Mexican art consists of various visual arts that developed over the geographical area now known as Mexico. The development of these arts roughly follows the history of Mexico, divided into the Mesoamerican era, the colonial period, with the period after Mexican War of Independence further subdivided. Mesoamerican art is that produced in an area that encompasses much of what is now central and southern Mexico, before the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire for a period of about 3000 years from 1500 BCE to 1500 CE.
During this time, all influences on art production were indigenous, with art heavily tied to religion and the ruling class. There was little to no real distinction among art, architecture, and writing. The Spanish conquest led to 300 years of colonial rule, but art production remained tied to religion—most art was associated with the construction and decoration of churches as well as religious justification for continued rule by the Spanish. Almost all art produced was in the European tradition, but indigenous elements remained, beginning a continuous balancing act between European and indigenous traditions.
After Independence, art remained heavily European in style but indigenous themes appeared in major works due to the need for Mexico to distinguish itself from its colonial past. This preference for indigenous elements continued into the first half of the 20th century, with the Social Realism or Mexican muralist movement led by artists such as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, and Fernando Leal.
The strength of this artistic movement was such that it affected newly invented arts such as photography and strongly promoted folk art and crafts as part of Mexico’s identity. Since the 1950s, Mexican art has broken away from the muralist style and has been more globalized, integrating elements from Asia, with Mexican artists and filmmakers having an effect on the global stage.
The pre-Hispanic art of Mexico belongs to a cultural region known as Mesoamerica, which roughly corresponds to central Mexico on into Central America, encompassing three thousand years from 1500 BCE to 1500 CE generally divided into three eras: Pre Classic, Classic and Post Classic. The first dominant Mesoamerican culture was that of the Olmecs, which peaked around 1200 BCE. The Olmecs originated much of what is associated with Mesoamerica, such as hieroglyphic writing, calendar, first advances in astronomy, monumental sculpture (Olmec heads) and jade work. They were forerunner of later cultures such as Teotihuacan, north of Mexico City, the Zapotecs in Oaxaca and the Mayas in southern Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. While empires rose and fell, the basic cultural underpinnings of the Mesoamerica stayed the same until the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. These included cities centered on plazas, temples usually built on pyramid bases, Mesoamerican ball courts and a mostly common cosmology.
While art forms such as a cave paintings and rock etchings date from earlier, the known history of Mexican art begins with Mesoamerican art created by sedentary cultures that built cities, and often, dominions. While the art of Mesoamerica is more varied and extends over more time than anywhere else in the Americas, artistic styles show a number of similarities. Unlike modern Western art, almost all Mesoamerican art was created to serve religious or political needs, rather than art for art’s sake. It is strongly based on nature, the surrounding political reality and the gods. Octavio Paz states that "Mesoamerican art is a logic of forms, lines, and volumes that is as the same time a cosmology." He goes on to state that this focus on space and time is highly distinct from European naturalism based on the representation of the human body. Even simple designs such as stepped frets on buildings fall into this representation of space and time, life and the gods.
Art was expressed on a variety of mediums such as ceramics, amate paper and architecture. However, most of what is known of Mesoamerican art comes from works that cover stone buildings and pottery, mostly paintings and reliefs. Ceramics date from the early the Mesoamerican period. They probably began as cooking and storage vessels but then were adapted to ritual and decorative uses. Ceramics were decorated by shaping, scratching, painting and different firing methods. The earliest known, purely artistic production was small ceramic figures that appeared in Tehuacán area around 1,500 BCE and spread to Veracruz, the Valley of Mexico, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas and the Pacific coast of Guatemala. The earliest of these are mostly female figures, probably associated with fertility rites because of their often oversized hips and thighs, as well as a number with babies in arms or nursing. When male figures appear, they are most often soldiers. The production of these ceramic figures, which would later include animals and other forms, remained an important art form for 2000 years. In the early Olmec period, most were small but large-scale ceramic sculptures were produced as large as 55 cm. After the middle pre-Classic, ceramic sculpture declined in the center of Mexico except in the Chupícuaro region. In the Mayan areas, the art disappears in the late pre-Classic, to reappear in the Classic, mostly in the form of whistles and other musical instruments. In a few areas, such as parts of Veracruz, the creation of ceramic figures continued uninterrupted until the Spanish conquest, but as a handcraft, not a formal art.
Mesoamerican painting is found in various expressions—from murals, to the creation of codices and the painting of ceramic objects. Evidence of painting goes back at least to 1800 BCE and continues uninterrupted in one form or another until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Although it may have occurred earlier, the earliest known cases of artistic painting of monumental buildings occur in the early Classic period with the Mayas at Uaxactun and Tikal, and in Teotihuacan with walls painted in various colors. Paints were made from animal, vegetable and mineral pigments and bases. Most paintings focus one or more human figures, which may be realistic or stylized, masculine, feminine or asexual. They may be naked or richly attired, but the social status of each figure is indicated in some way. Scenes often depict war, sacrifice, the roles of the gods or the acts of nobles. However, some common scenes with common people have been found as well. Other subjects included gods, symbols and animals. Mesoamerican painting was bi-dimensional with no efforts to create the illusion of depth. However, movement is often represented.
Non-ceramic sculpture in Mesoamerica began with the modification of animal bones, with the oldest known piece being an animal skull from Tequixquiac that dates between 10,000 and 8,000 BCE. Most Mesoamerican sculpture is of stone; while relief work on buildings is the most dominant, freestanding sculpture was done as well. Freestanding three-dimensional stone sculpture began with the Olmecs, with the most famous example being the giant Olmec stone heads. This disappeared for the rest of the Mesoamerican period in favor of relief work until the late post-Classic with the Aztecs.
