Saturday, October 31, 2015

Mexican Revolution and Mexican Muralists - Part IV: Diego Rivera's Vision of Mexican Traditions in the Secretariat of Education

Continuing our tour of the Secretariat of Public Education to see Diego Rivera's murals inspired by the Mexican Revolution, we move from the front Patio of Labor to the larger rear Patio of the Fiestas. Here we encounter not just one perspective of Rivera on Mexico but three.

La Danza del Venadito
Dance of the Little Deer

La Danza del Venadito, The Dance of the Little Deer, presents us with a ritual of the hunter-gatherer culture that preceded the agrarian, settled culture based on cultivation of corn, maíz. It is curious in Rivera's painting that the musicians and male onlookers at the left appear to be in uniform, perhaps setting the event in the context of the Revolution. On the right, women wrapped in traditional tilmas, shawls, look on.

La Cosecha del Maíz
Harvest of the Corn

Corn, maíz, is the foundation of Mexican culture. Domesticated some 5,000 years ago in the Balsas River Valley of southern Mexico, its productivity and capacity to be stored and used in multiple foods and drinks provided the basis for development of the numerous Mesoamerican civilizations that emerged in what is now Mexico and Central America. Rivera paints these figures with the same feeling of reverence that he gives the workers in the Patio of Labor.

La Fiesta del Maíz
Corn Festival

As the sustainer of life and culture, corn was the gift of a god in Mesoamerican societies. After the Spanish Conquest, this reverence was merged with Roman Catholicism. The form of the cross in the painting embodies this syncretism, as it represented the tree of life in indigenous culture and, of course, Christ's self-sacrifice.

La Danza de los Listones
Dance of the Ribbons

La Danza de los Listones, Dance of the Ribbons, is frequently enacted in Mexico Folkloric Dance performances. It has roots in harvest festivals, with the central figure representing the elote, the ripe tasseled ear of corn. It was performed at weddings, with the groom portraying the ripe corn.

La Zandunga: Traditional Oaxacan Dance

Street Market

Moving beyond festivals to other dimensions of Mexican life rooted in pre-Hispanic, indigenous culture, Rivera gives us a triptych, three murals, of the tianguis, the traditional street market, whose modern version still thrives from Mexico City to the smallest pueblo.

Street Market

The man in the soft sombrero could well be Rivera

Street Market
The dog is a Xoloitzcuintli, the indigenous Mexican Hairless

In other murals of sacred celebrations, Rivera carries us into a more complex level of the mixture of traditional and contemporary Mexican culture.

Día de los Muertos
Day of the Dead

Cempasúchitl, marigold flowers, native to Mexico, 
cover the arches and the cross,
again a synthesis of the Tree of Life and the 'Tree' of Jesus' death.

The traditional Mexican celebration most well-known among non-Mexicans is perhaps Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead which is, once again, a synthesis of indigenous Mesoamerican and Catholic ritual.

Día de los Muertos, Fiesta en la Calle
Day of the Dead Street Festival

In Mexico City, and perhaps in other large cities, the traditional, subdued, family-centered honoring of the deceased in cemeteries and at home has evolved into rather more of a public party held in the streets and plazas.

Calacas, skeletons—here in the form of marionette vaqueros, cowboy musiciansplay and dance.
Behind them are pyramids of calaveras, skulls, usually made of sugar.
The large calaveras represent a bishop, a general and a businessman

Calacas, skeletons, and calaveras, skulls, presented in darkly humorous forms, are typical of Mexicans' ironic and satirical sense of humor.

In the street crowd, Rivera presents one of his quintessential group portraits of early 20th century Mexican society. An indigenous woman with braided hair faces men in Panama hats and fedoras, as well as a "charro", dressed-up cowboy and his flapper girlfriend. In the front, two painted prostitutes.

On the right side of the painting, a more sedate crowd, including Rivera himself, with his distinctive round face and soft sombrero

Viernes de Dolores en el Canal de Santa Anita
Friday of Sorrows (prior to Palm Sunday)
on the Santa Anita Canal, Mexico City

The Friday before Palm Sunday is Viernes de Dolores, the Friday of Sorrows, which honors the sufferings of Jesus' mother, the Virgin Mary. In his portrayal of the holiday market of Semana Santa, Holy Week, Rivera again brings together the traditional—all the colorfulness of its flowers, dress and flat-bottomed trajinera boats of an ancient Aztec canal—with a lone, totally modern, blond tourist in her sensuous 1920s flapper dress. A subtle clash of eras and cultures.

