Mexico City: Muralism

July 7th, 2010 by
Categories: Arts, Destinations, History, Mexico City

By Ellen Creager, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, in the theEdmonton Journal

MEXICO CITY - Go ahead and use Diego Rivera as excuse. Mention murals as the reason you’re coming. But get down here right away, art lovers, and soak in the atmosphere of one of the most interesting cities in the world.

Diego Rivera's First Mural 1922-1923

Mexico’s capital city is buzzing with 22 million people. Known for its restaurants, nightlife and traffic, it is surprisingly clean, dignified and gracious, its intentions serious, its attitude worlds away from tourist spots like Cancun or Los Cabos.

It also is 500 to 2,000 miles south of Mexico’s dangerous U.S. border towns.

"Mexico City is the real Mexico," says Fernando Ledesma, arts expert and guide in the city. "It has four cultural World Heritage sites -- more than any other city in the world. It has 160 museums. It has the richest cultural heritage in all Latin America."

In the 1920s to 1950s, muralists flourished here, their astonishing paintings covering buildings and walls all over the city. They told stories of dictators and emperors, Indians and gods, elites and rebels -- all depicted in muralists’ art as swept along by history as this nation spun from ancient cultures to the Aztecs, Spanish and revolution.

The most famous muralist, of course, is Diego Rivera. He is known in the United States as the creator of "Detroit Industry," the towering four-wall masterpiece painted in 1932-33 at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

But here in Mexico City, you can see so much more.

The Dolores Olmedo Museum has 150 Rivera works, including masterful paintings he did in Europe and Russia. The National Anthropology Museum has stunning ancient art of the Americas. Here in the city, you can see Rivera’s studio, his paintbrushes, his first mural, and his wife Frida Kahlo’s house. You also can see the work of other muralists who put Mexico on the art map.

The city also has a fine artists’ bazaar, modern art museum, colonial architecture and scenic churches (many tilting due to the alarmingly soft ground).

Let other people go to Mexico’s beaches. For those who love art, this is the place.

In Mexico, arts tours usually focus on places such as Oaxaca and Chiapas (textiles and folk art), Jalisco (pottery, blown glass and artists’ markets) and Mexico City (murals and archaeology).

Stephanie Schneiderman of Ann Arbor, Mich., who grew up in Mexico City, runs art and textile tours of Mexico through TiaStephanie Tours. Her clients want to be educated, not just entertained, she says. She runs tours for museum, art and textile groups -- but also for art lovers.

"They are artists or collectors or just appreciators," says Schneiderman. But not necessarily experts.

Mexican muralism was supported by a fragile government that had just overthrown its dictator. The art was big, and so was its message.

"The murals were public, political and monumental," says Schneiderman. "It was a move to recapture Mexico’s national identity, with the idea that the real people of the country were the rural, indigenous population. It glorified and even romanticized these elements."

Rivera may have been an art prodigy, but his forte was the broad canvas of the mural. He learned fresco painting in Italy and applied it to subjects back home that spoke to him as a Mexican outraged by injustice. Yet he also was a commercial painter. He hired himself out for everything from murals in Detroit and San Francisco to portraits of rich Mexican women.

When Rivera was alive, female tourists came to Mexico to meet him and hope for more intimate contact. Today, his celebrity hasn’t dimmed.

One popular starting point is "The Creation" at the Colegio de San Ildefonso school auditorium in Mexico City’s historic center. It was Rivera’s first mural, in 1922.

"Every day, people come to see that mural," says curator Eri Camara, who describes the semi-religious mural as lacking Rivera’s later blatant political tone and with "a freshness; the ideology is not overt." In addition, tourists who have seen the movie "Frida" visit because it’s the spot where Rivera and future wife, painter Frida Kahlo, met when she was just 14.

Another painting with a story behind it is "Portrait of Dolores Olmedo" at the Dolores Olmedo Museum. She was a wealthy arts benefactor who took a shine to Rivera and collected his work in the 1950s -- after she had him paint her as a whimsical Mexican maid holding a bowl of fruit. (Note to academia: Somebody should investigate why women had a huge soft spot for Rivera, even though he was approximately as handsome as a frog.)

With 150 fantastic Rivera works and 26 from Frida Kahlo, the Dolores Olmedo Museum is an imperative.

The most famous murals in Mexico City are at the National Palace and at Palacio de Bellas Artes. As politics, the murals’ unwavering theme is the glory of ancient man, brutality of empire and mistrust of capitalism. The murals contain lots of blood, swords, a cast of thousands and naive socialist symbols. But as art, they are amazing; my favorite is the Rivera mural "The Great City of Tenochtitlan" and the Jorge Gonzalez Camarena mural "Liberation of Humanity."

Drive by the UNAM, Mexico’s national university campus, and see the library designed by architect Juan O’Gorman. Its entire exterior is a mural, a pattern that looks a little like a textile weaving. Over at the National Museum of Anthropology, you can see the major piece of art of ancient Mexico, the Sun Stone.

And, oh, I forgot. Did I mention that Mexico City has an ancient city just north of town? Teotihuacan, with the Sun Pyramid and Moon Pyramid, thrived from 100 to 750 AD. It was already a huge ruin when the Aztecs got there in 1300 AD. Unearthed in the 1960s, its art and architecture show a rigorously planned city where as many as 200,000 people lived. That is pretty humbling to the modern man who thinks our own civilization will last forever.

Civilizations don’t, of course.

But art does.

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IF YOU GO: Mexico City is nothing like you imagine -- it’s better. Its downtown is clean, culturally rich and hip, with elegant shopping, museums, churches, gracious tree-lined boulevards, colonial architecture, busy streets and Aztec ruins beside modern buildings. Its Zona Rosa district is popular for nightlife. Its Zocalo, or town square, is the largest in the Americas.

SAFETY: Take the usual precautions you would against pickpockets. Don’t take gypsy taxis; have your hotel or restaurant call one for you. Like in any large city, stay in well-trod tourist areas, and don’t wander around alone at night.

HEALTH: Mexico City has a mild climate because it is 2,200 metres above sea level. Some people take time to get acclimated to the elevation. Don’t drink tap water; most hotels provide bottled water. Pollution levels have improved; as long as a breeze is blowing, it’s pretty clear and you can see the gorgeous mountains that encircle the city.