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date: 22 August 2017

The Mexican Muralists and Frida Kahlo

Summary and Keywords

The major art form produced in Mexico during the years following the Mexican Revolution of 1910, especially during 1920–1940, was mural painting, mostly in the technique of fresco. Three artists dominated this period: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, known collectively as the Big Three. Rufino Tamayo, younger and less ideologically aligned to those three, followed his own path of a more modernist style. An important easel painter of this period was Frida Kahlo, who traveled in the cultural and political circles of the muralists but who produced strongly personal images, especially of herself.

In addition, examples of mural paintings by the Big Three in the United States receive their due attention, as does the more independent mural production in Mexico of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The paintings are analyzed in terms of context, meaning brief references to biographical details, more expansive on the general sociohistorical setting, with accounts of the patronage where highly relevant, and relations between the artists themselves. Discussions of the style of the images, in the most comprehensive and general sense, are dedicated to revealing the ideological content of the style as it serves the more straightforward subjects of the paintings.

Keywords: muralism, Mexican Revolution, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siquieros, Rufino Tamayo, Frida Kahlo


The history of the mural paintings produced in Mexico in the 20th century, especially in the critical years of the 1920s–1940s, have by now received a considerable amount of scholarly attention, in terms of both general and highly focused studies. The major figures, the Big Three (Los Tres Grandes), Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, have been extensively investigated, as well as the younger Rufino Tamayo, sometimes referred to ironically as the fourth grande. This trend has gained momentum since the late 1980s and has not abated to date, as younger generations of scholars show no decline in the quantity and certainly not in the quality of scholarship. Indeed, members of that earlier generation are both gratified and challenged by the sophistication and polish of younger scholars now reaching their own stage of intellectual maturity. It gives great satisfaction to claim that this field has now attained a steadily increasing pace of quality production but is one that is resisting complacency and has opened up new and multiple challenges of more precise and provocative investigation.

This chapter provides brief accounts of the achievements of these major painters. The conclusion will include an account of the Mexican painter who is currently receiving more attention, both popular and professional, than the muralists, that being their contemporary Frida Kahlo, best known for her oil paintings, and especially her self-portraits.

Before starting that account, it is important to historicize our topic, as Mexico during this period experienced some of the most volatile, unsettled, convulsive, and horrifically violent moments in its generally tortured history, which included invasions and impositions by foreign powers, from the Spanish Conquest of 1521 and its long colonial occupation, the United States military interventions of 1846, which lost Mexico half of its territory, and the French rule of 1863–1867. The long dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, of 1877–1911 (with an interruption in 1880–1884), resulted in a popular movement against him that led to his expulsion and the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the first major revolutionary upheaval of the 20th century. The Revolutionary leaders who replaced him proved incapable of harnessing the volcanic impulses that erupted nationwide, with vast armies and ragtag guerilla forces led by charismatic, folkloric figures such as “Pancho” Villa and Emiliano Zapata that roiled through the states of Chihuahua and Morelos. Constant armed struggle for the next ten years left 10 percent of the population dead, including the major claimants to power, entire settlements displaced, and the nation left without a stable concept or the infrastructure of statehood. Not until the early 1920s did some semblance of order and relative peace reappear, and with it the need to institutionalize the new regime and to provide it with some form of culture, both political and artistic. Out of this arduous project of nation building came the first examples of the mural paintings.

As the earliest projects were sponsored by the government, in the form of the Secretariat of Public Education, headed by its missionary Secretary, José Vasconcelos, the issue of patronage becomes critical in the analysis of these paintings, especially as the artists were placed in the compromised position of working for the government while often being sharply critical of its policies in their own political practice. This tension points out the inherent growing pains of a nation intent on modernizing its governmental infrastructure and applying the laws of the new Constitution of 1917, while quelling sporadic uprisings from rogue military leaders and dissatisfied workers from both cities and countryside. How an artist makes relevant and historically viable imagery, especially on a gigantic scale, and covering public walls in a technique that promises long durability, fresco, has built-in issues of risk, compromise, success, or failure. In other words, all Mexican artists working in this heady and fraught “Revolutionary” climate, whether muralists, easel painters, printers, photographers, sculptors, architects, or any other art medium, sat on a knife edge of idealism, instability, unpredictability, and opportunity not felt in the nation to this degree before, if at all. This so-called Mexican Renaissance, peopled by larger-than-life artists and embodied by immense painted wall images, presents special challenges to art and culture historians, especially those intent on uncovering the ideological contours of this heightened sociohistorical context as it appears in the forms and subjects of its artists.

