How Mexico Forms A Unified National Identity Through Art

Mexico art How Mexico Forms A Unified National Identity Through Art

Mexico Art

From 1910, the Mexican Revolution engendered a cultural renaissance. to look within in search of a specifically Mexican artistic language. This visual vocabulary was designed to transcend the realm of the arts and give a national identity to this population in transition. We take a closer look at the works produced during this turbulent time in Mexican history, considering the ways in which visual art created a unified Mexican aesthetic.

Workers reading El Machete, c.1929 Platinum print, 7.92 x 10.46 cm | © Throckmorton Fine Art Inc., New York

Born in 1907, famed Mexican painter and political activist Frida Kahlo would say she was born the year the Mexican Revolution began. This national rebellion was integral to the artist’s life and work, and it correlated his entry into the world with when the Mexican people began to act to return their land to the citizens.

The revival of a uniquely Mexican artistic voice in response to revolution is the subject of the 2013 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts (RCA) in London. Along with Kahlo’s painfully revealing artwork, this retrospective also brought fiery political imagery in the form of murals by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. As the vibes of community fervor reached artists and activists across the Atlantic, European figures such as Josef Albers, Edward Burra and Henri Cartier-Bresson traveled to Mexico to join the dynamism. Above all, these artists sought to create a specifically Mexican identity and unity.

This cultural renaissance was born out of the widespread political dissent felt by the Mexican people at the turn of the century. The previous century had been one of tumult, defeat and problematic modernization. The war with the United States had resulted in considerable loss of Mexican land, French intervention under Emperor Napoleon III and the nearby dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz; and mass industrialization displaced a largely rural population. The autocratic Diaz sat firmly in a seat of power for more than a quarter century, and in 1910 was finally taken from the hands of Francisco Madero and other guerrilla leaders like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. The fact that these three leaders diverged greatly in their beliefs led to deep grief and revealed the ideological shortcomings of the Revolution as a whole. Led jointly by elites who had benefited from industrialization, farmers, the unemployed and those seized by the government for agricultural use, the rebellion was dispersed and unfocused. Without a philosophy or ideology to draw upon, the ongoing controversy looked more like a labor uprising than a political movement. Nevertheless, centuries of oppression – European or otherwise – have had catastrophic results.

Diego Rivera Dance at Tehuantepec (Baile at Tehuantepec), 1928, oil on canvas, 200.7 x 163.8 cm Collection of Clarissa and Edgar Bronfman Jr. Clarissa and Edgar Brontman Jr. Photo Collection | © Sotheby’s, New York / 2013 Bank of Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museum Fund, Mexico, DF / DACS.

In a country where the illiteracy rate reached almost 90%, artists were asked to represent the desires of the revolution. Born in 1886, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was elected to adorn the walls of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria in Mexico City. As the first such fresco, the government paid for the artist to travel to Italy and study the techniques of Renaissance and Baroque masters. While training in Europe, Rivera’s style was distinctly Mexican. Porfirio Diaz’s art had been tinged with a European aesthetic and feeling, as if celebrating the Spanish conquest of Aztec land. Rivera’s murals were a notable divergence from the art of this era, and they were hailed by renegade Soviet poet and futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky as the first murals of the communist world.

Diego Rivera, along with José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, became known as ‘Los Tres Grandes’ or ‘The Big Three’. Despite their divergent political beliefs, the three artists were instrumental in the construction of a national identity. Their murals draw on visual remnants of Catholic conquistadors and murals of Aztec cultures in an artistic vocabulary that unites the complex stories of the Mexican people. The actualization of these scenes through art served a social purpose: to establish a public and unrestricted dialogue. The Big Three had grown up in Diaz’s time, in a highly stratified socially and economically society, and the proliferation of information was fighting against these inequalities.

The nature of the mural is permanent; thus the exhibition at RCA London focused instead on the mobile artworks of these seminal 20th century figures. However, it was not only Mexicans who acquired the artistic impulse of the country’s revolutionary activity. Along with artists like Josef Albers, Edward Burra, Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, surrealist founder André Breton was inspired by the uncanny otherness he found in the country. He called Mexico “a quintessential surreal place.” Although she outwardly denied this claim, it was Breton’s interpretation that ranked Frida Kahlo among the greatest surrealist women of the century.

Edward Burra El Paseo, c. 1938, Watercolor on paper, 133.3 x 111.8 cm Private collection | © Estate of the Artist, c/o Lefevre Fine Art Ltd

Although Kahlo’s dreamlike approach pushed the attention of her contemporaries to a more personal level, her flamboyant attire and intimate expression served a political purpose rather than surrealism. Through her costume, she rejected the European clothing that had become prevalent in Mexico, and her description of her own physical trauma reflected the suffering she saw in her country.

Without intending to do so, the artists of the Mexican Revolution created a lasting impact internationally. Siqueiros moved to New York and ran Siqueiros’ experimental studio, taking on the American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock as a student. Like the Mexican Muralists, Pollock dismissed the easel image as a relevant surface for artistic endeavours, calling it a dying form. It was in the experimental studio that Siqueiros encouraged the young artist to pour, drip and splash industrial paints onto its surface, giving rise to Abstract Expressionism. This group of artists whose aim was to stimulate Mexican nationalism, playing a defining role in the history of international art.

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