La Quema de Judas
The Burning of Judas
Holy Saturday

Young men tear up paving stones to throw at the exploding figures.

Another Semana Santa festival is La Quema de Judas, the Burning of Judas, which takes place Holy Saturday night between the sorrow of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Morning. It centers on the explosion of larger-than-life papier maché figures wrapped with firecrackers and Roman candles and hung on lines over the street. Traditonally, figures of the betrayer, Judas, were burned, but this developed into burning in effigy any person or representatives of groups of persons disdained by el pueblo, the common people. In the midst of the solemnities of Semana Santa, it is a time of great hilarity, rather like Carnaval (Mardi Gras) before Lent.

In this Quema a bourgeois businessman, a soldier and a priest are burned. The young men throwing paving stones at them adds to the sense of eruption of anger verging on un desmán, a riot.

Two final murals in the Patio of Fiestas directly present this sense of eruption of underlying indignation and outrage from los de abajo, those below, and from behind or within the apparent tranquility of traditional popular rituals. The murals portray not an agricultural or religious festival, but a modern, secular political event: International Labor Day.

The International Labor Movement brings together all races,
dark-skinned Latin Americans with "güero", fair-skinned northerners.

Land and Liberty
League of Agrarian Communites
of the New People

And so we come face to face with the Mexican Revolution. This is but a prelude to what we will encounter on the top floor of the Secretariat of Public Educationthe creation of José Vasconcelos, its founding secretary and Diego Rivera's patron.

See more on the Mexican Revolution and Mexican Muralists:

Part I: Bellas Artes 
Part II: The Academy of San Carlos and Dr. Atl 
Part III: Secretariat of Education, José Vasconcelos and Diego Rivera 
Part V: Secretariat of Education and Diego Rivera's Ballad of the Revolution 
Part VI: Diego Rivera at the College of San Ildefonso 
Part VII: José Clemente Orozco Comes to San Ildefonso 
Part VIII: College of San Ildefonso and José Clemente Orozco - Continued 
Part IX: David Siqueiros, Painter and Revolutionary 
Part X: David Siqueiros Cultural Polyforum 
Part XI: The Abelardo Rodríguez Market

For the background of the Mexican Revoluion, see:

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Mexican Revolution and Mexican Muralists - Part III: José Vasconcelos and Diego Rivera in the Secretariat of Education

A Vision of Free, Secular Public Education

In 1920, as the power struggles between leaders of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) were still playing themselves out, General Álvaro Obregón, who had defeated Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata on behalf of Venustiano Caranza, overthrew his former Jefe, boss, and became President.

One of his first acts was to create the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP) and select José Vasconselos (1882-1959), lawyer, amateur philosopher and staunch supporter of the Revolution's ideals, to head the new institution.

The Secretariat took as its headquarters the former convent of Santa María de la Encarnación del Divino Verbo (St. Mary of the Incarnation of the Divine Word). Built in the 1640's, it was one of the largest and richest convents in Spanish Colonial Mexico City (nuns, who had to be pure-blooded Spanish, had their own apartments and servants). During the Era of Reforms led by President Benito Juárez in the 1850s and 60s, such Church properties were nationalized and put to secular uses. The convent was used for various government purposes. It sits just behind the Metropolitan Cathedral in the Centro Histórico

Secretariat of Public Education
corner of República de Argentina and San Ildefonso Streets

When Vasconcelos took over the edifice, he had it renovated in Neoclassic style to express the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment (think Washington, D.C.). He saw its two huge, open interior patios as spaces to display his vision of a post-Revolution Mexican identity, synthesizing its indigenous past with elements of its Spanish culture and modern, secular life through empirically based, humanistic, free public education.

