Home > Muralism and Citizenship-Making in Post-Revolutionary Mexico

Muralism and Citizenship-Making in Post-Revolutionary Mexico

“All museums are stages, and artifacts are merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and each artifact in its time plays many parts.”  As You like it (William Shakespeare)

Reforming the post-revolutionary state

The aftermath of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) left fertile ground in which to implement many of the social and cultural changes brought along by modernity and technology.   After a ten-year bloody civil war, however, the country was still reeling from shifting power struggles, regional instability, and a weakened economy.  Former revolutionary general and newly appointed head of state, President Alvaro Obregón (1920-24) faced the dual challenge of asserting effective civilian control and implementing some of the social changes promised by the revolution.  Charged with the chore of stabilizing and modernizing the nation, Obregón made land reform the first focus of his government, and education, the second.  

Ascribing to the third article of the Mexican Constitution of 1917, which prioritized the value of education, Obregón created the Ministry of Public Education as a tool to promote and preserve the revolutionary principles of equality and democracy. José VasconcelosThe Ministry of Education, under the leadership of writer and philosopher José Vasconcelos,[1] “became one of the most dynamic branches of government, not only through the control of the educational system of Mexico and its Bellas Artes [Fine Arts] program, but also because it undertook the most ambitious construction program in Mexico from 1920 to 1952” (Méndez-Vigatá 64).  

As a member of the Mexican elite and influenced by avant-garde European aesthetics and values that placed an emphasis on the arts as a means to elevate the human soul, Vasconcelos sought to promote education through the revitalization of the Mexico’s mythical past.  Under this new light, artists, writers, and intellectuals were charged with the task of reformulating an ideal and utopian society in which cultural and artistic production would take a center place.  The aesthetic principle and the nature of beauty as represented in Western Classical art played a significant role in the forging of a new modernist consciousness and identity.  Representations of the virtues and the history of the Mexican people, as envisioned by Vasconcelos, aimed to enlighten and lift both the indigenous as well as the marginal sectors of the population.  

Angel Rama reminds us of a similar endeavor under colonial times, when the power of written discourse became fundamental in the historical formation of society, and the men of letters – the so-called letrados – were responsible of perpetuating the socio-cultural and the economic power of the Iberian empire in the region.   As Rama argues, the hegemonic influence of the written word and the careful planning of the cities not only guaranteed an idea of a certain order, but also a logical development of society structured by the rational order of signs, a symbolic system that grew ever more prominent with the advancement of progress and modernization (25-34). 

Like other intellectuals of his time,[2] Vasconcelos embraced the concept of the mestizo as an idealized race fashioned out by the mixture of European and Amerindian (Spanish/Creole).  His groundbreaking work “La raza cósmica"speaks of a fifth hybrid race composed of all races. Through “esthetic eugenics” the fifth race would “take ownership of the axis of the future world, then airplanes and armies will travel all over the planet educating the people for their entry into wisdom” (65).  Racial miscegenation as a transcendent eugenic principle would help assimilate and modernize indigenous peoples into an enlightened, modern, and mestizo body politics (Coffey 6).  Art would be placed not only in the service of building a new equitable society, but it would also be a resource for the construction of a modern Mexican culture, one that would heal the divisions that had not been resolved by politics.

The reconfiguration of a historical identity based on the mestizo ideal took center stage, and muralism –for its visual and didactic nature– became the official vehicle and cultural movement with which to develop a national discourse based on the revolutionary values of social justice. Combining elements of European avant-garde, Renaissance techniques, and themes of the popular culture, muralism conflated nationalism.  Mexico City thus became a gigantic canvas that depicted the heroic figures and glorious moments of the country’s national history, and public entities such as banks, schools, museums, and other government buildings’ walls, in particular, turned into the privileged loci of the PRI’s (Partido Revolucionario Insitucional)[3] political program.   

The Role of the Museum

In many ways, the invention of a democratic culture in Mexico after the revolution followed a similar process to the French.  As Eilean Hooper-Greenhill points out in Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge, the formation and implementation of new subjectivities in post-revolutionary France required new technologies and institutions to fulfill the double purpose of exposing the tyranny and decadence of previous regimes, and simultaneously, to transform the population into a useful resource for the state.  “The emergence of the museum as a public, democratic, nation-building institution was articulated through a series of concurrent social, historical, and political forces producing an institution that would serve two contradictory functions, that of an elite temple of the arts, and that of a utilitarian instrument for democratic education” (173).