A crucial point to make about the historical context is that while the Revolution of 1910 did throw the political culture of the nation into radical upheaval by dethroning a dictator, with many factions finding voice and power in the newly configured government, the end result of all this agitation was essentially a bourgeois-liberal regime, which assumed the mantle of “revolutionary” in a mostly symbolic fashion. The government did, however, engage in new programs of land distribution, support of worker unions, and limits on the power of the Catholic Church. It is important to mention that the mural painters were intent on pushing a more radical agenda in their images and often found themselves in ideological conflict with their middle-class patrons and the public.

The contents of the Manifesto of the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors of 1924, written by Siqueiros and co-signed by Rivera, Orozco, and a handful of other artists, makes this strident intent clear with phrases such as “We are with those who seek the overthrow of an old and inhuman system within which you, worker of the soil, produce riches for the overseer and politician, while you starve … We repudiate … all the ultra-intellectual salon art of the aristocracy and exalt the monumental expression of art because such art is public property.”1 The ideological conflict in question was that this polemic was written by way of supporting the administration of President Obregón from threats of a military coup, while attacking the very class that also supported the same administration. That the Syndicate wanted matters both ways would lead to early ruptures with the official patronage of the murals and also internal dissension among the artists.

Diego Rivera (1886–1957)

Rivera is by far the most prolific and historically recognized mural painter in this period of the early 1920s, and also the most studied by historians and critics. His reputation as the most famous artist in Mexico at this time, as well as the most famous communist, grew to mythic proportions fueled by his own exaggerations of his importance and by biographies titled such as The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera.2 Constantly in the public eye, Rivera exploited opportunities to not only tout the political and aesthetic virtues of mural painting, but also to minimize the importance of the other muralists, especially Siqueiros, who was his political enemy.

The pictorial style of Rivera’s murals can be characterized as a generalized realism, with expansive spaces containing human figures of simplified anatomy, tending toward large-scaled figure types and softly flowing body contours. This body type took on generic qualities if he was depicting a group of peasants or workers as a sign of their collective class identity, but displaying highly specific and recognizable facial features when it came to the portraiture of historical figures. All of these qualities can be seen in his Man at the Crossroads, the first version of which was in progress at the RCA Building of Rockefeller Center in New York when it was destroyed in 1934 by order of his patron, Nelson Rockefeller, upon an irresolvable disagreement about Rivera’s inclusion of a portrait of Vladimir Lenin. Rivera would not remove this challenge to American capitalism, and the project abruptly ended with the removal of the painted plaster. The entire project was repainted at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City in the same year (fig. 1). This building, with intentional resemblance to the Paris Opera by Garnier, dating from the time of Díaz, when culture in general was French in tone, eventually became a museum of the Big Three plus Tamayo, all of whom contributed massive murals.

Man at the Crossroads is not only notorious due to its New York debacle, but also notable for representing the perfect amalgam of the Rivera style, choice of topic, and narrative presentation. A heroic figure of a male worker sits at the center of the image, his gloved hand at the controls of a gigantic machine that seems to project from behind him four elliptical screens of varying scenes, between which we see vignettes of contemporary political and military agitation. But who is this worker in overalls, with light eyes and blond hair, with such strong Aryan connotations? And what is his work, who is his boss, where are his comrades? These unanswered questions are due to Rivera’s predilection for constructing grand, iconic symbols of purportedly clear purpose and political force, which left his critics of both left and right uncertain of his positions. Although the great masses collected and marching in the background are clearly involved in some directed action, probably against their class enemies, the end point of this drama is left vague at best. This ambiguity also colors Rivera’s role within the Mexican communist party, as he was expelled more than once for his politically suspect actions (such as painting for the American capitalist patrons: Rockefeller, Ford, and the San Francisco Stock Exchange), pronouncements, and contents of his paintings.

José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949)

Orozco is unique among the Big Three in avoiding strongly partisan politics and especially leftist positions on the major social issues of his time. This is not to say that he was not strongly opinionated. Indeed, his sharply sarcastic outlook on all politics produced some of the most biting critiques of not only major historical figures and issues, but also his fellow artists, especially Rivera and Siqueiros, whom he saw as generally opportunistic and politically pliable. His large mural cycles in Mexico City and Guadalajara treat subjects as diverse as the contemporary urban bourgeoisie, Spanish conquistadores, and melodramatic mythology. His firsthand witnessing of the most violent brutalities of the Revolution led him to record that horrific imagery with a directness reminiscent of Francisco Goya’s graphic series of prints, the Disasters of War. This traumatic experience proved to be a trial by fire that led him to mistrust all factionalism and motivated the dark content of his murals.