To execute this huge artistic and cultural project, Vasconcelos encouraged a pre-Revolution acquaintance, Diego Rivera, to return from Europe. Throughout the period of the Revolution, Rivera had been in Europe studying and painting with Impressionist and modern masters. At age thirty-seven, Rivera agreed to return to Mexico City. From 1923 to 1928 Rivera painted murals on virtually every wall of every floor of the two patios.

Front patio, which Rivera designated The Patio of Labor

The building has three floors, in Spanish la planta baja (ground floor) and primer y segundo pisos (first and second floors). On the ground floor of the front or east patio, Rivera mostly painted murals portraying Mexican workers or laborers. He therefore named the patio el Patio del Trabajo, The Patio of Labor. It is here that our tour begins. We will see that it presents more than workers. It initiates us to the ideals of the Mexican Revolution.

Diego Rivera self-portrait while in Europe
Dolores Olmedo Museum,
Delegación Xochimilco,
Mexico City

"Land and Liberty"

One dynamic driving the Revolution—represented in the rural-based forces of Emiliano Zapata and Francisco "Pancho" Villa—was the peasants' demand to be freed from virtual slavery as peons on the haciendas. During the Colonial Period, the King of Spain granted these large estates to his soldiers. The peasants' Revolutionary demand was that the land—theirs as indigenous inhabitants—be returned to them.

Liberation of the Péon

Distribution of the Land
A government official, moreno, dark-skinned, hence of indigenous origins, oversees
light-skinned, hence criollo (of pure-blooded Spanish descent) hacendados, landowners, as they sign over land titles
to an ejido, a community of indigenous moreno campesinos, peasant farmers.

An idealized, ladino (middle class, Europeanized) Emiliano Zapata looks on as land is distributed.
In fact, Zapata was assassinated by agents of victorious President Venustiano Caranza in April 1919.

Along with the demand for land went the desire for economic and political liberty. Central to that liberty was being able to read and write in order to participate as equals in business dealings and in organized political activity. 

Educating rural, poor, often indigenous campesinos, peasant farmers, was a truly revolutionary idea. President Benito Juárez, himself indigenous, had the goal of establishing secular (non-Catholic), free public education during the brief Era of Reform (1856-76). However, his administration was fragmented by two periods of civil war initiated by conservative forces, the War of Reform (1857-60) and the French Intervention (1862-67).

In 1868, Juárez established the National Preparatory (High) School in the former Jesuit Colegio de San Ildefonso, just down the street from Santa María de la Encarnación. However, with the return of domination by conservative, wealthy hacendados, owners of haciendas, during the reign of President Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911), any thought of educating rural people was banished. 

The Rural Teacher
instructs all ages, under the watchful eye of a Revolutionay soldier

Thus, central to the vision of the rural revolution of Zapata and Villa was education of the campesinos. To this end, Vasconcelos established Rural Normal Schools, whose mission was to train indigenous youth from rural pueblos to become teachers. In turn, they would return as teachers to their villages to educate their people. The history and vicissitudes of these Rural Normal Schools reflect the ongoing conflicts between conservative oligarchic and populist forces in Mexico up to the present day.

The Weight of Labor

Rivera's portrayals of various groups of laborers do not contain explicit political messages. However, his rendering of their bodies, with their postures and evident weight, together with the color tones he chose, communicates the physical and emotional tenor of their lives.

Entrance to the mine

Exit from the Mine
raised arms of worker being searched as he leaves
reflect a crucifixion

The Sugar Mill
Here the rhythm of heavy physical work is conveyed

The  Hacienda Foreman
postures say it all

The Dyers
slow rhythms of repetitive work

Campesinas, Rural Women
stoic stillness,
each pair a kind of pyramid

The Embrace,
between urban day laborer and day farm worker

An explicit revolutionary message

The dayworkers of the fields and of the city,
both disinherited from liberty,
make stronger the tie
that unites them in the struggle and in pain
and the fecund earth gives flower to an embrace of force and love.
Now after this embrace they will not pay tributes or favors,
and the field and the machine will give all their fruits to all of you.
M. Gutierrez (Manuel Gutierrez, governor of Veracruz and liberal politician during the Era of Reform)

And on all this, Rivera put his own stamp.