In 1825, several decades prior to the Mexican revolution, President Guadalupe Victoria had already issued a decree to subvention the government’s control over the country’s cultural heritage, making Mexico City its centripetal point for the collection and exhibition of national treasures.  The first National Museum of History, inaugurated in 1790 to commemorate the ascent of King Charles IV to the Spanish throne, initiated the practice of successive Mexican governments to gather and preserve all valuable objects considered to be part of the country’s cultural heritage and patrimony.  This practice –continued under Porfirio Diaz’s regime (1877-1911) –, supported an established increasing budget for museum and archaeological explorations.  According to Gerardo Morales-Moreno, the National Museum not only produced the first elite group of professional historians, archaeologists, and museographers in modern Mexico, but also their work became essential to the labors of reinventing and reinscribing national Mexican history. “The museum’s messages were transmitted through images, objects, symbols, and myths, many of which belonged to civic rituals that were traditions invented by those in power or belonged to popular culture and were customs that revived the past” (185).   The city as the seat of power and backdrop to the splendor and opulence of its museum buildings consolidated the government’s foundational strategies to bring Mexico into the twentieth-century.

Art at the Service of the State

For many intellectuals, like Octavio Paz, the idea of placing art to the service of the government’s agenda was highly problematic.  His critique was addressed to Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, communist artists who accepted commissions from capitalist patrons and a federal government that they deemed counterrevolutionary.   For Paz, art was an important tool to legitimize and consolidate the new democratic state; however, “artists’ desire to obtain federal patronage was fatal as power and capitalism distorted the popular nationalism inspired by the revolution” (Coffey 3).   Ricardo Pérez Montfort sharing Paz’s concern also acknowledges that many renowned artists, in order to accommodate the government’s objectives, erased local and traditional popular expressions in favor of a homogeneous representation of the Mexican history.  Such emphasis on popular iconography as a means to articulate a new social memory constituted a false identity that led to the stereotyping of Mexican culture: “Zapata’s agrariarism, enchiladas and tequila, indigenous, proletarian and peasant modes of dress built a post-revolutionary state and society” (205).

Bolivar AmphitheaterDiego Rivera, who had been living in Europe at the time, was summoned by Vasconcelos and granted the privileged position of overturning the country’s conventions of art, culture, history, and identity through his visionary art.   In January 1921, he was joined by Ramón Alva de la Canal, Fermín Revueltas, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jean Charlot to start their collective work at the Antiguo Colegio de San Idelfonso (formerly Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, a colonial structure completed in 1749).  The majority of the artists were responsible for painting the walls of the interior courtyards, while Rivera single handedly undertook the challenge of painting the thousand square feet back wall of the Bolívar Amphitheater.

Vasconcelos’ Architectural Vision

By 1923, Vasconcelos was ready to expand Mexico City’s architectural landscape by launching a new government sponsored project, the murals of the Secretaría de Educación Pública (SEP).   Located in the heart of the colonial city, the Secretary of Public Education is considered one of his major achievements.  To pursue the task of reinventing Mexico’s history, its landscapes, its heroes, and its people through the lens of the spirit of modernity, Vasconcelos hired an entourage of painters and artists whose work would be overseen by Rivera himself.

Inspired in the corridos (post-revolutionary agrarian peasant ballads), Rivera’s murals on the top floor –Corrido of the Agrarian Revolution (completed in 1926) and Corrido of the Proletarian Revolution (completed in 1928) –depict the glory of the revolution and the struggle of the working class matched against the exploits and abuses of the conquerors, aristocrats, and capitalists.  Bottom floor images recreate the different arts and sciences as well as traditional Mexican customs and traditions. A similar pictorial narrative by Rivera would be later reproduced in the other great works that followed, such as those featured at the National Palace in Mexico City (1929-1951), the Palace of Fine Arts (1934), and the Hotel Reforma’s Carnaval de la vida mexicana (1936); and Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park (1947, now displayed at the Museo Mural Diego Rivera).