Man of Fire, of 1939, located within the cone-shaped cupula at the Hospicio Cabañas in Guadalajara, is at once his most mythic, mystical, and theatrical verdict on the human race (fig. 2). Not only is the central figure supercharged with violence and the suggestion that spiritual (or political) purification is possible only by being engulfed in flames, but the very position of the image, high inside the dome such that viewing it becomes a challenge in positioning oneself exactly underneath and looking straight up, becomes an exercise in strained bodily comportment that demands of the viewer some commitment of physical strain that then becomes part of the entire viewing experience. Our degree of discomfort in looking straight up at another figure, also directed upward in his axial positioning with the head above and the legs dangling below, creates a degree of empathetic viewing that thus becomes embodied and further heightens the drama. Orozco’s employment of the dynamics of the architectural space here, pulling us to a particular spot on the floor for maximal viewing and then pulling our vision into a progressively contracting volume above, displays his command and exploitation of the charged relationship among viewer, image, and architectural space as the driving force in creating a special experience unavailable before other art media.

The particular depiction of the burning man is of special interest. It was important to Orozco to capture enough of this man’s conventional anatomy to communicate the shape and position of the arms and legs, for instance, but also to depict the peculiar manner by which licking flames engulf and therefore obscure that generalized anatomy. Indeed, in no time at all, these feet will no longer look as such and the entire integrity of the body will be reduced to floating ash. Orozco is faced with a highly unusual visual problem, how to depict that moment of perfect balance between a body still recognizable as such and one about to be burned beyond recognition. Part of this challenge is one of visual style, as here that involves another perfect balance, this time between realistic description and formless abstraction, between shapes that look like feet or like formless red energy. The drama here operates on several levels, each one enabling the others to pull vision up and into this bodily inferno, and along with vision a consciousness that has to consider the fate of this man, dying or in a state of perpetual purification and resurrection.

David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974)

Devoted to Stalinist communism, Siqueiros supercharged his imagery with doses of political melodrama and warnings against any weakening in the face of bourgeois liberalism and the rising forces of international fascism. He was responsible for the early polemics of the Syndicate and for first inserting overtly working-class subjects in his contributions to the mural cycle commissioned by Vasconcelos at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria in Mexico City, a project with paintings by Orozco and Rivera as well. An example at this site is the incomplete fresco, Burial of a Worker, of 1923. Workers carry the simple coffin of a dead comrade, the lid decorated with a hammer and sickle.

By the time Siqueiros had achieved wide acknowledgment as a major practitioner of the medium, he was invited to contribute two major murals to the Palace of Fine Arts, the auditorium-as-mural museum. By this time, he had shifted from fresco to the use of artificial, commercial paints, and airbrush over conventional brushes, claiming that the truly advanced political artist must adjust to the latest advancements in the technologies of image making, that ideological progress must be expressed by technical progress. He also became deeply interested in cinematography, and applied aspects of depicting space and heightening the illusion of movement through “cinematic” devices such as elaborating and multiplying contours of figures as if each different line implied a different position in space. For instance, in New Democracy, of 1944 (fig. 3), at the Palace of Fine Arts, the arms of the central female figure seem to project forcefully into our space, and her entire torso and directional vector seem to rotate eerily in space as we walk past it, not like eyes in a framed portrait that seem to follow us, but like the entire space in the image and all its contents adjust to our presence and movement. Siqueiros was deeply affected by the cinematography of Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet filmmaker who traveled to Mexico in 1931, during which time he filmed ¡Que Viva México!, on the subject of Mexican campesinos, peasants, suffering under the rule of vicious rural landlords. All of the devices at the disposal of film as a modern and mechanical medium promised to Siqueiros a way out of the antiquated medium of fresco, and also a way into full relevance with contemporary leftist theory and action.

The mural that he completed as head of a team of painters for the electricians’ union in Mexico City of 1939–1940 is exemplary of this commitment to join progressive politics and technique. Portrait of the Bourgeoisie covers three walls and the ceiling of a small staircase at the union headquarters building.3 The composition is vast and visually complicated, as is the narrative of an alarmist warning of the rise of international fascism. The action is supercharged, the colors deeply saturated, the protagonists exaggerated in their poses and expressions, all in the service of agitating the working class to armed resistance against fascism. Of particular interest is the treatment of space, as Siqueiros manages to make the architectural corners and wall seams disappear in the illusion of a coherently fluid space.

The most grandiose of his murals was also his last major one, The March of Humanity on Earth and Toward the Cosmos, of 1964–1971. The title itself is indicative of his move away from earthly political struggle to highly abstract and mythological messages. It is relevant that he started this gigantic project, claimed to be the largest mural ever, covering the interior and exterior surfaces of the building known as the Polyforum Siqueiros in Mexico City, directly after being released from four years as a prisoner of the state, accused of political agitation. The building itself is shaped as a gigantic gem, each exterior facet a wall covered with figural imagery. The interior is an oval-shaped room whose smoothly curving walls and ceiling are also covered in countless figures massing and marching.

