By: Christina E. Rodriguez
It’s a history lesson right before your eyes. Years in the making, the new exhibit at the National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA), “Translating Revolution: U.S. Artists Interpret Mexican Muralists,” explores the influence U.S. artists gained from either studying Mexico’s muralists or working for and with them across the border. Focusing on the three giants of muralism -Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros- the exhibit’s layout juxtaposes each muralist with the artists they influenced.
According to chief curator Cesareo Moreno, also the visual arts director at the NMMA, Jose Vasconcelos, the minister of education in Mexico from 1921-1924, had an influential impact upon the country’s art scene. In order to educate the people about their cultural identity and history, Vasconcelos decided to put money into the arts, explained Moreno. From the time that money was allocated, muralists and artists were commissioned to paint and create artwork with educational purposes in mind. Art was no longer just something for the highly educated and rich to experience.
Murals along with printmaking took off. Among the printmakers, the Taller de Gráfica Popular showcased artists who were “committed to the direct use of visual art in the service of social change,” according to Docs Populi, a site dedicated to the exhibition of documents for the public (http://www.docspopuli.org/). This collective was able to make prints accessible to the common people, prints which also showed up in school textbooks.
The common thread in the artwork became “how do you make art for the people?” stated Moreno, walking through the gallery. The art became more of an expression of the need for change and a mirror of blue collar workers. “[It became] more about the message and less about the precious work of art,” Moreno said.
The pieces exhibit the rich and the poor in the same work of art, something revolutionary at the time. They display the hard work laborers endured for the communities they lived in and although Rivera is known for his paintings and murals about workers, they do not take a big role in this exhibit.
Pieces of various artists hang in the gallery. Large pieces of sketches for murals as well as small paintings and photos hang next to works that they were inspired by. One of the most celebrated U.S. artists, Jackson Pollock, was inspired heavily by Siqueiros. The paintings show a similar feel and tone, even color sometimes.
The inspiration can be seen multiple ways; from subjects that are being painted to topics the images portray. Religion, revolution and workers, all a huge part of Mexican culture, are touched upon by many inspired artists.
This movement helped Mexico become an intellectual magnet for the rest of the world, attracting humanitarians, communists and socialists. Plenty of Americans, including numerous artists from Chicago, immersed themselves in the movement by traveling to Mexico and bringing back what they learned. At the same time, the Harlem Renaissance was underway in New York City. Many of those emerging artists traveled to Mexico as well and learned from the messages that Mexicans were setting forth in their art.
The initiative to paint field workers and laborers in Mexico, allowed for Black artists to paint cotton pickers, to document their history. This artwork was a way to validate their presence in the country they lived in. “This country is our country too” is what they’re trying to portray, explained Moreno. “They were looking for an art form that’s really going to celebrate their identity as African-Americans and really inspire people and give pride to people… doing the same thing that was going on in Mexico.”
The United States government took its cue from Mexico during this time. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated the Workers’ Progress Administration creating jobs for the people who suffered from the Great Depression. Money went into the arts, primarily muralists, explained Moreno. Many of the murals seen in Chicago today are a product of the WPA era.
The progression through the gallery ends with sketches of murals done in Los Angeles, Texas and Chicago, showing the history of the locations where they were painted. The artwork’s message stands out more than anything else within each of these pieces. “If you don’t look at the labels, you don’t know if it’s an African-American artist, a Mexican artist or an Anglo artist,” said Moreno.
Whether the artists traveled to Mexico and brought back what they learned or stayed in Mexico for good, there is one thing Moreno says is for certain: “Their journey to Mexico forever changed their artwork.”