Rivera signed each mural accompanied with a symbol: the hammer of the laborer and the sickle of the farmworker. The emblem of Communism, which sought the embrace of workers from the city and the countryside. We will see touches of this perspective when we tour Rivera's murals in the second patio portraying traditional festivals, which he named the Patio of the Fiestas. We will encounter it in full force when we reach the top floor of this edifice where a lawyer and a painter sought to realize a Revolutionary vision.

See more on the Mexican Revolution and Mexican Muralists:
For background on Mexican Revoluion, see:
See also: Diego Rivera: European Apprenticeship & Mexican Homecoming from my wife's, Jenny's Journal of Mexican Culture.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Mexican Revolution and Mexican Muralists - Part II | The Genesis of the Mexican Mural Movement: The San Carlos Academy of Art and Dr. Atl

National Academy of San Carlos

Intertwined with the Mexican Revolution was a revolution in Mexican Art, which began within the walls of another colonial building in the heart of the Centro Histórico. It was here that a teacher of painting and some students came together and provided the fuel and fire for what was to become the Mexican Mural Movement when the military Revolution finally came to an end.

Royal Spanish Foundation and Neoclassic Aesthetic

The Academy of San Carlos was initially founded in 1781 under the name of the School of Engraving. Renamed many times in the intervening years, it remains known as the Academy of San Carlos. The School of Engraving started out in a building that had been the mint, and would later become the modern-day National Museum of Cultures. Ten years later, it was moved to the former Amor de Dios (Love of God) Hospital, where it remains to this day. The original hospital building was remodeled in Neoclasssic style. The street on which it is located was renamed from Amor de Dios Street to Academia Street in its honor.

The Academy was originally sponsored by the Spanish Crown and a number of private patrons. It was the first major art institution in the Americas. The new school promoted Neoclassicism, focusing on Greek and Roman art and architecture and advocating European-style training of its artists. To this end, plaster casts of classic Greek and Roman statues were brought to Mexico from Europe for students to study.

Interior patio

In the early 19th century, the Academy was closed for a short time due to the Mexican War of Independence. When it reopened, it was renamed the National Academy of San Carlos and enjoyed the new government's preference for Neoclassicism, as it considered the Baroque style reminiscent of colonialism. The academy continued to advocate classic, European-style training of its artists up until the Mexican Revolution. (Wikipedia)

New Aesthetic Arrives with the Twentieth Century

As the 19th century was nearing its end, new currents began to enter the school. In 1897, Gerardo Murillo Cornado (October 3, 1875 – August 15, 1964), a twenty-two year old student at the Academy, was granted a scholarship by President Porfirio Díaz to travel to Europe to study painting. He had broad, humanistic interests and obtained a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Rome. He traveled to Paris to study art. He also became involved in the anarcho-syndicalist (union) movement and the Italian Socialist Party. He apparently met both Lenin and Mussolini. In 1902, he took the name "Dr. Atl"—"water" in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs.

Gerardo Murillo Cornado, Dr. Atl.
Photo in the Diego Rivera House Museum
Colonia San Ángel.
Returning to Mexico in 1904, Atl became a teacher at San Carlos. Shortly afterwards, he issued a manifesto calling for the development of a monumental public art movement sponsored by the government and linked to the lives and interests of the Mexican people. He advocated painting from real life and nature and using paints made from native materials, rather than following the classical training of San Carlos, which involved copying European classic paintings and sculpture.

José Clemente Orozco, an evening student in his early twenties, and other students began to experiment, breaking with the strict classical training of the Academy. In his autobiography, Orozco recalls:
"In these night classes of apprentice painters, the first signs of revolution appeared in Mexican Art. The Mexican had been a poor colonial servant, incapable of creating or thinking for himself. Everything had to be imported ready made from European centers, for we were an inferior and degenerate race. ...It was inconceivable that a Mexican should dream of vying with the world abroad... 
"In the night classes in the Academy, as we listened to the fervent voice of that agitator, Dr. Atl, we began to suspect that the whole colonial situation was nothing but a swindle foisted upon us... We, too, had a character that was quite the equal of any other. We could learn what the ancients and the foreigners had to teach us, but we could do as much as they, or more. It was not pride but self-confidence that moved us to this belief, a sense of our own being and our destiny.  
"I set out to explore the most wretched of the city's barrios. On every canvas there began to appear, bit by bit, like a dawn, the Mexican landscape and familiar forms and colors. It was only a first and still timid step toward liberation from foreign tyranny, but behind it there was throrough preparation and rigorous training." (Autobiography of Orozco)
Diego Rivera, in his late teens, was also a student at the time. In 1907, at age twenty-one, he left for Europe with a scholarship to study art. He was to remain there until 1922.

