Mexican Muralism Movement: Jose Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Siqueiros

Mural by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts 1932-33  South Wall detail
Mural by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts 1932-33 South Wall detail | Source

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Mexican Art Movement from 1920s to 1930s

One of the most interesting art movements in Mexico was the Mexican Muralism of the 20th century, specifically during the 1920s and 1930s. Large murals inside and on the outside of buildings in Mexico and the U.S. reflected a social realist style. It combined the influences from contemporary European Avante-garde movements (Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Post Impressionism, Surrealism and Neoclassicism) and the mural Italian renaissance mural technique.

The muralists explored very nationalistic subject matter, drawing (no pun intended) on Mexico's Pre-Columbian culture, the Mexican people and their heroes. There was intense interest in the Aztec and Mayan cultures and many of the murals depicted their lives and work.

The Mexican Muralists sought a definite style that would communicate to the people of Mexico the ideals of the new revolutionary government of the Alvaro Obregon government. The three main and most important artists of this movement were Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco, and David Sigueiros. All were early 20th century artists that lived in Mexico and the United States at some time in their lives. All three painted murals in Mexico and in the United States, and because I studied Spanish in Mexico in the 1970s, I have had the pleasure of viewing in person the murals of all three of these great Mexican artists.

All three of these men sought to uplift the peasant worker in Mexico; the mass of proletarians that struggled daily to eek out a living in Mexico as the working and rural poor of Mexico. They looked to the indigenous workers as the true heroes of Mexico and, therefore, painted the Pre-Columbian peoples of Mexico, especially the Mayans and Aztecs, as the true Mexican people. They painted these heroes in a simplified form and painted the peasants, intellectuals and artists as pitted against the land-owners and foreign industrialists who exploited the Mexican workers.

These painters followed in time the great Mexican freedom fighters, Pancho Villa and Emilio Zapata who fought to rid Mexico of Porfirio Diaz, the corrupt president of Mexico. They fought to give economic freedom to the Mexican "slaves" as they referred to the land workers of Mexico. These three artists, Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros brought this movement to light in their paintings and murals.

The Mexican Muralism movement began officially in 1921 and was launched by the Mexican Minister of Education, Jose Vasconcelos who commissioned Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros to take part in the government sponsored Mexican mural program. All three men looked at their own heritage and Mexico's heritage as the subjects for their murals. Each man contributed to a renaissance of Mexican painting. This movement marked the high point of Mexican influence throughout Latin America and the U.S.

Even though the Mexican Muralism movement was considered an artistic movement, it was also a social and political movement in Mexico. The mural style by all three men was considered a teaching method, expressed in public places where all people would have access to the art regardless of race and social class.

The three muralists worked over a concrete surface or on the facade of a building. The themes of their paintings were events from the political climate of the time and reaction to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. These three artists were commissioned by the local government to cover the walls of official institutions such as schools, government buildings, churches and museums. The murals painted in the majority of the public buildings in Mexico City and Guadalajara, Jalisco played important roles in Mexican history.

Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros also painted murals in the U.S at some point in their artistic career,. in such cities as New York City, San Francisco and Detroit. Diego Rivera was commissioned by the Ford Motor Company in Detroit to paint murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Orozco and Rivera used the classical tradition of fresco painting and Siqueiros used innovative materials such as proxylin. All three artists saw mural painting as a means of social protest with appeal to left wing politics. The murals painted in the U.S. represented the worker as the dominate force in American cultural life throughout the Depression decade.

Miguel Hidalgo painted by Jose Orozco.  Hidalgo was the leader of an independent revolt by the peasants in the 1800's.  Guadalajara, Mexico.
Miguel Hidalgo painted by Jose Orozco. Hidalgo was the leader of an independent revolt by the peasants in the 1800's. Guadalajara, Mexico. | Source
En el arsenal (detail from mural) in Mexico 1928.  Depiction of peasants fighting for independence in 1910.
En el arsenal (detail from mural) in Mexico 1928. Depiction of peasants fighting for independence in 1910. | Source
Mural by David Siqueiros; "El Pueblo a la universidad, la universidad al pueblo"  National Autonomous University of Mexico  1952-56.
Mural by David Siqueiros; "El Pueblo a la universidad, la universidad al pueblo" National Autonomous University of Mexico 1952-56. | Source

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Los Tres Grandes - "the three great ones"

Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros have always been grouped together under the label of Mexican Muralists, but their individual styles and tempraments were very different from one another. They worked throughout overlapping but various periods of art in Mexico. All three men were passionate about their art, Mexico and its indigenous people.