The majority of stonework during the Mesoamerican period is associated with monumental architecture that, along with mural painting, was considered an integral part of architecture rather than separate. Monumental architecture began with the Olmecs in southern Veracruz and the coastal area of Tabasco in places such as San Lorenzo; large temples on pyramid bases can still be seen in sites such as Montenegro, Chiapa de Corzo and La Venta. This practice spread to the Oaxaca area and the Valley of Mexico, appearing in cities such as Monte Albán, Cuicuilco and Teotihuacan. These cities, like those later on, had a nucleus of one or more plazas, with temples, palaces and Mesoamerican ball courts. Alignment of these structures was based on the cardinal directions and astronomy for ceremonial purposes, such as focusing the sun’s rays during the spring equinox on a sculpted or painted image. This was generally tied to calendar systems. Relief sculpture and/or painting were created as the structures were built. By the latter pre-Classic, almost all monumental structures in Mesoamerica had extensive relief work. Some of the best examples of this are Monte Albán, Teotihuacan and Tula. Pre-Hispanic reliefs are general lineal in design and low, medium and high reliefs can be found. While this technique is often favored for narrative scenes elsewhere in the world, Mesoamerican reliefs tend to focus on a single figure. The only time reliefs are used in the narrative sense is when several relief steles are placed together. The best relief work is from the Mayas, especially from Yaxchilan.
Writing and art were not distinct as they have been for European cultures. Writing was considered art and art was often covering in writing. The reason for this is that both sought to record history and the culture’s interpretation of reality.(salvatvolp14) Manuscripts were written on paper or other book-like materials then bundled into codices. The art of reading and writing was strictly designated to the highest priest classes, as this ability was a source of their power over society. The pictograms or glyphs of this writing system were more formal and rigid than images found on murals and other art forms as they were considered mostly symbolic, representing formulas related to astronomical events, genealogy and historic events. Most surviving pre-Hispanic codices come from the late Mesoamerican period and early colonial period, as more of these escaped destruction over history. For this reason, more is known about the Aztec Empire than the Mayan cultures. Important Aztec codices include the Borgia Group of mainly religious works, some of which probably pre-date the conquest, the Codex Borbonicus, Codex Mendoza, and the late Florentine Codex, which is in a European style but executed by Mexican artists, probably drawing on earlier material that is now lost.
Since the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, Mexican art has been an ongoing and complex interaction between the traditions of Europe and native perspectives. After the conquest, the first artistic efforts were directed at evangelization and the related task of building churches. The Spanish initially co-opted many indigenous stonemasons and sculptors to build churches and other monuments to the new religion. These craftsmen were taught European motifs, designs and techniques, but very early work, called tequitqui (Nahuatl for “vassal”), includes elements such as flattened faces and high-stiff relief.
The earliest of Mexico’s colonial artists were Spanish-born who came to Mexico in the middle of their careers. This included monks such as Fray Alonso López de Herrera. Later, most artists were born in Mexico but trained in European techniques, often from imported engravings. This dependence on imported copies meant that Mexican works preserved styles after they had gone out of fashion in Europe. In the colonial period, artists worked in guilds, not independently. Each guild had its own rules, precepts, and mandates in technique—which did not encourage innovation.
The first monasteries built in and around Mexico City, such as the monasteries on the slopes of Popocatepetl, had Renaissance, Plateresque, Gothic or Moorish elements, or some combination. They were relatively undecorated, with building efforts going more towards high walls and fortress features to ward off attacks. However, the construction of more elaborate churches with large quantities of religious artwork would define much of the artistic output of the colonial period. Most of the production was related to the teaching and reinforcement of Church doctrine, but it also had political purposes such as the vying for power among religious orders like the Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians. Religious art set the rationale for Spanish domination over the indigenous. Today, colonial-era structures and other works exist all over the country, with the most intense concentration in the central highlands around Mexico City. While colonial art remained almost completely European in style, with muted colors and no indication of movement—the addition of native elements, which began with the tequitqui, continued. They were never the center of the works, but decorative motifs and filler, such as native foliage, pineapples, corn, and cacao. Much of this can be seen on portals as well as large frescos that often decorated the interior of churches and the walls of monastery areas closed to the public.
The dominant form of art and architecture during most of the colonial period was Baroque. In 1577, Pope Gregory XIII created the Academy of Saint Luke with the purpose of breaking with Renaissance style. The idea was to use painting and sculpture in and on churches to create iconography to teach and reinforce Church doctrine. In Spain, the first works in Baroque include the Patio of the Kings in El Escorial monastery.
Spanish Baroque was transplanted to Mexico and developed its own varieties from the late 16th to late 18th centuries. Baroque art and architecture were mostly applied to churches. One reason for this was that in nearly all cities, towns and villages, the church was the center of the community, with streets in a regular pattern leading away from it. This reflected the Church’s role as the center of community life. Church design in New Spain tended to follow the rectilinear pattern of squares and cubes, rather than contemporary European churches that favored curves and orbs. The spaces of Mexican Baroque churches tend to be more introverted than their European counterparts, focusing especially on the main altar. The purpose was contemplation and meditation. The rich ornamentation was created to keep attention focused on the central themes. This was especially true of the main altar.
One important element of Mexican Baroque were columns and pilasters, in particular the part between the capital and the base, which can be categorized in six types including Salomonic and estipite (an inverted truncated pyramid) in the later colonial period. Even if the rest of the structure was not covered in decoration, such as in the “purist” style, columns and spaces between doubled columns were profusely decorated. As it developed in Mexico, the Baroque split into a number of sub-styles and techniques. “Estucado” Baroque was purely decorative and did not employ any architectural features. Features were molded from stucco with intricate detail and either covered in gold leaf or paint. This form reached its height in the 17th century in Puebla and Oaxaca. Surviving examples include the Chapel del Rosario in Puebla and the Church at Tonantzintla. One reason this style fell out of favor was that the stucco work eventually dissolved.