As Mexican Revolution Erupts, Academy Undergoes Its Own Revolution

The year 1910 was the 100th Anniversary of the start of the Mexican War of Independence. As part of the celebrations planned by President Porfirio Díaz, an Exposition of Contemporary Spanish Painting was organized, to be shown in a special pavillion erected on the Alameda.

The students of the Academy protested that, since it was a celebration of Mexican independence from Spain, Mexican art should be represented. Dr. Atl negotiated with the government and they were given a small grant to put on an exhibit in the Academy. Orozco was one of some fifty artists to exhibit their work. It was a huge popular success.
Dr. Atl proposed that the young artists form their own organization, the Artistic Center, which would seek to gain access to government buildings where they could paint murals on the walls. They were given permission to start in the National Preparatory School. They erected scaffolding, but did not get the chance to begin. In November the Mexican Revolution began.

By May 1911, Porfirio Díaz was overthrown and Francisco Madero became president. Students at San Carlos saw this as an opening to get the traditional curriculum. along with the current director, thrown out and have one in line with Dr. Atl's manifesto instituted. They went on strike, which lasted more than a year. That same year, David Siqueiros, age fifteen, enrolled in evening classes at the Academy.

The strike, and life in Mexico City, was interrupted by the overthrow of President Madero by his general Victoriano Huerta during the Ten Tragic Days of February 9-19, 1913. The forces that had overthrown Díaz immediately rose up against Huerta. Dr. Atl had allied himself with Venustiano Carranza, governor of Sonora and self-declared Primer Jefe, First Boss, of the Constitutional Army created from various northern states. Atl left for Europe to gain support for Carranza.

Meanwhile, the Academy continued to function and a new director was appointed, Alfredo Ramos Martínez, who had just returned from Europe where he had studied Impressionist painting. He advocated painting from nature and focusing on the beauty of the Mexican countryside. One of his first acts as director was to rent a house in the then rural village of Santa Anita Ixtapalapa (now part of the Mexico City borough of that name), where he had students paint from nature in plein air, open air.

While Ramos Martínez extolled French Impressionism, even naming the school El Barbizón after the French village beloved by the Impressionists, the students rejected the continuing European focus and began painting local scenes and people of "el pueblo", the working class and poor, who were predominately indigenous. They became enamored with the popular and folk paintings of the barrios and the murals in cantinas (bars) and pulquerías (pulque is beer made from the sap of the agave succulent). They declared that European art, especially in its Classic Greco-Roman forms, was ugly and that the Mexican "Indian" and his art was the most beautiful.

Later in life, Siqueiros wrote:
"This was the beginning of a new aesthetic. Although childlike, we launched a permanent break with the archaic and academic pedagogy of the official art academy. It was at Santa Anita that we began to discover our own country." (Siqueiros, Biography of a Revolutionary Artist, D. Anthony White)
In the context of the revolt against Huerta that was going on (1913-14), these encounters with popular, lower class, indigenous poor also politically radicalized the students, who were mostly from rich upper-class familes. They began to participate in demonstrations against Huerta. The school was closed by the government. Some students left Mexico City to join the various factions allied, for the time being, in the rebellion: Venustiano Carranza, Emiliano Zapata and Francisco "Pancho" Villa.

When Huerta was defeated in July of 1914, and Carranza entered Mexico City, the Academy was reopened and Dr. Atl, who had returned from his mission to Europe on Carranza's behalf, was appointed its director. He spoke to the students about starting their own workshops for the "popular classes", i.e., the working class and poor. He also talked about the creation of murals in public spaces.

But this was but a brief respite in the civil war. After the attempt between Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata and Carranza to agree on a government failed at the Convention of Aguascalientes, in October of 1914, Villa and Zapata mobilized their armies against Carranza. In November, Carranza retreated to the state of Veracruz. Dr. Atl convinced many of the students at the Academy to join him and Carranza there.

