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Mexican Muralism: The Work of Diego Rivera

Mexican Muralism: The Work of Diego Rivera

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will provide an introduction to the Mexican Muralism movement and the work of Diego Rivera.

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Tutorial

An overview of the mural work of Diego Rivera.

Video Transcription

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Hello. I'd like to welcome you to today's episode of "Exploring Art History with Ian." My name is Ian McConnell. Today's lesson is about Mexican muralism, the work of Diego Rivera.

As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. As soon as you are ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives are listed below. At the end of the lesson today, you'll be able to identify and define its key terms, describe the historical context of Mexico during this time, and identify examples of Mexican murals.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. The first key term is corrido, a genre of Mexican songs that tells the history of communities and encourages political activism.

The Day of the Dead. A Mexican holiday focused on remembering through celebration of loved ones who have passed away.

Calavera. Skull in Spanish, but also refers to images of skeletons that are used during Day of the Dead.

Big idea for today. The murals of Diego Rivera reflect the political atmosphere of Mexico at the time and the goal of creating a more progressive image for the Mexican government.

We'll be looking at artwork that dates from between 1913 and 1934.

We'll be traveling to Mexico City, Mexico, where Diego Rivera worked and died in 1957.

If you've been following these tutorials, or have a pretty good grasp of world history, you're probably aware of the fact that the early 20th century was politically a very interesting and dynamic period. World War I and the Russian Revolution took place between 1910 and 1920, as well as the Mexican Revolution, which deposed the autocratic Porfirio Diaz.

Now, at the end of the revolution and the eventual formation of the national Revolutionary Party, many look at this time as an opportunity to create a more progressive image for the Mexican government. This is an image of some of the revolutionaries.

Jose Posada was a Mexican printmaker that created the vast majority of his work before the Mexican Revolution. In fact, having died in 1913, it wasn't until a French artist working in Mexico named Jean Charlot discovered his work that it came to the attention of the populace at large. Posada made his living creating prints that addressed issues of the time, often satirical, with a visual wit that countless illiterate Mexican provincials relied upon to get an idea of the sociopolitical climate of the time.

This calavera image, one of which we see here, became very popular. A type of image associated with Mexican holiday called the Day of the Dead, it depicted the smiling figure of Death as something to be welcomed rather than feared. This imagery struck a chord with individuals like Diego Rivera in the aftermath of the revolution. The broadsheets of Jose Guadalupe Posada, which is his full name, were inexpensive prints produced before and during the Mexican Revolution with lyrics to popular corridos. Tabloid-like stories and calavera slash Day of the Dead imagery, the broadsheets influenced the imagery in the murals of the Ministry of Education's mural program, which came about a few years later.

So the Mexican education minister Jose Vasconcelos was instrumental in the promotion of education and literacy, but also with the aforementioned goal of creating a more progressive image for the Mexican government. Both he and Gerardo Muriilo also known as Doctor Atl, an artist who studied and lived for some time in Italy, believe that the appropriate inspiration for artistic murals celebrating this reform in Mexico could be found in murals from the Italian Renaissance. The mural program was developed by Vasconcelos, again, who you see here, to help promote and achieve their vision of a new Mexico. And the preeminent artist of this program was Diego Rivera.

He was hired to paint the early mural cycle for the Ministry of Education building, the Courtyard of the Fiestas and the Courtyard of the Labors. Rivera was a very controversial figure in his time. A staunch socialist and communist, he readily attacked major institutions like the Catholic Church and its clergy. Artistically, he developed a rather unique style of simplified figures in bold colors, and was influenced by Aztec artistic conventions with a visual narrative style that could be considered sort of blending of Maya stele and Renaissance murals.

He often manage to sprinkle in his communist ideology through the incorporation of themes, and his mural "The Distribution of Arms" is an example of this. The mural is placed within the Courtyard of Labors in Mexico City. And this is one of several murals that are united by a red banner, which you can see at the top, with the lyrics of a corrido that wraps around them. Like the other murals of this group, the scene is fixed within a rounded arch, which would have blended in the architecture of the building where it was situated. And the inclusion of architectural elements recalls the work of Renaissance murals like Raphael's "School of Athens," for example. However, rather than populate the scene with allegorical or mythological figures, as was the tendency in Renaissance art, Rivera includes contemporary figures that would've been recognizable by people at the time.

In the center of the picture is Rivera's wife and fellow artist, Frida Kahlo. The unibrow is a dead giveaway. The figure of Italian political activist slash actor slash model slash photographer Tina Modotti is holding a belt of ammunition for Julio Antonio Mayo, one of the founders of the internationalized Cuban Communist Party.

So Rivera reached international fame and was commissioned to paint a mural within the Rockefeller Center in New York City, which you can see here. This is the full image. Titled "Man at the Crossroads," it was an extensive and detailed mural filled with imagery of the changing times. We're going to focus on this portion here.

Rivera didn't hesitate to include imagery concerning his strong personal beliefs and political opinions, which landed him in some pretty hot water with Nelson Rockefeller, who's the man who commissioned the mural, as well as paid for it. The inclusion of communist themes and prominent communist members like Leon Trotsky and who I believe to be Karl Marx, among others, didn't win over many fans, and the mural was eventually destroyed soon after its completion. It no longer exists.

So that brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objective to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and find today's key terms? Can you describe the historical context of Mexico during this time? Can you identify examples of Mexican muralism?

Once again, the big idea for today. The murals of Diego Rivera reflect the political atmosphere Mexico at the time, as well as a goal of creating a more progressive image for the Mexican government.

There you have it. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Notes on "Mexican Muralism: The Work of Diego Rivera"

Citations

Distribution of Arms Fair Use According to wikipaintings.org http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/diego-rivera/the-arsenal-1928 Diego Rivera, Man at Crossroads fair use according to wikipidiea http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mexico_-_Bellas_Artes_-_Fresque_Riviera_%C2%AB_Man_at_the_Crossroads_%C2%BB.JPG; Jose Guadalupe Posada, La Calavera Catrina, Public Domain, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Posada2.Catrina.jpeg; Image of Madero Avisors Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Madero_avisors.jpg; Image of Jose Vasconcelos Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jose_Vasconcelos.jpg; Image of Diego Rivera Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Diego_Rivera_1932.jpg

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Corrido

    A genre of Mexican songs that tells the history of communities and encourages political activism.

  • Day of the Dead

    A Mexican holiday focused on remembering through celebration of loved ones who have passed away. 

  • Calavera

    "Skull" in Spanish, but also refers to images of skeletons that are used during Day of the Dead.