The History of Mexico (mural)
The History of Mexico mural in the stairwell of the National Palace in Mexico City was executed between 1929 and 1935 by Diego Rivera. The subject of the mural is Mexico's history from ancient times to the present. They depict the many struggles of the common Mexican people to fight against the Spanish, the French, and the dictators that controlled the country at different points in its history.
The Artist: Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera is one of Mexico's most famous artists. He was a Communist radical who criticized the Mexican government and foreign domination. Rivera was born to a rich Jewish family in Guanajuato, Mexico, although he became an atheist. Rivera studied in the San Carlos Academy, a prestigious art school in Mexico City. He was married to Frida Kahlo, another internationally famous Mexican artist. After studying at the San Carlos Academy Rivera went to Europe where he learned about Cubism and Renaissance frescoes. He returned to Mexico and applied his ideas about Cubism and other European and Mexican art traditions to the Mexican mural movement. The murals were supported by the Mexican government.
Even though Rivera’s painting was sponsored by the Mexican government he always rebelled against authority of any kind. His paintings were highly political and rejected capitalism and glorified the Indian cultures of Mexico including the Aztecs and the Zapotecs. His first important mural was Creation. It took a year to complete and covers 1000 square feet. Creation contains 20 foot high figures concerned with the history of religion. In addition to murals, Rivera was a prolific painter. The main subjects of his paintings were Cubist portraits of human figures, self-portraits, the traditions and culture of Mexican Indians, flowers and nature, landscapes, and scenes from everyday life.
Background for the Mural
Rivera was a leader in a government-sponsored mural project in the 1920s, soon after the official end of the Mexican Revolution. The project was intended to not only justify the revolution, but to promote the current government as the guarantor of the new life promised by the revolution. Murals were produced mainly in Mexico City and surrounding areas between 1923 and 1939.
In August 1929, Rivera began painting his huge mural in the large stairways and stairwells of the National Palace, the center of the Mexican government and nation. The National Palace is located on the Zocalo, the central plaza in Mexico City, the place where Moctezuma, the Aztec king ruled Mexico before the arrival of the Spanish. The Mexican government commissioned Rivera and other famous Mexican artists including Orozco and Siquieros to paint scenes about Mexican history. Rivera was hired by the government to portray Indians in a better light, and to criticize the Spaniards. They did this to celebrate the Mexican Revolution, the overthrow of the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship, and the new government. The History of Mexico mural consists of four main sections. The murals are huge, some as big as 70 meters by 9 meters.
Description of the Mural
This section of the mural displays the richness of the ancient Aztec culture including the people and their traditional costumes. It shows an image of the sun, which was the center of the world in the Aztec religion. Below the sun is a pyramid and an Aztec leader. The Aztecs believed that sacrifices must be done every 52 years to the Sun God in order to renew the world. They built the pyramids and temples to the sun. Rivera depicts these main motifs and the everyday life of the Aztecs, including the volcanoes around the Valley of Mexico, corn and other main crops, artisans weaving and making pottery, mothers carrying babies, art and artisan activities including painting on scrolls, and calligraphy. The section also illustrates the Aztecs’ religion, including worship of snakes and jaguars. Aztecs rituals are also shown in which men consume alcoholic beverages made from cacti and dance in honor of the Sun God.
West (Main) Wall
This is the central part of the murals and summarizes the history of Mexico as a series of conflicts, rebellions and revolution against oppression. These are scene of hatred and war. Overall the mural depicts the violent but beautiful history of Mexico. Common Mexicans and Indians revolt against the Spanish and French and various dictators, especially Porfirio Diaz. At the bottom, we see the Spanish conqueror Cortes defeating the Aztecs and other Indians who fight valiantly against the Spanish. In the middle, the Spaniards attempt to destroy the Aztec religion and their emperors. Also in the center Spanish priests during the Inquisition try to obliterate the sacred books and other religious images of the Indians. The central image is a large eagle with a serpent in its mouth which represents the Aztec culture. This symbol is now the main image that symbolizes modern Mexico.
The left and right sides of the wall depict the colonial period. A Spanish Conquistador rapes an Indian woman. This part also illustrates Indians that supported the Spanish. They were traitors. Many of these were Indians who fought on the side of the Spanish were not Aztecs, but rather from other Indian tribes. They hated the Aztecs and wanted to overthrow them so they helped the Spanish and fought against the Aztecs. Next to this image are scenes of Indians working as slaves for the Spaniards. Some of the slaves were captured and branded. The slaves made weapons, built walls and buildings, and provided food for the Spaniards. They even built the new National Palace. This part shows how the Spanish destroyed the Indians’ culture, took their traditions away, and tried to replace them with Spanish ways. They forced the Indians to speak Spanish, become Catholics and live like Europeans but the Indians resisted.
On the far left upper lobe, Rivera shows the execution of Maximilian, the Austrian emperor who controlled Mexico in the 1860s. This symbolized the end of European rule of Mexico. This mural also emphasizes Benito Juarez, Mexico’s only Indian president and the one considered the founder of the new Mexican nation. The top of the central part of the mural shows the victorious peasant armies of Zapata and Villa who led the Revolution that supposedly restored the people to power. The red banner saying "Tierra y Libertad" ("Land and Liberty") portrays the long struggles of poor Mexicans to regain their homeland.
This part of the mural is about the future of Mexico. It shows factories, the Soviet flag (Rivera and the government at the time had socialist tendencies), workers, Karl Marx and the Communist Manifesto, and an image of Rivera’s wife Frida Kahlo. Kahlo and her sister Cristina are shown as socialist teachers bringing a glorious future. School children are shown also. The images are all about progress, prosperity, and a better future.
Given the context of post-Revolutionary Mexico, the mural could simply be seen as a declaration that the revolution had finally brought justice to the Mexican people who had long been oppressed by foreign powers and national dictators. The ancient Indians had rich culture but were conquered by Europeans. Later, the Indians and Mestizos suffered at the hands of the Spanish, the French, and the Diaz dictatorship. Rivera shows suffering of Indians and poor people. He depicts the evil rich people and foreigners who took over Mexico. The story is one of good vs. evil. The poor, peasants, Indian, farmers and workers are on the side of good and freedom. The foreigners, the rich, and the rulers are the bad and oppressive ones. Rivera, the artist, shows the struggle of the people in the revolution.
The revolution, therefore, was a noble cause of poor people that successfully overthrew the rich, and returned the country to its rightful owners: the common people of Mexico. Rivera painted these murals because the Mexican government paid him to do it, but also because of his own radical political beliefs. The murals personalize Mexican history by showing the faces of men and women in battle, in suffering and in victory during the revolution. Despite the depictions of atrocities, it is a very hopeful message. The use of bright colors suggest hope and the beauty of the country and its people.
In addition to promoting the Revolution, Rivera seems to emphasize the rich cultural heritage of Indians and the greatness of Mexican civilization before Spanish conquest. In the murals he tried to illustrate the true culture of Mexico: its bright colors, rich traditions, and old customs.
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- Folgarait, Leonard. Mural Painting and Social Revolution in Mexico, 1920-1940 Art of the New Order. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1998. print
- Rochfort, Desmond. Mexican Muralists. United States: Chronicle Boks LLC, 1998. Print
- Rivera, Luis-Martin Lozano & Juan Rafael Coronel. Diego Rivera The Complete Murals. Italy: TASCHEN GmbH, 2008. Print