Saturday, March 27, 2010

(Social) Realism: Mexico

Mexican muralism

Mexican muralism is a Mexican art movement that took place primarily in the 1930s. The movement stands out historically because of its political undertones, the majority of which are of a Marxist nature, or related to a social and political situation of post-revolutionary Mexico.

The leading muralists were Diego Rivera, José Orozco and David Siqueiros, each of whom also worked in the United States at some point in their artistic careers. All three artists utilized the classical tradition of fresco painting as a means of utilizing their art as social protest with an obvious appeal to the left wing, a dominant force in American cultural life throughout the Depression decade. As their nickname would suggest – los tres grandes ("the three great ones") – these three are usually grouped together, when in fact their individual styles and temperaments were very different from each other and they worked throughout overlapping but various periods. Siqueiros for example worked well into the 1970s.

José Clemente Orozco (1883 – 1949)
José Clemente Orozco (November 23, 1883 – September 7, 1949) was a Mexican social realist painter, who specialized in bold murals that established the Mexican Mural Renaissance together with murals by Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and others. Orozco was the most complex of the Mexican muralists, fond of the theme of human suffering, but less realistic and more fascinated by machines than Rivera.

Diego Rivera (1886 – 1957)
Diego Rivera (December 8, 1886 – November 24, 1957) was born Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez in Guanajuato, Gto. He was a world-famous Mexican painter, an active Communist, and husband of Frida Kahlo, 1929–1939 and 1940–1954 (her death). Rivera's large wall works in fresco helped establish the Mexican Mural Renaissance.

Diego Rivera En el Arsenal

José David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896 - 1974)
José David Alfaro Siqueiros (December 29, 1896 in Camargo, Chihuahua, Mexico - January 6, 1974 in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico) was a social realist painter, known for his large murals in fresco that helped establish the Mexican Mural Renaissance

Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (LEAR)
The Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (LEAR) was a Mexican association of revolutionary artists and writers. It was established in the house of its first president Leopoldo Méndez in 1933 in due to the disbanded "Sindicato de Trabajadores Técnicos, Pintores y Escultores" (syndicate of technical workers, painters and sculptors), and was defined as the Mexican section of the International Union of Revolutionary Writers, which was founded by the Comintern in the Soviet Union in 1930. The first secretary of the organization was Luis Arenal. Further members from day one were Juan de la Cabada, Pablo O'Higgins, Xavier Guerrero, Ermilo Abreu Gómez, Alfredo Zalce, Fernando Gamboa, Santos Balmori, Clara Porcet, Ángel Bracho and many others.

The LEAR members propagated revolutionary mindset in their writings and art works, and were engaged against the national political development, especially against government art censorship, as well against political violation of universal peace by war, by Hitler's and Mussolini's policy, by the Spanish Civil War and other similar reasons. Organ of the LEAR was the paper Frente a Frente, which was illustrated by Pablo O'Higgins and others. After the Mexican artists got more artistic license in their work by the liberal government of 1934, the LEAR dispersed in 1938.

Taller de Gráfica Popular
The Taller de Gráfica Popular (Spanish: "People's Graphic Workshop") was a artist's print collective founded in Mexico in 1937 by artists Leopoldo Méndez, Pablo O'Higgins, and Luis Arenal. The collective was primarily concerned with using art to advance revolutionary social causes. The print shop became a base of political activity and abundant artistic output, and attracted many foreign artists as collaborators. The Workshop was founded in 1937 following the dissolution of the Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (LEAR, Revolutionary Writers’ and Artists’ League), a group of artists who had supported the goals of the Mexican Revolution.

Initially called the Taller Editorial de Gráfica Popular, its founders built of a rich tradition of printmaking in Mexico, particularly the legacy of José Guadalupe Posada. During the Cárdenas presidency, the work of the Taller supported the government's policies, including the expropriation of oil. There was some collaboration between the TGP and the artists of the New Deal-era WPA, including Rafael Tufiño.

During the US civil rights movement, Chicano and African American artists such as Elizabeth Catlett produced work at the Taller. The TGP faced financial instability, and had to relocate several times. Since 2010 the TGP has a renewed direction under Reynaldo Olivares and several former members who started to publish new engravings and artwork. During its heyday, the Taller specialized in linoleum prints and woodcuts. It produced posters, handbills, banners, and portfolio editions. The art supported causes such as anti-militarism, organized labor, and opposition to fascism.

The art was often made through the collaborative process, and the Taller took the anti-commercial policy of not numbering prints. However, it did sell prints as part of and was the first political publishing workshop in Mexico to do so. Under the brand La Estampa Mexicana, the TGP sold song lyrics, posters of heroes and Mexican culture and Left movements worldwide, and gave rise to a new generation of calaveras, the Mexican tradition of humorous poetry ridiculing politicians and other popular figures.

