For most of its history, Mexico has found itself surrounded by conflict. Like in the rest of the world, through all the turmoil, art has remained a constant in the country as a way of refuge in the face of hardship. Likewise, art has consolidated itself as a form of expression that allows for nuance, introspection, and commentary, particularly social commentary. Before, during, and after one of the country’s bloodiest conflicts, the Mexican Revolution, art found itself in the epicenter of critiquing injustices and calling for a better world.
From anti-authoritarian and pro-democratic artworks to egalitarian and utopian pieces, art was both a tool and weapon. Artists chose to bring themselves to the forefront of the revolutionary discussion, at times even becoming borderline militant. Their work and ideas transcended the armed conflict and positioned themselves in the center of a bigger conversation about struggle, meaning, and identity. Here are 5 great examples that encapsulate the fervor of the Mexican Revolution.
1. La Calavera Garbancera, 1912, by Jose Guadalupe Posada
Although not explicitly about the Mexican Revolution, La Calavera Garbancera speaks to the background of the conflict. Jose Guadalupe Posada originally created it as a caricature that accompanied social commentary and was distributed as a leaflet. This type of writing was popular at the time, appearing with decorative illustrated skulls. Posada was not the first to come up with the idea, but his version went on to become a Mexican folk symbol.
The word “garbancera” translates to “relating to chickpeas,” but the use here refers to the native Mexicans who stopped selling native products and started selling chickpeas, which had been brought from Europe instead. The term was used as a pejorative to criticize the overall attitudes that preferred European lifestyles, particularly Spanish and French, and that attempted to discard or limit authentic Mexican culture. Such attitudes were propagated during Porfirio Diaz’s rule, the Mexican ruler and dictator of the time, which famously favored European culture. Posada was critical of this regime and found the elites who supported him equally disgraceful. His art exposed their disdain for Mexican culture and criticized them with works such as La Calavera Garbancera.
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Posada’s art was popular with the less privileged thanks to its humor and commentary. He depicted their suffering and misery, as well as portrayed the hypocrisy and mistakes of the elites. Posada’s Calavera Garbancera served as the main inspiration for Diego Rivera’s Catrina in his mural “Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central.” From then on, the depiction of La Catrina became a popular symbol for death in Mexico, commonly appearing in Day of the Dead festivities. The work is also a “calaverita literaria” (literary skull), a poetic composition that tells an irreverent story in the form of an epitaph, decorated with skulls.
2. Epopeya del pueblo mexicano, 1935, by Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera is one of most renowned artists of the Mexican Revolution. His work and his relationship with Frida Kahlo have solidified his image. He is normally considered the standard-bearer of Mexican muralism, the 20th-century art movement that dominated post-revolutionary Mexico. He was part of los tres grandes muralistas (“the three greats”) alongside Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. His work commonly portrayed the idiosyncrasy of Mexican society, the struggles and aspirations of the revolution, and general left-wing ideals, of which he was an avid supporter.
In Epopeya del pueblo mexicano, also known as “The History of Mexico,” Rivera portrays a grandiose vision of Mexico. Commissioned by the Secretary of Education, Rivera painted the fresco mural from 1929 to 1935 at Palacio Nacional. It is divided into three main sections: the right wing depicts Mexican pre-Hispanic civilization through the Toltec myth of Ce Acatl Topiltzin, the center depicts Mexican history from the Spanish Conquest to the 1930s, and the left wing depicts a leftist vision for the future of Mexico.
The Mexican Revolution takes center stage, located top and center of the central section. A key highlight is the appearance of revolutionary Emiliano Zapata holding a banner in which his famous demand “Tierra y Libertad” (“Land and Liberty”) is written.
The mural can be appreciated as a complex work of art with several layers. It is derived from, inspired by, and hopeful of the Mexican Revolution. But the reasons for its existence also tell a greater story about the revolution itself. It is an example of the post-revolutionary state attempting to solidify the revolution in the minds of the country as a turning point for its history and society by advancing the Mexican Revolution and its ideals into modern and contemporary Mexico through art.
3. Atentado a las maestras rurales, 1936, by Aurora Reyes
At first glance, Mexican muralism appears to have been exclusively composed by men, but although it was certainly dominated by them, several women artists had a significant impact on the movement. Artists like Rina Lazo, Elena Huerta, Electa Arenal, and many others proved that women were equally capable of producing quality work that was also impactful and consequential. The mural Atentado a las maestras rurales was painted by Aurora Reyes, the first Mexican female muralist in the movement.