Students Dispersed by War

Both Orozco and Siqueiros went with Atl to Veracruz. Orozco helped run a printing operation producing propaganda for Carranza. Siqueiros joined a group of adolescents who formed a batallion that went to the western part of Mexico to fight against Pancho Villa. Because of their age, they became known as the Batallón Mamá. When they arrived in Jalisco, Siqueiros was assigned to the staff of General Diéguez because he could read and write. He also participated in direct combat. 

After Carranza had defeated Villa and Zapata and forced them to retreat, Villa to the north, Zapata to the mountains of Moreles to the south, he returned to Mexico City, became provisional president, and after the approval of the Constitution of 1917, Mexico's elected president.

Orozco, disenchanted with war, went to the United States to try his success as a painter. Siqueiros was sent to Paris by Carranza to be a military attaché at the embassy, but actually giving him an opportunity to study European art. There, he met and became friends with Diego Rivera. 

José Vasconcelos and the Beginning of the Mexican Mural Movement

In 1921, Álvaro Obergón, Carranza's lead general, overthrew Carranza, who was killed on his way to Veracruz after fleeing Mexico City. As president, Obregón appointed José Vasconcelos, a lawyer and philosopher who had supported the Revolution, to be head of the new Secretariat of Public Education.

Vasconcelos saw as part of his mission fulfilling Dr. Atl´s call to create public murals for displaying the Mexican people, their history, the stuggles and achievements of the Revolution and a vision of their future as a new, modern nation. To implement this, he summoned three students from the Academy of San Carlos back to Mexico, Rivera and Siqueiros from Europe and Orozco from the United States.

As Orozco was to write later in his Autobiography, "the table was set for mural painting." The Mexican Mural Movement started at full steam. Dr. Atl's vision first began to be realized in real paint on real walls of public buildings in Mexico City, and then beyond. Atl, himself, continued to paint and advocate for popular folk art and murals until his death in 1964.

For more on Mexican Revolution and Mexican Muralists, see:
For background on the Mexican Revolution, see: Mexican Revolution: Its Protagonists and Antagonists

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Mexican Revolution and Mexican Muralists - Part I: Bellas Artes, Where Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Siqueiros Meet

Bellas Artes, formally el Palacio de Bellas Artes, Palace of Fine Arts, sits at the western edge of Mexico City's Centro Histórico, along side the Alameda Central park and across the Eje Central, Central Axis, from Porfirio Díaz's Palacio de Correos, Post Office Palace, and not far from his other grand fin de siecle work, the Palacio de Comunicaciones, now the National Musuem of Art.

However, Bellas Artes is set apart from its sister edifices not only by its aesthetic, but also because its construction embodied a radical transition in Mexican history and culture. Begun by Díaz in 1904, construction was interrupted by the Mexican Revolution (1910-17) that deposed him from his thirty-some-year domination of Mexico. Construction was resumed in 1932 and completed in 1934. The exterior and interior architecture and furnishing record this dramatic political, historical and cultural transition.

Bellas Artes

The outside is full-blown Beaux Arts, an ornate elaboration of Neoclassisism defined by the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and popular in Western Europe and the Americas in the 19th and early 20th centuries (think Grand Central Station and the San Francisco Opera). It was designed by the Italian architect, Adamo Boariwho also designed the completely different Renaissance Revival Palacio de Correos across the street. Initially called the National Theater, this was Díaz's last effort to make Mexico City into a New World Paris of the turn of the century.

Four muses of performing arts

by Italian Leonardo Bistolfi

An angel plays music to revive the human spirit

To these grand classical images are added small recollections of pre-Hispanic, Mesoamerican culture. 

Aztec Eagle Warrior
and Mexican serpent
over door to the side of the main one

Aztec Jaguar Warrior
The glass and ceramic-covered dome, with its flowing lines designed by Hungarian architect Géza Maróti, is Art Nouveau.

