Resisting Exclusion: Rupture & Rebellion in 20th Century Mexican Art

La huida (The Escape) by David Alfaro SiqueirosInter-American Development Bank

Muralism & La Generación de la Ruputura 

The role of the artist to depict, explore, and even challenge society is a topic of persistent debate. Should artists create art for art’s sake, art for personal expression, or art for social commentary upon the realities of the times? To what extent should art make a political statement on matters of social exclusion and inequality? There is no straightforward or singular answer to such questions. In fact, the history of art is composed of countless artistic movements that both support and refute the premise that art is inherently linked to political and social ideology and that artists are agents of change in the struggle against inequality. The tensions between these two perspectives are reflected in two artistic movements that took place in Mexico during the 20th century, Muralism (1920s-1950s) and the subsequent Generación de la Ruptura (Breakaway Generation, 1950s-1970s). "Resisting Exclusion: Rupture & Rebellion in 20th Century Mexican Art" presents a selection of works from the Inter-American Development Bank’s (IDB) art collection that explore the ways in which Muralism and the Ruptura respectively foster and challenge the idea that art should reflect the realities of one’s socio-political context and that art can be transformed into a mirror that reveals national identity. After years of Muralism’s domination over Mexico’s artistic and cultural production, a new generation of artists, known as the Generación de la Ruptura, emerged in opposition to art that had been heavily politicized through state patronage.

However, when considering the relationship between these two artistic movements, similarities do arise as the artists of Muralism and the Ruptura alike redefined established artistic models to create alternative spaces that challenged the status-quo. For the Muralists, this transformation was directly linked to Mexico’s political and social post-revolutionary landscape and the fight for social justice for the urban laborer, the agrarian worker, and the indigenous. The Generación de la Ruptura, conversely, represented an artistic and ideological shift that arose out of the need for each artist to establish a distinct voice and sense of artistic individuality that lied beyond the confines of what had become official, state-sponsored art. Paradoxically, while the Ruptura represented an aesthetic, ideological, and generational transformation in twentieth century Mexican art, it retained the spirit of rebellion and resistance that had been so central to the lives and work of the Mexican Muralists. 

Sueño (Sleep) (1932) by Diego RiveraInter-American Development Bank

MURALISM: Art of the Masses Fighting Against Inequality

Sprawling, monumental, highly politicized paintings by the Muralists served as icons for Mexico’s nationalist, post-Revolutionary cultural identity. The Mexican Revolution, spanning the decade of 1910-1920, was initiated by insurrections from the agrarian peasantry in the country’s provinces in response to President Porfirio Díaz’s 35-year regime, which had been defined by social exclusion and inequality. The conclusion of this long and arduous conflict sparked radical socio-political transformations in Mexico. As of 1920, the country was governed by populist regimes that placed the laborer and indigenous communities at the center of Mexican cultural identity. With traditional hierarchies broken, post-Revolutionary Mexico focused on a narrative of justice for the poor, empowerment of the indigenous, and the enfranchisement of the agrarian worker.

Mexico’s new regime recovered elements of the country’s rich pre-Columbian past while also transforming the laborer and native communities into symbols of strength and resistance against the land-owning oligarchy. The artists of this era, predominantly recognized by “The Big Three”—Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco—became instrumental in helping to establish a renewed vision of Mexican identity based on the principles of the Revolution. These artists not only worked to create a visual vocabulary that was distinctly “Mexican” and that reflected the political and social transformations that the country was experiencing, but were also activists themselves and worked closely with labor unions, socialist groups, and indigenous communities. Art, politics, and activism were inherently connected for this group of artists who were directly supported by government-funded public works. By rejecting the canvas, a medium that the muralists considered a symbol of elitism, and reviving the technique of fresco painting from the Italian Renaissance, the Muralists dually meant to democratize culture and to transform artwork into a mechanism of education for the masses, many of whom were illiterate. 