In her analysis of mural art, cultural policy, and the development of citizenship-making institutions, Mary Coffey argues that muralism reached its apogee receiving steady federal support between the 1920s and 1930s (the decades following the World War II); nonetheless, the implementation of state funded historical sites and museums was very much alive between the 1940s and 1950s.  As she explains, the end of Lázaro Cárdenas’ six year term, does not mark “the end of mural art’s revolutionary ambitions but rather a shift in the locus of this struggle from municipal, regional, and corporate locales back to the capital city and its burgeoning infrastructure of public museums” (14). In fact, for Coffey, mural projects that took place after the 30s were not only as implicated in the formation of a national myth as they have been in the post-revolutionary years, but also they were even more effective at conveying and asserting the state’s rhetoric. The federally subsidized and administered system of public museums and government buildings was a crucial mechanism for the instrumentalization and development of mural art (17).  

A Palace for the Arts

One of the city’s crowning jewels, the magnificent Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) is a significant institutional infrastructure for the promotion and dissemination of national culture.  Originally inaugurated in 1844 as the Santa Anna Theater, demolished in 1901, and rebuilt in 1934 as Mexico’s national theater by Italian architect Adamo Boari under the porfiriato, “the edifice testifies to the Francophilia of the Porfiriato while simultaneously codifying the Creole indigenismo that post-revolutionary artists would radicalize (Coffey 27).

Once again, the government –this time under president Plutarco Elías Calles (1924-28)– summoned the three masters Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco along with Rufino Tamayo, Jorge González Camarena, Roberto Montenegro, and Manuel Rodríguez Lozano to execute permanent frescos that, as minister housing and public credit Alberto J. Pani notes, would influence a “public whose ignorance in matters of the plastic arts is frequently manifested in a mixture of incomprehension and under appreciation of the pictorial work of our days” (Coffey 28).[4]  

For Mexico as well as most of Latin American countries with a majority of Indigenous population, the dream of modernity seemed unattainable since traditional folk cultures remained beyond the reach of modernization. The challenge of refashioning the nation’s cultural identity to fit the trends of the modern avant-gardes was further complicated by the shifting socio-economic and political conditions during the WWII as well as the new advances in industrialization and technology.  The murals of the Palace of Fine Arts depict the artists’ concern with local as well as international politics, such as the imminent the threat of fascism.   Whereas Rivera’s controversial Man, Controller of the Universe (1934),[5] exhibits an optimistic representation on the benefits of industry in its metaphoric depiction of the laborers’ bodies forging a future through modern machine energy; Orozco’s Katharsis (1934) and Siqueiros’s The New Democracy, Victims of War and Victims of Fascism(1944-45) deploy forceful eschatological images of the decadent and destructive aspects of warfare machinery and the perils of fascism. Both artists, Coffee argues, sought to emphasize the relevance of mural art at home and abroad by placing it within the contemporary wartime context of their times (45).[6]

The theme of mestizaje (mestizo identity) and the plight of Mexico’s indigenous population would nonetheless be later resurfaced by Siqueiros in The Torture of Cuauhtémocand the Resurrection of Cuauhtémoc (1951), a diptych representing the episode of the torture of the Aztec ruler of Tenochtitlán and the subsequent resurrection of his spirit as an avenger for his demise and the enslavement of his people. 

Chapultepec: Where History Meets Art

Following the steps of his predecessors, President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-39)[7] left its own architectural imprint in the City of Mexico.   In 1939, he inaugurated the Instituto Nacional de Antroplogía e Historia (National Institute of Anthropology, INAH) a state agency dedicated to the preservation and restoration of archaeological, artistic, and historic patrimony, and turned the Palacio de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Castle) into the National History Museum. Coffey quotes a reporter from El Universal Gráfico, whom in 1953 enthusiastically writes: “Chapultepec is the sanctuary for the Patria, and its altar is the museum… Here, the civic conscience of the people lives and grows” (78). 

