Mexican Muralism—The Origins and Revolution of Street Art

mexican muralism

Mexico City, Mexico - 2018: UNAM Rectorate building, displaying a Siqueiros mural, is located at the main campus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo Credit: iStock/Roberto Michel

Art integrates itself so keenly into our lives and surroundings that it can often go unappreciated or unnoticed. From the playlist at your local coffee shop to the chalk drawings on the sidewalk, we repeatedly encounter cultural influences, the origins of which may be unknown or lost to time.

During Hispanic Heritage Month 2022, the Copyright Alliance is pleased to delve into the roots and impact of Mexican Muralism, an artistic movement that has influenced countless artists such as Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso. This movement is the creative cornerstone that shaped one of the most expansive art forms seen across cities in America today—murals and street art.

The History

Mexican Muralism emerged in the 1920s following the Mexican Revolution. It began as an effort by the government to unify its citizens who were living in a fractured, post-revolutionary state. During this time, the Mexican government looked to restore itself by building a rich legacy of nationalism and culture through art. This movement then grew to inspire generations of artists to turn infrastructure into canvas.

As Mexican society unfolded following the revolution, the government sought to promote political and social ideologies by modernizing its rich history of mural and fresco paintings. Murals proved an effective medium for Mexico to strengthen cultural identifiers as well as communicate with citizens who could not read or write.

The government commissioned multiple artists to depict classical scenes and images on public and historical buildings. Many of the artists were given free creative control allowing them to reflect their personal values and beliefs alongside the worldview they felt represented the citizenry at the time. From this pool of artists emerged “Los Tres Grandes” (the three great ones)—José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. These artists created some of the most famous pieces from this period, including “The Creation” (1923, Diego Rivera), “Prometheus” (1930, José Clemente Orozco), and “Portrait of the Bourgeoisie” (1939, David Alfaro Siqueiros). Los Tres Grandes used their art to elevate others, speaking through their murals by highlighting the socio-political issues facing the country and its people.

José Clemente Orozco

Having fought in the war alongside Siqueiros, Orozco reflected a darker worldview throughout his murals, which were often formulated with muted color palettes and graphic images. Orozco’s art is often described as empathetic towards humanity yet skeptical of its future, built upon what Orozco saw as endless sacrifice. In 1923 Orozco was commissioned by The Escuela Nacional Preparatoria to create a series of murals that spanned across three floors of the building. The first-floor murals included pieces titled “The Trench,” “The Destruction of the Old Order,” and “The Banquet of the Rich,” among others. As the titles suggest, the murals represented themes of death, sacrifice, and oppression, criticizing the revolution for its impact on the people of Mexico. The second and third-floor murals continue in a similar fashion with pieces such as “Law and Justice,” “The Rich,” “The Farewell,” and “The Revolutionaries.” The third floor contains a culmination of the sacrifice and pain of the previous floors, expressing the inevitability and transcendence of death. From 1927-1934 Orozco lived and painted around the US, creating murals for places like Dartmouth in New Hampshire and what is now known as The New School in New York City. He then culminated his time in the US by competing in the 1932 Summer Olympics. After returning home to Mexico, he painted what would be his last mural in 1948, “Juárez Reborn”, and died peacefully in his sleep in 1949.

Diego Rivera

Commonly known for his marriage to Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera created an extensive catalog of murals and paintings. His murals often depicted historical scenes and figures utilizing bold colors and careful composition. Through these historical scenes, Rivera encompassed the narrative of the working class and attempted to dismantle the hierarchical view of the past. Like his counterparts, Rivera created social and political waves with his work. In 1933, he was commissioned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. for his mural “Man at the Crossroads.” Because his mural included a portrait of Vladimir Lenin, the former leader of the Soviet Union, a controversy was stirred. Rivera, however, refused to remove the portrait and was later ordered to leave the U.S. In response, Rivera said he would use the remaining money from his commission to repaint the same mural wherever possible until his funds ran out. Rivera was later invited back to the U.S., where he painted “Pan American Unity” in front of attendees at the Golden Gate International Exposition. After painting throughout the U.S. and Mexico, Rivera died in 1957 from heart disease.

David Alfaro Siqueiros

Siqueiros, alongside many artists, was drawn to creating murals due to their egalitarian nature and created some of the most revolutionary pieces during this time. In 1923 he helped found the “Syndicate of Revolutionary Mexican Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers” to promote public access to art. His philosophy and manifestos galvanized his fellow artists to revitalize lost values originating from indigenous tradition and endow art with new values reflective of the people to carry into the future. His convictions left behind a legacy of insurgence that went past art. In 1960 Siqueiros was arrested for leading protests against the imprisonment of laborers on strike and for criticizing the President of Mexico, Adolfo López Mateos. Writers, artists, and international agencies flooded Mexican authorities with appeals and protests over his arrest. He was officially pardoned in the spring of 1964, yet he never stopped painting, even during his imprisonment. Siqueiros’ final and largest mural was the Polyforum Siqueiros, a building designed as a mural that stands as part of the World Trade Center in Mexico City. The outside consists of 12 panels with the inside displaying an interconnected mural titled “The March of Humanity on Earth and Toward the Cosmos.” Shortly after completion Siqueiros passed away in his home in Mexico in 1974.

Mexican Muralism Today

Mexican Muralism shifted national politics, influenced some of the most significant 20th-century artists, and broke barriers between creative communities. This revolutionary art form made a lasting impact on the art world but struggled against America’s shifting racial and political ideologies. In the 1930s, over a million Mexican identifying U.S. citizens and immigrants were deported, followed by nationwide racial violence and structured inequality. These anti-immigration sentiments and actions persist today, but we continue to see artists march forward, echoing the revolutionary voices of Los Tres Grandes.

As you celebrate this Hispanic Heritage Month 2022, take the time to explore and learn about the Hispanic/Latinx art and artists carrying the movement forward and shaping street art across the nation, including those listed below.

Modern Hispanic/Latinx Street Artists Making an Impact

  • Eduardo Kobra: Current record holder for largest graffiti mural in the world
  • Panmela Castro: Brazilian artist focused in human rights and gender equality
  • Sentrock: Self-taught street artists and community activist
  • Lady Pink: New York based graffiti artist and cult figure in hip-hop subculture
  • Seher One: Muralist and graphic artist leading the rebirth of Mexican Muralism
  • Paola Delfin: Mexican monochromatic muralist and visual artist

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