In Reyes’ prima opera, the violent story of an attack against rural teachers is told, but a deeper narrative lies hidden between the brushstrokes. A female teacher can be seen being aggressively pulled by the hair by a man who is at the same time destroying a book and holding money. The teacher is also being hit by the butt of a weapon while a group of three students watch the violence from the sidelines. The story told by Reyes, who was also a teacher, is based on the real-life attack against rural teachers perpetrated the same year in the small town of San Felipe Torres Mochas, Guanajuato.
The painting also depicts the systematic causes behind such acts of violence. According to Reyes, the scapulary hanging from the neck of one of the aggressors and the money in the hands of the other highlight two main origins of violence: religion and capitalism. A lifelong activist and communist, Reyes believed that violence could be better understood if seen through a broader lens, one that could explain its deeper reasonings and motivations. Male violence takes center stage in the painting, but Reyes’ indictment doesn’t go exclusively towards the men; instead, the accusation transcends the individuals and reaches the political and economic system, as well as culture.
4. Del Porfirismo a la Revolucion, 1966, David Alfaro Siqueiros
In 1957, the Director of the National Museum commissioned a monumental mural that could “compliment the testimonies of the past.” The artist in charge of the new mural was painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of the three great masters of the Mexican muralist movement. The mural was not finished until 1966 because Siqueiros was imprisoned from 1960 to 1964 due to his political activism.
On the right of the mural, the dictator Porfirio Diaz appears surrounded by can-can dancers and his submissive cabinet, signifying his influence and admiration of French and European culture. He also appears to be trampling over the Constitution, marking his authority and contempt for the law. Towards the center, marching rows of “rurales” can be seen, the second branch of the army commonly used by Diaz to repress uprisings. Next to them appear several American Rangers, referring to their intervention during the strike of Cananea, a profitable mine in northern Mexico owned by an American citizen.
The center of the piece makes clear Siqueiros’ message: the labor leader Fernando Palomares and William C. Greene, the owner of the mine, fight for the flag of Mexico, representing the fight for control over the political and economic autonomy of Mexico.
Towards the left, marching rows of workers and famous leftist intellectuals can be seen approaching the center to fight for their rights. On the left of the mural, the marching rows of revolutionaries blend with the workers, signifying the popular roots of the revolution and the struggle of the lower classes. Del Porfirismo a la Revolucion is more literal compared to the rest of Siqueiros’ work and some of the other murals of the time, but it tells an important concentrated part of history in which the future of the country changed dramatically.
5. Retablo de la Revolucion, 1968, by Juan O’Gorman
Juan O’Gorman’s Retablo de la Revolucion is an iconic piece about a specific moment in time. When the Mexican Revolution started, the de facto leader became Francisco I. Madero, who appears in the center of the piece riding a horse and holding the Mexican flag. Madero was a landowning businessman from the north of Mexico who, although he had similar ideologies to Diaz, was ultimately fervently opposed to the continuation of the dictator’s rule. Such attitude culminated in his famous political motto, which crowns O’Gorman’s mural on top: sufragio efectivo, no reeleccion (effective suffrage, no re-election).
Madero’s rule only lasted a little over a year; he was betrayed by Diaz loyalists, who he kept in power alongside him. Victoriano Huerta and two other loyalists, united with the US ambassador, Henry Lane Wilson, conspired to depose Madero and install a new government that would return to the previous status quo. Wilson and Huerta are depicted on the mural, appearing on the left, with the ambassador handing over the presidential band, an official symbol of the presidency, to Huerta. The rest of the mural portrays the scene of the “Marcha de la lealtad,” a march carried out by Madero within the context of the attempted coup.
The mural is a powerful example of a significant event being interpreted in hindsight. People at the time and people now realize the terrible mistake committed by Madero, marked by the portrayal of his brother, who appears next to Madero’s wife and his vice president, on the right of the mural. Above them, a couple of doves can be seen seated, signifying their peace compared to the hyenas on top of Wilson and Huerta. Madero’s brother had warned him of the threat that Huerta posed, but Madero ignored him.