Saturday, November 14, 2015

Mexican Revolution and Mexican Muralists - Part VI: Diego Rivera at the College of San Ildefonso

Jesuit College of San Ildefonso

Just around the corner and down the street from the Secretariat of Public Education is another building central to the history of both education and art in Mexico. The Jesuit College (School) of San Ildefonso was founded in 1583 by combining three other Catholic colleges or schools.

During the early decades of the eighteenth century the building was renovated, resulting in the edifice that stands today as one of the most outstanding examples of Spanish Baroque architecture in Mexico City.

Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso
on Calle Justo Sierra
Centro Historico

After the Jesuits were expelled by decree of King Carlos III in 1767, the building was "repurposed", as we moderns would say, as headquarters of a battalion of the Regiment of Flanders, a school administered by the colonial government, temporary headquarters for the School of Jurisprudence and some departments of the School of Medicine.

In 1847, at the end of the Mexican American War, the building served as the headquarters for the occupying U.S. Army and, from 1863 to 1867, it fulfilled the same purpose for French troops during the French Intervention.

Central Patio
Murals by Jose Clemente Orozco visible in right hand portal
Photo: Rebecca Brundage Clarkin

Benito Juárez Reforms Establish National Preparatory School

In 1867, the government of Benito Juárez launched an education reform replacing the schools controlled by the Catholic Church with secular, public education. As part of the Organic Law of Education, the National Preparatory (High) School was created and lodged in the former College of San Ildefonso. In 1910, just before the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, the School became part of the National University (UNAM) founded by Justo Sierra. The School continued to occupy the building until it was moved to new quarters in 1978.

The building remained closed until 1992, when it was restored to house the exhibition 'Mexico, Splendors of 30 Centuries' to mark the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus. Since then, the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso has functioned as a museum managed by a team from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the National Council for Culture and Arts and Mexico City. It hosts temporary exhibits, often of international art. An exhibit of Islamic Art was the most recent.

The Mexican Revolution, José Vasconcelos, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco

After the Mexican Revolution, in 1920, José Vasconcelos was appointed head of the National University, which included overseeing the National Preparatory School. A year later, President Álvaro Obregón appointed him head of the new Secretariat of Public Education, which was intended to fulfill Benito Juárez's vision of secular education for all.

As part of his project to create representations of a post-Revolutionary Mexican identity, Vasconcelos decided to have murals painted in the National Preparatory School, as well as in the new Secretariat of Education, two blocks away. The first mural in the Preparatory School was created in 1922 by Diego Rivera, who had just returned from Europe at Vasconcelos's request to undertake his mural project.

La Creación
The Creation

The Creation is Rivera's tour de force attempt to realize Vasconcelos' vision: the synthesis of Classical European and indigenous Mexican cultures. His materials and techniques reflect his intent—creating his paints, for example, by using copal, a native Mexican pine resin, and beeswax mixed with local pigments. The esthetic style is reminiscent of European medieval paintings, with its static figures, including groups with halos in the background, and angel-like figures suspended on wing-like clouds. 

A nude couple, the Adam and Eve of the new mestizaje, mixed race, culture envisioned by Vasconcelos, sit, observing at each side. At the right, the new Adam gazes at female figures representing indigenous culture: legends, practical knowledge, poetry, tradition and, curiously, tragedy, represented by a person holding a classic Greek theater mask. Behind and above are representations of the Classic virtues of Prudence, Justice, Strength and Self-restraint.

At the left are the Performing Arts: music, represented by a Greek Panpipe, song, dance and comedy. Behind are the Biblical virtues of Charity (Love), Hope and Faith. The angels represent wisdom and science. All of the figures are portraits of contemporary Mexican women, many performing artists or favorite painters' models.

Within the central arch rises the New Man, offspring of this New Creation. We have already seen a later version of this same figure in Rivera's 1934 mural El Hombre En El Cruce de Caminos (Man at the Crossroads) in Bellas Artes.

Above all these ancient and new-born creatures shines a medieval-style representation of the blue firmament of the heavens, divided into the four cardinal directions that are archetypical in all primary cultures. We will see this intense azure sky again here in San Ildefonso.

Recalling the murals in Porfirio Díaz's Palace of Communications, we think the old promoter of Order and Progress might be quite pleased with the Classic foundation and optimistic content of Rivera's work, if not with its revolutionary message. He might even have been pleased with its Art Nouveau style.

Progress Bestows Her Blessings,
Ceiling mural in the Reception Hall
Palace of Communications
now National Museum of Art

In fact, there is a Porfirian context for this continuity right here in the Preparatory School:

"Order and Progress"
Porfirian motto from the late 19th century over a doorway at the Preparatory School

Bienvenida (Latin: Salve)
Stained glass window at top of stairs

José Clemente Orozco Comes to San Ildefonso

Vasconcelos then put Rivera to work creating murals in the Secretariat of Education, so he hired the artist José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) to add more murals at the Preparatory School. Orozco was forty years old. He was to bring a very different style of painting and a very different view of the Mexican Revolution to the walls of the School.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Mexican Revolution and Mexican Muralists - Part V: Diego Rivera's Ballad of the Revolution in the Secretariat of Education

Ascending from the planta baja, the ground floor of the Secretariat of Public Education, we leave behind Diego Rivera's reverential homage to Mexican laborers and cultural traditions and their more or less indirect references to the Mexican Revolution. Arriving at el segundo piso, the second and top floor, we come face to face with El Corrido de la Revolución, 'The Ballad of the Revolution', a set of murals that form an unequivocal visual paean to the Mexican Revolution, at least as imagined by Rivera.

