"For the first time in the history of monumental painting, Mexican muralism ended the focus on gods, kings and heads of state and made the masses the hero of monumental art."--Diego Rivera
In this quote, Rivera is referring to large-scale murals he and other artists were commissioned to paint by the Mexican government focused on the lives of ordinary people, rather than the elite. Rivera and a group of Mexican muralists greatly influenced the creation of US government art programs during the Depression, as well as the work of many WPA-era artists who became well-known in later years, such as Jackson Pollock.
The Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) overthrew a dictatorship favoring the elite class, ushering in an era in which workers and farmers gained political empowerment. The new government, seeking to recognize the shifts in society and stoke pride in Mexican heritage, hired artists to represent the history and people of Mexico. Key among those artists were Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. They looked to the country’s pre-Columbian history for sources of inspiration, as well as to the heroes of the Mexican Revolution such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Zapata is pictured in this work created by Rivera (based upon a painting at the Museum of Modern Art).
The art of Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros offered a new model: art that recognized and gave dignity to the lives and concerns of ordinary people. The artists became internationally renowned for their innovative and distinctive work. They spent time in the United States completing commissions and interpreting US industry and history, including Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts and Orozco’s The Epic of American Civilization at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College.
Compare Diego Rivera, Viva Zapata, 1932, with José Clemente Orozco, Flag (Bandera), 1928.
- List all the details you notice in each image. What has the artist chosen to depict? How has he depicted it?
- Is Zapata, the hero of the Mexican people, the central figure in Viva Zapata? How does Rivera communicate this?
- Zapata holds a scythe used for cutting sugarcane. Another figure lies at his feet, while others look on from the background. What has just happened? Do you think the scene is real or symbolic? What about the figures behind Zapata? What are they gazing at? Who are the people depicted? Describe how they are depicted using as many details as you can.
- Compare the two images and the subjects they depict. How are they related? How are they different?
- Why might Rivera’s and Orozco’s images have been of interest to North American artists during the Great Depression? What parallels do you see between the Mexican mural program and the Federal Art Project?