Kathryn E. O’Rourke
Architecture in Mexico City in the mid-20th century was shaped by rapid economic and urban growth, demographic change, new construction technologies, and politics. Architects adapted modernist idioms and those that evoked historical precedents for new purposes. Key figures who had begun practice earlier in the century, including Mario Pani, Juan O’Gorman, José Villagrán García, and Luis Barragán, designed major new works and strongly influenced the profession, even as a new generation led by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, Ricardo Legorreta, and Teodoro González de Léon came of age. As they had been since the 1920s, public patrons were the most important clients of modern buildings, which often addressed needs for better housing, education, and health care. The period also saw the rise of modern suburbs and the evolution of the single-family house, as well as the creation of major buildings for increasingly important cultural institutions, especially museums.
As they had in preceding decades, architects used the non-architectural arts, particularly painting, to distinguish their works. The legacy of the Mexican muralist movement was most evident on the facades of major buildings in the new University City, where the influence of international modernist planning principles was also striking. In 1968 Mexico City hosted the Olympics, for which architects, planners, and designers created a network of buildings and images that functioned interdependently to present Mexico as cosmopolitan and historically rooted in its indigenous history. Sprawl and pollution worsened in the 1970s, as the capital came to be dominated by buildings that were not designed by architects. While some observers questioned the relevance of architecture in the face of seemingly unstoppable and uncontrollable growth, talented young architects responded with buildings notable for their monumentality, mass, and sophisticated engagement with historical types.
After decades of revolutionary upheaval and political violence that began early in the 20th century, Mexico had seemingly achieved stability and a relative level of social peace by the 1940s. The peasant revolution of 1910—beginning with its armed, insurrectionary phase (1910–1920) to the subsequent decades (1920–1940) that involved making “The Revolution” manifest in the everyday lives of Mexicans who (to borrow historian Jeffrey Pilcher’s metaphor) chose à la carte from the revolutionary menu—produced a durable political order characterized by an active level of popular participation and legitimacy. The peace was durable, yet potentially fragile since postrevolutionary rulers, contained within the confines of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and its previous incarnations, could not take the peasant masses for granted. Revolution had taught these masses something about their power, both its limitations and potential, to shape the content and form of the Mexican state.
After 1940, as the PRI gradually exhibited its preference for political authoritarianism and an economic project that rapidly industrialized and urbanized the country while pauperizing the countryside, a series of disparate popular protest movements continually emerged. Usually peaceful and basing their alternative modernizing visions on the 1917 Constitution and the radical policies of President Lázaro Cárdenas during the 1930s, these movements—peasant, organized labor, and student movements—often faced repression and violence at the hands of state agents and/or local-regional caciques when demanding political democracy and economic justice. The spectacular massacre of protestors in public spaces and the selective assassination of dissident movement leaders represent two of the tactics employed by the PRI to quell popular resistance in the post–1940 era. Yet, such instances of state violence also stimulated political and tactical radicalization as some protestors organized revolutionary expressions of armed struggle and guerrilla warfare. From 1940 to 1982, more than three dozen armed organizations emerged in almost every region, in both urban and rural settings, displaying a wide variety of revolutionary ideologies and practices. Beginning with Rubén Jaramillo’s 1943 armed resistance in Morelos and ending with the formal dissolution of the urban Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre in 1982, these armed struggles generally shared the goal of overthrowing the PRI regime, seizing state power, and articulating a socialist vision for a post-PRI Mexico.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.
That the Mexican mural renaissance is understudied is clear from the fact than not one of its artists has been the subject of a scholarly biography. Moreover, the movement as a whole has usually been viewed through nationalist prejudices and partisan interpretations. A current reevaluation uses the wedge of several hitherto marginalized artists who figure more prominently in documents and chronology than in popular history. Among them, Jean Charlot can be placed securely at the beginning of several major developments, which were continuations of his work in France. At the open air art school of Coyoacán, he helped the young teachers move from impressionism to a geometry-based postimpressionism more appropriate for mural composition. He introduced woodcut, which he had practiced in France and which became the print medium of choice for generations of Mexican artists. His first mural, The Massacre in the Main Temple, was important for its successful use of fresco—immediately adopted as the preferred medium by other muralists—and its dynamic geometric composition, an alternative to Diego Rivera’s static classicism in Creation. Charlot further broadened the thematic and stylistic options of the movement in a series of small oils and in the first studies of the indigenous nude. He continued to nourish his colleagues with the results of his work as an archeological draughtsman at the Chichen Itza expedition of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC.
Charlot also participated in the notable collaboration between artists and writers in 1920s Mexico. Along with Manuel Maples Arce, he was on the two-man Direction Committee of the estridentista movement, illustrating books of poetry and joining group exhibitions. His writings are among the earliest discussions of contemporary Mexican art—publicizing the movement in Europe and the United States—and continue to influence interpretation today. His collections of documents and interviews, as well as his personal experience, became the invaluable basis of books like his The Mexican Mural Renaissance, 1920–1925 and numerous articles in several languages. His latest bibliography is 173 pages long. Charlot fulfilled the unique role of insider-outsider, participant-observer, in the Mexican mural renaissance.