Art and the Mexican Revolution
Art and the Mexican Revolution

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Art and the Mexican Revolution

4 The mural interpreted

The nationalism that shaped the Mexican Revolution was also an important component of Rivera’s iconographic scheme. The passages on the top right and top left in From the Conquest to the Present that depict the nineteenth-century invasions by the United States and the French respectively are triangulated by the scenes of conquest at the bottom middle led by Cortés on his horse.

The art historian Leonard Folgarait has pointed out that the significance of these details is underscored by the fact that the departing eagles in both side scenes are repeated by the central motif of the eagle in the middle of the composition, an obvious nationalist reference to the Mexican flag, which also has an eagle at its centre (Folgarait, 1998, p. 114). The eagles all fly in the same direction, which strengthens this visual symmetry, and hence their iconographic and narrative importance.

Immediately below the central eagle is the figure of Cortés on horseback in combat with an Aztec warrior, which, according to another art historian, Desmond Rochfort, can be read as ‘the first great struggle against foreign domination’ (Rochfort, 1987, p. 60). This fight against colonialism is taken up again, above the eagle, in the figures of the two priests Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos, nationalist leaders who played a pivotal role in the build-up to the overthrow of Spanish rule in 1821.

The fight against imperialism is then brought up to the present with the depiction of Zapata, at the very top of the central bay, with the banner proclaiming ‘Tierra y Libertad’ (land and liberty). This was Zapata’s revolutionary slogan and was adopted by the peasantry, who appropriated many of the great estates owned by landed interests in the United States after 1910 (Hart, 1989, pp. 159 and 243).

It was this component of the revolution that Rivera supported. The bourgeois governments after 1920 deployed the nationalist card to win over the revolutionary peasantry and secure power. The murals were meant to be part of this process of propaganda to support their rule. Yet the political agenda of the post-revolutionary regimes that commissioned the murals was not as revolutionary as the more radical sections of the peasantry, or the muralists themselves for that matter.

The anti-imperialism of the bourgeoisie was borne more out of a desire to pursue its own economic and political self-interest, free from colonial domination. Yet once in power, successive bourgeois governments were more than prepared to negotiate with the government of the United States that had, in fact, helped them defeat the forces of Zapata and Villa, and to bring the period of revolutionary violence to a close (Hart, 1989, pp. 320 and 344–5). As a result of this, the process of land redistribution slowed and the class contradictions that largely fuelled the revolution remained in place.

It is the focus upon class conflict in the two side walls of Rivera’s mural that undercuts the focus upon nationalism in the main one. Several commentators have agreed that the detail of pre-Columbian Indians fighting in the bottom left section of The Aztec World is a symbol of aboriginal class struggle (Catlin, 1986, p. 262; Craven, 2002, p. 56; Folgarait, 1998, p. 99).This emphasis upon class conflict as the motor of human history (central to Rivera’s Marxist analysis of Mexican society) becomes even more explicit in the details that you can see in the opposite wall, depicting Mexico Today and Tomorrow. This was painted in 1934–35, after Rivera had returned from producing important murals for corporate patrons north of the border, and after Calles’s domination of the executive had finally been supplanted by the more progressive regime of Cárdenas.

The side walls are linked iconographically as well as thematically. The departing figure of Quetzalcóatl, who rides out of the Aztec world on a feathered serpent to the right, thereby setting the scene for the Spanish invasion beginning in the bottom right of the main wall, has a visual symmetry in the opposite wall with the figure of Marx. He is pointing out of the mural scheme to the left, beyond the idealised utopia, to a classless future, which for Rivera was the desired outcome of the as yet unfinished revolutionary process.