Talavera Baroque was a variety mostly confined to the states of Puebla and Tlaxcala. The main defining feature was the use of hand-painted ceramic tiles of the Talavera type. This style came into being here because of the pottery industry. Tiles are mostly found on the bell towers, domes and main portals of the exterior. They are also found interspersed on the rest of the facade as accents to brickwork. This type of Baroque first appeared in the 17th century and reached its height in the 18th. While wholesale use of this style is mostly confined to two states, elements of this tile work appear, especially in domes, in many other parts of the country. In the late Baroque era, artists in the provincial area of New Spain created intricately textured church facades and interiors similar to those of the major cities. However, it had a more two-dimensional quality, which led it to be called Mestizo Baroque or Folk Baroque. The two-level effect was less based on sculptural modeling and more on drilling into the surface to create a screen-like effect. This has some similarities to pre-Hispanic stone and wood carving, allowing elements of indigenous art tradition to survive. Other Baroque styles in Mexico did not adorn all of the surfaces of the interior or exterior but focused their ornamentation on columns, pilasters and the spaces between pairs of these supports. Medallions and niches with statues commonly appear between columns and pilasters, especially around main portals and windows. Decorative patterns in columns after were wavy grooves (called estrías móviles).
Another late Baroque style in Mexico is often called Mexican Churrigueresque after the Spanish Churriguera family, who made altarpieces at this time. However, the more technical term for this very exuberant, anti-classical style is ultra Baroque. It originated in Spain as architectural decoration, spreading to sculpture and furniture carving. In Spain, the definitive element of ultra Baroque was the use of the Salomonic column along with the profuse decoration. In Mexico, the Salomonic column appears as well but the main distinctive aspect of Mexican ultra Baroque is the use of the estipite column in both buildings and altarpieces. This is not a true column, but rather an elongated base in the form of an inverted, truncated pyramid. This can be seen in the Mexico City Cathedral in the Altar of the Kings and the main portal of the Tabernacle. Ultra Baroque was introduced by Jerónimo Balbás into Mexico, whose design for an altar at the Seville Cathedral was the inspiration for the Altar of the Kings, constructed in 1717. Balbás used estípites to convey a sense of fluidity, but his Mexican followers flattened the facades and aligned the estepites, with less dynamic results. This is what Lorenzo Rodríguez did to Balbás design for the Altar of the Kings. He also created a stronger horizontal division between the first and second levels, which derived Mexican ultra Baroque from the Spanish version. The ultra Baroque appeared when Mexican mines were producing great wealth, prompting numerous building projects. Much of Mexican ultra Baroque can be seen in and the city of Guanajuato and its mines. For this reason, the style became more developed in Mexico than in Spain.
Baroque painting became firmly established in Mexico by the middle of the 17th century with the work of Spaniard Sebastián López de Arteaga. His painting is exemplified by the canvas called Doubting Thomas from 1643. In this work, the Apostle Thomas is shown inserting his finger in the wound in Christ’s side to emphasize Christ’s suffering. The caption below reads “the Word made flesh” and is an example of Baroque’s didactic purpose. One difference between painters in Mexico and their European counterparts is that they preferred realistic directness and clarity over fantastic colors, elongated proportions and extreme spatial relationships. The goal was to create a realistic scene in which the viewer could imagine himself a part of. This was a style created by Caravaggio in Italy, which became popular with artists in Seville, from which many migrants came to New Spain came. Similarly, Baroque free standing sculptures feature life-size scales, realistic skin tones and the simulation of gold-threaded garments through a technique called estofado, the application of paint over gold leaf.
The most important later influence to Mexican and other painters in Latin America was the work of Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, known through copies made from engravings and mezzotint techniques. His paintings were copied and reworked and became the standard for both religious and secular art. Later Baroque paintings moved from the confines of altarpieces to colossal freestanding canvases on church interiors. One of the best known Mexican painters of this kind of work was Cristóbal de Villalpando. His work can be seen in the sacristy of the Mexico City Cathedral, which was done between 1684 and 1686. These canvases were glued directly onto the walls with arched frames to stabilize them, and placed just under the vaults of the ceiling. Even the fresco work of the 16th century was not usually this large. Another one of Villalpando’s works is the cupola of the Puebla Cathedral in 1688. He used Rubens’ brush techniques and the shape of the structure to create a composition of clouds with angels and saints, from which a dove descends to represent the Holy Spirit. The light from the cupola’s windows is meant to symbolize God’s grace.
Colonial religious art was sponsored by Church authorities and private patrons. Sponsoring the rich ornamentation of churches was a way for the wealthy to gain prestige. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Mexico City was one of the wealthiest in the world, mostly due to mining and agriculture, and was able to support a large art scene. While most commissioned art was for churches, secular works were commissioned as well. Portrait painting was known relatively early in the colonial period, mostly of viceroys and archbishops. Beginning in the late Baroque period, portrait painting of local nobility became a significant genre. Two notable painters of this type are brothers Nicolás and Juan Rodríguez Juárez. These works followed European models, with symbols of rank and titles either displayed unattached in the outer portions or worked into another element of the paintings such as curtains. Another type of secular colonial painting is called casta, referring to the mostly racially based caste system of New Spain. These were often commissioned by Spanish functionaries as souvenirs of Mexico. Production of these paintings stopped after the Mexican War of Independence and the later political policies of a “mestizo” identity led to people hiding these paintings until the beginning of the 21st century, when scholars began to study them again.
Mexico was a crossroads of trade in the colonial period, with goods from Asia and Europe mixing with those natively produced. This convergence is most evident in the decorative arts of New Spain. It was popular among the upper classes to have a main public room, called a salon de estrado, to be covered in rugs and cushions for women to recline in Moorish fashion. Stools and later chairs and settees were added for men. Folding screens were introduced from Japan, with Mexican-style ones produced called biombos The earliest of these Mexican made screens had oriental designs but later ones had European and Mexican themes. One example of this is a screen with the conquest of Mexico one side and an aerial view of Mexico City on the other at the Franz Mayer Museum.