Curiously, it begins not at the top of the stairs, but in a corner of the Patio of Labor.

Cantando El Corrido de la Revolución
Singing the Ballad of the Revolution

A balladeer, accompanied by a guitarist, shares with el pueblo, the common or ordinary people, the story of the Revolution, or better, a vision of the Revolution, its heroes and its villains. The words of their ballad are inscribed on a red banner that runs above the series of murals.

Banquete de Wall Street
Note the Statue of Liberty lamp
The banner overhead says,
"They are always thinking of their money."

Using his style of caricature painting which we saw in his Bellas Artes murals, Rivera portrays the self-satisfied, self-centered bourgeois capitalist class, and his contempt for them.

Los Sabios
The Wise Ones

Rivera's disdain extends to the apparent "thinkers" of capitalism. Why he puts a Confucius-like figure in the center remains a mystery. And here, in the background, watching and waiting, are the worker-soldiers of the Revolution and a campesino, peasant farmer, with the wheat that is the source of food for all.

La Orgia-La Noche de los Ricos
The Orgy-The Night of the Rich

In The Orgy, Rivera goes all out in portraying the debauchery and dissipation of the wealthy. Again, the soldiers of the imminent Revolution loom in the background.

La Cena del Capitalista
The Capitalist's Supper

The Capitalist's Supper carries a message of Revolutionary justice and revenge. The family that once enjoyed banquets is left with little to eat, while the Revolutionary soldiers, the workers of the land and the factories, hold a cornucopia of the bread and fruits that are the results of their labor.

It is interesting that one soldier appears to be African and the other Chinese. When Rivera was painting these murals, in 1927 and 1928, was the very moment that the Chinese Civil War was beginning between the Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong and the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek

El Sueño-La Noche de los Pobres
The Dream-the Night of the Poor

Meanwhile, the poor have but one dream: to obtain work by which they can feed themselves and their children.

The Union
"Union is the holy force"

The call to Revolution is a call to Unity, between worker and peasant, as we saw in The Embrace downstairs, but also between the indigenous and the urban middle class. There will be bread for all.

The Revolution Arrives

Worker and farmer threw off the yoke that they suffered
and burned the malignant vice of the bourgeois oppressor

The ballad continues with the eruption of armed rebellion.

El Arsenal
The Arsenal
Frida Kahlo, with her inimitable eyebrows, 

wearing the red shirt and star of Communism,
distributes weapons.

Frida Kahlo met Diego Rivera in 1927 when she came to where he was working on the murals of the Secretariat of Public Education. She was twenty and only partially recovered from a near-fatal bus accident two years earlier that was to leave her partially crippled for life. Rivera was forty. They were married two years later. In The Arsenal, Rivera places the young Kahlo at the center of his revolutionary vision.

What is portrayed is clearly not the Mexican Revolution that took place between 1910 and 1917. Kahlo was only ten at the time that ended. And there was no Communist Party in Mexico until 1919. We are seeing here Rivera's dream of a future rebellion modeled after the Revolution in Russia.

Diego Rivera looks on
Wearing the Red Star of Communism

When Rivera painted this Communist Revolution, the Mexican Communist Party was outlawed. How he managed to paint such an explicit Communist message on the top floor of José Vasconcelos's Secretariat of Public Education is another mystery.

En La Trinchera
In the Trenches

La Lluvia
The Rain

Soldiers wearing capes made of plant fronds
take shelter with an indigenous camepsino family

Messages of Revolution

El Que Quiere Comer Que Trabaje
He Who Wants to Eat Has to Work
"Lazybones: He that wants to eat has to work"

Interestingly, a fine artist painter/musician is pushed to the floor 
by a soldier in his blue work overalls.
Rivera saw the vocation of art to be serving the common people.

Garantias, Desechos del Capitalismo
Rights, the Garbage of Capitalism

At the top, a wealthy priest is hit with a worker's hammer as he exits his money safe,
while a peasant uses his sickle to cut off the head of another capitalist.

La Muerte del Capitalista
The Death of the Capítalist
"Whoever wants to exploit, the misery of the past is finished"

Un Solo Frente
A Single Front
"...they made a single front"

Note: The unifier is a "güero", 
a blond, light-skinned Russian Communist

La Cooperativa
factories "managed in cooperatives, without bosses"

Fruits of Revolution

El Pan Nuestro
Our Bread
"...bread for all the naked..."

and all the fruits of labor.

Alfabetización-Aprendiendo a Leer
Literacy-Learning to Read

Los Frutos de la Tierra
The Fruits of the Earth,

including knowledge, are shared


Emiliano Zapata
"In Morelos there was a very singular man."
Land and Liberty

The Ballad of the Revolution ends in the corner of the Patio of Labor, next to where its telling began. There stands Emiliano Zapata while musician-warriors sing his story:
"In Morelos there was a very singular man."
We are not told the words of their ballad. As for what actually happened with Zapata, see the Mexican Revolution link below.