Recent accounts of Mexican muralism have highlighted the conservative nature of the Mexican post-revolutionary governments and have read the ideological content of the murals commissioned by them accordingly (Coffey, 2012; Folgarait, 1998). However, it can be argued that Rivera’s History of Mexico cuts against such an interpretation of the murals as propaganda for the post-revolutionary bourgeois regimes pure and simple. The emphasis upon Mexican nationalism, which is so significant in the central wall and so pivotal in governmental attempts at winning support for their policies post-1920, is just part of a broader historical struggle rooted in class conflict. This is highlighted in the south wall by the detail of Calles being surrounded by the army and the clergy, and, to the right, by the pitched battles between the conservative forces of Calles and the supporters of the newly elected Cárdenas that were taking place in the Zócalo as Rivera painted. Indeed, Cárdenas’s redistribution of land to the peasantry in line with what Zapata and Villa had fought for, and the nationalisation of Mexican subsoil resources in 1938, were achieved on the back of this grass roots popular support. For Rivera, the Mexican Revolution was far from finished and it was the job of his mural to signal this to the more radicalised sectors of the workers and peasantry, and thereby agitate for further political and economic gains.

Activity 1

Rivera’s mural sequence is massive and extremely complex in terms of its iconography which is difficult to read in small-scale reproductions. To get a better sense of what it looks like, and to consolidate what you’ve learned so far, as well as to prepare you for what will follow, watch this short film about History of Mexico before continuing to Section 5.

Download this video clip.Video player: a344_2017j_vid057-640x360.mp4
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The Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1920 was the first major political upheaval of the twentieth century, during which over a million died. It was also the first revolt against imperialism, here specifically that of the United States. Under the autocratic regime of Porfirio Diaz, North American corporations were allowed to take over huge swathes of Mexican land, immiserating the Mexican peasantry in the process. And companies, such as Rockefeller-owned Standard Oil, were given the freedom to extract subsoil resources whilst driving down wages in the industrial sector. At the same time, due the political corruption of the Diaz administration, the Mexican middle class found themselves locked out of jobs in the civil service and unable to advance their careers or social status. They thereby sought to mobilise the peasantry and the working class under the banner of radical Mexican nationalism, allowing to overthrow the Diaz regime and free themselves from the grip of American capital. Bearing in mind that 85 per cent of the Mexican population were illiterate, it comes as little surprise that the post-revolutionary government decided to use monumental public wall-painting as part of his propaganda drive. What I want to explore here is whether Diego Rivera's History of Mexico mural in the National Palace is part of this propaganda drive, complicit with the nationalist agenda of the post-revolution regime that sponsored it. Or, whether, in fact, we could understand it as communicating an ideology to the left of this administration.


