‘The highest, most logical, purest, and strongest form of painting’ — Mexico’s visual culture

02 November 2018

In Mexico, today is the Día de Muertos, Day of the Dead. Steve Collins looks at a visual culture


Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine, 1939

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine, 1939

A CIVILISATION to rival those of China and Egypt evolved on the rich volcanic soils of Central America more than 3000 years before the arrival of the conquerors, colonists, and missionaries from Europe; and its influence persists today.

The many remains of the Mesoamerican or pre-Columbian civilisation are spread over most of southern Mexico, adjoining Guatamala, Honduras, Belize, and Nicaragua, and as far south as Costa Rica.

It comprised not a single society but many distinct indigenous peoples. Sometimes at peace with others, they were more often not. Ethnic groups included the Zatopecs, the Mixtecs, and the Tolomecs, followed by the Toltecs and the Maya, before the Aztecs, in turn, conquered and held sway over the region.

Remnants of these societies’ art-forms survive in the many pyramids, temples, large sculptures, and rock carvings. There are also sophisticated household utensils, ornaments, weapons, and tools. Archaeologists are constantly unearthing more in the vast jungles. These artefacts confirm clear cultural continuity in religion, art, and heritage, despite the changing identities of the groups who were dominant.

The Olmec people, active from 1200 to 350 BC, were the forerunners of this culture, it is widely agreed. They identified animistic gods for every natural eventuality, and these religious beliefs and practices dominated lives and perspectives subsequently.

The Olmecs’ great public artworks range from depictions of their gods carved in massive boulders to cities that were planned and constructed to reflect religious principles and practices; and they passed on their skills. Later peoples followed them in fully decorating the exteriors of buildings in bright, vibrant colours with art designed to compel public religious observance. Even the smaller items in feather-work, carved stone, gold, writing, and paint were mostly intended for public consumption.


ALAMYPre-conquest life depicted by Diego Rivera in The History of MexicoTHE Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City, has ground-floor galleries that are an excellent place to appreciate the continuity of the art that these peoples produced. The second floor of the museum begins to relate how Christianity gained ground in the region from the early 16th century.


Western historiography has tended to suggest that the arrival of Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) and his small marauding band of conquistadors, with some fervent friars as missionaries in their train, immediately enforced Catholicism on the indigenous people; and their legacy is the 85 per cent of the contemporary population now said to be practising Roman Catholics.

Yet this makes little sense, given that Cortés’s force and the friars were few, and that the religious heritage of three millennia was almost hard-wired into this diverse population.

How Cortes was able to defeat the Aztec Empire by 1521, just two years after his arrival, has been the subject of extensive research. A combination of interlocking factors has been identified: the Aztecs possessed stone weapons only, and both lacked and feared horses; the arriving forces won the support of over-taxed subject peoples; the Aztec leader, Montezuma, fell prey to hesitancy; and the indigenous population was decimated by smallpox and other European diseases.

These factors could be enough for Aztec defeat, but not for the wholesale rejection of strongly held belief systems. One clue to the puzzle exists in the refined eclecticism of the indigenous peoples. This was demonstrated in their ability to adapt and adopt the culture of succeeding conquering forces. They did not reject their beliefs but, as in the past, successfully integrated old and new.


A FOCUS on the varied similarities of the Mesoamerican and Spanish socio-political control systems helps us to understand this period.

Both societies were hierarchically organised. They had forceful and oppressive regimes that used religion as the common arbiter in determining social and political matters. War and conquest for territorial expansion were common to both. Art was a vehicle for religion: large, impressive buildings were used to dominate localities, and decorative art was deployed to reinforce belief.

Evidence for such integration comes from more than one source. For example, saints quickly replaced animistic gods as individual benefactors, celebrated in festivities and parades. And malefactors were replaced, too: a small piece of evidence was on display at the British Museum recently, in the form of a Mexican red devil that had been transformed into Judas Iscariot, to be paraded at the Mexican Day of the Dead and other festivities.

BRITISH MUSEUMA figure made of papier mâché over a cane framework in the form of the devil/Judas, used in the Day of the Dead FestivalImportant to both is the symbolism of sacrifice and blood. The blood of Christ was regarded locally as akin to the blood-letting rituals of pre-Columbian Mexico. Sacrifices, too, are common to both, too, if the burnings at the stake practised during the Spanish Inquisition are viewed as a parallel with the decapitations — or worse — carried out by the Aztecs.

The darkened porticoes that led into cathedrals and churches could be likened to the entrances to caves and pools that the indigenous peoples regarded as the homes of their ancestors and the gods of the underworld. Even the locally important symbol of the tree of life was to become a colourful and symbolic representation of the true Christian cross, or even an altarpiece.

The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is now the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. It was built near the hill of Tepeyac, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to Juan Diego, an Aztec convert to Christianity, in 1531. Within the shrine are a cloak worn by Diego, said to contain the Virgin’s image, and her portrait, with the darkened skin of the indigenous population. It is said not to have been painted by human hand. Copies of it are widely seen in Mexico along the streets, as well as in most cafés and homes.

A second factor is the early missionaries’ recorded admiration of indigenous art. Employed to complete huge programmes of church-building, artists were clearly allowed, or even occasionally encouraged, to deploy local interpretations

A fine example can be seen at Cholula, near Puebla, two hours north of Mexico City. The outside of Santa Maria Tonantzintla is colourful and attractive. Inside, the mass of vibrant colour, gold, and elaborate detail is truly breathtaking. Thousands of small, model childlike figures, reflecting the belief that the dead become reincarnated as children, cover the walls and ceiling, each representing a passing soul. Among them are varieties of chilli peppers, thought locally to represent the happiness to be found in heaven.