As in previous decades, murals would be an essential didactic tool to educate the citizens and instill a love for the motherland. Orozco, Siqueiros, González Camarena, and Juan O’Gorman, worked between 1948 and 1969 in their striking representation of the country’s most significant historical events.   Siqueiros would lead the group in undertaking the formidable task of painting From Porfirianism to Revolution (1957-1965), a 3,875 square foot visually stunning account of the Porfirian dictatorship and the revolution, which took seven years to complete.  O’Gorman’s panoramic fresco Mural of Independence (1960-1961), while considerably smaller than Siqueiros’s, is equally arresting.    The vast 

iconography of historical figures meticulously spread over the 700 square feet of a concave wall, depicts a visual allegory of the emergence of a forward-looking nation forged on the egalitarian alliance of its people.  Painted a year before his death, Orozco’s Juárez and the Reform (1948) reinterprets Juárez’s victory over the opposing political forces of Emperor Maximilian through the representation of the disembodied visage of this iconic figure encircled by allies and enemies. Through a sophisticated use of architectural space, Mexico’s violent history of conquest and social exploitation is no longer a recurrent theme in the country’s historical narrative, but rather the foundation of its political future and the “prelude to an epic unfolding of national destiny” (Coffey 21-22).

Postmodern Reflections

Benedict Anderson’s definition ofimagined communities” helps us understand the process of nation formation which took place in Mexico during the first decades of the twentieth century.  An imagined political community, according to Anderson, is a socially constructed community imagined by members of the group who share a common discourse.  A nation is imagined because, while the members of a community will most likely never get to know each other, they all share similar interests and identify themselves as part of the same community.  Nations and nationalism, for Anderson, are products of modernity and have been created to satisfy political and economic governmental agendas of the different constituencies and institutions that conform it.   In Mexico, the pressures of industrial capitalism as well as the advances in technology brought along by modernization required post-revolutionary regimes to rewrite the country’s myth of national identity into one that would encompass and represent all categories of race, gender, and social status. Muralism not only became an institutionalized tool to bridge the contrasts and differences between the disparate sectors of the population, but also a powerful means to rescript the possibilities of mechanization and industry in accordance of the socio-economic program envisioned by the state. Coffey arguments that both muralism and museum exhibitions were techniques of governmental power, and museums –perhaps even more so than any other public institution–  places where culture could be codified, historical citizenship defined, and Mexicanness, as a mestizo identity, represented (24).  

The Museum as an Entertainment Industry

In recent decades, with the advancement of neoliberal capitalism, which advocates the reduction of government spending in favor of the private sectors in the economy, the fate of significant collections as well as the preservation of cultural sites inside and outside Mexico City has been challenged by the lack of efficient and comprehensive state policies towards art and the country’s cultural capital.  Néstor García Canclini notes that the official government does not have an acquisitions policy to conserve the memory of the city, and worst than this, many valuable works of art continue to be sold abroad.  As a long-standing city resident, he considers that there is no place where local people may acquire a balanced overview of Mexican art after muralism and geometrism; such lack of space has forced the stereotype of Mexican culture as nothing more than “pyramids, muralism, and Frida Kahlo” (83).  García Canclini’s claim raises the question of ownership and representation not only of art and cultural artifacts, but also in regards of the space in which such objects are exhibited for public viewing.

Space, as a locus for social governance, is highly relevant in David Harvey’s opinion.  In Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, he argues in favor of the ‘right to the city,’ as a basic human right; implying that citizens should not only have access to the city’s urban resources, but they should also have the freedom to remake the city their own desire. For Harvey the question of what kind of city we want has a direct co-relation with “the kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire.”  Increasingly, the right to the city, its resources as well as its cultural patrimony, has been appropriated by private or semi-private interests, which as García Canclini has noted, profit from the commercialization and commodification of the city’s capital surplus.[8]  Another factor to consider is the shift both in the private and the public sectors that strives to accommodate the demands of an increasing consumer culture.  Museums nowadays are no longer nation or identity-making institutions, but money-making businesses that serve the double purpose of educating and entertaining much like any other tourist attraction.    In addition to their itinerant and permanent exhibits, they house bookstores, restaurants, auditoriums, and provide services such as workshops, concerts, seminars, and a variety of events.  Modern museums, as any other attraction the city has to offer, are no longer tied to the development of state political ideologies, but more concerned in drawing larger audiences through their doors to improve their earnings and sales. Similarly, citizens are no longer bound by a national identity or by a common set of moral values, but instead, by the power of acquisition, which defines each individual’s place within a given social structure.   As a spaces of the desire for entertainment and education, consumption and order, Mexico City’s art and history museums are an integral component of the country’s democratic culture, and its numerous murals a constant reminder of the post-revolutionary dream of freedom, justice, and equality for all.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso, 1996.

