dusk near Cuernavaca

dusk near Cuernavaca

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Revolutionary Art

One of the results of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 was a generation of great mural painters who decorated public buildings across the country with paintings extolling the Revolution and the history of Mexico.  Even though their murals tended to be propagandist in theme, these Mexican painters were among the most important artists of the twentieth century.

The most famous and controversial of the muralists was Diego Rivera.  Rivera was an on-again, off-again member of the Communist Party, and the subject matter of his paintings sometimes got him into trouble with his patrons.  (Last year I wrote about the mural he did for Rockefeller Center.  The Rockefellers ended up destroying the painting.) 

Tourists to Mexico are most familiar with the paintings that he did in the National Palace in Mexico City.  Those murals are a vivid pageant of Mexican history, and are less blatantly political in tone.  However, the Palace has been closed to visitors since last autumn.  During one of the rallies protesting the disappearance of 43 students in September, an attempt was made to burn down one of the doors of the Palace.  There is still debate as to whether the perpetrators were a group of anarchists or government infiltrators who were attempting to discredit the protestors.  In any event, the National Palace has been closed until further notice.

Visitors who wish to see Rivera's art may go instead to the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP) just a few blocks away.   In the 1920s the education department set up headquarters in the former "Convento de la Encarnación".  Diego Rivera was commissioned to do a series of murals in the two courtyards.  There are more than 200 panels by Rivera here.

The paintings are beginning to show their age, but art conservationists are at work restoring the murals.

The paintings on the first floor deal with the everyday life of the Mexican people... their work and their fiestas... and are not generally political in nature.

However, on the third floor of the building, Rivera, filled with the fervor of the recent revolutions in Mexico and in Russia, makes no attempt to hide his political inclinations.  He scathingly portrays the decadence and materialism of the upper class "fat cats"...

... and contrasts them with the decency of the common people.

In Rivera's vision of the future, the workers and the peasants will unite...

...and Rivera's wife, Frida Kahlo, a famous artist in her own right, is there handing out weapons in the class struggle of the proletariat.

One can only wonder what Rivera would have to say about his nation in the 21st century.


  1. Have you ever gone out to his home in San Angel? Something about going to where someone lived gives another dimension to the person, IMHO.........

    1. Yes, I've been to his house in San Angel, and to Frida's house in Coyoacán (they both lived there for a while). I have also been to his studio/museum, Anahuacalli.