Non-Western via the Mexican Muralism

Mexican muralism was the promotion of mural painting starting in the 1920s, generally with social and political messages as part of efforts to reunify the country under the post Mexican Revolution government. It was headed by Los Tres Grandes “the big three” painters, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. From the 1920s to about 1970s a large number of murals with nationalistic, social and political messages were created on public buildings, starting a tradition which continues to this day in Mexico and has had impact in other parts of the Americas, including the United States where it served as inspiration for the Chicano Mural Movement.

David Alfaro Siqueiros (born José de Jesús Alfaro Siqueiros, December 29, 1896, in Chihuahua, Mexico – January 6, 1974, in Cuernavaca, Morelos) was a Mexican social realist painter, better known for his large murals in fresco. Along with Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, he established “Mexican Muralism.” He was a Stalinist and member of the Mexican Communist Party who participated in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Leon Trotsky in May 1940. His surname was Alfaro; like another eminent 20th century painter, Pablo Ruíz y Picasso. Siqueiros went by his mother’s surname. It was long believed that he was born in Camargo, Chihuahua, but in 2003 it was proven that he had actually been born in Chihuahua’s capital city but grew up in Irapuato, Guanajuato, at least from the age of six.

America Tropical Siqueiros

David Alfaro Siqueiros, America Tropical, 1932

Siqueiros would paint América Tropical above what is now La Placita Olvera in Downtown Los Angeles on October 9, 1932. It was poorly received and criticized for its political and social message. It was whitewashed soon thereafter. Eighty years later, The Getty Conservation Institute conserved and restored the mural. It became accessible to the public on its 80th birthday, October 9, 2012. No known color photographs of América Tropical are known to exist so conservators used scientific analysis and best practices to get at the artist’s vision of his piece.

Diego Rivera was born in Guanajuato, Mexico to a well-to-do family. Diego had a twin brother named Carlos, who died two years after they were born. Rivera began drawing at the age of three, a year after his twin brother’s death. He had been caught drawing on the walls. His parents, rather than punishing him, installed chalkboards


Diego Rivera, Man At a Crossroads, 1934

The Rockefellers wanted to have a mural put on the ground-floor wall of Rockefeller Center. Nelson Rockefeller wanted Henri Matisse or Pablo Picasso to do it because he favored their modern style, but neither was available. Diego Rivera was one of Nelson Rockefeller’s mother’s favorite artists and therefore was commissioned to create the huge mural. He was given a theme: “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future.”[ Rockefeller wanted the painting to make people pause and think. Rivera was to be paid $21,000 for the work.He was officially commissioned by Todd-Robertson-Todd Engineering, the development agents for the building. The full commission envisaged three murals. Man at the Crossroads would be in the center. It would be flanked by The Frontier of Ethical Evolution and The Frontier of Material Development. The central composition was intended to contrast Capitalism and Socialism. This basic compositional idea was approved by Rockefeller

Rivera’s composition depicted many aspects of contemporary social and scientific culture. In the center, a workman was depicted controlling machinery. Before him, a giant fist emerged holding an orb depicting the recombination of atoms and dividing cells in acts of chemical and biological generation. From the central figure four propeller-like shapes stretched to the corner of the composition, depicting arcs of light created by giant lenses anchoring the left and right edges of the space. Rivera described these as “elongated ellipses”. Within these, cosmological and biological forces such as exploding suns and cell-forms were depicted. These represented the discoveries made possible by the telescope and the microscope.

Between and beyond the arcs were scenes of modern social life. Wealthy society women are seen playing cards and smoking at the left. Opposite, on the right, Lenin is seen holding hands with a multi-racial group of workers. Soldiers and war machinery occupied the top left above the society women, and a Russian May Day rally with red flags was seen at the right, above Lenin. For Rivera, this represented contrasting social visions: the “debauched rich” watched by the unemployed while war rages; and a socialist utopia ushered in by Lenin.Beyond the giant lenses to left and right were depicted figures contemplating the central scene, behind which were gigantic classical statues. The one on the left depicted an angry Jupiter, whose raised hand holding a thunderbolt has been stuck off by a lightening strike. The one on the right was a headless seated Caesar. For Rivera these represented the replacement of superstition by scientific mastery of nature, and the overthrow of authoritarian rule by liberated workers/

The bottom part of the painting was to depict the controlled growth of natural resources, in the form of a variety of plants emerging from their roots, visible in a cut-away view under the soil. However, this section was never completed. It exists only in the later recreation of the composition in Mexico.

On 24 April 1933 the New York World-Telegram newspaper published an article attacking the mural as anti-capitalist propaganda.A few days later Rivera added the portrait of Lenin to the work. This precipitated a major controversy by May. The bad publicity greatly upset Rockefeller.Rivera was asked to remove the picture of Lenin, but refused, instead offering to add Abraham Lincoln to the work as way of a compromise.Rockefeller then left the decision about the future of the mural to Todd-Robertson-Todd. Rivera was fully paid the promised amount for his work, but the mural was covered in drapery and left incomplete. Despite protests from art lovers and attempts to get it to moved to the Museum of Modern Art, it remained covered until the early weeks of 1934, when it was destroyed by workmen

José Clemente Orozco (November 23, 1883 – September 7, 1949) was a Mexican social realist painter, who specialized in bold murals that established the Mexican Mural Renaissance together with murals by Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and others. Orozco was the most complex of the Mexican muralists, fond of the theme of human suffering, but less realistic and more fascinated by machines than Rivera. Mostly influenced by Symbolism, he was also a genre painter and lithographer. Between 1922 and 1948, Orozco painted murals in Mexico City, Orizaba, Claremont, California, New York City, Hanover, New Hampshire, Guadalajara, Jalisco, and Jiquilpan, Michoacán. His drawings and paintings are exhibited by the Carrillo Gil Museum in Mexico City, and the Orozco Workshop-Museum in Guadalajara. Orozco was known for being a politically committed artist. He promoted the political causes of peasants and workers.


José Clemente Orozco, The Trenches, 1926

The Trench is described as a “confirmation of what an extraordinary and powerful painter Orozco would turn out to be” and is compared to the mural The Farewell, “where the initial impression is of a bloody action scene of great melodrama.”He uses jarring muted tones of a darker palette, which matches the dark theme portrayed. Orozco promotes a dignified view of death, as the viewer sees three men sacrificing themselves. Two of the men appear to have died, even though no wounds are present on their bodies, and a third is kneeling while covering his face with his left arm. Their faces are hidden, which gives the viewer a sense of anonymity behind the sacrifice of the many victims of the revolution. This poses the question, is the sacrifice of many worth anything? It makes their anonymous identity more powerful than if they had recognizable identities, because they now represent the sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of men who fought and died for the same reason. There is also a component of Christian iconography in this mural, as the central man leans spread eagle against a barricade of rocks and beams that resemble a cross. which contributes to the mural’s balance but not in a symmetrical way. This is an allusion to the crucifix, with the central soldier playing the role of the martyr, which is further exemplified by his lack weapons. Analysis of this mural and many other murals by Orozco about the Mexican Revolution is summed up by a statement by Antonio Rodríguez, which states “Orozco showed its…tragedy.”


One thought on “Non-Western via the Mexican Muralism

  1. This was a very informative post!
    After clicking on your links, I got carried away in the world of Mexican muralism
    I love mural art, usually. But I prefer “sunshine and rainbows”.
    Much of what I found in the Mexican mural links was “dark”. But of course, so was life in “The Trenches”. Intense emotion seems to be a common theme.

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