This project was commissioned by a wealthy industrialist and owner of a massive tourist hotel located on the same grounds: the intended public for The March is clearly the affluent international tourist. 1968, roughly midway in the production of this mural, is a year of deep importance to Mexico, as it is also the year of the Mexico City Olympic Games, a pitch by the government to present Mexico as fully modernized to host such an event and to hold membership in the ranks of developed nations. In the same year the regime also ordered army units to fire into a gathered mass of unarmed students protesting various abuses of the government. This unprovoked attack resulted in 300–600 deaths, and in widespread national and international condemnation. Mexico in 1968 was caught in an impossible balancing act between an ambition to reach full acceptance into the rank of developed nations, and a vicious regime that repressed opposition with bullets and allowed no democratic processes of political development. In this context of utter sociopolitical contradiction, the last remaining Grande emerged from political victimization to create an image of almost impossible visual readability and internally compromised political messages. It seemed that the classic period of Mexican muralism had reached a conclusion of stark contrast to its deeply engaged beginnings of the 1920s.

Rufino Tamayo (1899–1991)

A critical figure in this period, Tamayo argued long and adamantly against what he saw as the insular and isolationist work and attitude of the Big Three, whom he saw bound to a superficial nationalism, filled with obligatory mexicanismo content and folkloristic clichés. This contrary position was reached after his art studies in Europe, where he was deeply influenced by the abstractions of the avant-garde impulse of post-WWII Paris. On his return to Mexico, he sought to incorporate the lessons of abstraction with the subjects and colors, especially, of pre-Conquest Mexican art.4

The Birth of Our Nationality (fig. 4), of 1953, painted on canvas with artificial paints, is emphatic in its use of abstract forms, such that a great part of the bottom half of the imagery is close to unreadable and seems to express the unspeakable violence inflicted upon pre-Conquest native Mexicans by the looming and demonic figure of a monstrous human torso wielding mechanical weaponry atop a lunging horse. Such a combined killing machine, representing a Spanish conquistador, was seen as one, hybrid, mythic creature by the ancient Mexicans who had never seen horses before the Conquest. The sprawled victims can be barely discerned in the rubble below the charging beast. It is important that the point of view is from the ground up, as if we are among the victims of both conquistador (probably Cortés) and of contemporary consciousness, as the visual language is thoroughly informed by 1950s international abstraction. The point of understanding the use of such a visual style to express a sense of this tortured history of the Conquest is that such a period of trauma, especially as it designates the start of Mexican nationalism through invasion, defeat, and degradation, is that realism is inadequate to capture such oppressive history, truly unknowable and undefinable by reason of its unimaginable horrors. This, according to Tamayo, is the best that Mexicans in the mid-20th century can manage as a form of historical knowledge and recovery of that moment of a forced welding of two contrary cultures, Spanish and indigenous Mexican. In his politics, Tamayo avoided and sharply criticized the leftists Rivera and Siqueiros, whom he saw as hopelessly seduced by Soviet propaganda. His form of nationalism was to recognize the inextricable ties to international developments, especially in terms of passing the authentic forms and colors of Mexican culture through the filter of a modernist style.

In a 1964 mural located in the lobby of the Hotel Camino Real in Mexico City, for instance, titled Duality (or The Battle Between the Moon and the Sun), the feathered serpent of Aztec mythology, Quetzalcoatl, launches a huge-fanged attack on a spotted jaguar, who counterattacks with equal ferocity, all against a richly colored and atmospheric backdrop, with abstracted forms of the moon and the sun.

The two murals just mentioned plus vast numbers of smaller paintings and prints make this fusion of cultures and styles a staple of Tamayo’s unique visual formulations.

Mexican Murals in the United States

A critical part of the history of Mexican mural painting are the examples executed in the United States, especially by the major figures, Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros. All such examples are important not only for the qualities of the images themselves, but also for the unique circumstances that brought these painters to America. These American excursions also exposed the artists to an entirely new audience, and in many cases to direct influence upon public painting in the major cities, as in the Coit Tower murals in San Francisco. To this day, for instance, the Mexican-American muralists in Los Angeles exhibit many traits directly attributable to the style of Siqueiros, in terms of super-dramatized narratives in convulsive landscapes peopled by heroic figures asserting their cultural and political rights.

The case of Rivera is the most prolific, best documented, and most controversial in the political sense, that having mostly to do with his patrons. In New York City, he painted for the Rockefellers, in Detroit for the Fords, and in San Francisco for the Stock Exchange: in other words, an explicit communist painting for the most exemplary capitalist patrons in America. How he rationalized such patronage is beyond the scope of this essay, but it certainly contributed to his dramatic expulsion from the Mexican Communist Party.

