Design Trend Report: Mexican Muralism
Mexican muralism is a great example of how design and art can promote healing. Read all about how this vibrant movement unified an entire country after its Revolution in the early 20th century.
Murals have been a part of human history for tens of thousands of years, but Mexican muralism promoted this artform during the 20th century like few cultures have. The appeal of muralism is that you can admire and study these designs on a grand scale since they’re displayed on huge surfaces. This makes murals ideal for epic scenes, themes, and even social and political messages, as is the case with Mexican muralism.
This design trend was noteworthy because it was part of a campaign by the Mexican government to reunify the country after its bloody, national revolution that lasted from 1910 to 1920 and resulted in the deaths of millions, both military and civilian. Framed in this context, Mexican muralism is a fine example of how design and art are helpful in trying to promote healing and unity after a long period of national strife.
Though it would take decades, this trend would become a tradition in Mexico and even spread into the U.S.
Read on for an in-depth look at this aspirational and vibrant movement.
The History of Mexican Muralism
It would be short-sighted to only limit the origins of this design trend to Mexico in the 20th century. To understand the impact and technique behind the muralism in Mexico, we have to go back tens of thousands of years to revisit the history of muralism in general.
Scientists consider some of the first examples of mural painting to have occurred in Borneo, some 40,000 to 52,000 years ago, in the cave paintings at the cave complex of Lubang Jeriji Saleh. If we fast-forward a few tens of thousands of years to approximately 3000 BC, we see that the ancient Egyptians were fond of murals, too, as they appeared in their tombs in large numbers.
Other famous, long-ago civilizations whose cultures produced murals include:
- The Minoans (circa 1650 BC)
- The Olmecs (circa 1000 BC)
- The Romans (circa 50 BC)
By the Middle Ages, murals were painted on a dry plaster called secco. In Italy especially during this time, applying frescoes on wet plaster made a comeback, which boosted the quality of mural paintings.
In Mexico itself, the aforementioned Olmecs were probably the most direct design ancestor of Mexican muralism, as they occupied the modern-day states of Tabasco and Veracruz. After the Olmecs, during the time of Spanish colonization, murals were still popular, but they shifted to showing scenes of Christian themes as part of a proselytization effort.
After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, Mexican muralism as a unique, modern entity began to take shape. By the midpoint of the 19th century, the first signs of what would become a design trend were established with Juan Cordero. His claim to fame was being the first Mexican muralist and painter to incorporate philosophical themes in his murals.
Now, what’s really interesting in the development of Mexican muralism is that it emerged from the armed struggle of the Mexican Revolution that lasted from 1910 to 1920. During this period, which was initially set off by popular dissatisfaction with the regime of President Porfirio Diaz, there were numerous conflicts between different factions vying for power. Various assassinations and changes of power eventually culminated in the one-party government of Alvaro Obregon, who took control of a fractured country that faced many challenges to complete unification.
What better way than design to unify a country after 10 years of war?
That’s what one José Vasconcelos thought when he was put in charge of Mexico’s Secretariat of Public Education in 1921. Now that the actual conflict was over, the government wanted to promote and idealize the principles behind the Revolution to a population where not everyone could read. Therefore, Vasconcelos had the brilliant idea to rely on muralism to convey the Revolution’s ideals. And so, Mexican muralism in the modern sense was born.
The post-Revolution government’s goals for its muralism campaign were twofold:
- To celebrate the Mexican Revolution
- To emphasize a Mexico comprised of both Spanish and indigenous peoples
To do this job successfully, the government looked for the best muralists in the country. Eventually, three significant contributors were chosen:
- Diego Rivera – A Mexican painter famous for his large-scale frescoes in Mexico and worldwide
- Jose Clemente Orozco – A Mexican painter and caricaturist, focusing on politically themed murals
- David Alfaro Siqueiros – A Mexican socialist-realist artist and Communist, famous for his sizable frescoes
All three artists were strong believers in the concept that design was essential to education and improving the lives of people. Nicknamed “Los Tres Grandes” (The Three Great Ones), they guided the movement after Vasconcelos left his post as the Secretariat of Public Education.
The initial government-promoted murals were for Mexico’s San Ildefonso College (now a museum): Back then, it was part of the country’s National Preparatory High School system. The murals, on the building’s interior walls, celebrated the country’s mestizo culture, as well as the Revolution’s tragedies and victories. They were painted by Orozco.