Coffey, Mary. How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture: Murals, Museums, and the Mexican State.   Durham, NC.: Duke University Press, 2012. 

García Canclini, Néstor.  Culturas híbridas: Estrategias para entrar y salir de la modernidad. Mexico: Grijalbo, 1989.

Harvey, David. “The Right to the City.” New Left Review. <http://newleftreview.org/II/53/david-harvey-the-right-to-the-city>.

Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Méndez-Vigatá, Antonio E. “Politics and Architectural Language: Post revolutionary regimes in Mexico on their influence on Mexican public architecture, 1920-1952.” Modernity and the architecture of Mexico. Edward R. Burian.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997. 127-151.

Morales-Moreno, Luis G. “History and Patriotism in the National Museum of Mexico” Museums and the Making of “Ourselves:” The Role of Objects in National Identity, Flora E. Kaplan, ed. London and New York: Leicester University Press, 171-191.

Pérez Montfort, Ricardo. “Muralismo y nacionalismo popular 1920-1930.” Memoria Congreso Internacional de Muralismo. San Idelfonso, cuna del muralismo mexicano, reflexiones historiográficas y artísticas. Ciudad de México: Conaculta, 173-206.

Rama, Ángel.  La ciudad letrada. Buenos Aires: Ediciones del norte, 1984.

Vasconcelos, José. The Cosmic Race/La raza cósmica. Trans. Didier T. Jaén. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.



[1] José Vasconcelos (1882-1959) philosopher, writer, and politician was exiled in Europe from 1916-1920, upon his return he was appointed the Director of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in 1920, and minister of education.   In his groundbreaking book, The Lettered City (1984), Angel Rama employs the term “lettered elite” to refer to the Latin American intelligentsia (or letrados) who were originally commissioned by the Spanish Crown to impose social order through the development of writing and urbanization.  

[2] See Carlos Mariátegui Siete ensayos de interpretacion de una realidad peruana (Seven Interpretative essays of Peruvian Reality, 1927), Jose Enrique Rodó Ariel  (1900), José Marti Nuestra América (Our America, 1891) and Mi raza (My Race, 1893), Manuel González Prada (1880s essays and speeches), and Vasconcelos La raza cósmica (Cosmic Race, 1925).

[3] Founded in 1929 by Plutarco Elías Calles, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional has had power for 71 years.  It is the largest political party in Mexico and the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, is a member of the PRI.

[4] In fact, according to Méndez-Vigatá, Calles’s regime extended through his influence over the subsequent presidencies of Emilio Portes Gil (1928-30), Pascual Ortiz Rubio (1930-32), Abelardo Rodríguez (1932-34), as well as the first six months of Lázaro Cárdenas term (71).

[5] Man at the Crossroads was a new version of his infamous Rockefeller mural (1932-1934) originally commissioned, and later destroyed by Nelson Rockefeller for its depiction of Vladimir Lenin, the Russian communist leader.

[6] Tace Hedrick sustains that Rivera, like several social realist artists in this period, was searching for a way to artistically represent not only racial hybridization (between the north and the south), but also the fusion of Mexico’s agricultural energies with the North American industrial machine (104).

[7] Lázaro Cárdenas del Río originally a general in the Mexican revolution, served as President between 1934 and 1940.  He is responsible for the creation of Pemex (Petróleos Mexicanos) and the nationalization of the oil industry.

[8] According to Harvey “From their inception, cities have arisen through geographical and social concentrations of a surplus product. Urbanization has always been, therefore, a class phenomenon, since surpluses are extracted from somewhere and from somebody, while the control over their disbursement typically lies in a few hands. This general situation persists under capitalism, of course; but since urbanization depends on the mobilization of a surplus product, an intimate connection emerges between the development of capitalism and urbanization. Capitalists have to produce a surplus product in order to produce surplus value; this in turn must be reinvested in order to generate more surplus value. The result of continued reinvestment is the expansion of surplus production at a compound rate—hence the logistic curves (money, output and population) attached to the history of capital accumulation, paralleled by the growth path of urbanization under capitalism.