“Mexican Model” What the hell do I mean by that?

One phrase that repeats over and over in my work on my thesis is “Mexican Model”. What do I mean by this term that seems so convenient in the my head? While I’ve done a bit of work creating the concept of the “Mexican Model”, I really want to dig into the term, tear it apart, and make it explicit to the reader and myself what I’m talking about.

The first time I conceptually introduced the idea of the “Mexican Model” was in a paper focusing on the Museum of Modern Art’s 1932 exhibition Murals by American Painters and  Photographers, which I began (rivetingly):

In 1934 American artist George Biddle published an article in Scribner’s Magazine titled “An Art Renascence Under Federal Patronage.” In the piece Biddle calls for the production of a socially conscious form of art to be supported by the government in an effort to facilitate “a revival of art whereby the artist will move from the periphery to the core of national life.”1 In particular, Biddle advocates for the government sponsorship of mural commissions to be modeled on the program instituted by Mexican President Alvaro Obregón.

So our starting point is the mural program instituted by Mexican President Alvaro Obregon (henceforth referred to as Obregón).

39th President of Mexico, Álvaro Obregón Salido

Obregón became president of Mexico in 1920 after a time of general violence and instability. You can read more about the specifics on Wikipedia. For our purposes the important thing to remember is that Obregon’s presidency signalled an end to the instability caused by the decade long Mexican Revolution (a conflict far too complicated to expand on here, in short it began as an an attempt overthrow long-term president/dictator Porfirio Diaz), and that his regime promised the Mexican people peace, safety, and very importantly representation.2

Obregón envisioned himself/his regime, as the champion of the true Mexican people.3 But who are the true Mexican people? And how do you let them know that you are their champion? Obregón enlisted Secretary of Education José Vasconcelos Calderón (Vasconcelos) to embark on a propaganda campaign that would visualize Obregón’s politics as well as his conception of the people of Mexico.

Now where the conception of the “authentic” Mexican people came from is complicated. Under Porfirio Diaz, the privileged classes consisted of the European descended, and highly educated. They owned the majority of the land and generally got the better deal in most situations. On the opposite end of the spectrum were the peasants, labors, and indigenous people, largely concerned with land reform among other social issues. Led by revolutionary figures like Mexican Hero Emiliano Zapata, the lower classes “won” the revolution in a manner of speaking. Diaz certainly came out of the conflict as the bad guy, and no one wants to align themselves with the bad guy.  Sometime during the revolution Obregón smartly aligned himself with the lower class majority (though he didn’t start out with that sentiment). And his regime was active in  promoting the idea of independence from European influence and the celebration of Mexican nationalism.

Emiliano Zapata, 1914

The end result of Obregón and Vasconcelos mural program presented a visual identity of the Mexican population as mainly indigenous, peasants, workers, and soldiers/revolutionaries.  Analyzing the visual imagery produced under Vasconcelos, these were the “authentic” Mexican people. Luckily for Obregón and Vasconcelos, the leading Mexican artists of the time shared their vision of Mexico, influenced, ironically, by their travels throughout Europe and Europe’s own weird fetish with exotic/foreign cultures, and were all too happy to take part in the program.

Rivera’s panel from the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City, 1929. A Mexican Muralism bingo card. Native peoples, peasants, revolutionary heros, soldiers, anti-capitalist message, BINGO!

So as of now what we can infer of the “Mexican Model”, is a government program of propaganda aimed at visually codifying the “identity” of its people through art. State sponsorship of art isn’t anything new, and Obregón’s actual program doesn’t seem that revolutionary explained in this way. What was new was the people that Obregón choose to represent as his people, and how he chose to represent them. Obregón’s choice to feature the lower classes in the role of cultural signifier in his state sponsored art represents a huge break with tradition. 1920 isn’t too long after the world is just getting use to the idea of prostitutes and train stations as acceptable subject matter for high art. Never before had the lower classes, been so publicly celebrated. Furthermore, Obregón’s lower classes aren’t the romanticized peasants of the distant past.  They are modern people living firmly in the present.

I’m not making the argument that Obregón really did set out to liberate the lower classes with the power of art or anything, but I do think he was very smart in courting the largest demographic of Mexican society at the time. It certainly created the illusion that he was a “man of the people” whether that’s true or not. Construct one easy to replicate image of your people, plaster it on every public building you can, and people will begin to see themselves as you see them. An excellent article on the subject is Mary Coffey’s “Muralism and the People: Culture, Popular Citizenship, and Government in Post-Revolutionary Mexico,” The Communication Review (January, 2002). She explains, better than I can, how Obregón’s mural program effectively built the constituency Obregón claimed to represent.

State sponsorship is an obvious requisite for the “Mexican Model”, and I’ll just take that for granted. The focus on the lower classes and modern history/day, though is where I start to really think emulation of the “Mexican Model” begins. Murals had to feature certain subjects to be considered good/authentic/meaningful etc… The murals being made in Mexico become the standard, in terms of subject, style, and process. This will start to show when American artists begin to produce murals in a post Mexican-Muralist world, and I hope help “explain” some of the criticism American artists received.

  • 1. George Biddle, “An Art Renascence Under Federal Patronage” Scribners, 1934, 428
  • 2.Leonard Folgarait,  Mural painting and social revolution in Mexico, 1920-1940: art of the new order (Cambridge And New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 6.
  • 3. Ibid.

More sources on the subject:

Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico: An Anthropology of Nationalism, By Claudio Lomnitz


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