Art and architecture


The pre-Hispanic civilizations of Mexican produced sculptures and mural paintings often depicting their rulers and ceremonies. Some of the best known are the giant Olmec stone
sculptures of heads, whereas the Classic Maya, of an even more artistic bent, made sculptures of complex designs, showing deities and rituals. The warrior Aztecs, on the other hand, had a penchant for skulls and other depictions of war and death. After the Conquest by the Spaniards, art took on brand new forms, but a legacy of Mexico's pre-Hispanic art lingers till this day. With the Spanish came Roman Catholicism and during the era following the Conquest, much
of the art was religious in nature. Skilled indigenous artisans were brought in to adorn the newly built churches and religious art blossomed, as evidenced by the many richly decorated churches that can be seen throughout Mexico today.

Independent Mexico saw the rise of a new breed of art, not afraid of satirizing society and societal problems. One of the most famous cartoonists and engravers of the time was José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), whose
(skull) motifs are still revered and his skulls can be seen on paper cuttings and posters around the Day of the Dead right across Mexico.

In the 1920s, following on from the Mexican Revolution, a new sense of urgency swept through the art world and Mexican society in general. There was a new emphasis on history, culture and education and the minister of education, José Vasconcelos, commissioned a number of young artists to paint a series of public murals to spread awareness to the Mexican people. Diego Rivera (1886-1957), David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) and José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) all set to work and painted some of the greatest murals in Mexico, becoming the country's most celebrated painters as a result. Realist paintings with a message became synonymous with Mexican art for several decades to come.

Following in the footsteps of the muralists was Oaxacan painter Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991), known for his colourful watermelon motifs, stemming most probably from the fact that his father was a fruitseller. Another iconic painter in the Mexican pantheon was Rivera's wife, fellow artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), whose life was as interesting as her art - both of which have been the subject of numerous books and also the recent film
, from 2002 . After suffering polio as a child and a horrific accident in her teens, Kahlo's paintings are mostly self portraits depicting her own personal agonies and traumas. Her realist and surrealist works gained international acclaim, but nothing could cure her ailing body and she died in 1954, by some believed to have committed suicide, as she was by then bedridden and crippled.

After decades dominated by the muralists, a new generation of Mexican painters led by José Luis Cuevas started what's known as
La Ruptura
(The Rupture), moving away from the previous trends and taking Mexican art in new directions.


Historians of Mexican art and architecture agree that there are no neat chronologies or
easily definable styles available that adequately describe its colonial buildings. Many obstacles disturbed the flow of ideas from Europe to the lands entitled New Spain during the time of the viceroyalty (1521-1810). Problems of communication over the ocean between Madrid and Mexico City and across the vast territories beyond, as well as between the Spanish and their subordinates, enabled other influences to take hold. This resulted in an archit
ecture enriched by the juxtaposition of cultures which fused to create modern Mexico. Formal influences from the diverse groups of indigenous Americans (Indians), such as the Aztecs of central Mexico and the Mayans of the Yucatán, are not easy to find. The most pronounced can be seen in the 18th-century strapwork in the Santa Isabel Church, Tepetzala and the Santo Cristo Chapel, Tlacolula, the atrial crosses at Cuautitlán and Huichapan, and the folk baroque churches at Acatepec and Tonantzintla near Cholula. Differences in the ways that spaces were made and used are discernible, especially in religious buildings, and the icons and other ornamental works adorning their interiors and facades had unprecedented meanings in an alien land of 'things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before.'