Leopoldo Mendez (1902 - 1969)
Leopoldo Mendez, muralist, printmaker, painter, political activist, teacher, administrator, father and husband, was born in Mexico City in 1902, the youngest of eight children. At age fifteen, Mendez became the youngest student to have enrolled in the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied with Saturnine Herran, Leandro Izaguirre, Ignacio Rosas, German Gedovius, and Francisco de la Torre. Following his graduation, he continued his studies at Escuela de Pintura al Aire Libre (the plein-air Impressionist school founded by Alfredo Ramos Martinez), until 1922. To keep himself financially afloat while creating his art, he designed book jackets, taught drawing and printmaking in elementary and technical schools, and contributed drawings and prints to journals and liberal publications. In 1930, he made his first trip to the United States with a group of friends; while there, he was invited to illustrate a limited edition of Heinrich Heine's The God's in Exile.

One of the founders of the League of Revolutionary Artists and Writers, Mendez is perhaps most well-known as the leader and co-founder of the Taller de Grafica Popular, a cooperative printmaking workshop dedicated to serving the needs of the Mexican people. He joined the Stridentists, a group of artists, writers and musicians whose goals were not unlike those of Dadaists and Futurists. He became known internationally for his art and activism, and received many awards and appointments for his works and accomplishments in both fields. Among these include the Guggenheim Fellowship for travel and study in the U.S.; the International Peace Prize in Vienna; was appointed from Mexico to the World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace in Poland; and the Posada Prize for Printmaking at the Second InterAmerican Biennial of Painting, Printmaking, and Sculpture, among others.

Pablo Estaban O'Higgins (1904 - 1983)
Pablo Estaban O'Higgins (born Paul Higgins Stevenson; March 1, 1904 - July 16, 1983) was an American-Mexican artist, muralist and illustrator. Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, O'Higgins was raised there and in San Diego, California. In 1922 he abandoned his first career as a pianist and entered the Academy of Arts in San Diego. Within two years he'd become a student of Diego Rivera, assisting Rivera on his murals at the National School of Agriculture at Chapingo, and the Public Education Secretariat. Like Rivera, O'Higgins became an active member of the Mexican Communist Party. He immigrated to Mexico permanently in 1924, joined the party in 1927, and maintained his party membership until 1947. His political illustrations for the Daily Worker won him a year's study at the Academy of Art in Moscow on a Soviet Scholarship in 1933.

In 1937, O'Higgins was the co-founder, with fellow artists Leopoldo Méndez and Luis Arenal, of the Taller de Gráfica Popular ("People's Graphic Workshop"). In May 1940 he had the honor of being the only non-native Mexican artist with work included in the seminal "Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art" exhibit organized by the Museum of Modern Art. In 1961 O'Higgins was awarded honorary Mexican citizenship for "his contributions to the national arts and education". His mural work can be seen at the Abelardo L. Rodriguez Market, Mexico City, and his 1945 "Struggle Against Racial Discrimination" is installed in Kane Hall at the University of Washington in Seattle. Among O'Higgins' students was the American graphic designer Bob Cato.

Juan O'Gorman (1905 – 1982)
Juan O'Gorman (July 6, 1905 – January 17, 1982) was a Mexican painter and architect. O'Gorman was born in Coyoacán, then a village to the south of Mexico City and now a borough of the Federal District, to an Irish father, Cecil Crawford O'Gorman (a painter himself) and a Mexican mother. In the 1920s he studied architecture at the Academy of San Carlos, the Art and Architecture school at the National Autonomous University. He became a well known architect, worked on the new Bank of Mexico building, and under the influence of Le Corbusier introduced modern functionalist architecture to Mexico City with his 1929 houses at San Angel.
Mural in library Gertrudis Bocanegra, Pátzcuaro, Michoacán

An important early commission was for a house and studio for painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, built in 1931-32, with its symbolic bridge. Rivera, in turn, influenced O'Gorman's painting. In 1932, Narciso Bassols, then Secretary of Education, appointed O'Gorman to the position of Head of Architectural Office of the Ministry of Public Education, where he went on to design and build 26 elementary schools in Mexico City. The schools were built with the philosophy of "eliminating all architectural style and executing constructions technically."

As he matured O'Gorman turned away from strict functionalism and worked to develop an organic architecture, combining the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright with traditional Mexican constructions. His paintings often treated Mexican history, landscape, and legends. He painted the murals in the Independence Room in Mexico City's Chapultepec Castle, and the huge murals of his own 1952 Central Library of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, designed with Gustavo Saavedra and Juan Martinez de Velasco. See also Mexican Muralism.

In 1959, together with fellow artists, Raúl Anguiano, Jesús Guerrero Galván, and Carlos Orozco Romero, Juan O'Gorman founded the militant Unión de Pintores y Grabadores de México. He died on January 17, 1982, as a result of suicide. Authorities believe the artist grew despondent after being diagnosed with a heart ailment which curtailed his work. O'Gorman, who was 76 years old, was found dead at his home.

World (Social) Realist Art (Index of Countries)
This blog page is part of an ongoing project by artist and part-time lecturer Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin ( to explore Realist / Social Realist art from around the world. The term Realism is used in its broadest sense to include 19th century Realism and Naturalism as well as 20th century Impressionism (which after all was following in the path of Courbet and Millet). Social Realism covers art that seeks to examine the living and working conditions of ordinary people (examples include German Expressionism, American Ashcan School and the Mexican Muralists).

Click here for (Social) Realist Art Definitions, World (Social) Realism and Global Solidarity, Art and Politics, Social Realism in history and Country Index.

Suggestions for appropriate artists from around the world welcome to

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