Perhaps the most internationally recognized 20th century Mexican artist, Rivera has been immortalized as the symbol of Muralism. The sheer immensity of his monumental, all-encompassing murals transformed public buildings such as the National Preparatory School (1921), the National Palace (1929-1935), and the Palace of Fine Arts (1935) into icons that presented the richness of Mexican culture and history for the public. The epic quality of his work and his artistic mission to reposition Mexico as a center of culture created by the people and for the people served to democratize art, educate the masses, and reestablish the country’s pre-Columbian and revolutionary history as central to the development of contemporary Mexican identity.
The lithograph Sueño recreates a detail of the 1928 fresco, La noche de los pobres (The Night of the Poor), which the artist painted in the courtyard of the Ministry of Education in Mexico City. This image of the peasantry captured in a moment of respite with their children after working in the fields conveys a sense of peace while paradoxically referencing the unending cycle of exploitation these workers are subjected to. The original fresco stood opposite La noche de los ricos (The Night of the Rich), further highlighting the harsh inescapabilty of poverty in the face of injustice. Rivera selected this iconic image to be reproduced as part of a series of nine lithographs specifically created for the Weyhe Gallery in New York in 1931. The artist’s decision to isolate this moment of a mother asleep with her children and other workers underscores the central position of the indigenous and working classes in Muralism – transforming them into the heroes of the movement.
The artistic representation and political fight against class struggle was one of the central motivations of Siqueiros’ work as an artist and as a political activist. He is considered the most politically engaged Muralist as he fought in the revolutionary army, organized a union for mineworkers in the 1920s, and left Mexico for Spain to fight against Franco’s army during the Spanish Civil War. Siqueiros was a radical figure in the fight against injustice and a vehement advocate for Mexico’s post-Revolution regimes. Figures like Emiliano Zapata, the Revolutionary leader that rallied the agrarian peasantry to fight against the sociopolitical and economic domination of Mexico’s landowning elites, became symbols of resistance and were heroized as the liberators of Mexico’s poorest citizens. For Siqueiros, more so than for other artists of his generation, art and political commentary were inseparable. He became one of the primary critics against a-political, neutral art and the idea of art for art’s sake.
Orozco represents a paradoxical figure within Muralism. While being a member of the “Big Three,” and in part responsible for the development of a national visual and cultural identity, by the 1940s the artist had become disillusioned by the realities of Mexico’s post-Revolution regimes. This sense of skepticism garnered criticism from many of his contemporaries, particularly by David Alfaro Siqueiros, who considered his commitment to the cause to be weak. However, Orozco’s dedication to depicting the struggles of the working classes never ceased and was further highlighted by his expressionistic and allegorical style. In addition, he was also a talented illustrator. Works like Zapatistas, present his interest in satirical illustration. Caricature became a medium through which the artist could further create socially conscious work that expressed the realities of past revolutionaries and the toils of the anonymous, disenfranchised worker.
In 1945, Siqueiros published a collection of essays entitled, No hay más ruta que la nuestra (Ours is the Only Way). The blatant confidence behind the title, verging on arrogance (for which the artist was well know), reflects what had become the absolute domination of the Muralist model in Mexican art, exhibited by such works as La huida. For Siqueiros, art fulfilled a specific social function through the representation of the disenfranchised, and held a clear relationship to the state through patronage. He writes, muralism “has not remained as an abstract theory, rather, for the last 20 years, it has been approaching the first steps of proper practice. Without a doubt, it is the only possible universal path for the future.”
As an artist, Anguiano represents what is known as the second generation of Mexican Muralism. He grew up as the “Big Three” began to transform Mexico into a center of public art. By the time that Anguiano moved to Mexico City in 1934 to pursue a career as an artist, the vision of the Muralists had been clearly established and held the stamp of state approval through patronage. At just 20 years old, Anguiano held his first solo exhibition at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in 1935. His murals and paintings served to renew and provide further force to the impact of the Muralist movement while also displaying a distinct personal aesthetic that placed Mexico’s indigenous and rural communities at the center of his oeuvre.
