Mexico: multiple modernities

CHAPTER 2: Art and politics

Mexican artists experienced the devastating armed conflict known as the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) in different ways, ranging from being direct participants to distant observers. During the post-revolutionary period (from the 1920s to the 1940s), it became clear that many socio-economic inequalities still remained, which encouraged painters and printmakers to be politically involved and produce revolutionary art. Artists such as Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros led a state-sponsored movement tasked with formulating a new public image of the Mexican nation through mural paintings. Muralism emerged as one of the most influential art movements in the Americas, assuring its leaders, known as “Los Tres Grandes” [The Three Great Ones], important commissions in Mexico and the United States. The latter included a series of lithographs for the Weyhe Gallery in New York, which helped introduce the work of the Mexican muralists to the U.S. public.

Hombres y tres mujeres [Men and Three Women], also known as Indios armados y mujeres, Revolution

José Clemente Orozco
Ciudad Guzmán, Mexico, 1883 - 1949, Mexico City

Hombres y tres mujeres [Men and Three Women], also known as Indios armados y mujeres, Revolution
Lithograph
44.3 cm x 57.4 cm (17 7/16 in. x 22 5/8 in.)
Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 1986
1986.70

José Clemente Orozco’s firsthand experience of the Mexican Revolution and dissatisfaction with its outcome are evident in the melancholy tone of his revolutionary scenes. Figures in his works often seem isolated. In "Hombres y tres mujeres," his subjects can be read as both in retreat, or moving towards, the conflict. Orozco leaves the context undefined, concentrating instead on the strength and endurance of the women as they aid male soldiers amidst a shallow landscape. During the revolution, these soldaderas played a variety of roles, fighting alongside their male relatives, carrying supplies, and tending to the wounded.

Zapata

David Alfaro Siqueiros
Santa Rosalía (now Ciudad Camargo), Chihuahua, 1896 - 1974, Cuernavaca

Zapata
Lithograph
66.2 cm x 51 cm (26 1/16 in. x 20 1/16 in.)
Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 1986
1986.77

David Alfaro Siqueiros, who considered himself primarily a political activist, was involved in organizing labor unions until 1930, when he was jailed and then confined to the town of Taxco. The fifteen months of internal exile that followed proved artistically fruitful. Siqueiros worked on many easel paintings and prints, including two portraits of Emiliano Zapata: an oil painting and this lithograph. Based on a famous photograph of the agrarian revolutionary leader, Siqueiros’s "Zapata" is as monumental and massive as the mountains that surround him. The lithograph was produced through the Weyhe Gallery in New York, an institution that helped introduce the work of the Mexican muralists to the U.S. public. Zapata remains a resonant figure among revolutionary groups in southern Mexico.

Cuauhtémoc

David Alfaro Siqueiros
Santa Rosalía (now Ciudad Camargo), Chihuahua, 1896 - 1974, Cuernavaca

Cuauhtémoc
Pyroxylin
50.75 cm x 58.6 cm (20 in. x 23 1/16 in.)
Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 1980
1980.76

The tradition of narrative history painting experienced a renaissance during the 1920s following the Mexican Revolution. Here David Alfaro Siqueiros set his scene in 1521, when, during the conquest of the Aztec Empire, Hernán Cortés tortured the emperor Cuauhtémoc by burning his feet. Cuauhtémoc’s refusal to reveal the location of hidden Aztec wealth embodies indigenous resistance to colonization. The revolutionary Siqueiros treats the subject dramatically by using radical foreshortening, with fire in the foreground and the figure receding in space. Instead of oil paint he favored Pyroxylin, an industrial material utilized for painting cars. The combination of Mexican history, contemporary politics, and artistic experimentation makes this a characteristic work by Siqueiros.

Image credit:
José Chávez Morado
La conspiración [Conspiracy], from the portfolio Vida nocturna de la ciudad de México [Mexico City’s Nightlife], 1936 (detail)
Linocut
The Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin
University purchase, 1966; Transfer from the Harry Ransom Center, 1982

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