The definitive history of the Mexican mural renaissance
This 1993 book by British scholar and artist Desmond Rochfort is perhaps the most authoritative work covering the “big three” artists of the Mexican mural movement: José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The book functions as both a scholarly monograph on the subject and as a coffee table book, combining an in-depth examination of the murals of these three artists with over 150 beautifully reproduced photographs.
Rochfort begins with an overview of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, outlining the historical and political context out of which the Mexican mural movement arose. He then goes on to describe how the mural renaissance in Mexico grew out of the influence of three important people: inspirational precursor José Guadalupe Posada, artist and educator Gerardo Murillo (a.k.a. Dr. Atl), and educational administrator José Vasconcelos. From this starting point, Rochfort interweaves the stories of Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros, following their lives and careers from the Revolution until their deaths. He explains the evolution of each individual artist, how they influenced and competed with one another, and how they jointly created a uniquely Mexican form of artistic expression that examined national identity and advocated social and political reform. Rochfort does not cover every mural that each of these artists produced, but he does cover the lion’s share of each, not only the best-known examples but also some more obscure selections as well. The focus of the book is strictly limited to the “big three.” Other Mexican muralists are barely mentioned, and none of their works are pictured.
The text is insightful and informative throughout, though it is definitely penned by a Ph.D. and not intended as an introduction for the general reader. Some prior knowledge of Mexican art and history is required to fully understand the points Rochfort is making, but his prose is clear and precise, and he never diverges into esoteric art theory. The book is lavishly illustrated with stunning photographs, and Rochfort does a great job of discussing the images without insulting the reader’s intelligence by pointlessly describing what’s right there on the printed page. It’s impossible to show every inch of each mural discussed, but the detail shots are well chosen. A couple dozen of the photos are in black and white. Many of these are period photos, but even some of the big mural shots are printed in black and white, for no apparent reason other than to save money on printing. Were the book published today, rather than two decades ago, most likely such images would all be printed in color. At least one photo—Orozco’s mural at the National Teachers’ School—is flipped horizontally. Also, the design of the book results in some of the smaller photos being so small as to hinder their usefulness.
Despite these nitpicking complaints, the book is a stunning achievement. For each of the three artists examined here, one could find a more comprehensive text covering their individual work—Diego Rivera: A Retrospective, published by the Detroit Institute of Arts, for example, comes to mind. However, for an overview of the mural movement as a whole and its historical, cultural, and social context, Mexican Muralists: Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros is the best book I’ve ever seen. Even though the challenging text may be intimidating for some, any fan of Mexican art should own this book for the pictures alone.
Diego Rivera, El hombre controlador del universo, 1934, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City
David Alfaro Siqueiros, Nueva Democracía, 1945, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City
José Clemente Orozco, Katharsis, 1935, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City