May 4, 2012  |  Artists, Five for Friday
Five for Friday: Mexican Muralists on Cinco de Mayo

Five for Friday, written by a variety of MoMA staff members, is our attempt to spotlight some of the compelling, charming, and downright curious works in the Museum’s rich collection.

Tomorrow is Cinco de Mayo, the annual commemoration of the Mexican army’s victory over French forces at the 1862 Battle of Puebla. In addition to the launch of Destination: Mexico at the MoMA Stores, it marks the near completion of MoMA’s current exhibition of Diego Rivera’s famous “portable murals” of 1931 and 1932, Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art. While Rivera is arguably Mexico’s most famous muralist, his work is part of a larger movement of the 1920s and 1930s, itself an outgrowth of earlier, and equally politically charged, periods in Mexican art and culture. Rivera was one of a group of muralists known as Los Tres Grandes (The Big Three), which also included José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. With Cinco de Mayo around the corner, it seems the perfect opportunity to look back at some works by the trio, as well as two other artists of the time, from MoMA’s collection.

The Art of Mexican Muralists

1. José-Guadalupe Posada. Esta es de Don Quixote la primera, la sin par le gigante calavera (This Is about Don Quixote the First, the Unequaled Giant Skull). 1895–1913

Posada, among Mexico’s most influential printmakers, is credited with being a precursor to the Mexican Muralism movement. His prints, drawn from sensational headlines of the time (and estimated to number over 1,600) were widely distributed to the working classes. Leading up to the Mexican revolution of 1910, he was a relentless satirist, taking aim at everyone and everything for the cause. This lithograph, as with many of his works, makes use of the skull to represent the repressed urges of society—a symbol he turned into a national icon.

2. Diego Rivera. Agrarian Leader Zapata. 1931

Rivera’s vision of Emiliano Zapata, a champion of agrarian reform and a key protagonist in the Mexican Revolution, is a departure from previous depictions. Usually portrayed as a charro, a cowboy whose flamboyant dress signaled an elevated class status in Mexico, Zapata is instead presented by Rivera as a humble peasant. The work is a sympathetic portrait of a folk hero tirelessly devoted to agrarian reform.

This piece has personal significance to me, as I recall bringing my mother to MoMA many years ago so she could see this work, one of her favorites, in person. While viewing the piece, we struck up a conversation with a visitor standing next to us who happened to be from Mexico and an expert on Rivera and Mexican art. We had a lively chat and my mother and I learned a great deal about Rivera’s life and work, as well as art’s power to connect people in unexpected ways.

3. David Alfaro Siqueiros. Moisés Sáenz. 1931

The most radical of the three giants, Siqueiros sought to communicate his Communist ideology to a large proletariat audience. While in New York exhibiting his work in the 1930s, he was asked by Carl Zigrosser of the Weyhe Gallery to create a series of lithographs, several of which are in the Museum’s collection. This particular print is of Moisé Sáenz, an educator in rural Mexico and Siqueiros’s patron and supporter for part of his career. Siqueiros exaggerated his features, cropping at the neck to give his subject a bust-like timelessness.

View more of David Alfaro Siqueiros’s work in MoMA’s Online Collection.

4. José Clemente Orozco. Head of Quetzalcoatl (Study for the Dartmouth College Mural, “An Epic of American Civilization”). c. 1932–34

Orozco, the third of Los Tres Grandes, was influenced early on by Posada, whose shop Orozco would pass on his way to school. He credited Posada for awakening him “to the existence of the art of painting.” This crayon study in is for the monumental murals he painted in the Baker Library at Dartmouth College. The subject here is the Mesoamerican feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl.

View more of José Clemente Orozco’s work in MoMA’s Online Collection.

5. Juan O’Gorman. The Sand Mines of Tetelpa. 1942

While a student in the early 1920s, O’Gorman would watch Orozco and Rivera creating murals at his school. Although trained as an architect (he later designed a home for Rivera and Kahlo), he abandoned his practice in 1935 to paint. He employed tempera for many of his works, including this one, which represents a bird’s-eye view of the Mexican countryside. The landscape held a personal importance—his Irish father, an amateur painter, had immigrated to Mexico to work in these mines.