This article will feature in Issue 35: Fractured Nations (March 2020)

Following the Mexican Revolution, the newly formed government pursued art as a means of building national identity and establishing a collective narrative about the war. Art is a powerful means of self-expression, and it was often successful in establishing new senses of national character and history, but it was less able to grapple with the complex issues of gender identity and personal experience.

Mexico gained its right to self-governance following the War of Independence in 1821, but the newly independent state struggled with years of political instability: in the 30 years that followed Mexico had over 50 different governments. The end of this period was marked by the ascension of  Porfirio Diaz, a Mexican general-turned-politician, in 1877, who served as President for 31 years. His authoritarian ruling style was justified on the basis that it would bring a new era of homogeneity and cohesion. Yet this period, known as ‘Profiriato’, saw the gap between rich and poor grow ever larger. A new generation of educated Mexicans, disgruntled with Diaz’s regime, began to gain influence. 1911 marked the removal of Diaz from power, and the beginning of the Mexican Revolution.

Warfare continued even after the signing of the Constitution in 1917. Despite the citizens success in overthrowing the dictatorial Porfiortio Diaz, the new leadership of Mexico remained problematic and ever-changing. It was during this period of instability that the post-revolutionary art movement was born. Jose Vasconcelos, Secretary of State for Public Education for just three years between 1921-1924, was fundamental to the growth of the post-revolutionary art movement. Vasconcelos saw muralism as a form of national education, itself pivotal to the creation of a national identity.  He encouraged artists to reflect on what it meant to be Mexican, a member of a ‘mestizo’, or mixed, society. Labelled the ‘cultural caudillo’ of the Mexican Revolution, his intention was to utilise the education system to create a positive and unified Mexican identity.

Muralism was viewed by Vasconcoles and the revolutionary government at the time, as a medium by which the nation’s fractured history could be reconciled. It was a way in which artists tousled with the nation’s numerous cultural influences. Paintings of artists such Fernando Leal showed a recognition of the pre-Columbian, Indian culture. One painting from 1922, ‘Los Danzantes de Chalma’, reminds viewers of the important fusion between Catholicism and Indian culture, something which had previously been ignored by members of ‘Los Tres Grandes’. Robert Montenegro’s impassioned ‘Mayan Women’ (1926) displays Sculptural Figures in bold block colours and draws on Montenegro’s experiences in France and Spain. 

Vasconcelos’ emphasise on ‘Positivism’ – positive reflections on past trauma – led to the encouragement of depictions of wartime experience. By documenting the triumphs of Mexican soldiers on a huge and very visual scale, the government homogenised the wartime effort. This chimes with the theory of cultural trauma proposed by the Sociologist Jeffrey Alexander, that nationalism is deeply intertwined with wartime success or failure. Remembering those who sacrificed their lives for the sake of the ‘state’ is a process of national unification in which collective grief is channelled into camaraderie. Murals such as Jose Clemente Orzoco’s 1926 ‘The Trench’ emotively show the sacrifice made by soldiers for the Mexican nation. However, not all Mexican artists took this approach, and many struggled to balance the portrayal of personal identity with depicting the political homogeneity of the new nation.

Vasconcelos was also supportive of ‘Corridos’ (Folk Songs) as a way of creating a national identity, perhaps something which contributed to the popularisation of the ‘Adelita’ character in songs. ‘Adelita’ was the name given in popular culture to the ‘Soldadera’ (Female Soldier). The ‘Corridos’ were usually love stories that depicted the ‘Soldadera’ falling in love with a revolutionary and eventually becoming involved in the cause herself. Yet, the ‘Corridos’ are produced through the male gaze, and in a highly feminising way. This contrasts with wartime depictions of knife-wielding ‘Soldaderas’ as aggressive as their male counterparts which highlight women’s devotion to revolutionary fervour in times of need.

This struggle over the nature of gender ideals was present in the world of Frida Khalo. In Khalo’s 1927 portrait ‘Lad Adelita, Pancho Villa and Frida’, Khalo places herself in the centre of the painting, somewhat passive in comparison to the ‘Soldaderas’ actively mingling with soldiers in the background. Khalo regularly grappled with her Mexican identity through non-state-sponsored art. She re-analysed traditional Mexican symbols, showing them in a new light. For example, Khalo includes Monkeys, traditionally a symbol of lust, to instead show protectiveness and care. Khlao, like many other artists, used her art not to build a homogenous identity, but instead to explore what being ‘Mexican’ really meant.

Ultimately, Muralism aimed to look forward. Vasconcelos’ envisioned an optimistic future for Mexico which can be seen in Diego Rivera’s 1922 ‘The Creation’, a state-commissioned piece which intertwines the Mexican state with good fortune through the Christian figures of Love, Peace and Prosperity. Similarly, Rivera’s ‘The History of Mexico’ (1929) is a prolific and impressive mural which traces the nation’s history through conflict and occupation into a bright, prosperous, and socialist future.

Vasconcelos’ sponsoring of muralism did help to create a national identity. Murals such as those created by Los Tres Grandes remain epic visual prompts to the unity of the Mexican people and help to define national history and character. But although the movement was important, it could not fully capture highly private and contested experiences – such the role and experience of women in the war – into public consciousness.