Autorretrato (Self Portrait), Diego Rivera, 1930, From the collection of: Inter-American Development Bank
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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.

Sueño (Sleep), Diego Rivera, 1932, From the collection of: Inter-American Development Bank
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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.

Zapata, David Alfaro Siqueiros, 1930, From the collection of: Inter-American Development Bank
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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.

Zapatistas, José Clemente Orozco, 1935, From the collection of: Inter-American Development Bank
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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.

La huida (The Escape), David Alfaro Siqueiros, From the collection of: Inter-American Development Bank
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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.”

El rebozo blanco (The White Shawl), Raúl Anguiano, 1983, From the collection of: Inter-American Development Bank
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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.

En tono mayor, Carlos Mérida, 1981, From the collection of: Inter-American Development Bank
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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.

Hombre, luna, y estrellas (Man, Moon, and Stars), Rufino Tamayo, 1950, From the collection of: Inter-American Development Bank
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Mujer sonriente de la suite “Mujeres” (Smiling Woman in the series “Women"), Rufino Tamayo, 1969, From the collection of: Inter-American Development Bank
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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.

Coloso (Colossus) (1987) by José Luis CuevasInter-American Development Bank

DE LA RUPTURA: Resistance Against Artistic Exclusion

Starting in the 1950s, a younger generation of Mexican artists emerged that had grown-up during the golden age of Muralism. This group, now known as the Generación de la Ruptura, felt trapped by the narrow confines of a national artistic genre that strictly adhered to a prescribed, inflexible set of techniques, style, and subject-matter. Once considered revolutionaries, artists like Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco, had been transformed into canonical figures of the establishment and represented symbols of exclusion to the following generation. Very little space was available for new perspectives or creative outlets, particularly when considering the significance of state patronage in the growth of Mexico’s artistic identity. In this cultural landscape, art, politics, and social consciousness became inseparable and the concept of art for art’s sake was looked down upon with disdain as bourgeois and European. A distinct hierarchy and sense of inequality was thereby established between two artistic movements.

In response, the Generación de la Ruptura launched a new resistance that rejected what had become the only accepted artistic style in Mexico. Ironically, however, this younger generation also revived the spirit of rebellion against elitism that had been fomented by the Muralists in the 1920s-30s. These artists wanted to contribute to the artistic innovations that were reverberating internationally as a result of post-war culture. Perhaps it is this need to break out of stylistic similarity that meant that no single artistic style defined the Ruptura. Rather than follow an established visual vocabulary, this generation valued freedom of experimentation and difference—united by a common philosophy that deconstructed the need to reflect a national Mexican identity through art. Each artist, therefore, came to develop his own unique aesthetic that ranged from abstraction to neo-figuration, allowing for the re-inclusion of varied and distinct perspectives within the canon of modern Mexican art. 

Sin título (Untitled), José Luis Cuevas, 1990, From the collection of: Inter-American Development Bank
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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.”

Coloso (Colossus), José Luis Cuevas, 1987, From the collection of: Inter-American Development Bank
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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.

Mujer con serpiente y pájaro (Woman with Serpent and Bird), Francisco Toledo, From the collection of: Inter-American Development Bank
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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.

Octavio Paz, Alberto Gironella, 1990, From the collection of: Inter-American Development Bank
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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.”

Remanso al sol (Haven in the Sun), Pedro Coronel, 1984, From the collection of: Inter-American Development Bank
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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.

Paisaje en rojo II (Landscape in Red II), Gunther Gerzso, 1978, From the collection of: Inter-American Development Bank
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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.”

Desde mi estudio (From My Studio), Gustavo Arias Murueta, 1988, From the collection of: Inter-American Development Bank
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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.

México bajo la lluvia L1 (Mexico Under the Rain L1), Vicente Rojo, 1986, From the collection of: Inter-American Development Bank
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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.”

Posdata #3 (Postscript #3), Manuel Felguérez, From the collection of: Inter-American Development Bank
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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.

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