Diego Rivera, Mexico’s famed muralist, returned there from Europe in 1921 at the invitation of Jose Vasconcelos, Mexico’s Secretary of Public Education, to paint three floors of murals in the national headquarters that was once a Franciscan convent.
From 1923 to 1928, Rivera worked in the building with assistants to create 125 panels that would help define a new nation after the 1910 revolution. Over a million people died in the 10 year conflict that most historians now call a civil war.
The idea for the murals was to coalesce the various post-war factions and shape a national identity that would recognize its indigenous roots, valuing the work of the peasant, the common man. At the heart of the message was that better education and health care would lift up the nation.
On the first floor, mural topics focus on Mexican festivals and labor. The second floor concentrates on science and technology. On the third floor, Rivera translated the populist approach to government to reflect his own ideology as a communist.
The themes of the worker, the enlisted soldier and the peasant are repeated throughout. Here we see Frida Kahlo depicted as a revolutionary heroine. Ribbons with heroic revolutionary messages connect the frescoes.
The last of the murals, painted in 1928 are a portend to the 1929 stock market crash. They depict the greed of industrialists and the church, the debauchery and waste, and the widening distance between the wealthy and poor, the cynical and the hopeful.
The murals undergo constant restoration. A group of full-time art restorer-fresco painters are employed to prevent deterioration. There is usually always a team of two or more people, paint brush in hand, high up on scaffolding.
They told us that they paint in exactly the same brush strokes as Rivera, but like any building restoration of antiquities, there is always a telltale mark that indicates it is not the original.
Our group of six, plus our art historian Valeria, immersed ourselves into this intensive study tour day that started at 9:30 a.m. and ended after lunch. I counted almost 13,000 steps as we walked around the historic center of Mexico City, visiting SEP and two other mural locations.
If you are interested in joining us for a comprehensive, intensive four-day art history tour in Mexico City this winter or spring, please contact me.
These photos were all taken with my Nikon D7000 camera and the Nikkor 50mm 1:1.8G lens. This is a prime lens (no zoom), so I got lots of close ups and had to move my feet to get perspective. I prefer total control over my photos so I use the manual setting with autofocus, choosing aperture and shutter speed.
I’m having trouble learning the new Olympus mirrorless, so set it aside for a while. It works really well in automatic. I can’t seem to get it to work with manual setting.
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