The last colonial era art institution established was the Academy of San Carlos in 1783. While the depiction of saints consumed most artistic efforts, they were not without political effects. The most important of these was the rise of the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe as an American rather than European saint, representative of a distinct identity. By the late 18th century, Spain’s colonies were becoming culturally independent from Spain, including its arts. The Academy was established by the Spanish Crown to regain control of artistic expression and the propaganda it disseminated. This school was staffed by Spanish artists in each of the major disciplines, with the first director being Antonio Gil. The school became home to a number of plaster casts of classic statues from the San Fernando Fine Arts Academy in Spain, brought there for teaching purposes. These casts are on display in the Academy's central patio.
Around the same time, the Crown promoted the establishment in Mexico of the Neoclassical style of art and architecture, which had become popular in Spain. This style was a reinterpretation of Greco-Roman references and its use was a way to reinforce European dominance in the Spain’s colonies. One Neoclassical artist from the Academy at the end of the colonial period was Manuel Tolsá. He first taught sculpture at the academy and then became its second director. Tolsá designed a number of Neoclassical buildings in Mexico but his best known work is an equestrian status of King Charles IV in bronze cast in 1803 and originally placed in the Zocalo. As of 2011 it can be seen at the Museo Nacional de Arte.
The Academy of San Carlos remained the center of academic painting and the most prestigious art institution in Mexico until the Mexican War of Independence, during which it was closed. Despite its association with the Spanish Crown and European painting tradition, the Academy was reopened by the new government after Mexico gained full independence in 1821. Its former Spanish faculty and students either died during the war or returned to Spain, but when it reopened it attracted the best art students of the country, and continued to emphasize classical European traditions until the early 20th century. The academy was renamed to the National Academy of San Carlos. The new government continued to favor Neoclassical as it considered the Baroque a symbol of colonialism. The Neoclassical style continued in favor through the reign of Maximilian I although President Benito Juárez supported it only reluctantly, considering its European focus a vestige of colonialism.
Despite Neoclassicism’s association with European domination, it remained favored by the Mexican government after Independence and was used in major government commissions at the end of the century. However, indigenous themes appeared in paintings and sculptures. One indigenous figure depicted in Neoclassical style is Tlahuicol, done by Catalan artist Manuel Vilar in 1851. In 1887, Porfirio Díaz commissioned the statue of the last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtémoc, which can be seen on Paseo de la Reforma. Cuauhtémoc is depicted with a toga-like cloak with a feathered headdress similar to an Etruscan or Trojan warrior rather than an Aztec emperor. The base has elements reminiscent of Mitla and Roman architecture. This base contains bronze plates depicting scenes from the Spanish conquest, but focusing on the indigenous figures. There were two reasons for this shift in preferred subject. The first was that Mexican society denigrated colonial culture—the indigenous past was seen as more truly Mexican. The other factor was a worldwide movement among artists to confront society, which began around 1830. In Mexico, this anti-establishment sentiment was directed at the Academy of San Carlos and its European focus.
In the first half of the 19th century, the Romantic style of painting was introduced into Mexico and the rest of Latin America by foreign travelers interested in the newly independent country. One of these was Bavarian artist Johann Moritz Rugendas, who lived in the country from 1831 to 1834. He painted scenes with dynamic composition and bright colors in accordance with Romantic style, looking for striking, sublime, and beautiful images in Mexico as well as other areas of Latin America. However much of Rugendas's works are sketches for major canvases, many of which were never executed. Others include Englishman Daniel Egerton, who painted landscapes in the British Romantic tradition, and German Karl Nebel, who primarily created lithographs of the various social and ethnic populations of the country.
A number of native-born artists at the time followed the European Romantic painters in their desire to document the various cultures of Mexico. These painters were called costumbristas, a word deriving from costumbre (custom). The styles of these painters were not always strictly Romantic, involving other styles as well. Most of these painters were from the upper classes and educated in Europe. While the European painters viewed subjects as exotic, the costumbristas had a more nationalistic sense of their home countries. One of these painters was Agustín Arrieta from Puebla, who applied realistic techniques to scenes from his home city, capturing its brightly painted tiles and ceramics. His scenes often involved everyday life such as women working in kitchen and depicted black and Afro-Peruvian vendors.
In the mid-to late 19th century, Latin American academies began to shift away from severe Neoclassicism to “academic realism”. Idealized and simplified depictions became more realistic, with emphasis on details. Scenes in this style were most often portraits of the upper classes, Biblical scenes, and battles—especially those from the Independence period. When the Academy of San Carlos was reopened after a short closure in 1843, its new Spanish and Italian faculty pushed this realist style. Despite government support and nationalist themes, native artists were generally shorted in favor of Europeans. One of the most important painters in Mexico in the mid 19th century was Catalan Pelegrín Clavé, who painted landscapes but was best known for his depictions of the intellectual elite of Mexico City. Realist painters also attempted to portray Aztec culture and people by depicting settings inhabited by indigenous people, using live indigenous models and costumes based on those in Conquest era codices. One of these was Félix Parra, whose depictions of the conquest empathized with the suffering of the indigenous. In 1869, José Obregón painted The Discovery of Pulque; he based his depictions of architecture on Mixtec codices, but misrepresented temples as a setting for a throne.
The art of the 19th century after Independence is considered to have declined, especially during the late 19th century and early 20th, a period known as the Porfirato, named after Porfirio Díaz who ruled the country for over three decades. During this time, painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts were mostly limited to imitation of European styles, especially religious themes.
The Academy of San Carlos continued to advocate classic, European-style training until 1913. In this year, the academy was partially integrated with the national university, the University of Mexico (UNAM). Between 1929 and the 1950s, the academy’s architecture program was split off as a department of the university; the programs in painting, sculpture, and engraving were renamed the National School of Expressive Arts, now the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas (ENAP). Both moved to the south of the city in the mid-20th century, to Ciudad Universitaria and Xochimilco respectively, leaving only some graduate programs in fine arts in the original academy building in the historic center. ENAP remains one of the main centers for the training of Mexico’s artists.
