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The Artistic Grassroots of the Mexican Revolution

By Sanskruti Patel
Published 2019-03-28

The Mexican Revolution (1910-1940) resulted in a great social upheaval of Mexico. The struggle to get the federal government to acknowledge and resolve the grievances facing the masses was the main factor in lighting the flame in 1910. After a decade of civil unrest and violence, the aftermath, or the Reform Phase (1920-1940), aimed to finally fix these problems and inform people about the Revolution itself. Another major goal was to inform the Mexican people about their culture and heritage. Due to the majority of the Mexican population being illiterate at the time, ideas had to be communicated through visual and auditory art. A huge movement to educate citizens was set up by the federal government, and it was used both to encourage literacy, as well to spread the messages and ideas that the Revolution was predicated on.

The first major art form that gained traction was muralism. Public buildings, mainly in Mexico City, were used as easels to showcase the events and leaders of the Mexican Revolution. One of the leading artists of the time, Diego Rivera, painted large paintings of his vision of Mexico. The Mexican government, under President Alvaro Obregon and his Minister of Education, Jose Vasconcelos, provided ample money to fund these murals, so muralism flourished during this period. Rivera was inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia, and he began to hold communist views and often used his paintings to express them. After formally joining the Communist Party in 1922, he later became the director of the Ministry of Education’s Department of Plastic Arts. This gave him absolute control over the ministry-funded murals.

Rivera’s paintings, along with the glorification of communism, also featured Mexicans doing everyday activities, making them more relatable to the general public. This contrasted with European art styles, which were elaborate, gilded, and not easily recognizable for the average man. These European styles were popularized and idealized during the long tenure of the Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz. Rivera’s artwork described what he thought should be done with the Revolution. For example, his painting Foundry—Operating the Smelter depicts Mexican workers refining mined ore, metaphorically stating that he wanted the raw materials of Mexican society salvaged during the Revolution to be transformed into the steel of a socialist utopia in Mexico. These paintings were very significant because of the power Rivera gained to communicate with the illiterate peasants and further his views. Other paintings showed what was actually being done with the Revolution: Liberation of the Peon shows a campesino (lower class peasant) being freed from his oppressors by armed revolutionaries. Smoke rises from a hacienda in the background and the sun of a revolutionary dawn rises beyond the mountains.

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Figure 1 - Liberation of the Peon; served as a reminder of the noble cause of the Revolution

This depicts not only Rivera’s vision for the Revolution, but also communicates his goals to the Mexican people. It gives a purpose or an ideology to the Revolution which Rivera believed it lacked. It also gave the Mexican people a reason as to why they were fighting. His muralist movement also captured educational reform that the federal government was pushing for in Mexico. The Rural Schoolteacher shows a classroom full of illiterate peasants being taught in a classroom with an armed revolutionary standing guard. Although the painting does glorify educational reform, it also makes it clear that it is the revolutionaries that guarantee the joint existence of education and farming. Thus, he emphasizes again how important and beneficial the Revolution was. An interesting aspect of Rivera’s painting was that he was one of the artists that revolutionized Mexican art to giving it a more indigenous and earth-focused feel. His paintings were very optimistic and featured many Indigenous women and happy, healthy children. Again, this depicted his vision for a utopian Mexico and not reality. This amalgamation of indigenous art reintegrated the native population of Mexico into society and gave Mexico its own unique identity from Spain, an important social victory achieved through the arts during the Revolution. Although Rivera’s optimism began to fade in later years, these paintings were some of the most influential during his time because he became such a well-known figure.

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Figure 2 - Indian Boy and Indian Woman with Corn Stalks; an example of Rivera’s pro-indigenous paintings showing the community flourishing

David Alfaro Siqueiros was another artist whose reputation grew during this time for his paintings. Often collaborating with Rivera, he claimed his inspiration came from fighting in the Revolution. From a young age, he saw the haciendados—the elite Mexican upper class—as a “pack of thieves,” and joined the Student Strike Committee led by a revolutionary named Pasqual Orozco. Many artists had joined this cause, which was also contributing to educational reform in Mexico during the Revolution, as one of the major goals of the Revolution was to end the obsolete, ineffective academism for a plein-air school, which was later converted to an anti-government activism centre. Siqueiros patriotically joined future president Venustiano Carranza’s Constitutionalist Army against President Huerta until 1920. Later, he earnestly began his artwork inspired by the events of the Revolution. His drawings featured many indigenous subjects and scenes from the Revolution. His art was also very significant because like Rivera, he communicated mainly the events and messages of the Revolution, therefore spreading the word around to the illiterate Mexican people.

Another artistic reform was in education, where the Obregon Presidency can claim its greatest triumph. Under writer and politician Jose Vasconcelos, an initiative was undertaken to educate Mexicans. Hundreds of secular governmental schools were opened and thousands of teachers hired, especially in the rural areas. Church schools were allowed to run, despite Article 3 of the 1917 Constitution only permitting secular, democratic education. Obregon believed it more important that the children were literate, even if it meant allowing the church more power than it rightfully had in the constitution. Along with academics, there was also a focus on arts and sports, allowing for a well-rounded education. There was also agricultural instruction, so that families could relearn how to farm and make a living once land was redistributed. This was very significant because previously, in the rare cases where arable land was distributed, the peons didn’t remember how to farm, so it remained unused. Education also helped reintegrate the indigenous population into Mexican society because, before the Revolution, they had often been marginalized and their culture invalidated. However, with education and more recognition, their art began to have meaning in communicating the ideologies of the Revolution and forming Mexico’s identity as a nation. This indigenismo movement was reflected in the muralist movement as well.

Music also underwent a change during the Revolution. Ballads, called corridos, recounting the achievements of the Revolution were composed, instilling a sense of patriotism and delivering explicit messages. For example, a corrido would include a description of the person, time and place, the event, the message, and a farewell. They would be written with an inherent bias to make a character seem villainous or heroic. Therefore, this was of great use in the Revolution because it served as an educational tool for the illiterate Mexicans, and it was very straightforward and easy to understand. As with murals, music also began to shift to include a broader range—not only Spanish-influence, but indigenous music also found its place.

In conclusion, through the use of murals, music, and education, the Revolution in Mexico was able to spread across classes and have its impact felt even among illiterate farmers. It ensured that the whole population understood the importance and purpose of the Revolution, and most importantly, it united a diverse nation to form a sense of national identity and patriotism, without foreign influence—Spaniards, mestizos, and Indigenous alike.

The Passion, The Majesty, and the Politics of Diego Rivera. A Husk of Meaning RSS. Accessed February 25, 2019. http://ahuskofmeaning.com/2011/11/the-passsion-the-majesty-and-the- politics-of-diego-rivera/.

Weigand, Ellen Von. "How Mexico Formed A United National Identity Through Art." Culture Trip. July 01, 2013. Accessed February 25, 2019. https://theculturetrip.com/north- america/mexico/articles/art-of-the-mexican-revolution-forming-a-united-national-identity/.