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Art and the Mexican Revolution
Art and the Mexican Revolution

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1 The Mexican Revolution

Before looking at one of Rivera’s murals, it is important to have some sense of the Mexican Revolution itself as the context in which it was produced. As early as 1924, the communist intellectual Bertram D. Wolfe (one of Rivera’s earliest biographers) described the revolution as ‘a very patchy and unsystematic affair’, characterising the government that it threw up as ‘a political power representing not a single class but an uncertain balance of power between the partially awakened workers and peasants on the one hand and the influence of foreign capital, especially that of American interests, on the other’ (Wolfe, 1924, p. 207).

In fact, there were three revolutions involving a complex interplay of competing class interests (Hart, 1989, p. 348). The first was the peasant revolt led by Emiliano Zapata in the south, and supported by the forces of Pancho Villa in the north. Mobilising guerrilla insurgency, they advocated – and implemented in the state of Morelos – a radical redistribution of land. It was this component of the revolution that provided the impetus for agrarian reform from the mid-1930s onwards. The second was the incipient proletarian revolution by urban workers in the modern factories with its power channelled through national self-governing unions and their armed ‘red battalions’. And lastly, there was the centralising and modernising bourgeois revolution of the enlightened middle class that championed constitutional reform under the banner of Mexican nationalism.

As John Mason Hart has convincingly argued, the struggle for power between these contending classes was significantly shaped by the government of the United States, which intervened whenever it could to protect its corporate interests in Mexico. So much so in fact that he describes the Mexican Revolution as ‘the first Third World uprising against American economic penetration and control’ (Hart, 1989, p. 18). The nationalism mobilised by the post-revolutionary regimes was, however, largely rhetorical in that at key points they looked to the United States for military support to contain the revolution (Hart, 1989, pp. 283, 290, 294, 299, 311 and 345–6).

This struggle also framed the production of the murals of los tres grandes, who were to the left of the post-revolutionary governments that commissioned them. It is this tension between the nationalist rhetoric of the politicians and the more internationalist one of Rivera (rooted, as it was, in his commitment to Marxism) that you will explore in this course.