Of these three projects, we will consider only the four courtyard walls that he painted for the Detroit Institute of the Arts in 1932–1933, mostly on the topic of the automobile industry in Detroit, titled Detroit Industry. For this opportunity to depict the proletariat of America, specifically the automobile workers in the Ford factories, he dedicated serious study and preparation by visiting the actual factories and observing the complex production process and the role of the workers throughout the entire assembly system. The result is an epic image of a fantastical space of intertwining assembly lines, plumbing, lighting, and automobile parts in different stages of manufacture, all populated by workers performing exacting, specific tasks that are then joined in a massive collective effort. Rivera then manages to form one machine into shapes resembling the large stone sculpture of Pre-Hispanic Mexico, specifically the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, as metal pistons recall her snake-skirt forms and massive rotating elements her menacing arms. This blend of ancient religion and modern technology speaks to Rivera’s historical consciousness but also to his tendency toward mythologizing.

In 1932–1934 Orozco produced a large mural cycle in the Baker Library at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, NH: The Epic of American Civilization. In vast narrative strokes, he covered issues as varied as the development of the ancient Americas, the corruption of modern Mexican politicians, and the moribund core of Western educational systems. This vast history moves quickly and suddenly between scenes, and pauses only in vignettes such as showing a construction worker reading a book while at rest. One theme that is unique to Orozco among the Big Three and unique to this mural cycle is the attention to the pictured architecture within these scenes, from Aztec pyramids to modernist, steel-frame buildings. The second type is depicted as either the site of construction workers piecing together the steel frame, or a derelict structure with broken windows as a symbol of the decline of modern society. In either case, he depends on architecture as metaphor for the good or ills of a given historical moment.

Siqueiros traveled to California in 1932 while in political exile from Mexico, under suspicion of having fomented activism against the government. He completed two projects in Los Angeles and one in Santa Barbara. The largest of the Los Angeles murals, América Tropical, located on an exterior wall in the original Mexican settlement in the historic center of the city, proved to be almost instantly controversial. Intended by the patron as a folkloristic treatment of the luxurious foliage and exotic peoples of the rainforests of Latin America, Siqueiros and his team loaded the imagery with a savage commentary on the persecution of native peoples by armed foreigners (its subtitle was Oppressed and Destroyed by Imperialism). The centerpiece of this horizontal painting is a Maya-styled pyramid, in front of which is positioned a young, indigenous male strapped to a wooden cross, not simply crucified, but apparently tortured beyond reason, his head twisting grotesquely sideways. The entire pose is of utter violence and suffering imposed by greater forces upon innocent and unarmed native peoples, as an aggressive eagle perches atop the cross. Armed men crouch at the right side of the jungle setting, ready for further engagement. Not surprisingly, the mural was almost immediately whitewashed by its patrons and remained hidden for eighty-some years before its recent restoration and stabilization, covered from the elements with an awning and generally protected and curated. Such provocations were typical of Siqueiros, who generally took advantage of a commission to assert his radical political agenda.

Frida Kahlo (1907–1954)

As the last two decades of scholarship on the topic of modern Mexican art have seen an expanding list of ever-more-sophisticated studies on many aspects of the mural painters, such as the Big Three, there has been a correspondingly inadequate treatment of easel painters and of women artists working in any medium. With the international rise during this same period of progressive scholarly production in women’s and gender studies across the humanities, there has come to be a glaring vacuum of attention to Mexican women artists, especially women easel painters, in this field. It is now necessary to address this gap in scholarship by taking advantage of recent methodological advances in women’s and gender studies, thus not only doing overdue justice to such an important painter as Frida Kahlo, but also updating the scholarship on art by women and on easel painting in Mexico in the 20th century. Through this sort of correction, the ultimate aim is to assert that to more fully understand art production in general, and perhaps, ironically, by the male mural painters themselves, we need to situate different media and the two genders in a dialectical relationship of active dynamism, where each inflects the motives and achievements of the other.

The subject of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo is vast and complex, and has been made even more interesting since the mid-1980s due to the extraordinary amount of attention paid to her art and her biography by the academic and popular world alike. In addition to a considerable body of scholarship, there has been a steady production of exhibitions in museums and galleries, several full-length docu-drama films, and a media campaign to popularize “Frida’s” self-portraits, often in the form of commercial advertisements.

What seems to be at the root of Kahlo’s popularity is that she was a risk taker, that she broke so many conventions and somehow spoke directly to common human concerns. Because so many of these qualities appear in her art, the art itself has received the attention usually reserved for devotional relics, as it seems to so many viewers and scholars as a direct connection to the subject herself.

So many of the paintings mix mundane reality with the fantastic and unimaginable that surrealism becomes an attractive label that allows us to characterize Kahlo’s style. Labeling of this sort will prove to be extremely limiting. Several factors resist this: a non-European artist with no strong ties to the European movement, a female artist who did not serve as complacent muse to the male surrealist impulse, and the source of her fantastic images being transformations of her all-too-real conditions, rather than rising from suppressed dream imagery.

