A Large Canvas – Tips for Appreciating Mexican Muralism

Fabulous beaches, pre-Columbian ruins, fresh guacamole… one can think of so many reasons to visit Mexico.  Don’t forget the art.  During the first half of the last century, Mexico enjoyed one of the most vibrant art scenes in the world.  The legacy these artists left is in itself a compelling reason to go to Mexico.  Here are some tips for appreciating the Mexican Murals:

  • Mexican Muralism was a movement, not just an art fad. Prior to this movement, art tended to be stuffy; portraits of rich people, landscapes and still-lifes and, of course, religious themes. The Mexican muralists believed that art should be public and idealistic. They used their talent as a means of social protest and made art for and about the masses.
  • The Mexican murals are true frescos, meaning that the painting had to be done while the plaster was still wet.  The artists not only had to ascend an elaborate scaffolding in order to do their work, but they had to do so under the time pressure of drying plaster.  Keeping this in mind as you view the murals makes their accomplishments seem even more remarkable.
  • There are murals everywhere, not just the famous ones.  Pop into the Town Hall of many a Mexican city and you’ll likely see a mural which either celebrates a triumph of the people or laments their suffering.  That being said, things become famous for a reason and you do not want to miss out on seeing the work of the “Big Three”.

Mural from the National Palace. Photo by Darij & Ana

The most famous Mexican muralist, and probably one of the most famous Mexicans period, is Diego Rivera.  His work can be seen in various places around the country, but the best examples are in Mexico City.  Some folks may feel intimidated by a mega-tropolis of this scale, but Mexico City is safe (it has a lower crime rate, including a lower drug-related crime rate than Washington DC), has an excellent Metro system and boasts at very least three “must see” items, including the Diego Rivera Murals, the National Museum of Anthropology and Teotihuacán.

The murals Rivera painted in the National Palace are the most famous and my favorite examples of his work.  However, I recommend saving these until after you have seen the murals in the Secretary of Public Education (SEP) building. Visiting the SEP first will allow you to view some of Rivera’s early work and therefore see his artistic development. More importantly, it’s a reminder that the true father of Mexican Muralism was not a muralist at all, or even an artist, but rather a bureaucrat. Jose Vasconcelos, who served as Mexico’s Secretary of Education in the 1920s, commissioned artists to decorate numerous public buildings.  It’s likely that muralism movement would not have happened without his support.

Diego Rivera mural in the National Palace. Photo by Joaquín Martínez Rosado

Rivera’s paintings celebrate traditional Mexican life and the Mexican Revolution.  The noble “trinity of the revolution” – farmers, soldiers and factory workers- is a recurring theme.  Rivera was not one to be shy about his politics and if you scrutinize his paintings you may notice that the background on the left side depicts a more bountiful landscape than the background on the right.  Of course, you can only see that in the paintings that actually have a background. Rivera tended to pack his murals full of people, often well-known public figures whom it can be fun to identify.  The best example of this is his Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda – a painting so revered that even an earthquake showed it respect (leaving the painting intact while the building around it crumbled)!

Travel to Guadalajara to see a smattering of public buildings adorned with the work of Jose Clemente Orozco.  His image of Hidalgo is iconic.  (I think Lonely Planet actually used a photo of it for the cover of one of their books once.) When I went to the Hospico Cabañas, I was lucky enough to see another visitor lying flat on his back on a bench, staring up at cupola overhead.  When he left, I followed suit.  This was the perfect angle from which to view Orozco’s masterpiece Man of Fire.  Seen from below, the painted image truly seemed to be ascending through the ceiling.  Orozco literally executed these paintings one-handed, having lost his left hand in a childhood accident.  Orozco was less enamored with the Revolution than Rivera.  His images explore themes related to suffering and the dark side of humanity.

Jose Clemente Orozco's mural of Hidalgo. Photo by Liz Saldaña

Orozco's Man of Fire. Photo by Sachavir

Final among the “Big Three” and probably the most political we have David Alfaro Siqueiros.  Compared to Rivera and Orozco, Siqueiros painted in a more futuristic and abstract style.  He used an airbrush and overhead projector.  Having studied architecture before turning to art, Siqueiros refused to be bound by two dimensions, as seen in the mural The People to the University, the University to the People which covers the side of the National Autonomous University of Mexico  (UNAM) in Mexico City.  His work shows a fascination with angles and movement and geometry.

The People to the University, the University to the People by David Alfaro Siqueiros. Photo by Mr. Theklan

I would be remiss in my duties if I did not point out that the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City is a great place to see the work of all three masters.  Maybe you’ll be inspired to go home and paint a mural on one of your own walls!

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Jennifer Choban

Editor & Author at Gear Up & Play
Seasoned traveler, avid reader, over-eater, clumsy but determined hiker, nascent piano player and wannabe Spanish-speaker.
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4 thoughts on “A Large Canvas – Tips for Appreciating Mexican Muralism

  1. Profile photo of loredana vallesloredana valles

    these artworks are so wonderful! i can spend hours looking at these and never get bored! i really like looking at paintings personally. the best part is analyzing every piece of it while judging every brush stroke. :)

  2. Profile photo of TiffanyTiffany

    I’ve been to Mexico a total of 3 times and I’ve got to say the art always impressed me. Although I’m not much of a history nut, learning about the time periods and rich history of Mexico seemed so grand through the paintings of these artists. Great post Jenny!
    Tiffany recently posted..So You Think You Can Dance?My Profile

  3. Judy

    Jennifer…. how could you skip Jose Chavez Morado, when you are living in his city??? There may be folks out there who are mural-crazy and want to see more than the Big Three. Please post something about him and the delight of seeing his work in Guanajuato. The Chapel in the Museo del Pueblo – small and succinct – makes me cry every time I see it. A total lesson in Mexican history in a small and private space. And no crowds! Plus learning how multi-talented he was and his amazing collections (which he donated to the city) that showed he was interested in the history of and manifestation of ALL art, not just his own self-expression.
    I bet you can intrigue and inspire more art lovers!

  4. Profile photo of Jennifer ChobanJennifer Choban Post author

    An excellent point of course, Judy. The problem is, there’s so much art to see in Mexico! But certainly anyone coming to Guanajuato should not miss the Chaves-Morado murals.

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