Bellas Artes dome
Photo taken from Torre Latinoamericana

Bellas Artes faces Madero Street, next to the Alameda Central,
whose current design is also from the Porfiriato period.
Photo taken from Torre Latinoamericana

Crossing an Historic and Aesthetic Threshold

Walking inside, you cross a threshold into the first clear aesthetic expression of 20th century moderism, Art Deco, with its intense, spare geometry. You may also think you have entered a Mexican version of Rockefeller Center. 

The Grand, Central Dome

Side Dome and Central Dome

Side Dome


Doors to Main Theater

Here, too, are echos of Mexico's Mesoamerican roots.

Art Deco version of Cha'ac,
Mayan God of Waters

Aztec God of Waters

Stylized Mask
Designed by Mexican architect Federico Mariscal, the ancient and the modern go together, perhaps because of their equally strong geometries,                                

Iconography of a Revolution and Its Aftermath

Looking up from the main lobby to the two balconies above, you get your first glimpses of yet another powerful aesthetic, one shaped by the Mexican Revolution and its consequences. Here, installed on the upper balcony, we will be confronted by the powerful, very modern works of Mexico's iconic muralists: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

El Hombre En El Cruce de Caminos (Man at the Crossroads)
Center: Modern Man, with the potential benefits of Science
Left: the end of Western capitalism with the First World War
Right: Workers of the World, called to Revolution to overturn the past

Diego Rivera

Diego Rivera (1886-1957): Revolutionary Idealism

Diego Rivera painted an initial version of El Hombre En El Cruce de Caminos (Man at the Crossroads), in 1933, in that other Art Deco palace, Rockefeller Center, under a commission by none other than John D. himself. However, Rivera, a Communist, included portraits of Marx and Lenin, understandably not to his patron's taste, so Rockefeller had the mural destroyed. In 1934, in Bellas Artes, at the bequest of the Post-Revolutionary, rather socialist government of President Lázaro Cárdenas, Rivera recreated it.

Leon Trotsky (glasses) calls Workers to the 4th International,
in opposition to Stalin
Friedrich Engles and Karl Marx are to the right

Lenin brings together the working class of all races

Post-Revolutionary Irony: Caricaturing Past and Present, Self and Others

Rivera's other contribution in Bellas Artes  — four-panel series he called Carnaval de la vida mexicana, Carnival of Mexican Life — is in a completely different style, Mexican caricature with its characteristic irony. The series was commissioned in 1936 by Alberto Pani, for his Hotel Reforma, one of the first modern hotels in Mexico City and one designed to attract U.S. and European tourists.

The paintings' blatant political content and unflattering portrayal of tourists led Pani to have it "touched up". When Rivera found out, there was an altercation between the two. Rivera won a lawsuit and restored the work, but Pani then put it into storage. The panels were finally sold to the government in 1963 and installed in Bellas Artes.

La Dictadura, The Dictatorship,
portrays a dictator with features of
Plutarco Calles, President 1924-28,
and "Jefe Maximo", "Head Boss" 1928-34.
He holds a flag that combines element of the U.S., Nazi and Japanese flags.
A "pig" policeman robs the woman he is dancing with.
A "charro", "cowboy", i.e., a government collaborator,
controls rebellious "animal" figures.

Danza de la Huichilobos
Modeled after the Carnaval of Huejotzingo in the state of Puebla.
"La Gran Victoria" is an allusion to the Mexican Army's defeat of the French
in the first Battle of Puebla, May 5, 1862, re-enacted in the Carnaval.
The French returned a year later, defeated the Mexicans and seized Mexico City

Leyenda de Agustín Lorenzo portrays a folk hero "Robin Hood" bandit
who attacked the French during their Intervention.
His bravado is also re-enacted in the Carnaval of Huejotzingo

México folklórico and turístico
A very blond, thin "norteamericana" looks on
while two bourgeois jackasses and a dog rule over indigenous chinelos dancers,
whose Moorish-style costumes, in turn, mock the Spanish conquerors.
Ever-present Death sits to the side.

One can see why these paintings didn't go over with a hotel owner seeking U.S. clientele. It's also clear that we are no longer in the age of the Porfiriato (1876-1911), with its love of 19th century, bourgeois, "classical" European refinement, so clearly portrayed in the exterior of Bellas Artes.

