The Mexican Revolution – ten years of civil war which changed the country forever – was a time of great destruction and huge personal hardships. By 1920 the country had to rebuild both in terms of physical buildings, roads as well as relationships and trust.
With the huge list of practical things that needed to happen to rebuild the country, it is a little surprising that art should be one of the major tools used.
Between 1920 and 1970 many public buildings we covered in murals which had a nationalistic or a social or political meaning. The movement still continues today and has in a lot of ways transferred happily into America along with its artists. The city of Philadelphia is famous for its murals and continues to add them all over the area.
An old idea made new
Mexican muralism was not a new thing, ancient civilizations had been painting the walls during the pre-Hispanic period. In the colonial period, the idea continued with mostly religious themes painted in churches and public places.
But by 1920 the need was very different, but the response was very similar. When the population cannot read, the only way to teach is by pictures and José Vasconcelos the minister for education hit on the idea of state back murals with political and social ideas according to post-revolutionary government ideals. The idea gained traction quickly.
The government had a lofty vision. Only the best painters received a commission. Diego Rivera was called home from Europe and he joined David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco as the big three, though they were by no means the only ones.
Politically inspired not artistically
Each artist brought their own style but all were united in the belief that the work educated as well as adding something aesthetic. The concept of improvement of making things better for the people flowed beyond paint on the wall – they help create the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors. Not a group who often come together.
All three were communists, Siqueiros had fought in the revolution and had first-hand experience as well as a strong belief in Marxism. All three thought of their commission as part of the ongoing struggle against class and the structure of society. Painting was just a way of expressing it and of sending messages to large swathes of the population.
Now the overt political messaging is no longer the main reason for murals but the medium continues and continues its association with the Latinx community. Miami with its prevalent Latin culture has a vibrant and ever-changing mural scene.
Education may no longer be the raison d’etre but making a point often is. Street art has now become mainstream, and the fact that some of the more effective artists have now become collectible suggests that the edgier aspects are now perhaps softening.
But if you’re an angry artist – is there any better medium?