Muralism was a popular form of Mexican art following a caustic civil war in the early twentieth-century. Artists like Diego Rivera—husband of Frida Kahlo—David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco channeled the tumultuous geo-political of Latin America within the cradle of Mexican culture. The Mexican revolution figuratively and literally changed the landscape of Mexico, causing the three giants of muralism to illustrate how modern politics violated the ideal form of Mexican heritage.
Muralism – Timeless Resonances in Latin American Art
Mexican muralist art stretched back to pre-colonial times when indigenous people captured the grandeur of ancient civilization and its architecture. In an a twentieth-century context, the three pioneers of Muralism lamented the false consciousness of politics and its severing of traditional culture. Muralism was anti-ideology in the sense that its art served to highlight the vitriolic influence of politics upon common Mexican people.
Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco used history as a template to undermine the repressive government and evoke a utopian past. Even though the muralist were often contracted by the Mexican government, the central aim of their art was to express the depravity and hardship of average civilian life during the revolution. Three important murals are explored by these artists to convey both failed utopian longings and timeless resonances in Latin American art.
Ghosts from a Historical Graveyard
Illiteracy was a prominent social ailment during the Mexican Revolution. The government thus employed Diego Rivera to broadcast classical elements of Mexican life to a majority who could not read or write. Rivera’s The Arrival of Cortés used colonial ideology to chart enduring class tensions in Mexico. The mural has a vibrant life energy instilled in the contrast between Hispanic colonizers and indigenous Latin American people. There is a lot of activity in The Arrival of Cortés, with an indigenous labor force building the backbone of primitive Hispanic society. Rivera alludes to the origins of Mexican society as a barbarous process likened to the ongoing civil war. The visage of slave labor and colonial rule is expansive in this mural, encompassing drastic changes to the social order and the natural environment. Rivera evokes longing to a distant past where communalism prospered, instead of class conflict and human life being a utility for war or the colonial elite. David Alfaro Siqueiros struck a topical vein like Rivera in his stark mural The Revolution.
A vast sea of discontent faces swell around the parameters of The Revolution mural. These are faces of men and women who are commoners and fighting to survive during a civil war that claimed close to two million lives. Siqueiros provides a voice for people who did not have the linguistic tools to broadcast their stories or message. Similar to the energy of slave labor in The Arrival of Cortés, Siqueiros uses art to expose facets of humanity that are typically smothered and repressed by government regimes. The faces of people in The Revolution are hard to distinguish, but there is nuance to the posture and body language of each individual person in the mural. Like ghosts from a historical graveyard, Siqueiros’ commoners haunt the imagination of the viewer—prompting questions of who these people were and what their stories entailed. José Clemente Orozco’s mural Prometheus re-imagines the Greek god from the context of the Mexican civil war, showcasing the wages of empire and development of modern culture.
Prometheus is a figure that seized the might of fire, emblematic of the creative spirit from the Gods, to advance human civilization. Orozco astutely portrays Prometheus in anguish while struggling to prevent the collapse of modern society. Humans with pallid skeleton-like personas crowd around a tortured Prometheus—symbolizing the cost of an industrializing Mexico. The color scheme contains harsh red and corpse-flesh tones that lacerate the bodies of the figures. Fire denotes war and carnage in Mexican culture, so there is no doubt a connection between the civil war and Prometheus’ agony in the worldly sphere. The faces of Prometheus’ prisoners resemble the facial structures of Indigenous Latin Americans. Prometheus in fact appears isolated from the unified suffering of his fellow prisoners. While the rest of the figures in the Prometheus mural are languishing, he attempts to draw-down fire onto the population. Orozco compliments the lurid theme of violence and social unrest in Latin American muralism. No doubt influenced by the philosophies of Karl Marx, these three central Muralist sought to humanize the oppressed and showcase a darker side to Mexican culture.