While a shift to more indigenous and Mexican themes appeared in the 19th century, the Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1920 had a dramatic effect on Mexican art. The conflict resulted in the rise of the Partido Revolucionario Nacional (renamed the Partido Revolucionario Institucional), which took the country in a socialist direction. The government became an ally to many of the intellectuals and artists in Mexico City and commissioned murals for public buildings to reinforce its political messages including those that emphasized Mexican rather than European themes. These were not created for popular or commercial tastes; however, they gained recognition not only in Mexico, but in the United States. This production of art in conjunction with government propaganda is known as the Mexican Modernist School or the Mexican Muralist Movement, and it redefined art in Mexico. Octavio Paz gives José Vasconcelos credit for initiating the Muralist movement in Mexico by commissioning the best-known painters in 1921 to decorate the walls of public buildings. The commissions were politically motivated—they aimed to glorify the Mexican Revolution and redefine the Mexican people vis-à-vis their indigenous and Spanish past. The first of these commissioned paintings were at San Ildefonso done by Fernando Leal, Fermín Revueltas, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Diego Rivera. The first true fresco in the building was the work of Jean Charlot. However, technical errors were made in the construction of these murals: a number of them began to blister and were covered in wax for preservation. Roberto Montenegro painted the former church and monastery of San Pedro y San Pablo, but the mural in the church was painted in tempera and began to flake. In the monastery area, Montenegro painted the Feast of the Holy Cross, which depicts Vasconcelos as the protector of Muralists. Vasconcelos was later blanked out and a figure of a woman was painted over him.
The first protagonist in the production of modern murals in Mexico was Dr. Atl. Dr Atl was born “Gerard Murillo” in Guadalajara in 1875. He changed his name in order to identify himself as Mexican. Atl worked to promote Mexico’s folk art and handcrafts. While he had some success as a painter in Guadalajara, his radical ideas against academia and the government prompted him to move to more liberal Mexico City. In 1910, months before the start of the Mexican Revolution, Atl painted the first modern mural in Mexico. He taught major artists to follow him, including those who came to dominate Mexican mural painting.
The muralist movement reached its height in the 1930s with four main protagonists: Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, and Fernando Leal. It is the most studied part of Mexico’s art history. All were artists trained in classical European techniques and many of their early works are imitations of then-fashionable European paintings styles, some of which were adapted to Mexican themes. The political situation in Mexico from the 1920s to 1950s and the influence of Dr. Atl prompted these artists to break with European traditions, using bold indigenous images, lots of color, and depictions of human activity, especially of the masses, in contrast to the solemn and detached art of Europe. Preferred mediums generally excluded traditional canvases and church porticos and instead were the large, then-undecorated walls of Mexico’s government buildings. The main goal in many of these paintings was the glorification of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past as a definition of Mexican identity. They had success in both Mexico and the United States, which brought them fame and wealth as well as Mexican and American students.
These muralists revived the fresco technique for their mural work, although Siqueiros moved to industrial techniques and materials such as the application of pyroxilin, a commercial enamel used for airplanes and automobiles. One of Rivera’s earliest mural efforts emblazoned the courtyard of the Ministry of Education with a series of dancing tehuanas (natives of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico). This four-year project went on to incorporate other contemporary indigenous themes, and it eventually encompassed 124 frescoes that extended three stories high and two city blocks long. The Abelardo Rodriguez Market was painted in 1933 by students of Diego Rivera, one of whom was Isamu Noguchi. Another important figure of this time period was Frida Kahlo, the wife of Diego Rivera. While she painted canvases instead of murals, she is still considered part of the Mexican Modernist School as her work emphasized Mexican folk culture and colors.
The first to break with the nationalistic and political tone of the muralist movement was Rufino Tamayo. For this reason, he was first appreciated outside of Mexico. Tamayo was a contemporary to Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco, and trained at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes. Like them, he explored Mexican identity in his work after the Mexican Revolution; however, he rejected the political Social Realism popularized by the three other artists and was rejected by the new establishment. He left for New York in 1926 where success allowed him to exhibit in his native Mexico. However, his lack of support for the post-Revolutionary government was controversial. Because of this, he mostly remained in New York, continuing with his success there and later in Europe. His rivalry with the main three Mexican muralists continued both in Mexico and internationally through the 1950s. Even a belated honorific of “The Fourth Great One” was controversial.
The first major movement after the muralists was the Rupture Movement, which began in the 1950s and 1960s with painters such as José Luis Cuevas, Gilberto Navarro, Rafael Coronel, Alfredo Casaneda, and sculptor Juan Soriano. They rejected social realism and nationalism and incorporated surrealism, visual paradoxes, and elements of Old World painting styles. This break meant that later Mexican artists were generally not influenced by muralism or by Mexican folk art. José Luis Cuevas created self-portraits in which he reconstructed scenes from famous paintings by Spanish artists such as Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Goya, and Picasso. Like Kahlo before him, he drew himself but instead of being centered, his image is often to the side, as an observer. The goal was to emphasize the transformation of received visual culture. Another important figure during this time period was Swiss-Mexican Gunther Gerzso, but his work was a “hard-edged variant”[this quote needs a citation] of Abstract Expressionism, based on clearly defined geometric forms as well as colors, with an effect that makes them look like low relief. His work was a mix of European abstraction and Latin American influences, including Mesoamerican ones. In the watercolor field we can distinguish Edgardo Coghlan and Ignacio Barrios who were not aligned to an specific artistic movement but were not less important.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, Neo-expressionist art was represented in Mexico by Manuel Felguerez, Teresa Cito, Alejandro Pinatado, and Jan Hendrix. These are often abstract, non-figurative works, full of color and contrast. Felguerez is a painter and engraver born in Zacatecas in 1928 who studied in Mexico City, Paris, and Russia. He had his first exhibition in abstract art in 1957. Since then, he has been prolific, producing up to 25 paintings per year and has done about thirty murals. In addition to these Mexican artists, a Swiss-German artist, Mathias Goeritz, was also important. Goeritz was a painter, sculptor, and teacher active in Mexico until his death in 1990. He arrived to Mexico in 1949 after spending time in Spain, Morocco, and Granada. He began as a professor in Guadalajra, then opened the Museo Experimental El Eco in Mexico City in the 1950s. In the same decade, he created public sculptures including the Torres Satélite in Ciudad Satélite. In the 1960s, he became central to the development of abstract and other modern art along with José Luis Cuevas and Pedro Friedeberg.