The first Franciscan priests arrived in Mexico in 1523, just two years after the arrival of Cortés at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, later Mexico City. Their task and that of other Mendicant Orders soon to follow was to convert the Indians to Christianity, as a way of including them within the jurisdiction of the Spanish court. Their means was through the making of places of worship: a campaign of ecclesiastical construction spread wide across Mexico. On foot they reached the principal Indian centres, dismantling or building over their temples. Dominating the landscape, the religious buildings which replaced them consisted of large gardens and walled patios or
; a solid, single-aisled vaulted church; and friary buildings (
s) focused around a two-storeyed cloister and raised on a platform above the street level of the town. In a creative dynamic these buildings were improvised from memory by amateur priests and constructed by hastily trained Indian craftsmen, on site or at schools in the capital. Outstanding examples include
constructed by the Franciscans at Huejotzingo, the Augustinians at Acolman and Actopan, and the Dominicans at Teposcolula. A hybrid eclecticism characterizes these early permanent buildings, which mix elements of many styles from Europe: Isabaline Gothic (arches, canopies and carving), Romanesque (structural form), Manueline from Portugal, Spanish Plateresque (ornament around doorways and windows), early Baroque, the art of the Moors under Spanish rule - Mudéjar (elaborate timber ceilings), and Tequitqui - the art of the Indian under Spanish rule. This latter term refers to strange bi-planar carving, thought to derive from an interpretation of European prints which were used to introduce images of religious icons to the Indian imagination.

After the 16th century the exotic and pagan presence of non-European influences was suppressed. The visionary friars with their dreams of a Christian utopia were replaced by more organized and politically ambitious priests who located themselves either in the capital of Mexico City, or new outlying cities such as Puebla, Oaxaca and Guadalajara. Spanish professionals often controlled the design of buildings, which became more sophisticated in their structural and ornamental objectives, and more tightly derivative of European models. The decoration of their facades reflected trends in the metropolis, and the contributions of Indian craftsmen were made by highly trained and specialized artisans. The consensus is that Mexican Baroque began in the mid-17th century. At this time a transition was made from the single-aisled church plan of the 16th century to a cruciform vaulted church with a dome over its crossing. This was, however, the limit of influence of the spatial experimentation that characterized Italian Baroque architecture. It was in the ornamentation of church interiors, where the seeds of a hybrid Mexican sensibility had been sewn in 16th-century altarpieces, that an opulence present only in the Iberian colonies developed. Despite some resistance to Baroque ideas in Spain and Mexico due to the sobering influence of Juan de Herrera, architect of the Escorial, social aspiration made the opportunity for grandeur and excess irresistible.

The Baroque in Mexico reached its culmination in the 18th century with the onomatopoeic Churrigueresque, the architecture of the estípite. This innovation was introduced from Seville by Jerónimo de Balbás, who first used it in the Altar de los Reyes in Mexico Cathedral, 1718-37. The estípite is a type of pilaster tapering towards its base, a characteristic that visually releases it from any structural role. Used in the huge and overwhelming
(vault-high altarpieces), and later the facades of 18th-century buildings, it embodies the gravity-defying nature of the polychrome and gilded ornament that swarms over their surfaces, and which was constantly remodelled and enriched until the arrival of neo-classicism at the end of the century. Described as the pinnacle of Mexican religious art these assemblages were the sum of parts always individually derived from a codified European language. It is the act of synthesis, however, which is quintessentially Mexican. There is a term in Spanish,
, which refers to the assemblage of all the visual (
) works in a space experienced as intrinsic to the building's presence.

Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, but the spirit of its architecture by that time had been muted by an academic neoclassicism promoted by the influential Academia de San Carlos in Mexico City. Despite the tendency towards unquestioning reproduction that the fashion of neoclassicism required, explicit Indian references emerged alongside an increasing eclecticism towards the end of the 19th century. Drawn from a seemingly distant past this Indigenism was based on romantic mythologies that served nationalistic ends, rather than on contributions from contemporary Indian culture. Ideas from Europe continued to be transformed by the Mexican imagination, including Art Nouveau at the beginning of the 20th century and a post-Revolutionary attraction to Functionalism in the 1930s. The synthetic integration of architecture with other visual arts which blossomed during colonial times was to re-emerge later, alongside another rise in Indigenism during the mid-20th century. The campus of the University City (1950-1952) in Mexico City self consciously places itself within this tradition. Some of its buildings incorporate large murals on their exterior facades which narrate Mexican histories, notably the Olympic Stadium and the Central Library, whilst others seek through their pyramidal and massive form to connect with the land and its Indian legacy.

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