Jose Clemente Orozco 1883-1949

Orozco was the most complex of the three Mexican Muralists. The theme of his murals was human suffering, but less realistic and more fascinated by machines than Rivera. From 1922-48 he painted murals in Mexico City; Guadalajara, Jalisco; Michoacan; New York City; Claremont, California as well as several other Mexican and American cities. He was politically committed to the social realism painting movement of the time and he promoted political causes of the peasants and workers. His drawings and paintings are exhibited in the Carrillo Gil Museum in Mexico City and the Orozco Workshop Museum in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico.

When I studied Spanish in Guadalajara, Jaliso, Mexico, I was amazed to come upon this mural of Miguel Hidalgo, one of the leaders of the independence revolution of the peasants in Mexico in the 1800's. This mural is in the government palace in Guadalajara, Mexico and when I walked up the stairs in this building and saw this mural of Hidalgo looming over me, I can tell you it made great impression on me. The black and red colors represented the revolution for freedom and independence the Mexican peasants and workers were fighting for. The large, looming figure dominates the entire wall of the landing on the stairway and greatly impressed this moment in Mexican history for me. I have never forgotten that image of Hidalgo, and to this day, whenever I hear the name, Miguel Hidalgo, it is Orozco's painting of him that I envision.

Diego Rivera 1886-1957

Of the three Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera was the most prominent and best-known in Mexico and around the world. His large wall works in frescco helped to bring popularity to the Mexican Muralism movement. From 1922-53, Riveral painted murals in Mexico City, Cuernavaca, San Francisco, Detroit and New York City among a few other citiies. He actually studied Renaissance frescos in Italy but returned to Mexico in 1921 when commissioned by Jose Vasconcelos to become part of the government mural painting program.

Rivera developed his own native painting style that was also social realism. He painted large simplified figures and used bold colors and his paintings had much Aztec influences. His murals at the Secreetariat of Public Education in Mexico City were painted from 1922-28 and are a total of 124 frescos. His radical political beliefs and attacks on the Catholic Church and clergy made him a controversial figure in Mexico and around the world. In 1929 Rivera accepted a commission from the American ambassador to Mexico to paint murals at the Palace of Cortez in Mexico City. His vivid colors and portrayal of the Mexican peasant and Aztec people made him one of the most popular painters and muralists in Mexico.

David Alfaro Siqueiros 1886-1974

Siqueiros is the third Mexican socialism realist painter of reknown in Mexico and world-wide. He believed art and political views were intertwined and his murals reflect his poltically left wing views. During his lifetime he wrote several political manifestos that eventually got him arrested. He spend some time in prison in Mexico and was exiled from Mexico by the government for some time also.

Before that though, he painted murals in Mexico and in the U.S. at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. The murals at Rockefeller Plaza have been removed when the plaza was refurbished in later years.

Siqueiros believed strongly that art should be public, educational and idealogical. His murals and other portraits and paintings mostly depict the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the oppression of the working classes in Mexico. His paintings are stories of the human struggle to overcome authoritarian capitalist rule and he painted everyday people involved in this struggle. One of his famous murals of revolutionary heroes is at Chapultepec Park in Mexico City. He studied the human body and muscle mass as his human forms in his paintings are portrayed as very strong. His paintings focused on the hands of the proletariat as symbols of their strength through work.

I was personally awed by his mural at the University of Mexico in Mexico City which he painted from 1952-56. The vast, sweeping portrayal of the proletariet is strong and fleeting. I feel fortunate to have viewed this great work of Siqueiros during my time in Mexico.

All three of these Mexican Muralists have always left an impression with me and I have never forgotten their works. They are hard to forget once viewed, especially on a larger than life scale. I believe each one got his message across through the murals and did accomplish teaching and educating the masses about social realism. It is a lesson I have never forgotten.


Copyright (c) 2012 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved

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Comments 4 comments

susi10 profile image

susi10 3 years ago from The British Isles, Europe

Brilliant hub! It is very interesting to read about Mexico's muralism movement! I always wanted to know more and now I do thanks to your amazing hub! Well-written and very informative. Voted up!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM Author

susi10: Hi and thank you for your kind comments. I have seen some of these murals while I was studying in Mexico and I can tell you I was impressed. I actually studied Jose Orozco before Rivera - hard to believe I know, but I knew about his murals first. Thanks and I'm glad you enjoyed this hub. Your comments are most appreciated.


Anne Harrison profile image

Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia

A fascinating hub - I knew nothing about this art movement, thank you for enlightening me


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Anne: So glad you enjoyed reading this and found it informative. I appreciate your visit and comments. Thanks!

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