To another level

I just got back from a short, wonderful stay in Mexico City.  This year is the centennial of the Mexican Revolution — and the bicentennial of independence — and the city was brimming with art about the Revolution and mexicanidad (Mexican-ness, i.e. Mexican identity and culture).  Everywhere I went, I found incredible folk art, paintings, graphic design, and…murals.

This visit seemed like the perfect time to go to the Museo Nacional de Historia in the Castillo de Chapultepec.  I wanted to see the historical exhibits (which were great) and the murals by David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco and Pablo O’Gorman.

Siqueiros painted De Porfirismo a la Revolucion in a dedicated gallery of the museum between 1957 and 1966.  The gallery was too small for his vision, so Siqueiros literally created more walls by designing a curving structure to paint on.  As a result, the mural stretches and snakes its way through the space, pulling the viewer into the scene.

The title is usually conveyed in English as From the Dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz to the Revolution. José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz ruled Mexico for nearly 35 years — years that were characterized by national stability and economic growth but also by inequality and repression. On the far left of the mural, the bodies of those killed fighting the injustice of the dictatorship stretch into the horizon.

As the mural curves toward the back wall, the people rise up against the ruling elite.  They wear typical zapatista clothing, showing that they are followers of the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.

Some of the workers carry the body of a comrade who has been killed and march toward the ruling class.  The people square off with the elite, struggling for control of the Mexican flag.  Meanwhile, at the far right, Porfirio Díaz sits in comfort watching women dance.  He is surrounded by los científicos, his technocrat advisors, and his foot rests on the Mexican Constitution.

Siqueiros concludes the scene somewhat abruptly — in the upper right corner of the final panel, he shows Porfirio Díaz brandishing a dagger and thus revealing his “true” nature.

This mural is everything I love about Mexican muralism.  It mixes art and history and identity and politics.  It’s larger than life and bursts off the walls.  I understand why people love Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco (and I love them too, actually).  But, for me, Siqueiros takes the art form to another level.

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