Oaxaca mural

Oaxaca mural

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Cradle of the Mural Movement

Probably Mexico's greatest contribution to 20th century art was the mural movement.  Beginning in the 1920s artists were given commissions to paint murals in public buildings throughout the nation.  After the upheaval of the Mexican Revolution the government sought to unify the country, to promote the ideals of the revolution, and to instill pride in Mexico's history and indigenous roots through public art.  The "big three" of the movement who gained international fame were Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Siqueiros.

The mural movement had its birth in a 18th century building in the heart of historic Mexico City.

The College of San Ildefonso was established in 1588 by the Jesuit Order.  It became one of the most prestigious educational institutions in colonial Mexico, and in 1749 the building was expanded to become the structure that we see today.  After the Jesuits were expelled from Spain and its colonies in 1767 the school declined.  In the 1860s the Mexican government took over the building and established the National Preparatory School here. 

In 1921, José Vasconcelos was appointed Secretary of Public Education, and it was he who decided to begin a government sponsored mural program to promote the ideals of the Revolution.  The very first project was to decorate the walls of the courtyard of San Ildefonso in 1922.


The project was controversial.  Many considered the murals to be a defacement of a gem of colonial architecture.  And although the mural movement resulted in many artistic masterpieces, there is no denying that the government's purpose was propagandist.

The major contributor to the project at San Ildefonso was José Clemente Orozco.  His murals ridicule the upper class and extol the struggle of the common man.  Some of the murals were vandalized by conservative students, and Orozco had to return to the school to restored them.

On the ceiling of the stairwell is one of Orozco's most famous works,  "Cortés y Malinche".

Hernán Cortés (we know him as Cortez in English) was the Spanish conquistador of Mexico.  The native woman Malinche was his translator and mistress.  The painting represents the fact that the Mexico of today is a fusion of the Spanish and indigenous peoples.

In 1994 San Ildefonso became a museum and cultural center.  Visitors may see the place where the Mexican mural movement was born.


  1. I'm so glad they preserved the murals in Playhouse Square which were painted by the WPA.

    1. I wonder if the WPA took the idea of commissioning mural paintings from what the Mexican government had been doing.