Today, Rivera is generally known, if he is known at all, as the husband of Frida Kahlo. Yet, in the 1920s and 1930s, his artistic stock was that much higher. So much so, in fact, that when the newly opened museum of Modern Art in New York decided to give its second one-man show, it was awarded to him, the first one being given to Henri Matisse. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that in 1929, when the commission for the National Palace was granted under the regime of Plutarco Elías Calles, it went to Rivera. Rivera's history of Mexico may not be the biggest mural he painted in Mexico City. But bearing in mind its location on the main stairwell of the National Palace, it is certainly his most important.
I think that the mural has an impressive importance on the history of Mexico and in the history of the National Palace. It has always been a palace. And it has all the history of Mexico in here. So the mural also narrates all the history of Mexico, from the very first beginning with Tula, and it ends on the moment where Diego finished it with the mother Mexico. So it's so much important that it's a national monument, the mural itself.
The building was a centre of political power under the Aztecs. It was the site where Hernándo Cortés ruled after the conquest. It was a base of administrative power after independence. And it became the centre of presidential politics after the revolution. In terms of historical sweep, from the conquest through to the present, i.e. 1935, when it was finally completed, it is Rivera's most ambitious mural and has been rightfully compared to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. I first discovered Mexican muralism when I went to Guadalajara in the early '90s. There I saw Jose Clemente Orozco's fantastic mural of the priest Hidalgo emerging from a fiery background, with communists on one side and fascists on the other. I was hooked. I could not wait to get to Mexico City. Orozco, alongside Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros are known collectively as los tres grandes. And they have many murals all over the city. It is important to remember that the mural is fixed within an architectural surround and that the viewer literally moves through it. On ascending the central staircase, the first thing that the viewer encounters is From the Conquest to the Present, in the five central vaulted bays painted between 1929 and 1931. Above, there are scenes of conquistadors fighting Aztecs in the lower section of this wall and scenes of post-conquest life in the middle. We've seen the three central bays from left to right, The Porfirian Era, 1876 to 1910, The Legacy of Independence, 1810 to 1930, and then Reform in the Era of Benito Juárez, 1855 to 1876. The figures in these scenes are painted in a frieze-like manner and are organised in a way clearly indebted to the skills that Rivera had learned as a prominent Cubist painter in Paris. When the viewer reaches the top of the first staircase and looks right, they see The Aztec World, the first wall, painted in 1929. And if they look left, they see Mexico Today and Tomorrow, the last wall painted between 1934 and 1935, after Rivera had returned from painting important murals for the Ford and Rockefeller families in Detroit and New York, respectively. In terms of a nationalist reading of the mural, the key details are to be found in the two outer sections of the main wall. Here, Rivera painted the two imperialist invasions of Mexico in the nineteenth century: in the top left, by the United States, and in the top right, by the French. These are triangulated by the brutal scenes of conquest at the bottom centre, with Cortés on his horse in combat with the Aztec Prince Cuauhtémoc. The iconographic importance of the outer scenes is highlighted by the fact that the departing eagles in each directly referenced the central motif of the eagle with a snake in its mouth, an obvious reference to the Mexican flag. The fact that all three fly in the same direction only serves to reinforce this relationship between them and underscores this nationalist reading. The fight against foreign domination is taken up again immediately above the eagle, with the figures of Hidalgo and José María Morelos, who played a pivotal role in overthrowing Spanish rule in 1821. And this is reinforced once again with the depiction of the peasant revolutionary leaders, Emilio Zapata and Pancho Villa, in the top of the central bay. So far, so good. Rivera's mural perfectly matches the anti-United States rhetoric of the post-revolutionary government, their wish to win over the peasantry and the working class to its less than radical reform agenda. Yet I want to argue for a different reading, one that pays closer attention to the two side walls, that flank the central one. The scenes of cultural activity and agricultural abundance that are depicted in The Aztec World clearly highlight the sophistication of Aztec society prior to the conquest. Yet, many commentators agree that the detail of pre-Colombian Indians fighting in the lower left is a reference to Aboriginal class conflict. And this emphasis upon class conflict is reinforced in Mexico of today and tomorrow, on the wall opposite. This was painted after Rivera had returned to Mexico, angry at the destruction of his Rockefeller Centre mural. And after Calles had been ousted from power, Mexican politics had shifted to the left once again, with the election of Lázaro Cárdenas as president. Here, utilising a grid-like system, which is again indebted to the artist's former Cubism, Rivera depicted poor peasant labourers watched over by mounted, armed overseers. Above them, their radical comrades hung, fascist police suppressing a strike. And above that, a radical agitator addressing a crowd, above which there is a pitched battle in Zócalo, a direct reference to the fighting between the supporters of Calles and those of Cardenas, that was happening just outside the palace, as Rivera painted. The critique of contemporary Mexican politics is continued in the compartmentalised central section, with North American capitalists around the ticker-tape, Calles taking counsel by the reactionary forces of the army and the church, corrupt journalists, and a decadent haute bourgeoisie. Above all this, is the figure of Karl Marx, surrounded by representatives of the peasantry, the working class, and the army, with the scroll quoting the Communist Manifesto, whilst pointing out left to a landscape depicting a utopian scene in which the ongoing class contradictions of contemporary Mexico have been successfully transcended. So to come back to my original question, I want to argue that whilst Rivera's mural certainly fulfils some of the propagandistic requirements of the nationalist government that commissioned it, it does so much more than this. For when we consider the iconographic significance of the side walls that emphasise the sophistication of the pre-Colombian world as a counterpoint to the present in one, and the clear limitations of the bourgeois governments that took power after the revolutionary violence of 1910 to 1920 in the other, then Rivera's mural acts as a compelling call for further political transformation. This is the slow fuse of the revolutionary mural.


End transcript
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