SUCH adaptations of indigenous beliefs have continued throughout the ensuing centuries to create, in effect, a Mexican version of Catholicism, which, in practice, resembles much pre-Columbian religious culture. But it could also be argued that Mexican art heritage has adapted to survive by a different process.

Despite the initial destruction, degradation, dismantling, and looting perpetrated in the Spanish attempt to destroy heathen beliefs, much invaluable pre-Columbian art was melted down commercially or simply fell into decay through neglect. Fortunately, such was the range and quantity of religious art from pre-Columbian times that much has survived — and much more is yet to be unearthed in the jungles beyond the cities of Central America.

ALAMY  The decorated vaulted ceiling of Santa María Tonantzintla, CholulaAs the Inquisition took hold in Spain, and as Spanish immigration increased, bringing with it elites who owned the market and artistic institutions, Mexican art was effectively outlawed and almost completely replaced by European tastes. Public buildings, churches, and great houses in Gothic, Renaissance, and later Baroque styles spread, still emphasising hierarchical power, but lacking the colour and vibrancy of pre-Conquest times.


Much of the other, “smaller” art — flamboyant individual or family portraits, historical heroic scenes, or later romantic natural scenes — became for private and elite enjoyment only. In effect, artistic creativity reflecting pre-Colombian heritage was completely repressed in the three centuries of Spanish rule. This continued in the following century of conflict, when there were battles for independence from Spain, territorial conflict with the United States, French incursion, and internal revolution, which continued into the early 20th century,

It was not until the last years of the revolutionary war in the early decades of the last century that the colonial traditions of art began to be challenged. A new revolutionary democratic government replaced the local oligarchies of the late 19th century. To encourage a general sense of unity and Mexican nationalism, it developed policies to create what have been termed the “strategic myths”: the heritage of the peaceful, utopian, pre-Columbian society, and a socially progressive Mexican state.

Infrastructural improvements were begun, and public-education programmes were planned, but something more immediate was seen as essential to close the civil conflict. Several well-known artists, including José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), and Diego Rivera (1886-1957), were commissioned to fill whole walls of public buildings with works that would enhance state propaganda in pictorial form. Orozco summed up the reasoning, drawing on pre-Colombian heritage: “The highest, the most logical, the purest, and the strongest form of painting is the mural. It is also the most disinterested form, because it cannot be hidden away for the privileged few. It is for all the people.”

CREATIVE COMMONSMonument 52 from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, in Veracruz, Mexico. Believed to represent either the were-jaguar or the Rain DeityOf Rivera’s many murals, the most famous and most revered in Mexico, The History of Mexico, stretches across the largest staircase in the National Palace in Central Mexico City. To the right, he creates the required pre-Conquest pastoral utopia; in the centre, a huge scene depicts the savagery, greed, and exploitation by those in power during the Spanish colonial period to the 1920s; and, to the left, the joyous future of progress and prosperity promised by Socialism, then mostly accepted as the way forward.

Also important was the work of the satirical artist José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), regarded by Rivera as the first modern artist to break away from formal European-based art.

His La Calavera Catrina (1913), depicting the skull and shoulder bones of a laughing woman skeleton in a huge hat and feather boa, is the forerunner of the famous Calaveras, or skeleton style, that can be seen everywhere in Mexico today, most obviously today, the Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). Mesoamerican peoples saw death as a part of life, to be celebrated rather than mourned. The Day of the Dead remains a day for communing with the deceased as well as holding great festive parades.

Posada is also seen as the artist who rekindled Mexican folk art, not only in household utensils, woven materials, and souvenirs, but also in larger and more prestigious works.

Mexican folk art includes votive art, which has existed in some form in the country since pre-conquest times. Also called retablo, or even ex-voto, this personal, home-made art form usually depicts disasters, accidents, sickness, and even business failures, seeking divine intervention or giving thanks for it.

The artist Frida Kahlo (1907-54) was especially influenced by this tradition in her work. She rejected the religious associations, but adopted the approach to express freely her emotions. Her work frequently mixes realism and imagination, depicting her own body in a bleeding and broken state, sometimes with exposed interior organs, and articulating in uncompromising terms the most complex aspects of the female experience.

A further important source of change was the many impressive public buildings erected to celebrate independence. These include the massive Monumento a la Revolución (1910), the marbled Gran Teatro Nacional (1911), and the famous column for the Angel of Indepence (1910).

More recent construction has included the vast University of Mexico campus of the 1950s, built on pre-conquest city-planning lines with its large, central, highly decorated central library building; and the massive national Aztec Stadium, nicknamed the “Colossus of St Ursula”, with a seating capacity of 107,494, which has hosted two football World Cups.

CREATIVE COMMONSThe central library of the University of MexicoMexican art is highly prized in global markets. It has also resumed its public position, not only with the return of large public and corporate buildings, often boasting vibrant exterior decoration to reflect national, as well as commercial, pride, but in its suburban houses, which are often decorated with folk designs.

This form of expression is not confined to affluent areas: parts of slums are alive with varied colour, too. Many open spaces and streets are full of statues, trees, and flowers, and there are abundant lively outdoor cafés; and street sellers are everywhere, selling bright, enticing products, including folk art. Posters are exuberant, and graffiti adds to the general profusion of colour, reflecting the spirit of its heritage.

Mexican art is returning to the outdoors and becoming widespread, public, and shared by all. This creates a richness that expresses both pride in the Pre-Columbian heritage and optimism for the future.


Dr Steve Collins is a retired management consultant and lecturer who now travels researching fine-art history.

“Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up” runs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, in London, until 14 November. www.vam.ac.uk

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