In the mid-1980s, the next major movement in Mexico was Neomexicanismo, a slightly surreal, somewhat kitsch and postmodern version of Social Realism that focused on popular culture rather than history. The name neomexicanismo was originally used by critics to belittle the movement. Works were not necessarily murals: they used other mediums such as collage and often parodied and allegorized cultural icons, mass media, religion, and other aspects of Mexican culture. This generation of artists were interested in traditional Mexican values and exploring their roots—often questioning or subverting them. Another common theme was Mexican culture vis-à-vis globalization.
Art from the 1990s to the present is roughly categorized as Postmodern, although this term has been used to describe works created before the 1990s. Major artists associated with this label include Betsabee Romero, Monica Castillo, Francisco Larios, Martha Chapa and Diego Toledo. The work of Betsabee Romeros is based on cars and car parts, especially tires. Born in 1963, her work mixes folk, pop, and modernist elements. Her most influential works are sculptural. One example is a reconstructed vintage Volkswagen Beetle with parts of the body replaced with straw, plastic roofing, and wood paneling. Another is a Minimalist-Surrealist-influenced piece in the shape of a car roof pushing up from under a gallery floor of wood veneer. She also creates cars and prints made from carved rubber tires. Monica Castillo of Mexico City is known for her postmodern, deconstructivist self-portraits in a variety of media. Francisco Larios creates ex-votos on his computer.
Despite maintaining an active national art scene, Mexican artists after the muralist period had a difficult time breaking into the international art market. One reason for this is that in the Americas, Mexico City was replaced by New York as the center of the art community, especially for patronage. Within Mexico, government sponsorship of art in the 20th century (dominated until 2000 by the PRI party) meant religious themes and criticism of the government were effectively censored. This was mostly passive, with the government giving grants to artists who conformed to their requirements. However, in 1999, La Colección Jumex opened as a permanent museum inside a Jumex factory in Ecatepec, outside Mexico City. Their multi-million dollar budget attracts galleries and museums from around the world. Kurimanzutto—a private gallery founded in 1999 by José Kui and Monica Manzutto—has promoted artists such as Minerva Cuevas, Daniel Guzmán, and Jonathan Hernández. These private galleries and museums have promoted more controversial and political artists who state-run institutions tend not to show. International exposure and private sales have made a number of Mexican artists independent of the government.
Mexican art reached another peak in the international art scene in the 1990s. Much of this return was due to existence of biennials, art fairs, and international exhibitions outside of Mexico. In 2002, than six major museums around the world had large-scale exhibitions devoted to Mexico. In 2003, Mexico Illustrated was a large scale project by Albright College with 61 artists and a budget of $500,000. The success of Mexican artists is demonstrated by their inclusion in galleries in New York, London, and Zurich. Despite the increased interest in Mexican fine art, challenges remain for Mexican artists hoping to break into the international art market. There is only one prominent art critic in Mexico, Cuauhtémoc Medina. With little native writing about Mexican art, symbolism, and trends, much modern Mexican art shown abroad is mislabeled or poorly described, as foreign institutions do not sufficiently understand or appreciate the political and social circumstances behind the pieces. The influences of the muralist period persist. Much of the art produced since the 1990s has been overlooked because it is not obviously "Mexican" (by the standards of Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros) and lacks references to stereotypical cultural references such as pyramids and indigenous people. Most modern Mexican artists have an international perspective concerned with a globalized world. For example, if pyramids appear, they are often mixed with images from other cultures such as geishas, yogis, and Chinese characters, which come from a recent[timeframe?] fascination with Asia. Artists who have produced mostly Asian-themed works include Fernanda Brunet, Yushai Jusidman, and Pablo Vargas Lugo. Japanese comics and cartoons are a significant part of this fascination, which can include Hello Kitty and My Melody.
Mexican folk art and handcrafts
Mexican handcrafts and folk art, called artesanía in Mexico, is a complex category of items made by hand or in small workshops for utilitarian, decorative, or other purposes. These include ceramics, wall hangings, certain types of paintings, and textiles. Like the more formal arts, artesanía has both indigenous and European roots and is considered a valued part of Mexico’s ethnic heritage.
This linking among the arts and cultural identity was most strongly forged by the country’s political, intellectual, and artistic elite in the first half of the 20th century, after the Mexican Revolution. Artists such as Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, and Frida Kahlo used artesanía as inspiration for a number of their murals and other works. Unlike the fine arts, artesanía is created by common people and those of indigenous heritage, who learn their craft through formal or informal apprenticeship. The linking of artesanía and Mexican identity continues through television, movies, and tourism promotion.
Most of the artesanía produced in Mexico consists of ordinary things made for daily use. They are considered artistic because they contain decorative details or are painted in bright colors, or both. The bold use of colors in crafts and other constructions extends back to pre-Hispanic times. These were joined by other colors introduced by European and Asian contact, always in bold tones. Design motifs vary from purely indigenous to mostly European with other elements thrown in. Geometric designs connected to Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past are prevalent, and items made by the country’s remaining purely indigenous communities. Motifs from nature are popular, possibly more so than geometric patterns in both pre-Hispanic and European designs. They are especially prevalent in wall-hangings and ceramics.
