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Weekly Alibi The Revolution Will Be Painted

Desmond Rochfort's Mexican Muralists

By Jeffrey Lee

JULY 13, 1998:  It's easy to like the work of the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco. The big, muscular figures and earthy colors have an immediate appeal that is like the appeal of folk art. That isn't an accident. Beginning in the years following the Mexican Revolution, the three painters embarked on a program of creating a self-consciously popular art, with Mexican folk imagery as their inspiration and the events of Mexican history their subject matter. Their painting was nationalist, anti-colonial and, especially in the case of Rivera, explicitly Marxist. And they painted on the walls of public buildings expressly because they wanted to make art public property. Desmond Rochfort's Mexican Muralists is an exhaustive account of the murals "los tres Grandes" produced over several decades.

Like the work of American WPA painters or Soviet realists, which owe much to its influence, Mexican mural painting was an emphatically ideological movement. That brings up questions about what art is for, and although Rochfort might have examined these questions at greater length, he does quote extensively from the three painters' pronouncements and manifestos. And his analysis of Mexico's political situation from the time of Porfirio Díaz until after World War II helps to situate the muralists' ideas.

The look of Mexican murals is so identifiable--and so clear an influence on later populist art movements--that it's surprising to think about where that look came from. Rochfort painstakingly investigates its genesis in the early chapters of his book. As students, Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco were immersed in the art of the Italian Renaissance and the Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist painting of the 19th century. The Symbolists' decidedly art-for-art's-sake sensibility shows up early on, particularly in Orozco's work. His 1923 fresco, Maternity, in which four wispy angels float above the heads of a very blonde, very white mother and child, is a far cry from the proletarian heft and mestizo nationalism of his later work.

Rivera traveled widely in Europe and came into contact with Picasso, Braque and other important early Modernists. But it was his exposure to Renaissance Italian frescos that most deeply influenced what the Muralist movement would become. He brought back to Mexico not only the technique and aesthetic of fresco painting, but also the notion of the mural's integrity as a component of architecture.

Mexican Muralists illustrates wonderfully the care with which Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco designed their paintings around windows, staircases, cornices and columns. Siqueiros' famous, whirling Man of Fire looks down from the domed ceiling of the Hospicio Cabañas. Rivera's epic The History of Mexico fills every available surface of Mexico City's National Palace, its crowded narrative sequences tucked inside niches and bursting around corners. The section entitled "The World of Today and Tomorrow" winds up a stairway; trompe l'oeil workmen "climb" the stairs carrying loads of bricks to construct a parallel staircase alongside the real one. (Marx is at the top of it and the ubiquitous Frida Kahlo at the bottom.)

Although Diego Rivera is the most famous of "los tres Grandes," Mexican Muralists provides detailed critical and biographical information on the sometimes politically skeptical Orozco and the fiery Siqueiros, who spent time in prison for his beliefs. Siqueiros, who lived until 1973, was also the intrepid experimenter, insinuating traces of Miró, Leger and even abstraction into his populist style--but occasionally apologizing for his indiscretions. "Plastic Exercise is not an ideologically revolutionary work," he wrote of one such experiment, "by which I mean that it is not a work of direct, immediate use to the revolution." But he insisted that purely formal exercises of this sort were "indispensable in order to produce the totally revolutionary art which was our objective."

Rochfort, a Canadian academic, writes in a somewhat professorial style; livelier prose might have made his text seem less like a doctoral thesis. But his scholarship is thorough and balanced, and his book is superbly illustrated. The paintings and ideas of Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco continue to exercise a central influence on public art in the United States as well as in Mexico. Mexican Muralists is the most complete book I've seen on their work and will probably be considered a definitive study. (Chronicle, paper, $27.50)

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