As a young artist, Mérida left his home country of Guatemala to move to Europe where he was exposed to some of the most important circles of the avant-garde from 1910-1914. Drawn by Mexico’s cultural renaissance and promises of social reforms, Mérida moved to México City in 1919, where he became Diego Rivera’s assistant. Rivera’s influence on Mérida’s style is undeniable as the artist’s work soon began to explore post-revolution themes of social justice, including the role of the indigenous and the disenfranchised worker. Later, however, upon returning to Europe in 1927, Mérida’s style shifted once more as he came to create abstract works that would define the rest of his career in Mexico. Mexican culture and visual vocabulary synthesized with avant-garde abstraction as Mérida developed a style that fused Mayan symbols and geometric forms with Surrealist and Cubist influences.
Tamayo represents one of the few Muralists that denied the position that art must have a political affiliation. He was known as one of the few successful apolitical artists of his generation, although he did not receive international acclaim until the 1940s when new artistic paths were opened for artwork that moved beyond social realism. In fact, it was Tamayo who paved the way for artists of a subsequent generation, particularly the Generación de la Ruptura, who chose to assert the autonomy of art, which held politics and ideology as separate from aesthetic pursuits. However, while Tamayo rejected politics, another motif central to Muralism remained essential to his artwork: indigenous culture and symbols. His artwork originated from unique visual imaginaries founded in the pre-Columbian figures and colors of Mexican history, which were then melded with modernist forms and cubist stylistic elements.
In 1951, at the age of 22, José Luis Cuevas published what is now considered the Generación de la Ruptura’s first manifesto, “La cortina de nopal” or the “The Cactus Curtain.” The essay’s title, a play on words that referenced the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain, reflected the sense of isolationism that many young artists felt had come to define Mexican art. An international perspective nor artwork that deviated from the Muralist model was simply not accepted by those commissioning or exhibiting new work in the country. Cuevas wrote, “I firmly believe that we cannot progress without inconformity; if one day one is not worn out by what has been done and begins another path. I believe that I have an indispensable set of criteria through which to oppose a certain way of life and the hardening of culture. I believe that I have the right, as a citizen and as an artist, to oppose a mediocre and conformist state of intellectual creation. It is my fatal flaw.”
Cuevas’ neofigurative lithographs and engravings marked a radical shift from the representational, realist paintings of the Muralists. He developed a unique style defined by amorphic, monstrous caricatures that warped the human figure. These works, simultaneously grotesque and vulnerable, captured a sense of isolation and estrangement that had come to define the modern man in the postwar era. Like Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti, Cuevas explored the modern psyche through the manipulation and distortion of the human figure. Cuevas thereby broke out of the limitations of social realism that had dominated the Muralist movement and had become directly linked to Mexican nationalist politics and cultural identity. The artist strove to advance Mexican art forward onto the international stage and to engage in the creation of work that rebelled against an established model of Mexican art.
Toledo stressed his position as an autonomous artist, free from the restraints of any specific artistic movement. While not directly associated with the Generación de la Ruptura, Toledo’s oeuvre was critical for the renovation of Mexican art in the mid-late 20th century and is considered one of the most important Latin American artists of his time. Born in Juchitán, Oaxaca, the iconography and folklore of Toledo’s hometown became central to the evolution of his style. Toledo’s work represents a synthesis of traditional Mexican icons and visual vocabulary with modernist forms and techniques. Elements of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past thereby finds visual expression in his contemporary work that is celebrated for its mystical, ethereal quality. Like many of his contemporaries, Toledo engaged in neo-figuration and manipulated the human figure by creating anthropomorphic creatures that blended man and beast to produce modern mythical beings.
