Featured Review
Mexican Mural Art: Critical Essays on a Belligerent Aesthetic"/>
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25th August 2022

Featured Review
Mexican Mural Art: Critical Essays on a Belligerent Aesthetic

Edited by Roberto Cantú

Reviewed by Celina B. Barrios de Senisterra

This collection of essays by renowned art critics, art historians, and literary critics was edited by the distinguished Professor Roberto Cantú as a result of an international conference on Mexican mural art hosted at California State University in Los Angeles in April 2019. The aim of the meeting was the search of new theoretical and critical perspectives for the interpretation of Mexican mural art, including art theory and studies on the art, the lives, and the times of leading figures in Mexico’s Muralism, such as José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, who had intense and complex relationships with both Mexican and international politics and philosophies.

Part One, “World Politics and Art in Revolutionary Mexico,” opens with the essay “Propaganda and Muralism” by Dr. Renato González Mello (UNAM), which presents debates on issues related to the emergence of Mexican mural painting as the “foremost cultural project of Mexico’s Revolutionary government,” with the purpose of “improv[ing] our knowledge of the processes and social history of the articulation and style of the meaning and significance” of this movement.

Another professor at UNAM, Dr. Alicia Azuela de la Cueva, analyzes Mexican mural painting as a paradigm of the relationship between art and post-Revolutionary Mexican politics, which was the cultural mission of the Minister of Public Education José Vasconcelos. In her essay “El Movimiento Artístico Revolucionario,” she communicates that the artists defined their own work as a form of public, didactic, and propagandistic art, by developing a new figurative language to connect with the public, and legitimizing the popular indigenous pre-Hispanic art as the true representative of the nation’s spirit.

José Clemente Orozco and the Epic of ‘Greater America’” by Professor Mary K. Coffey (Dartmouth College) analyzes two distinctive characteristics of Orozco’s Dartmouth mural: the combination of the artist’s knowledge of Mexican history with his critical insight of the USA, and his development of the subject of race creation and national identity on both sides of the US-Mexican border.

Part Two, “Muralism, Philosophy, and the Critique of Visual Arts,” starts with the essay “Vano Azogue: de la extensión a la secuencia” by the poet and writer Octavio Armand. The essayist extends the assessment of the visual arts to poetry, narrative, music, and sculpture, analyzing the bidirectional dynamics in the artworks, where the represented space flows towards the spectators, while, at the same time, the viewers are drawn into the artistic interpretation.

The historian, writer, researcher, and editor Dr. Fernando Curiel Defossé (UNAM) in “El Ateneo Muralista” extracts from different disciplines and a selection of related themes to study the history of Mexican Muralism and its influential magnitude in an essay that, as described by Professor Roberto Cantú, is structured in a “mural-like composition.” The article points out that the mural movement is a product of the Mexican Revolution in a successful integration of architecture, painting, and sculpture, and—exemplified by the works of Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros—it is “the only original modern contribution to the world by American art.”

Similarly, in his chapter on “Mexican Muralism: Between Art and Philosophy,” Professor Héctor Jaimes (North Carolina State University) defines Mexican Muralism as the most important artistic movement that emerged as a cultural consequence of the Mexican Revolution. With a philosophical approach, the scholar asserts that the development of the social and cultural project in public spaces through an artistic concept initiated by the Minister of Education José Vasconcelos evolved past the initial objectives, and attained political and philosophical dimensions with the adoption of Marxism by several of its members. Even though evidencing some European influences, Mexican Muralism uniquely and articulately interpreted the Mexican social, political, historical, and ethnic realities.

With the intention of re-examining the artistic and social objective of Mexican mural painting, photography, and film, Professor Leonard Folgarait (Vanderbilt University) analyzes the interrelationship between these three media in his essay “Thinking Mexican Muralism through Still and Moving Photography.” The art historian discusses, “in dialogue with mural painting,” the distinguished characteristics of the works of two notable photographers who worked in the 1920s and 1930s in Mexico—Tina Modotti and Manuel Álvarez Bravo—and the 2018 film Roma by the cinematographer Alfonso Cuarón.

Part Three, “The Novel, Corridos, and Art Movements in post-Revolutionary Mexico,” begins with the essay “Carlos Fuentes, la Novela y el Muralismo: Puntualización” by Professor Georgina García Gutiérrez Vélez (UNAM). The researcher explains that the analysis of Carlos Fuentes’s novels in correlation with Muralism entails an interdisciplinary approach aiming to develop a rational statement. For Fuentes, imagination and language are more important than nationality. In the creation of his mural novels, there is a convergence of various features learned from Mexican Muralism—such as monumental scales, pessimism, and a creative spirit that is, at the same time, Mexican and universal. The enriching interrelationship between mural paintings and Fuentes’s mural novels enabled both arts to exceptionally represent “the memory of Mexico.”

The art historian Dr. Dafne Cruz Porchini (UNAM) reveals details of Diego Rivera’s involvement and personal interactions with artists and intellectuals in Soviet Russia and in the US. During his stay in Moscow (September 1927-June 1928), his fascination with the advanced technology and the important presence of the proletariat influenced him to make significant artistic adjustments in his paintings, such as the development of new intellectualized narratives and themes, synthetic visual approaches for his compositional displays, and a new and richer iconography. Likewise, Rivera’s admiration for Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoon—its simplicity, its synchronized views, the depth of its images, and its appeal to the public—inspired him to emphasize the social responsibility of his art as an instrument for mass communication, and enriched the thematic scope, chronological order, perspective and historical chronicle of his complex compositions. Thus, the study of Rivera’s mural paintings should incorporate his experience with international mass cultural media.

Exploring Mexican truth—both personal and historical—through its manifestations in art, Dr. Iliana Alcántar (Reed College), in her essay “María Izquierdo y Leonora Carrington: El ‘otro’ movimiento artístico o el ‘otro’ modo de ver,” refers to the studies of art theorists and critics, as well as biographical narratives by the Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska, to analyze the art of María Izquierdo and Leonora Carrington in the context of the ‘other’ point of view expressed by women in post-Revolutionary Mexico. Female artists carved their own niche that did not necessarily conform to the norms indicated by the contemporaneous Revolutionary art movement. Instead, they sought to find freedom through Surrealism, which allowed them to reclaim their private space with symbolic representations of domestic realities. This inward exploration enabled these female artists to express their intimate thoughts and feelings with a new confident self-awareness, to produce personal, private, and emotional self-portraits with a Surrealist language.

This anthology proposes innovative approaches to the study of Mexican Muralism and the complex relationship of the artists with the politics and philosophy not only in their own country, but also in the international sphere. All the essayists contribute with their extensive and exceptional knowledge on the subject, making this volume an excellent and valuable resource for scholars and students who want to examine and evaluate in detail this unique historical art movement in Mexico in the first half of the twentieth century.

Celina B. Barrios de Senisterra holds a Master of Arts in Art History from the University of Toronto, Canada, and a PhD in Cultural Art History from Warnborough College, UK, having previously worked as an Architect in Argentina. Her lectures and articles explore the cultural identities of societies expressed through art and architecture. 

Mexican Mural Art is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.

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