An important issue is Kahlo’s tremendous awareness of the dramatic moment in Mexico’s history that she was living through. Although born in 1907, she claimed rather to have entered the world in 1910, the year of the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, thus an intimate product of the birth of modern Mexico, a “child” of the Revolution. However, the premises of the Revolution had to wait until the 1920s to find full cultural expression, as the period 1910–1920 had been marked by the armed violence of a civil war. Thus, as the Revolution caught its second breath in the 1920s, and was able only then to express its “newness,” so did Kahlo, as she began to paint in this decade.

Another theme of great interest is that of doubling. Kahlo both was and was not a Mexican woman in the manner that that historical character was constructed at that time. Although by the signs of her elaborate native wardrobe she was more Mexican than other urban women, she was also something profoundly other than a centered, predictable, and anchored female subject in her open and assertive challenges to conventional Mexican femininity in her general personal and social comportment. That the paintings address and process this issue, the double portrait, The Two Fridas (fig. 5), of 1939, should receive extended attention. Both Fridas face the viewer, holding hands and sitting on the same bench, side by side. The very odd setting seems to be outside, but the ground looks like an interior floor, and the tormenting sky is rendered like a regular wallpaper pattern, flat against a wall. The explicit twining of one person, same in face but dressed so differently, raises many question of sameness and difference in a human subject. In this case that human twining is physically set in a space that is neither truly inside or outside, neither real dirt ground nor interior flooring, neither natural or artificial sky. These tensions between charged states of reality and of mental subjectivity are what mark Kahlo’s self-portraits as both utterly personal and yet so unknowable.

Because the style used by Kahlo is her instrument for presenting herself and her world, and because she trusted, respected, and refined that instrument, the paintings deserve careful and sustained study as instruments for interpretation. Thus, the art of Kahlo is not a transparent illustration of her life and times. It is, rather, a conduit through which she became important to an age in need of a grounding of social and personal experience through a visual representation of it.

In order to avoid the pitfalls of the current fad of empathy around this artist, it is necessary to present the art as truly important in the historical sense. This can be done by placing her paintings in a critical biographical and sociohistorical context.

A great majority of the popular and academic literature on Kahlo attempts to equate the physical and emotional trauma of the artist to the content of the paintings. This approach has reduced the function of the paintings to merely channeling the condition of Kahlo’s body and mind. The paintings can be productively approached by addressing the highly deliberate manner in which they are conceived, composed, and calculated to carry meaning by their attention to formal, stylistic qualities. Kahlo created densely contrived images that transfigure and re-create, rather than simply reflect her life in a passive manner. Her deep engagement in partisan leftist politics, her serious considerations of the role of women in Mexican society, and her commitment to a highly individualized and assertive expression of self, especially through the vehicles of her body and her face, all contribute to a strong will toward empowerment. We can therefore see Kahlo the person as complex to a very high order, and her artwork as a register of how she negotiated meaningful visual signs in the context of the social and political world of the Mexico of her time. These qualities make Kahlo a subject of study well suited to feminist and gender-studies approaches. The explicit role of her body in her life and in her paintings appeals to body-theory applications. Issues of personal and political identity play directly into psychological and sociological art-historical methods.

The art of Kahlo is dominated by images of herself, and hence academic attention addresses that subject much more than her still-lives and landscapes. What is immensely interesting about these self-portraits is the uncanny mix of the real and the unreal, or fantastic. Yes, resemblance has to be there in any form of portraiture, but in Kahlo’s case, she felt so compelled to present her image as filtered through the bizarre and tragic events of her life that the resulting images are balanced between those polar opposites of the concrete and the unimaginable. As Kahlo’s socialist beliefs were more personal than doctrinaire, the opportunity for finding a parallel to the conflicted aspects of her paintings in her politics is rich indeed.

The historical person we know as Frida Kahlo, her art, and her national context all found a place in one another due to the overlapping of behavior and commonalties of experience. Such a combination of factors produced the paintings, especially the self-portraits, and by unraveling these factors and knitting them back together again, we get a sense of the vital dynamics that were driving Mexican life and culture at this time, but imaged through the highly particularized lens of the unique life circumstances of one artist and of the challenging visual forms that carry this content.

The formal effects of the paintings are quite modernistic in their refusal to serve the needs of realistic representation alone. The purposeful distortions and incoherencies of spatial and anatomical aspects could have been and were used by other artists in applications of modernist, abstract style, for instance, to flex the will to play with space and flatness. Kahlo inverts would-be academic exercises in style alone and commits modernist pictorial devices to serve the deeper question of how a person of real flesh and blood might survive in a world that discourages her sheer physical and psychic presence in it. These paintings by Kahlo insist that presenting a figure in an abstracted and at times fantastic space is an opportunity to demonstrate a more complex relation between these two factors, that they are bound by a common history and behavior, and that one inflects greater responsibility on the other.