For Gironella, the relationship between art and literature was central to the development of his work. He began his professional career hoping to become a novelist. However, after establishing two literary magazines in the late-1950s, Gironella discovered painting and collage and soon became a member of Mexico’s vanguard artistic scene. Nevertheless, literature was never too far from Gironella’s artistic process. His paintings and collages were recognized for their symbolism and allegorical motifs that created a sense of complexity through layered imagery and meaning. In the 1960s, Gironella met the celebrated Mexican poet Octavio Paz, who soon became his closest confidant and creative mentor. Gironella commemorated this friendship through a series of portraits of the poet in his later years. Paz described Gironella as a “painter-poet” who, “conceives of paintings not only as pictorial compositions, but also as metaphors for his obsessions, dreams, anger, fears, and desires.”
Like many of his contemporaries, Coronel’s early formation took place between Mexico and Paris. His studies in La Esmeralda National School of Painting and Sculpture, under the direction of artists like Rivera, Zúñiga, and Orozco, and later work in the Parisian sculpture studios of Constantin Brancusi and Victor Brauner, exposed him dually to the styles and work of Mexican Muralist masters and Europe’s most important modernist sculptors. By the 1950s, he developed his own style and secured his place in the Ruptura. His artworks unite Mexico’s past and present through a symbolic dialogue that melds pre-hispanic geometric forms and color with modern abstraction. His early career as a sculptor influenced his two-dimensional work as he explored the relationship of volumetric forms in the flat-plane. Color became essential to the construction of his compositions. The vibrancy of the red in Remanso al sol, activates the work’s negative space, leaving the lithograph with a sense of vibrancy and energy that negates its blank space.
Gerzso began his career as an artist emulating the style of European Surrealists like Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and Yves Tanguy. However, after a trip to southeastern Mexico, a region known for its rich indigenous history and culture, Gerszo became inspired by pre-Columbian art, which soon had an irreversible impact on his artistic style. Gerzso’s aesthetic shifted from Surrealism to geometric abstraction that was heavily influenced by pre-Hispanic visual icons. The artist explains, “As a result of this [trip], I first painted a piece that was merely intuitive. I still work that way. To begin a painting, I initially draw many lines on the canvas… Then I see it the next day and choose what stays and what goes, until I convince myself that the piece is ready, alive. I’ve been working the same way since 1946.”
Gustavo Arias Murueta’s work can be defined by aesthetic juxtapositions between two styles: abstract expressionism and geometric abstraction. Breaking from a previous generation’s established models of Mexican Muralism’s social realism, Arias Murueta’s artwork dually expresses frenzied emotion and control, chaos and order. The artist began his career studying architecture in 1946 at the Universidad Autónoma de México. However, by 1960, he had begun to experiment with painting and by the following year he was presenting his first solo exhibition. As a member of the Generación de la Ruptura, Arias Murueta contributed to the growth and evolution of abstract art in Mexico.
Rojo’s family fled to Mexico in 1949 from the Spanish Civil War due to their role in the resistance against Franco. In Mexico, Rojo attended the Esmeralda Art School and soon joined the Generación de la Ruptura, later becoming one of Mexico’s most recognized abstract artists. Rojo’s geometric paintings were created in series and focused on geometric motifs that he explored in greater depth with each canvas. His later series, like México bajo la lluvia from the 1980s, are characterized by their meticulous detail. As the larger geometric forms of his earlier works are reduced and reshaped, they form diagonal compositions of bright, saturated colors taken from traditional Mexican design and artisanship. Rojo stated about this series, “I don’t believe that these works will lose their link to a constructive tradition that has always been the point of departure for my work. Rather, these paintings are about enriching, giving nuance, and providing a point of contradiction between geometric purity and its impure execution.”
Unlike other members of the Generación de la Ruptura, Felguérez remained committed to muralism as an artistic technique. The style that he adopted, however, represented a radical shift from the social realist murals of The Big Three as he created abstract sculptural murals composed of materials like wood, scrap metal, bronze and sand. The artist’s sculptural murals and subsequent paintings of the 1960s would create rhythmic visual relationships between geometric forms that created a sense of harmony in each work. Central to Felguérez’s artwork is a sense of discovery as the interplay of color tones and geometric forms create a space through which to reflect the artist’s internal consciousness.