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Mexican Muralism - Built From Blood

Words:

Edd Norval
May 8, 2018

Mexican Muralism became prominent in the 1920s after the Mexican Revolution ended. Although the blood had stopped flowing, the country was still fractured. It was through art that that changes in perceptions started - essentially saving the new republic.

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The movement was defined by two things; form and theme. The form was, of course, murals - painted on various surfaces of varying sizes. The themes were consistent, predominantly communicating nationalistic, political and social messages.


The beginning of the 20th century in Mexico was filled with unrest as rapid change was, and to a degree still is the consistent aspect of society. After the Revolution, the majority of the population was still illiterate. Having a recently established new government that aimed to portray solidarity and a strong identity - they had to have a means of doing so that could be understood by the masses. Education through books just wouldn't do, so they embraced art.


Mexico is a nation with an extremely rich heritage and this had to be reflected in the new government. As as mestizo nation, they saw it as imperative to embrace both their indigenous cultural roots as well as their Spanish lineage. This formed the early basis for the content of the murals. The government called on some of the country's best artists, even if they had left their homeland, to take part in this artistic rising - it was propaganda that utilised the high arts and the nation's finest practitioners.

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Mexico has a tradition of muralism spanning much further back than this incarnation - it was informed by the preferred methods of their ancestors. Communication by murals ran through their veins. What started with the primitive artworks of the Olmec civilisation (1500BC - 400BC) became more acute and philosophical under the Porfirio Díaz government. The regime pushed artists to broaden their horizons, sending them on learning trips to far afield countries to bring back knowledge and techniques to help their homeland.


Often a reflection of their rural life and religion - simple motifs were employed to exude a sense of being grounded, but being glorious. Looking at the gorgeous landscapes becons one to bask in the natural abundance bestowed upon the country. The message was simple - our country is special, we should be grateful.


So, not that different from other countries approach to propaganda thus far. Where it begins to veer is the artistic depth to which they plumbed. Their truth wasn't just in the physical, scientific or political - it came from the will of the artist. Their willingness and capability to show the glories of the country were further testament to being a model of the new Mexican.

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The main artists that pioneered and drove the form were Diogo Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco, known as los tres gandes who all painted with their own signature styles and with artistic freedom - although it was the Secretary of Public Education José Vasconcelos that masterminded the movement. The mural represented a two-way phoenix from the ashes. Both the country would rise again as would the artistic form that has been so consistent throughout its chequered history.


Vasconcelos was part of a group of intellectuals that opposed the Díaz regime. Gaining his prominent role post-Revolution, he was able to marry the Mexican art of old, spearheaded by José Guadalupe Posada and the new Muralist movement of Rivera et al. Vasconcelos was instrumental to the development of modern Mexico and the prevalence of the Muralists. His philosophies were controversial, but full of galvanising life, the kind of which injected the nation with the necessary verve to pursue their new ambitions of development.


The movement evolved along with the country's transformation from majority rural landscape to a more industrialised and developed nation - it was perhaps the most accessible form of commentary on the shifting world the population inhabited. The new government had more socialist leanings and a part of that was the belief that art should be public property, to be enjoyed and assimilated by all - visible on the most desirable locations in the country. Historic national buildings, prestigious schools and ancient colonial buildings were coloured with these grand aesthetic statements.

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Subject to the fervour of the revolution, the public were motivated by the belief that they were worthy and that they had power where previously they had felt powerless. Reflecting this, the murals which contained images of Mexico's indigenous people and their humble beginnings on the land - class-struggle and a narrative of oppressor versus oppressed was often clear in the publicly prominent pieces.


Unfortunately, this meant that gradually, the murals went from being a pure artistic expression of very human ideals to something more sinister - a subtle mouthpiece for governmental manipulation of the masses. The murals were such a part of cultural conversation by then that it slipped through the net - largely unnoticed. The peasantry and working-classes were only on the cusp of attaining substantial education. They were in a situation whereby they had no way of knowing better than what they were being told - or shown.


Initially a country that lacked a monied middle-class, this began to develop as the country did. Sadly, the murals began to become a currency for them, becoming increasingly sold privately until the institution of muralism became almost entirely privatised - a painful death for a once powerful expression of Mexican identity and sovereignty. At the forms core though - the idea remains. A universal language of emancipation was spoken and people listen.

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