A famous painting on the College’s inner walls belongs to Ferdinand Leal, another prominent Mexican artist who was invited to take part in the Mexican muralism project by Vasconcelos. Leal’s work at the school is Los danzantes de Chalma (The Dancers of Chalma).
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Other murals soon followed, such as those at:
- The Secretariat of Public Education Main Headquarters
- Chapingo Autonomous University
- The Palacio de Bellas Artes
- The National Palace
Rivera’s noteworthy mural at Chapingo Automonous University’s chapel is The Liberated Earth, from 1926-1927. This fresco depicts Rivera’s second wife representing the land’s fertility.
Image Credit: DiegoRivera.org
One of Orozco’s noteworthy murals is part of the country’s National Preparatory High School system. Called The Trench, its darker color tones and serious subject matter curiously symbolized his pessimistic view of the Mexican Revolution.
Image Credit: Wahoo Art
Siqueiros had a different take on the Revolution: He balanced the difficulties of the war with a more optimistic view of the future, focusing on the achievements that science and technology could bring. Interestingly, this puts his interpretation of Mexican muralism in line with a central theme of Italian Futurism, founded just before the start of the First World War, which also put an emphasis on technology.
One of his signature murals is Portrait of the Bourgeoise, from 1939, on the wall of the Electrical Workers’ Union building.
Image Credit: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Mexican muralism came into prominence from the 1920s to the 1950s, which coincided with Mexico’s overall development from a more rural country into an industrialized one. During this period, however, the schism between the romanticized goals of this design trend and the gradual reality of it also became noticeable.
At its heart, Mexican muralism was based on a socialist worldview, where artworks should be subsidized by the government and not limited to only those who could afford to pay for them. At the time, in post-Revolution Mexico, there weren’t many wealthy people around to commission private artwork, anyway. Further, this core belief was also rooted in Marxism, as the post-Revolution government that took power was made up of revolutionaries who bought into the class struggle of the working class against the wealthy.
While this ideological commitment was strong early on, it started to wane pretty soon, as the post-Revolution government became more powerful. The result was that Vasconcelos resigned by 1924 to protest the lack of follow through from the government regarding its Mexican muralism project. While the 1920s are regarded as the so-called heroic phase of this movement—when the goals of the government to use murals for the benefit of the people was uncorrupted—the 1930s are seen as the start of the statist phase of the movement, with some scholars calling the murals produced after 1930 as nothing more than propaganda design for the state.
Some historians say that the 1940s marked the end of the golden period of muralism in the country—at least under its original vision—as the government became more conservative and capitalist, with more murals being commissioned by private owners.
In spite of this, Mexican muralism saw an enormous number of murals created all the way into the 1970s. Their legacy is based on their epic scale and themes, along with their accessible visibility usually on the walls of colonial-era, government buildings.
For a closer look at the larger-than-life design aspects of murals, have a peek at some of the mural-based assets from our marketplace:
Today, illustrators and painters still contribute to Mexican muralism in the 21st century, promoting the same, traditional concepts of the mestizo message. Take a trip to Mexico today, and you’ll see a plethora of vibrant murals, across the country, on:
- Government buildings
The Techniques Behind Mexican Muralism
To create these big and epic artworks, you need a solid understanding of technique. Many of the prominent muralists had a strong grasp of the various methods available to them to ensure their murals stood the test of time.
The government also didn’t interfere with what styles they could use in their murals—at least at the beginning. It also helped that these early Mexican muralists were a rather close-knit circle, so they cooperatively shared techniques and ideas between them.
One of their primary go-to methods was bringing back the use of frescos. Frescos, painting murals on wet or freshly laid lime plaster, have been with us for thousands and thousands of years, with some of the earliest examples dating back to the ancient Syrians, circa 1800 BC. The advantage of a fresco is that the painting eventually becomes an actual part of the wall, as the plaster sets and hardens.
Another technique in Mexican muralism that was exploited by Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros was hot wax painting, also known as encaustic painting. With this approach, the muralists would utilize heated beeswax and then apply colored pigment to it.
Several additional methods were also used:
- Painting right on newly plastered walls
- High-fire ceramics
- Cement layering
Among the three, principal muralists, Siqueiros was perhaps the most innovative. He was fond of using a vehicle lacquer called Duco, which was a trade name used by DuPont in the 1920s. He also liked pyroxene, which was a commercial enamel, but he didn’t stop there.
