The Mexican Model, Iconography

In a previous post, I started to outline my definition of a “Mexican Model” of muralism. To quote myself

“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.”

So lets explore the visuals. The murals produced in Mexico during the 1920s were the product of a very deliberate attempt by Mexican artists to return to a more authentic, less European influenced art. David Alfaro Siqueiros wrote extensively on the path art in Mexico and the Americas should take, and it is his theory of a proletariat art form rooted in indigenous tradition that I consider to be the foundation of the Mexican Model. Though many artists across Mexico completed murals during this period, Siqueiros stands out as the driving force behind a politically engaged modern art that American artists admired.

Siqueiros began to develop his theory of “pure art” (as he would later come to call it), while studying in Europe. After a short amount of time among the European avant-garde, Siqueiros became disillusioned and found the formal experimentation lacking in substance.1 He criticized the artists for being too concerned with “aesthetic trivialities,” and could not find a “common philosophical or political ground with the French avant-garde.”2 A trip to Italy with Diego Rivera, and some time spent in France with a Communist labor union began to reshape how the artist viewed art and its purpose.

Mayan relief sculpture from Palenque, Mexico

In 1921 Siqueiros published Three Appeals for the Current Guidance of the New Generation of American Painters and Sculptors. In the manifesto, he calls for art to “restore the lost values of painting and sculpture as well as endowing art with new values.”3 A return to lost values was a direct critique of modernist abstraction which had become overly occupied with formal experimentation. He theorized that an art deeply rooted in the political consciousness (an idea borrowed heavily from Lenin and his writings on the role of art) of the people should evoke their national heritage. For Siqueiros, Pre-Colombian art represented a visual culture uncorrupted by European influence. “Mayas, Aztecs, Incas, etc., … [show] a genuine knowledge of nature that can serve as our point of departure.”4

Siqueiros was not the first artist in Mexico to promote the idea that contemporary artists should look to their ancestors for inspiration. Best Maugard, Dr. Atl, and José Guadalupe Posada, all created and promoted art which took inspiration from Mexican history and culture. Posada’s calavera, a figure with its roots in the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl, were extremely influential for the muralists, and they appear in a number of their later works. Dr. Atl painted numerous works celebrating the Mexican landscape, while Best Maugard developed a theory of drawing based heavily on pre-columbian motifs. Maugard’s theories were embraced by the Obregón regime and he served as the director of the department for art education between 1921 and 1924 At the Secretariat of Public Education. Both Delpar and Reiman speak extensively on Maugard and see his theories and involvement in the Secretariat of Public Education as central to the creation of the American perception of Mexican art.

Why then do I single out Siqueiros? Siqueiros put himself forward as the voice of The Syndicate of Mexican Workers, Technicians, Painters and Sculptors, formed in 1923 to provide Mexican artists with a clear aesthetic and ideological focus and authored the majority of the syndicates essays on art theory. While Siqueiros was not the first artist to call for a return to the past, he was, however, quick to warn against letting an appreciation of Pre-Colombian art turn into generic Primitivism (a point which seems incredibly self aware at this early stage of the game.)  According to Three Appeals… artists should take from ancient art is a purity of form and nature rather than iconography. The ultimate goal is to create a universal art which connects with our present “dynamic age”, embracing the machine and construction, the things that make up “the contemporary aspects of our daily lives.”5

Rivera’s peasants and revolutionaries.

Expanding on his earlier essay, The Manifesto of the Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors Union of Mexico authored by Siqueiros clearly laid out the guidelines for the iconography of a contemporary Mexican art. The manifesto names the worker, the farmer/peasant, and the Indian as those who comprise the proletariat of Mexico. We’ve already established the murals were in part meant to codify the identity of the people, creating Obregón’s ideal constituency. In clearly defining their audience via the manifesto the muralists were able to tailor their art to the masses. The worker, the peasant/farmer, and the Indian (sometimes additionally the soldier) would become the “holy trinity” of revolutionary imagery. These very modern figures were to compromise the main subject matter of murals, while aesthetically the murals would take their formal qualities from pre-columbian art. After the formation of of the syndicate, Siqueiros’ aesthetic program came to fruition. Figures are monumental and thick like ancient sculptures. Aztec and Mayan civilization is celebrated, while the peasant, indian and worker are depicted as heros.

So what can we add to our definition of a “Mexican Model”? The Mexican Model is a government program of propaganda aimed at visually codifying the “identity” of its people through art. The Mexican Model looks towards the artistic tradition of its indigenous peoples rather than Europe for inspiration, juxtaposing traditional forms and motifs with modern day subject matter depicting its intended viewer, the proletariat, in the role of hero in a realistic aesthetic.

  1. Philip Stein, Siqueiros: His Life and Works (New York: International Publishers, 1994), 32.
  2. Ibid
  3. David Alfaro Siqueiros, “Three Appeals for the Current Guidance of the New Generation of American Painters and Sculptors,” in Inverted Utopias trans, Mari Carmen Ramierz and Hector Olea (New Haven: Yale Univeristy Press, 2004), 458-459.
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
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