One of the best of Mexico’s handcrafts is Talavera pottery produced in Puebla. It has a mix of Chinese, Arab, Spanish, and indigenous design influences. The best known folk paintings are the ex-voto or retablo votive paintings. These are small commemorative paintings or other artwork created by a believer, honoring the intervention of a saint or other figure. The untrained style of ex-voto painting was appropriated during the mid-20th century by Kahlo, who believed they were the most authentic expression of Latin American art.
Cinematography came to Mexico during the Mexican Revolution from France. It was initially used to document the battles of the war. The first sound film in Mexico was made in 1931, called Desde Santa. The first Mexican film genre appeared between 1920 and 1940, called ranchero.
While Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema is regarded as the 1940s and 1950s, two films from the mid to late 1930s, Allá en el Rancho Grande (1936) and Vamanos con Pancho Villa (1935), set the standard of this age thematically, aesthetically, and ideologically. These films featured archetypal star figures and symbols based on broad national mythologies. Some of the mythology, according to Carlos Monsiváis, includes the participants in family melodramas, the masculine charros of ranchero films, femme fatales (often played by María Félix and Dolores del Río), the indigenous peoples of Emilio Fernández’s films, and Cantinflas’s peladito (urban miscreant). Settings were often ranches, the battlefields of the Revolution, and cabarets. Movies about the Mexican Revolution focused on the initial overthrow of the Porfirio Díaz government rather than the fighting among the various factions afterwards. They also tended to focus on rural themes as “Mexican”, even though the population was increasingly urban.
Mexico had two advantages in filmmaking during this period. The first was a generation of talented actors and filmmakers. These included actors such as María Félix, Jorge Negrete, Pedro Armendáriz, Pedro Infante, Cantinflas, and directors such as Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. Many of these starts had success in the United States and at the Cannes Film Festival . On the corner of La Brea and Hollywood Boulevard, there is a sculpture of four women who represent the four pillars of the cinema industry, one of whom is Mexican actress Dolores del Rio . Gabriel Figueroa is known for black-and-white camerawork that is generally stark and expressionist, with simple but sophisticated camera movement. The second advantage was that Mexico was not heavily involved in the Second World War, and therefore had a greater supply of celluloid for films, then also used for bombs.
In the 1930s, the government became interested in the industry in order to promote cultural and political values. Much of the production during the Golden Age was financed with a mix of public and private money, with the government eventually taking a larger role. In 1942, the Banco Cinematográfico financed almost all of the industry, coming under government control by 1947. This gave the government extensive censorship rights through deciding which projects to finance. While the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) censored films in many ways in the 1940s and 1950s, it was not as repressive as other Spanish speaking countries, but it played a strong role in how Mexico’s government and culture was portrayed.
The Golden Age ended in the late 1950s, with the 1960s dominated by poorly made imitations of Hollywood westerns and comedies. These films were increasingly shot outdoors and popular films featured stars from lucha libre . However, art and experimental film production in Mexico has its roots in the same period, which began to bear fruit in the 1970s. Director Paul Leduc surfaced in the 1970s, specializing in films without dialogue. His first major success was with Reed: Insurgent Mexico (1971) followed by a biography of Frida Kahlo called Frida (1984). He is the most consistently political of modern Mexican directors. In the 1990s, he filmed Latino Bar (1991) and Dollar Mambo (1993). However, his silent films generally have not had commercial success. In the late 20th century, the main proponent of Mexican art cinema was Arturo Ripstein Jr. whose career began with a spaghetti Western like film called Tiempo de morir in 1965 and who some consider the successor to Luis Buñuel, who worked in Mexico in the 1940s. Some of his classic films include El Castillo de la pureza (1973), Lugar sin limites (1977) and La reina de la noche (1994) exploring topics such as family ties and even homosexuality, dealing in cruelty, irony, and tragedy. State censorship was relatively lax in the 1960s and early 1970s, but came back during the latter 1970s and 1980s, monopolizing production and distribution. Anther factor was that many Mexican film making facilities were taken over by Hollywood production companies in the 1980s, crowding out local production. The quality of films was so diminished that for some of these years,[which?] Mexico’s Ariel film award was suspended for lack of qualifying candidates. Popular filmmaking decreased but the art sector grew, sometimes producing works outside the view of censors such as Jorge Fons’ 1989 film Rojo Amanecer on the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. The movie was banned by the government but received support in Mexico and abroad. The film was shown although not widely.[further explanation needed] It was the beginning of more editorial freedom for filmmakers in Mexico.
Starting in the 1990s, Mexican cinema began to make a comeback, mostly through co-production with foreign interests. One reason for international interest in Mexican cinema was the wild success of the 1992 film Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate). In 1993, this film was the largest grossing foreign language film in U.S. history and ran in a total of 34 countries. Since then, Mexican film divided into two genres. Those for a more domestic audience tend to be more personal and more ambiguously political such as Pueblo de Madera, La Vida Conjugal, and Angel de fuego. Those geared for international audiences have more stereotypical Mexican images and include Solo con tu Pareja, La Invencion de Cronos along with Como Agua para Chocolate.
Mexico’s newest generation of successful directors includes Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro, and Alfonso Cuarón. Films include Cuarón/Children of Men filmed in England and El Laberinto del Fauno, which was a Mexican/Spanish production. Film professionals in the early 21st century tend to be at least bilingual (Spanish and English) and are better able to participate in the global market for films than their predecessors.
