The first of the Mexican murals that we stumbled across on our wanderings was a vast, dizziness-inducing in its enormity, painting spanning the breadth of the ceiling in the Palacio del Gobierno in Guadalajara. It is entitled ‘Social Struggle’ and is one of the most famous of José Clemente Orozco’s works. It is an aggressive, bloody and tormented image which denounces the oppresion faced by many nations under dictatorial governments. The central figure is Michel Hidalgo, the liberator of Mexico and a national hero (his statue is found in every town and his name has been commemorated in many a street). His half-crazed expression and the bloody knife that he is weilding are a disturbing sight, but even more so are the tortured individuals surrounding him.
In a second room, Orozco has painted ‘The People and its Leaders’, a mural depicting a more positive moment of Mexican history – the abolition of slavery. Hidalgo is once again a prominent figure and portrayed signing the decree while Benito Juarez signs the reform laws.
While these murals were featured in the palace as they would be in an art gallery, there were equally many murals painted as street art or as a colourful addition to a museum wall. While some were political, particularly the scene depicted at the Mayan Medicine museum in San Cristobal de las Casas, which demonstrates the theft for profit of indigenous medical practices by multinational corporations, others depicted colourful fiestas and celebrations.
The most extensive collection of murals were to be found in Mexico City, where inside the National Palace, hang a dozen or so paintings by famous artist Diego Rivera. We were shown around by a guide, which was a huge help, as the murals depict over a thousand years of Mexican history and cultures. The largest of these spans a good thirty metres of ceiling and wall above the grand staircase. Many prominent figures are shown here, from the Aztec kings to Cortes and Frida Kahlo.
Smaller murals deck the walls of the second floor, placed at every intersection between doorways and depict the many different indigenous populations throughout Mexico, including those of the huge Aztec and Mayan empires.
It was fantastic to have someone talk us through the murals, so densely packed with symbolism and imagery that we would have missed entirely. Our guide was also able to colour his talk with small titbits, for example the elongated shape of the Mayan’s heads were due to planks of wood being strapped to the babies’ heads in order to mould the shape of the skull. We also learned of the legend behind the symbol of Mexico – the eagle eating a snake atop a cactus. According to Aztec myth, they set out on a quest from what is now northern Mexico in search of the holy land, having received a message from the gods that it would be marked by the sight of an eagle eating a snake atop a cactus. The settlement that they built upon this small island would later become Mexico City as we know it today – the lake having been drained and built upon with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s.
The murals in Mexico are not only a very different and more unique alternative to paintings for the European visitor, but they are a brilliant way of transmitting social or political messages. This art form is indeed so prominant in Mexico that Orozco and Rivera are not primarily referred to as painters or artists, but as muralists.