But Rivera's symbolic modernist statements are understated compared to that of his fellow muralist, José Clemete Orozco.

José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949):  Modernity In Your Face


Katharsis, named so by a Mexican art critic, painted in situ in 1934-35, is an overwhelming confrontation with the chaos of the revolutions and wars of the early 20th century. Two prostitutes, one young, one old, lie in the foreground, beneath two men, one clothed, bald, old, the other naked and perhaps young, struggling amidst the machinery of modern war. At upper left, the masses raise their fists in protest. Above it all, the consuming flames of destruction and, perhaps, catharsis. Certainly not an heroic view of the Mexican Revolution or the war to end all wars. It is the 20th century in your face.

We will see more of Orozco's view of modernity when we visit the Antiguo Colegio San Ildefonso

David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974): A Mexican Looks at World War II

The third, and youngest, member of the triumvirate of Mexican muralists is David Alfaro Siqueiros. His sculpted, almost three-dimensional murals deliver another powerful mix of hyper-realism and symbolism.

Víctimas de la guerra
Victims of War
Víctima del facismo
Victim of Fascism


Nueva democracia
New Democracy

While these murals are a response to the Second World War, with its violence and hopes, Siqueiros painted a more direct take on the Revolution in Chapúltepec Castle, an edifice which played many roles in Mexican History and now, appropriately, is the National History Museum. We will return there soon. We will also visit the artist's last work, the monumental Sigueiros Cultural Polyforum, an entire building that is, itself, an abstract sculpture covered with murals outside and in. It was created in the last half of the 1960s, in Benito Juárez Delegación (borough) south of the city center.

Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991): Synthesis via Abstraction

Descending from the second to the first balcony, we are provided some relief from the intensity of the conflicts communicated in the works of the "Great Three". On the lower level, we meet RufinoTamayo.

Nacimiento de la Nacionalidad, The Birth of Nationality
Upper left: Spanish conquistador with his sword.
Below him, the gray-green arc of the feathered serpent god,
Quetzalcóatl, with his head rising to the upper right.
Below him, the ruins of indigenous culture
Bottom, right: The half white, half brown head of a mestizo,
a mixed race, baby being born

México de hoy, Mexico of Today
Abstract representation of Mexicans' synthesis, through fire,
of their indigenous past and industrialized present

Tamayo's murals are not only artistically abstract; they are also conceptual abstractions of the historic development of Mexico: the contrasting roots of its indigenous civilizations and the Spanish Conquest, and the mestizaje, the mixing of the two cultures. It is a classic example of the dynamics of thesis, antithesis and final synthesis of Hegel and Marx

The murals portray the ideological hope of the Revolution, or at least of its intellectual spokesmen such as José Vasconcelos (1882-1959) and his vision of Mexican history as producing the "Cosmic Race," the synthesis of all races. We will meet Vasconcelos when we visit the Secretariat of Public Education, which he founded, and where he had Diego Rivera create a panoramic series of murals portraying Mexican culture and the Revolution. 

Walking Through a Revolution

So we come to the end of our perambulation through Bellas Artes. Literally, moving from outside to inside, from top to bottom, it has been a walk from the Porfiriato epoch at the end of the 19th century, across the violent eruptions of the Mexican Revolution in the second decade of the 20th century, to some of the artistic, cultural and political perspectives of modern Post-Revoultionary Mexico. Quite a tour! Quite an edifice!

See also: Mexican Revolution and Mexican Muralists
Part II: The Academy of San Carlos and Dr. Atl 
Part III: Secretariat of Education, José Vasconcelos and Diego Rivera 
Part IV: Secretariat of Education and Diego Rivera's Vision of Mexican Traditions 
Part V:  Secretariat of Education and Diego Rivera's Ballad of the Revolution 
Part VI: Diego Rivera at the College of San Ildefonso 
Part VII: José Clemente Orozco Comes to San Ildefonso 
Part VIII: College of San Ildefonso and José Clemente Orozco - Continued
Part IX: David Siqueiros, Painter and Revolutionary 
Part X: David Siqueiros Cultural Polyforum
Part XI: The Abelardo Rodríguez Market
For the background of the Mexican Revoluion, see:
Mexican Revolution: Its Protagonists and Antagonists