Mexican art is, first and foremost, about murals -- huge expansive works that can't be confined to a small square of cloth or a mere block of marble. Murals are work that needs to escape, to be seen, and to be noticed not just by museum goers or the privileged classes, but to be on display as people walk through everyday life.
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When you think of the great Mexican artists of the twentieth century: people like Diego Rivera (DR), Jose Clemente Orozco (JCO), or David Siquieros (DS), you're thinking of artists whose most stunning works aren't in any museum or gallery, but rather are on the sides of a library, or a subway station, or even the entire interior of a government building. To really appreciate murals, and to appreciate the genius of these (and many other artists) you need to get out and find the murals!
While the artists that I mentioned are the most internationally known of muralists, there have been dozens of great muralists in Mexico City (and throughout the republic) -- people of great talent and vision who have succeeded in building reputations and loyal followings for themselves. Many have had museums built in Mexico City to showcase their works.
Of course Mexico City is not the only place to see great murals, but it has by far the most and it is undeniably the heart and soul of the latin american artistic community. (Some of the most famous works from JCO are actually in his home town of Guadalajara -- see my epinion about that city for info).
But don't worry too much...even if you don't seek out the murals, you'll probably see at least some of them as you travel through Mexico City. And while it's true that most murals aren't in museums, there are some museums in Mexico City where you will undoubtedly encounter a mural. That's the beauty of murals -- they'll find you.
Just in case the murals don't manage to jump out at you, this guide can help you sniff out even the most elusive works. It's said that thousands of murals have been done by Mexico City's artists throughout the city during the first half of the twentieth century, and while I can't provide details on all of these, I can at least point you towards some of the most famous and most accessible.
One tip: A good map might help you find some of these places, especially if you're planning on walking a lot or using the Metro subway (recommended). Some of the best maps are the Guia Roji maps, which come in various sizes and levels of detail, from small pocket versions up to the phone-book sized detailed city map. These are very good maps -- similar in quality to the A-Z maps sold in London or the Key maps that are popular here in Houston.
NOTE: I apologize for the stupid artist abbreviations, translating place names and cutting many of the important details, such as addresses of the buildings, but the poorly implemented spell checker on epinions blocks me from posting my complete review.
SOME PLACES TO FIND MURALS:
Government Palace: Some of the most fascinating murals by DR are the extensive series of murals in the National Palace. Going up the main stairway you'll see in "History of Mexico" depictions of the prominent players in mexican history: aztec and mayan lords, spanish conquistadors, catholic missionaries, pirates, revolutionaries, presidents, and even the odd emperor. Other murals in the palace include the famous"Struggle of the Classes" and the "Legend of Quetzalcoatl". Many of the murals on the first floor focus on events from pre-hispanic history. Also includes works from several other muralists.
Chapel of Jesus Nareño: The choir ceiling features a JCO mural of the "Apocalypse" which depicts the spanish conquest,;this strikes me as a rather bizarre topic (and a rather graphic depiction) for a chapel...
Palace of Fine Arts: Murals by JCO and DS, plus DR's stunning and controversial "Man at the Center of the Universe". Rivera was commissioned to paint murals in Rockefeller Center in New York, but the story is that when John Rockefeller saw the completed work, which included a depiction of Lenin, he hit the roof and ordered the work destroyed. Rivera went back to Mexico City and re-created it in the Fine Arts Palace, where the controversy created by Rockefeller has only served to guarantee the work's popularity among internatioanl visitors. Here you can also see Rufino Tamayo's (RT) "Birth of Our Nation," which interprets pre-hispanic themes with modern techniques; this was one of RT's early works, establishing his reputation as a master of the mural genre.
Restaurant Casa de los Azulejos (across from the Palace of Fine Arts): JCO mural "Omniscience" in the stairwell.
Old Customs House: Features DS mural "Patrician and Patricide" in the stairwell.
Electric Company: DS "Portrait of the Bourgeoisie" on the stairwell.
Hotel Camino Real: entrance features "Man Confronted with Indefinite" by RT.
Hotel de Mexico: 12 scenes by various artists on outside walls. DS "Polyforum Cultural".
Pinacoteca Virreinal de San Diego: This museum was built expressly to house DR's "Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda", which was originally in the Hotel Prado, until it's demise during the 1985 earthquake.
National Preparatory School: Contains several murals painted in the early 1920s. Features works by many famous artists. The best-known work here is probably JCO's murals on the staircase and upper level. DR's "The Creation" is said to present the power that could be represented by a united pan-american race. Also, "Virgin of Guadalupe,"and "Worker's Funeral.".
Secretary of Public Education building: Said to be the best site to see DR's work. There are 239 mural panels here by Rivera.
Supreme Court: JCO's "Justice", "The National Weal", and "Catharsis" -- a hellishly anarchic vision of mob power -- perhaps a dream of revolution.
Teatro Insurgentes: Stunning mosaic mural designed by DR in 1953. Ostensibly shows the history of theatre, but the mural is somewhat controversial because of the prominent depiction of comic actor Cantinflas taking from the rich and giving to the poor -- a populist Robin Hood.
National University: the side of the library features an intricate ptolemaic riddle, which I don't really understand the meaning of. Pictures of this huge university often feature this mural. There is also another, about a hundred yards away on the side of a building that features people reaching out with pencils, paper, etc. This is called "People for the University" and was done by DS. Very cool!
Olympic Stadium: glass mosaic showing the story of sport, designed by DR.
Castle at Chapultepec: Good place to see murals. Some of the works here include "History of Independence," "Juarez, the Church, and the Imperialists," and "The Constitution."
Enjoy the murals, and don't forget your camera! Unlike museums, which frown on taking photos of the works, nobody minds if you shoot a few snaps of these modern classics!!
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