Photography in Mexico
Photography came to Mexico in the form of daguerreotype about six months after its discovery, and it spread quickly. It was initially used for portraits of the wealthy (because of its high cost), and for shooting landscapes and pre-Hispanic ruins. Another relatively common type of early photographic portraits were those of recently deceased children, called little angels, which persisted into the first half of the 20th century. This custom derived from a Catholic tradition of celebrating a dead child’s immediate acceptance into heaven, bypassing purgatory. This photography replaced the practice of making drawings and other depictions of them as this was considered a “happy occasion.” Formal portraits were the most common form of commercial photography through the end of the 19th century.
Modern photography in Mexico did not begin as an art form, but rather as documentation, associated with periodicals and government projects. It dates to the Porfirio Díaz period of rule, or the Porfiriato, from the late 19th century to 1910. Porfirian-era photography was heavily inclined toward the presentation of the nation’s modernization to the rest of the world, with Mexico City as its cultural showpiece. This image was European-based with some indigenous elements for distinction. Stylized images of the indigenous during the Porfirato were principally done by Ybañez y Sora in the costumbrista painting style, which was popular outside of Mexico. However, the most important Porfirian era photographer was Guillermo Kahlo, who worked with associate Hugo Brehme. Kahlo established his own studio in the first decade of the 1900s and was hired by businesses and the government to document architecture, interiors, landscapes, and factories. Kahlo’s style reflected the narratives of the period, solely focusing on major constructions and events, and avoiding the common populace. It avoided subjects that hinted at the political instability of the country at the time, such as strike actions. One major Kahlo project was the Photographic Inventory of Spanish Colonial Church Architecture in Mexico (1910), which consisted of twenty five albums sponsored by the federal government to document the remaining colonial architecture. Kahlo’s photography was used to link Mexico’s past to its progress with political and social power provided in symbols and ideals, as well to link the government’s aspirations with its colonial and pre-Hispanic past.[clarification needed]
Anther pioneer of Mexican photography was Agustín Victor Casasola. Like Kahlo, he began his career in the Porfirato, but his career was focused on photography for periodicals. Again like Kahlo, Casasola’s work prior to the Mexican Revolution focused on non-controversial photographs, focusing on the lives of the elite. However, the outbreak of civil war caused Casasola’s choice of subject to change. He began to focus not only on portraits of the main protagonists (such as Francisco Villa) and general battle scenes, but on executions and the dead; he focused on people whose faces showed such expressions as pain, kindness, and resignation. His work during this time produced a large collection of photographs, many of which are familiar to Mexicans as they have been widely reprinted and reused, often without credit to Casasola. After the war, Casasola continued to photograph common people, especially migrants to Mexico City during the 1920s and 1930s. His total known archives comprise about half a million images with many of his works archived in the former monastery of San Francisco in Pachuca.
Kahlo and Casasola are considered the two most important photographers to develop the medium in Mexico, with Kahlo defining architectural photography and Casasolas establishing photojournalism. Neither man thought of himself as an artist—especially not Casasolas—who thought of himself as a historian in the Positivist tradition, but the photography of both show attention to detail, lighting, and placement of subjects for emotional or dramatic effect.
For the rest of the 20th century, most photography was connected to documentation. However, artistic trends from both inside and outside the country had an effect. In the 1920s, the dominant photographic style was Pictorialism, in which images had a romantic or dream-like quality due to the use of filters and other techniques. American Edward Weston broke with this tradition, taking these effects away for more realistic and detailed images. This caused a split in the photography world between Pictorialists and Realists both inside and outside of Mexico. Weston and his Italian assistant Tina Modotti were in Mexico from 1923 to 1926, allying themselves with Mexican Realist photographers Manuel Álvarez Bravo as well as muralists such as Gabriel Fernández Ledesma. These photographers' political and social aspirations matched those of the muralist movement and the new post-Revolution government. Photography and other arts shifted to depictions of the country’s indigenous heritage and the glorification of the Mexican common people. This was mainly to reject the elitist and heavily European values of the Porfiriato, along with the increasing cultural influence of the United States in favor of an “authentic” and distinct Mexican identity. Another was the government’s decision to use this imagery, rather than the still-fresh memories of the battles and atrocities of the Revolution to promote itself.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo experimented with abstraction in his photography and formed his own personal style concerned with Mexican rites and customs. He was active from the 1920s until his death in the 1990s. Like other artists of the 20th century, he was concerned with balancing international artistic trends with the expression of Mexican culture and people. His photographic techniques were concerned with transforming the ordinary into the fantastic. From the end of the 1930s to the 1970s his photography developed along with new technologies such as color, using the same themes. In the 1970s, he experimented with female nudes.
These post-Revolution photographers influenced the generations after them, but the emphasis remained on documentary journalism, especially for newspapers. For this reason, the focus remained on social issues. This included work by Nacho López and Hector Garcia, best known for their photography of the student uprising of 1968.
During the 1970s, a fusion of various styles retained a social focus. During the same period, institutions were established that dedicated themselves to the promotion of photography and conservation of photographs, such as the Centro de la Imagen, the Fototeca Nacional del INAH, and the publication Luna Córnea.
Photography in Mexico from the latter 20th century on remains mostly focused on photojournalism and other kinds of documentary. Francisco Mata de Rosas is considered the most notable photographer in contemporary Mexico mostly working with documentaries.[according to whom?] He has published a number of books including México Tenochtitlan and Tepito, Bravo el Barrio. Eniac Martínez specializes in panoramas. Patricia Aridjis works with social themes, mostly to illustrate books. Gerardo Montiel Klint’s work has been described as a “shadowing and dark world”, focusing on the angst and violence of adolescents. The most recent generation of photographers work with new and digital technologies. One of these is Javier Orozco who specializes in interiors.
However, purely artistic photography has had an impact. In 2002, a photographic exhibit by Daniela Rossell featured images of Mexican multimillionaires posing in their ostentatious homes, filled with expensive paintings, hunting trophies, crystal chandeliers, gold lamé wallpaper, and household help. The photographs set off a wave of social criticism as well as tabloid gossip.
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