After his visit to Mexico, James Bradshaw discusses the country’s most iconic works of art and points out the great ideological and philosophical chasm between them. The article is divided in two parts and in this first one, James focuses primarily on Diego Rivera’s work.
No trip to the capital of Mexico would be complete without a significant amount of time being devoted to the city’s various art works.
Two in particular stand out as being representative of the competing philosophies which have shaped the Mexico of today: The History of Mexico mural by Diego Rivera and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The fact that the historical murals of Rivera – husband of fellow artist Frida Kahlo – are given such prominence in the National Palace are testament to his standing in Mexico, and their genesis is telling.
In the late 1920s, the revolutionary government which had come to power following the chaotic Mexican revolution from 1910 onwards was faced with chronic instability and violence.
In this environment, it was vital for the government to legitimise their revolution, and one part of this effort involved the commissioning of the Marxist Rivera to paint murals which would depict Mexico’s historical evolution, while also pointing to where the country was heading if it could stayed the course.
Rivera’s completed work does not disappoint. The massive mural in the stairwell of the palace is a breathtaking collage of vibrant colours which instantly captures the full attention of the visitor.
Those who are familiar with the broad thrust of Mexican history would recognise many of the events depicted, and their gazes would likely be drawn inexorably from the most ancient scenes to the most modern, just as the artist intended.
The History of Mexico is also a deeply ideological work.
The violent struggle between the Aztecs and the invading Spaniards features prominently in the centre of the mural.
This invasion paved the way for unspeakable brutality, as is represented by the Spanish soldier forcing himself upon the native woman, or the other images in which the natives are forced to labour using shovels and pickaxes as a Spaniard draws his whip back, ready to strike.
Natives are also shown lining up to be baptised. In an interesting touch, the priest who is standing over the baptismal font at which a dark figure kneels is immediately to the left of a helmeted soldier who has just fired his musket downwards into a crowd of Aztecs.
Just to the right, another native extends his hands upwards to a tonsured monk and offers him a basket of gifts, which the monk seems only too happy to accept.
These images depict the violence which was a crucial part of the speedy conversion of Latin America to Catholicism. While Europe and other regions were converted to the faith through the sermons and good examples of missionaries, the toxic connection between the rapacious conquistadors and the domineering medieval clerics was more reminiscent of the various Islamic conquests than it was of true Christian conversion.
It has left a stain on the record of Christianity, and has presented leftist revolutionaries such as Rivera with a narrative which can to this day be used to undermine the legitimacy of religion.
Yet to his credit, Rivera was not entirely unfair when it came to examining the role of Christianity in shaping Mexico. While he presents the viewer with images of greedy monks and, further on, members of the Inquisition, he also highlights the role which clerics played in defence of the underprivileged.
To the right of the baptismal scene, another friar with a noticeably forehead is shown. Several natives are clinging to his cloak, beseeching his protection against the soldiers nearby.
With his left hand, the friar is shielding one of them, and with his right hand, he is holding a simple crucifix before a disgruntled Spanish nobleman, who appears unhappy with the challenge being posed to his temporal authority.
This friar is Bartolomé de las Casas, the renowned Dominican Bishop whose excoriation of the crimes of his fellow Spaniards led to his being appointed as Protector of the Indians. The well-known city of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas is today named in his honour.
Other important events in Mexico’s history (the war for independence against Spain, the invasion by the United States, and the revolution to overthrow Porfirio Diaz) are described in the murals on the main wall, but it is the murals on the South Wall, located appropriately enough on the left side of the stairwell, which are the most heavily ideological.
They present the clearest justification for the revolution of the early 1900s, and for the perpetuation of the system of government – presided over by the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI – which it created, and which lasted until the PRI were finally defeated in the landmark democratic election of 2000.
In Rivera’s mural, workers are shown tightly packed together, clamouring for change. Barring their path forwards are the forces of oppression, uniformed thugs wielding guns and replete with Nazi symbols.
Diego’s wife Frida is presented as a teacher, extolling the virtues of Marxism to a group of children. Elsewhere, Leon Trotsky – who lived with Diego and Frida for a time – is shown teaching an assembled mass of multi-ethnic students.
While the central mural is somewhat nuanced in its treatment of religion, Rivera’s vision of contemporary Mexico and the utopia of tomorrow is entirely dismissive of it.
A group of peasants, their heads bowed, are dropping coins into a box marked ‘indulgencias’. The coins are being fed into a system of pipes which leads upwards towards those who the Mexican left struggled against, and whose sins they insisted justified their bloody – and ongoing – revolution. The old enemies of the Left: the aristocracy and the Church, capitalism and Catholicism.
At the highest point in the picture, cleverly juxtaposed against the ascending staircase in front of it, stands Karl Marx. He is holding a banner with one hand, and pointing the workers towards a bright, industrial future with the other.
The sun is rising behind him, ushering in a new dawn for Mexico and the world, and a flag of the Soviet Union is nearby.
This is ultimately what The History of Mexico is about: the onward march of socialism, the scientific doctrine which had supplanted religion and overcome capitalism, and which would one day free all Mexicans from oppression and help them to create a secular heaven on earth.
One wonders just how much Rivera knew about the Soviet Union in the 1930s. As he worked feverishly to finish painting his vision of the history of class struggle, his idol in Moscow Josef Stalin was also busy completing one of his own major works.
Stalin’s ‘dekulakization’ project began in earnest in 1929, the same year that Rivera started painting The History of Mexico, and it resulted in the murder of millions of landowning peasants.
With the kulaks gone, collectivisation – the abolition of private landholdings and their replacement with massive state-run farms – could begin.
That it did, and the resulting catastrophic famine showed the world just how effective central planning was when it came to the relatively simple task of producing food.
If the Marxist rulers of the country which Rivera pointed to as being the way forward deliberately starved millions of their own people, it would put a dampener on his great work. And if they inadvertently starved millions through a policy failure, that wouldn’t necessarily be better.
All things considered, the grim reality of the world which Marxism had already ushered in in Russia, and which would soon be exported elsewhere, casts a dark light on his utopia.
It also casts a dark light on this mural, and indeed on Diego Rivera’s character and judgement, too.
Part II of this article will be published in the next following days.