Late Murals

And now, a brief return to mural painting, but of a very different sort than that of the 1920s–1960s. Of the several groups of what might be labeled “unofficial” muralism, but more properly grassroots, neighborhood centered, and spontaneous in execution and choice of imagery, Tepito Arte Acá emerges as having a special internal cohesion of purpose and visual style. Named after their working-class neighborhood in Mexico City, Tepito, and also using the colloquial inflection roughly translated as “Art Here,” this group initially stayed close to their immediate streets to create images of their fellow tepiteños in everyday activities in the 1980s. With the permission of the residents and owners of the buildings whose walls he covered, the single painter of the group, Daniel Manrique, painted quickly on untreated, raw walls, moving a ladder back and forth while sketching figures in rough, black outlines and filling these in with direct and unmixed colors from commercial sources, such as house paint. Although rendered quickly and without stylistic refinements, the scenes emerge with clear readability of situations and narratives intimately related to the lives and concerns of the neighborhood.

Due to the materials used, these images faded and flaked off fairly quickly, the intentional ephemerality expressing the unpredictable flux of ongoing social life. This very independent form of image making caught on throughout Mexico and in places abroad with large Mexican populations, such as Los Angeles5 and throughout the American Southwest, and even in the large cities of the Northwest, Midwest, and Northeast.

In Mexico, such expressions of commitment to neighborhood values over and above those of national ones were accepted as a viable antidote to a government seen increasingly to be an agent of the repression of local culture and politics throughout the 1990s and into the early 21st century. That groups such as the Zapatista political movement of the 1990s produced conventional murals, ephemeral imagery, and internet media speaks to the trust of politicized Mexicans in imagery to carry their messages of social intent and import that otherwise would be suppressed by the official world. It is difficult to imagine that such trust and its resulting practice would have remained effective without the example of the first murals of the 1920s. Although strongly tied to the patronage of the government then, their deeper messages of political dissonance and resistance to the grand official agenda has proven inspirational and instructive to the broad range of Mexican muralists of today.6

Discussion of the Literature

The approach to the Mexican murals in the 1940s–1980s was identical to that of other art-historical fields, consisting of either purely formal analysis of style, sheer adulation of the aesthetic “genius” of the artists, detailed iconographical analysis, or biography-heavy studies that centered on the psychology of the artist. The murals of the 1920s, especially, were subject to automatic assumptions that their content was congruent with the “revolutionary” principles of the Revolution of 1910, those principles hardly that in the first place. Regardless of the artist, they were all seen to support and propagate that mythical ideology.

Beginning in the 1980s, these received notions were slowly but surely dismantled under the combined impact of the methods of the social history of art and of so-called critical theory, which included structuralism, semiotics, and deconstruction. The social historians revealed the ideological underpinnings of the paintings, which were in some cases at odds with those of the patrons or complicit with the reactionary impulses of the government. The various strands of critical theory dove deeply into the formal constructions of the images to uncover their sometimes unconscious and symbolically structured operations. This combination of approaches allowed new questions to be asked, such as to the social and semiotic construction of viewers and audiences, internal contradictions in the structures of patronage, and the spreading diaspora of Mexican-influenced mural practice abroad.

As even younger generations of scholars digested these changes, one saw a greater focus on micro-historical circumstances and developments, such as murals in one particular state or provincial city, artists other than the Big Three + Tamayo, more attention to collective mural production, more attention to women artists, and a special focus on the borderlands between Mexico and the United States, as immigration, legal and otherwise, became an increasingly loaded political and economic issue across that porous border. The border problem raised larger questions of who, what, and where, especially, Mexicans were defined, as the American areas of the borderlands were obviously deeply inflected with their previous status as part of Mexico before the 1846 war between these two countries.

The current trend is experiencing an important development, as necessary corrections of the framework and conclusions of the scholarship of the 1980s are regularly produced. It is significant that scholarship from that earlier period has been constructively critiqued by current scholars, and that the accumulated scope of today’s scholars is truly inclusive and progressive.

Primary Sources

General sources: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA), Mexico City; Archivo de la Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City; Archivo de Obras Públicas, Departamento del Distrito Federal, Mexico City; National Center for Conservation and Register of Artistic Patrimony, Mexico City; Consejo Nacional de Fomento Educativo, Mexico City; Dirección de Monumentos Coloniales del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City; Archivo General de la Nación (also with digital links to major figures), Mexico City; Biblioteca Nacional, Hemeroteca, Mexico City; Archivos Históricos Secretaría de Educación Pública, Mexico City; Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, Mexico City; Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universida Nacional Autónoma de México, (UNAM-IIE); Artists’ Files, Museum of Modern Art, New York; Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection (BLAC) at the University of Texas at Austin.

