this technique, he is able to identify with the Mexican national identity, but pay homage to outside influences.

Tamayo starts the movement away from muralism, however, Jose Luis Cuevas is responsible for changing the history of Mexican art when he initiates the Raptura, the revolt against muralism. In his opinion, the muralists are guilty of rejecting art in the formal sense and replacing it with "cheap journalism and harangue". Instead of the influence of the indigenous aspect of Mexico’s past, Cuevas is interested in the follies of the exponentially expanding metropolis of Mexico City. He paints the disease and decay of the inhabitants that he interacts with on a day-to-day basis. Heavily influenced by other popular art forms, including the works of Dostoyevsky and Kafka, and films like Frankenstein and Dracula, Cuevas relates his own feeling of alienation and new emerging professional class through works on paper and easel paintings.

As Mexico evolves the revolution-muralism connection, muralists appear in almost all Latin American countries. They are most effective in cultures with strong indigenous elements. In Ecuador, Rivera’s influence marks the mural works of Eduardo Kingman in the 1940s and later with Osvaldo Guayasamin, who studies with Orozco as well. Candido Portinari, known as the Diego Rivera of Brazil, enjoys many years of mural painting. Like many of the Andean muralists, he owes much to Rivera, but then his work evolves to a more painterly looser style. Luis Alberto Acuna, creates murals for his country of Columbia in the 1940s after serving as cultural attaché in Mexico. Orozco inspires the work of leading Bolivian muralist, Alandia Pantoja and Siquieros is the teacher of his artistic rival, Walter Solon Romero. Living in Mexico in the 20s creates a strong impression with Jose Sabogal and influences the art of Peru.

Muralism arrives in Nicaragua in the 1980s as a direct result of the revolution. During the decade of the Sandinista rule, nearly 300 murals are created, most proclaiming a better future as promised by the Sandinistas. Alejandro Arostegui, Roger Perez de la Rocha, and Leonel Cerrato draw heavily on the Mexican use of Mayan motifs to make a connection with the Nicaraguan people in this time when freedom of expression, experimentation and creativity flourish.

In an effort to wipe out the memory of revolutionary sentiment that spread throughout the country, the new government elected in 1990 eradicates as many murals as possible. To the UNO political party, murals are viewed as nothing more than graffiti, bringing with them social unrest. Schools and popular artists are targeted. Children’s art is erased. Murals painted by Alejandro Canales and Leonel Cerrato fall victim and a battle ensues with artists on one side and armed civilians sent from the mayor’s office on the other. When a civilian points a gun at one of the artists, the artists respond by throwing paint all over the adversaries. The mayor, Humberto Belli, chalks it all up to a misunderstanding. He claims his men were to paint over all party and electoral graffiti (pintas in Spanish), but that they misunderstood him to mean pictures (pinturas in Spanish).

Recently, pintas are evolving into pinturas, as an all-new art form. While still striving to reach large masses of people and conveying a very particular viewpoint, graffiti is emerging as a form of pop culture art. The Museum of Mexico in Mexico City cements graffiti’s place both in the art world and in the world of popular culture, by exhibiting “Seguir siendo” where the artist Alejandro Magallanes presents a series of bathroom stall drawings with simple and playful messages. Using posters, Magallanes is creating cultural and social messages in his country. His work is characterized by translating the reflections on everyday life. And just as Rivera is inspired by the painting in a pub, Magallanes is motivated by the writings in the bathroom stalls. Through graffiti, muralism makes a revolution back to Mexico City. Both striving to make a statement, whether it is about politics, social equality, or any range of subjects, and leave it to the people to interpret it how they choose. While the styles change and the substrates are different, the message is still unapologetically the same: “Mural art is ideology, history, daily life, beauty, conflict, action, even violence”.

by Morgan Brooks & Suzanne Snider

Latin American Art of the 20th Century, Edward Lucie-Smith
Readings in Latin American Art, Patrick Frank, editor
The Murals of Revolutionary Nicaragua, David Kunzle


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