Dahlia Does Design: Mexicos Great Muralists–The men behind Frida

There are so many talented imaginative artists that adorn the walls of museums. We had a chance to go to the Dallas Museum of Art while visiting our baby granddaughter in Dallas last week. The featured exhibit was focused on the Mexican avant-garde including some brilliant paintings by Frida Kahlo and other artists in her circle. Frida was a feminist and quite political from a young age. She painted vivid and idiosyncratic self-portraits in a stark uninhibited, primitive style. Her eccentric appearance added to her allure– the famous unibrow. In our time Frida has become a major cult figure. Behind her are a group of male artists– also prominent but whose work has been eclipsed by Frida’s uniqueness and unorthodoxy.

The first of these is Diego Rivera, her husband. He is known for his large pictorial public murals– many of which adorn prominent public buildings in Mexico– and paintings of Mexican peasant life, such as the “Flower Seller.”

So the story goes of Diego and Frida’s first meeting: In 1925 he was working on a mural in a church in Mexico City. He heard a sweet voice asking him to come down from the scaffold. He complied. The voice belonged to Frida, seeking Rivera's opinion of her work. He was instantly captivated by her and her paintings.

A few days later they exchanged a first kiss and began a serious courtship– despite the vitriolic reaction of Rivera’s then current wife. You know how passionate bohemian artists have a different way of living. Frida was only 18, he was

38. Four years later in 1929 they were married in a civil ceremony. They remained husband and wife– excepting for a brief divorce– until Kahlo’s early death in 1954 at age 47.

Back to Diego Rivera, he was a progressive liberal activist and of a wild, colorful character. He lived a fearless life painting, protesting, carousing and was a great supporter of his fellow Mexican artists of the time. Among the many artists in his close circle, the big three Mexican muralists were Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros.

Here is a bit of background history about the world in which these artists lived and worked. In the early 20th Century Mexico was plagued by many problems– the tyranny of the President Porfirio Diaz was responsible for the extreme poverty in more than two thirds of the country. Concerned about the unrest among the indigenous population, the President prevented the Indians from staging a protest intended to disrupt the celebrations of the festivities which were watched by Mexico’s Independence Day in 1910. Diaz’s actions precipitated the Mexican Revolution against the suppression of the natural freedoms of its citizens.

During this time, three intellectuals – Antonios Curo, Alfonso Reyes and Jose Vasconcelos – established an institute called The Athenaeum. These men were cultured and highly educated. On the 100 birthday of Mexico's independence, they issued a manifesto:

These words influenced an entire generation of

“The community that terrorizes over man forgets that men are ‘persons’ not biological units.”

painters who would impact the future of Mexican art. Three artists would lead the charge– David Alfaro Siquieros, Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco. They spent over ten years in Europe studying the styles of Europe’s master painters. The Mexican cultural revolution would begin in the 1920s, when mural art was conceived as a visual teaching tool for the people. This technique had its roots in the ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures of Mexico.

In 1920, the new president arrived in office after 10 years of political turbulence. He asked his Minister of Education, Jose Vasconcelos, how to appease the unhappy population. The education minister commissioned the best artists to create murals throughout Mexico. The artists Siquieros, Rivera and Orozco will always represent a pinnacle in the art of the mural. All three believed art was for the improvement and education of the viewers. They painted real life scenes that could be understood by all levels of society– they were the painters of the people. The trio focused on architecture, social and political themes. Although some of their stronger more violent images depicted the cruelty and violence of the suppression of Mexico’s indigenous people. Many art critics at the time were appalled by the explicit scenes in some of the murals and many murals were whitewashed over– fortunately they were restored at later dates.

To a great extent, the work of Mexico’s muralists was a collective process– a group consensus of shared ideas and methods. When Rivera introduced the technique of fresco painting, the group shared the technique. When Siquieros formulated heavy texture profile painting, the other artists followed his example. The government permitted great freedom to these artists to choose the subjects and sizes of their mural work. While techniques were shared, each artist’s work was distinctive and no signature was needed to recognize the creator.

Rivera had a traditional style. His European art education was combined with subject matter drawn from indigenous Mexico. He used bold colors and earth tones that represented the living culture of Mexico. He painted for the people with political and social messages that they could understand.

Orozco painted in a serious somber style replete with doom and frightening prophesy. He did not have great faith in his government and conveyed this heavy message to the people in his art.

The amazing murals by these renown Mexican artists provided a great source of ideas for all artists and the importance of public art with a message. Best of all when you research historic murals in the United Sates and Mexico there are many available for viewing. I guess this calls for a road trip. Its summer.

San Marcos Daily Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666