For Siqueiros: Sala de Arte Publico Siqueiros (SAPS), Mexico City.

For Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Fideicomiso Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo, Banco de México, at, Mexico City; Detroit Institute of Arts.

For Orozco: Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil; Dartmouth College Library, Hanover, New Hampshire; Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire; Instituto Cultural Cabañas, Guadalajara, Mexico.

Further Reading

Acevedo, Esther, ed. Guía de Murales del Centro Histórico de la Ciudad de México. Mexico City: Universidad Iberoamericana/Departamento de Arte, CONAFE, 1984.Find this resource:

Anreus, Alejandro. Orozco in Gringoland: The Years in New York. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Anreus, Alejandro, Robin Adèle Greeley, and Leonard Folgarait, eds. Mexican Muralism: A Critical History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Azuela, Alicia. Arte y Poder: Renacimiento artístico y revolución social, México, 1910–1945. Mexico City: FCE, 2005.Find this resource:

Barnet-Sanchez, Holly, and Tim Drescher. Give Me Life: Iconography and Identity in East LA Murals. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Campbell, Bruce. Mexican Murals in Times of Crisis. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Cardoza y Aragón, Luis. Orozco. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1959.Find this resource:

Charlot, Jean. The Mexican Mural Renaissance, 1920–1925. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967.Find this resource:

Coffey, Mary K.How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture: Murals, Museums, and the Mexican State. London: Duke University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Debroise, Olivier. Figuras en el trópico: plástica mexicana, 1920–1940. Barcelona: Océano, 1984.Find this resource:

Du Pont, Diana C., ed. Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted. Mexico City: Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, 2007.Find this resource:

Fernández, Justino. Orozco, Forma e Idea. Mexico City: Hermanos Porrúa, 1942.Find this resource:

Flores, Tatiana. Mexico’s Revolutionary Avant-Gardes: From Estridentismo to ¡30-30!. London: Yale University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Folgarait, Leonard. Mural Painting and Social Revolution in Mexico, 1920–1940: Art of the New Order. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

González Mello, Renato, and Diane Miliotes, eds. José Clemente Orozco in the United States: 1927–1934. London: W. W. Norton, 2002.Find this resource:

Greeley, Robin Adèle. “Disability and National Identity in the Painting of Frida Kahlo.” In Gender and Disability. Edited by Bonnie Smith and Beth Hutchinson, 216–232. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Herrera, Hayden. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo. New York: Perennial Library, Harper & Row, 1983.Find this resource:

Hurlburt, Laurance. The Mexican Muralists in the United States. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Indych-López, Anna. Muralism Without Walls: Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros in the United States, 1927–1940. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Jolly, Jennifer. “Art of the Collective: David Alfaro Siqueiros, Josep Renau, and Their Collaboration at the Mexican Electricians’ Syndicate.” Oxford Art Journal 31.1 (2008): 129–151.Find this resource:

Lear, John. Picturing the Proletariat: Artists and Labor in Revolutionary Mexico, 1908–1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017.Find this resource:

Lee, Anthony. Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics, and San Francisco’s Public Murals. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Orozco, José Clemente. Textos de Orozco. 2d ed. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1983.Find this resource:

Ramírez, Mari Carmen. “The Ideology and Practice of the Mexican Mural Movement: 1920–1925.” PhD dissertation, University of Chicago, 1989.Find this resource:

Rochfort, Desmond. Mexican Muralists: Orozco, Rivera, Siquieros. 2d ed. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998.Find this resource:

Siqueiros, David Alfaro. Me llamaban el coronelazo. Mexico City: Biografías Gandesa, 1977.Find this resource:

Wolfe, Bertram. The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera. New York: Stein and Day, 1963.Find this resource:

Zavala, Adriana. Becoming Modern, Becoming Tradition: Women, Gender and Representation in Mexican Art. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010.Find this resource:


(1.) As edited by Alejandro Anreus in Alejandro Anreus, Robin Adèle Greeley, and Leonard Folgarait, Mexican Muralism: A Critical History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 320.

(2.) Bertram Wolfe, The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera (New York: Stein and Day, 1963).

(3.) See Jennifer Jolly, “Art of the Collective: David Alfaro Siqueiros, Josep Renau, and Their Collaboration at the Mexican Electricians’ Syndicate,” Oxford Art Journal 31.1 (2008): 129–151; and Laurance Hurlburt, The Mexican Muralists in the United States (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989).

(4.) Diana C. Du Pont, ed., Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted (Mexico City: Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, 2007).

(5.) Holly Barnet-Sanchez and Tim Drescher, Give Me Life: Iconography and Identity in East LA Murals (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2016).

(6.) Bruce Campbell, Mexican Murals in Times of Crisis (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003).