The term La Revolución, Spanish for “The Revolution,” specifically refers to the Mexican Revolution that occurred from the years 1910-1917. The English term revolution most commonly refers to a rebellious act by an unsatisfied society determined to create a transformation after years of unhappiness. This is true for the Mexican Revolution of 1910 that was initiated by the revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata with hopes for changes specifically regarding labour laws and land reforms. La Revolución marks one of the most crucial periods in Mexican history, it exemplifies the beginning of a strong desire for change in Mexico with its initial intent of massive political change. It grew fiercely into a powerful desire for social change. The Revolution was not a single event in Mexican history that took place at the beginning of the 20th century; the Revolution is an ongoing process that still has a presence in Mexico today (Folgarait, 7). Culturally and socially, the presence of the Revolution created an understanding amongst Mexicans, and especially amongst Mexican artists, regarding the importance in both individual and cultural exploration of what it means to be Mexican. The Revolution also provided society with a variety of ways Mexican identity may be interpreted. Therefore the Mexican Revolution is strongly tied to the arts as it ripened an artistic movement in Mexico often referred to as the “Mexican Renaissance” (Fernandez, 23).
The Mexican Revolution attempted to implement socialist ideals and goals stressing an importance on labour rights and social justice. Mexico, under the rule of Profidio Díaz at the turn of the century, was an uncommon period of peace in a Mexico, but this was based on the “absolute suppression of the democratic political aspirations of a theoretically free people” (Azuela, xxxvi). At this point in Mexican history, a revolution was imminent (Azuela, xxxvi). In 1911, after the Díaz government had crumbled away, Francisco Madero was elected into presidential office. Revolutionary leaders such as Zapata pushed for social reforms at this point and, after the murder of Madero, when General Victoriano Huerta became president, the Revolution had began in full throttle, “Mexico at last had definitely broken with the past” (Azuela, xxxvii). Straight forward philosophies and political ideals initially brought about a revolution; however, what the Revolution left behind was much greater than a reformation of land and labour laws.
At the turn of the 20th century, in the majority of regions in postcolonial Latin America, society was in turmoil partly due to the variety of cultures and races that were produced out of European contact with the indigenous people of these nations, and the social hierarchies that had resulted as a consequence of colonialism. Politically and socially, the status of an individual in Latin America has always greatly been defined according to one’s race. Latin American countries began to express a strong need for political independence from Europe and colonization in this period.
During the Mexican Revolution, the relationship between art and revolutionary ideals became strengthened. Many artists embraced left- wing politics, and this enabled art to become more vibrant as well as politicized. Muralist painters, for example, would have a difficult time finding commissions if they were not a part of the Communist Party. As Justino Fernandez states: “In Mexico one can see the truly spectacular fusion of an old and highly developed native civilization and modern European culture bearing fruit in a major contribution of world art” (Fernandez, 7). Another crucial aspect tying the Revolution to the birth of a new artistic movement in Mexico was presented by Jose Vasconcelos as Secretary of Public Education in 1920 (Sullivan, 22). Vasconcelos’ strong belief in aesthetics lead him to directly commission revolutionary artists at the forefront of Mexican modern art such as Diego Rivera and Orozco. Vasconcelos’ understanding of the importance of art became crucial for the Mexican Renaissance and is an example of the strong political effect that artistic production had on society, because it became closely associated with the government. This political project allowed Mexico to develop a national identity as well as for Mexican artists to thrive and gain respect around the world. The United States was of particular importance in this connection (Lewis and Vaughan, 14).
The rising popularity and presence of public art that existed in Mexico following the Revolution was a major effect on culture and society promoting Mexican identity and a strong sense of nationality. The Mexican Revolution made it possible for the arts to enjoy both protection and patronage by the state which had been unknown to Mexico previously (Craven and Lozano, 18). During and after the Revolution of 1910, and well into the 1940s, the impact of the Mexican Revolution on society was extraordinary and especially transformed the visual arts. As Lozano and Craven state in Mexican Modern Masters “La Revolucion’s explosive impact after 1910 helps to account for the unsurpassed position assumed by art from Mexico during the first half of the 20th century” (25).
The Mexican Revolution marked the beginning of an artistic change, when art would become completely immersed into Mexican culture, a artists expressed their thoughts on society very publically, almost to be interpreted as visual politics. Best known for this is the renowned Mexican muralist painter Diego Rivera. The Mexican muralist movement was launched by artists inspired by new social ideals and “demanded public appreciation for the rich complexity of its emotional and thematic content” (Fernandez, 23). Murals played a major role in social and political issues in Mexico and allowed artists to communicate their political beliefs to society.
The muralist movement, according to Sullivan, intended to “generate an awareness of patriotic values amongst masses and members of indigenous races.” He goes on to state that, to the indigenous people, this message to “raise conscience” was often unsatisfactory, because the real “demands of indigenous people were much more pressing.” This may be the reason for Diego Rivera’s exceptional popularity amongst working classes and the indigenous population in Mexico. Rivera does more than promote nationalism in Mexicans or depict history through his murals; he creates social realist works that combine Mexican history with current everyday life (Fernandez, 23).
Diego Rivera explicitly made apparent in his work the understanding that he had which may be referred to as “the Mexican Problem” (Coffey, 45) in reference to the concept of nationality. This “problem” has to do with the fact that, because of the variety of different nationalities that exist in the region of Mexico, it was difficult to develop a national identity. According to Vasconcelos, the purpose of nationalism, the “ultimate goal” of muralism, was “cultural fusion, linguistic unification, and economic equilibrium” (Coffey, 49). Vasconcelos, who commissioned the production of many of Rivera’s public murals in Mexico City, “theorized that the mere presence of this material in public space would enlighten and thereby lift up the populace” (Coffey, 49). Rivera’s work is defined by art critics as “social realism.” Social realism essentially refers to the idea that art engages with real economic and political issues. Coffey refers to Rivera’s work as a “visual language that attempts to elucidate political and social realities for the purpose of determining collective action” (45).
There are many themes in Mexican art that came out of the Revolution including nationalism, the representation of identity, socialism, and Marxist ideals. All of these themes contribute to and embody the modern movement that was born out of the Revolution in Mexico. If the Mexican Revolution was not the political success many, such as revolutionary heroes such as Zapata envisioned, if it did not create social reforms that many anticipated, it did a have a positive impact on society and it revolutionized culture in Mexico, too.
Azuela, Mariano. Los de Abajo. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967.
Coffey, Mary K. “The ‘Mexican Problem’: Nation and ‘Native’ in Mexican Muralism and Cultural Discourse,” in The Social and the Real: Political Art of the 1930s in the Western Hemisphere, in Alejandro Anreus, Diane L. Linden, and Jonathan Weinberg, eds. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.
Fernandez, Justino. Mexican Art. London: Spring Books, 1965.
Lewis, Stephen E. and Mary Kay Vaughan, eds. The Eagle and the Virgin Nation and Cultural Revolution in Mexico, 1920-1940. New York: Duke UP, 2005.
Lozano, Luis Martin and David Craven. Mexican Modern Masters of the 20th Century. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico, 2006.
Paine, Frances Flynn. Diego Rivera. [New York]: Museum of Modern Art, 1972.
Sullivan, Edward. Latin American Art. New York: Phaidon, 2000.