He experimented with a variety of materials and tools to give his murals an unforgettable quality:
- Machinery (for application)
His application techniques ranged from spraying and splattering to merely dipping and pouring. As such, his strategies created murals that looked haphazard—almost as if there was no rhyme or reason to them. Interestingly, this approach mirrors another design trend called Action Painting, with its own, idiosyncratic method of wild paint application.
The Characteristics of Mexican Muralism
By now, you have a sense of some of the qualities in this design movement. It combined stellar design and techniques with political messages to create a one-of-a-kind contribution to art.
Here’s a rundown of its most prominent qualities:
- Historical scenes and influences
- Vibrant colors
- Emphasis on the mestizo culture of Mexico
- Epic themes
- Socialist and communist ideology
- Visual texture and contrast
- Cubism and its design traits
- Illustrations incorporating technology
- Startling and jarring imagery
The underlying philosophy of this design trend should also be reiterated: Early on in the movement, there was the belief that artworks should be made freely available to the public (hence, the use of murals on all sorts of buildings). However, as this movement made its way through the 20th century—and definitely by the midpoint of the century—the murals increasingly became either a propaganda tool for the government in power (as opposed to continuing in the idealistic vision of its founders) or privatized.
Mexican Muralism in Graphic Design
There’s a connection between this design trend and graphic design, with artists who were involved directly in the mural painting, or who influenced the mural painters, producing memorable graphic design in this period.
Jose Guadalupe Posada influenced one of Mexico’s top three mural painters in Diego Rivera. Posada was an artisan born in 1852, whose specialty was utilizing relief painting to create widely viewed illustrations.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
One of his more famous contributions is La Calavera Cantina, roughly translated to the Dapper Skeleton or the Elegant Skull. This zinc etching features a female skeleton wearing a European-style hat. As such, it was a critique of the Mexicans who, in the pre-Revolution days, aspired to adopt European fashions and traditions. A famous contribution to graphic design in Mexico, it’s now an icon of Mexico’s Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead.
Diego Rivera gets another mention in this category due to his contributions to graphic design. Rivera was a well-traveled artist and designer, having worked on Mexican muralism, but he also worked stateside in New York, San Francisco, and Detroit. His non-mural artworks included paintings, sculptures, and lithographs.
Image Credit: MoMA
One of his famous lithographs was The Fruits of Labor from 1932. A striking, monochrome presentation, this piece calls attention to the reality of agricultural workers and the dignity behind a hard day’s work.
Another famous Mexican muralist whose lithographs are noteworthy is the aforementioned David Alfaro Siqueiros, a member of Los Tres Grandes.
Image Credit: RISD Museum
One in particular, Head from 1930, shows, straightforwardly enough, the profile of an Indian’s head. It was part of the 1930 exhibition titled Mexican Artists & Artists of the Mexican School, put on at New York City’s Delphic Studios.
Mexican Muralism in Web Design
A few places on the web incorporate elements of this design trend, especially when discussing this movement. Here are two great examples of web design converging on this trend.
Viator’s Mexican Muralism Cultural Tour in Guadalajara
Viator is a nifty website that makes it easy for travelers to find and book the experiences they want when on vacation in any given location.
Image Credit: Viator
On their page for this cultural tour in Mexico, the site relies on a slideshow laid out with card-based design, where travelers can see some of the murals in this destination. Said slideshow also opens up to a larger series of images with a horizontal-scrolling series of selections at the bottom.
Ohio State University College of Arts and Sciences: Mexican Muralism – Art and Revolution in Mexico
This webpage that features a few memorable murals from the golden age of this design movement uses the same, sun-soaked, sandy color for its negative space and background that you might see in a real-life mural in the country.
Image Credit: Ohio State University
Add to that the quasi hero image-cum-banner on top of the fold that features a Mexican mural, and you’ve got an informational page that truly captures some of the vibe of these grand-scale paintings.
A Design Trend Meant to Unify
The rub with Mexican muralism is that it had the best intentions when it started out. It was idealistically imagined to be a movement to help unify a country that was trying to recover from a 10-year civil war. In many ways, it did accomplish that, as Mexico went from a more rural landscape in the early 20th century to a more industrialized one by the midpoint of the 20th century.
The large-scale murals, intended to show Mexican unity to a population where not everyone could read, were a success. Gradually, however, the initial romanticism of the socialist movement gave way to the political reality of government propaganda.
Nonetheless, after a century of Mexican muralism, the country is bursting with elaborate, epic paintings on many of its public buildings and spaces, a tribute to the way design can unify an entire culture’s experiences.
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