For travelers visiting Mexico or retirees moving south-of-the-border, Mexico’s vibrant art and cultural history are a source of continued intrigue. The arts in Mexico have deep roots in the country’s indigenous origins; yet over the centuries, European culture has interwoven with Mexico’s native aesthetic to produce an artistic style of international renown.
Pre-hispanic Art and Architecture
Tantamount in historic importance and global heritage to the Egyptian pyramids or Peru’s Machu Picchu, Mexico’s architectural and archeological treasures of the great Mesoamerican cultures of, to name a few, the Olmecs, Zapotecs, Mayans and Aztecs are where a survey of where Mexican art begins. The Olmecs, oldest of the Mesoamerican cultures in recorded history, worked in clay, jade and stone, leaving their legacy in sculpted images of their gods and their costumes and daily activities. The mystery of their existence can begin to be unraveled through a study of the very layouts of their stone cities.
Also integral to this day across the Mexican landscape are the remains of Zapotec and Mayan civilizations. The variety of cultures encompassed under the title “Mesoamerican” is impressive, and these two are no exception. From the most famous Zapotec ruins of Monte Albán in present-day Oaxaca to the various Mayan sites of Palenque, across the southernmost state of Chiapas and the Yucatan Peninsula, Mesoamerican culture remains a vibrant influence on today’s Mexican art and psyche.
Indigenous art flourished right up to the time of Spanish colonization. The Aztec city of Tenochitlán was one of the most important and powerful cities of the time, and a center for trade, architecture and art. Large sculptures of Aztec gods and kings, some brightly painted or adorned with precious stones, are some of the relics left by the Aztecs. Painting and elaborate featherwork were also mediums of choice, often used to represent animals and the toils of daily life.
The Colonial Period
Once the Spanish conquered Mesoamerica and its indigenous peoples through years of battles, hardship and indoctrination, art and life were to be completely transformed. Due to Spanish Baroque influence, art in the Americas experienced a long period of imitation of European and Spanish styles. As native peoples were introduced to foreign techniques and the supremacy of painting and architecture in Europe, a blending of cultures created a so-called Mexican Baroque genre. Subject and style in Mexican Baroque painting were parallel to European trends, but the colors in works of this era were much bolder, as seen in the work of painter José de Ibarra, with all the intensity of hue and light found in Mexico.
This imitation period gradually drew to a close over the course of the 19th century. With the works of landscape painter José María Velasco, a unique Mexican identity began to take shape, distinct from the strong European influence of past centuries. However, it wasn’t until the 20th century, coinciding with the Mexican revolution, that a truly original, internationally recognizable Mexican style surfaced.
Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros are world-renowned for their works of political and social themes. They conveyed their revolutionary ideals through large images of the common man in the midst of capitalistic and socialistic struggles.
While Mexico’s famous muralists were dominating the domestic art scene and receiving international commissions, other Mexican artists were forging ground on different frontiers. Frida Kahlo, now world-famous as well, painted intense yet intimate self-portraits and personal narratives. Rufino Tamayo worked with a bright palette depicting Mexican folklore, history and personal memories. Manuel Álvarez Bravo captured Mexican life and culture in black-and-white photographs.
Despite the growing body of Mexican artists working in the fine art traditions of the world, there has remained a very strong folk art movement within the country. Artisans working in Mexico keep alive the rich history of handiwork and crafts. Beautiful, burnished black pottery comes from families in Oaxaca, while the Juan Quezada school of Mata Ortiz creates complex designs on elegant terra-cotta pieces near the US border. Also from Oaxaca, Don Pedro’s extended family carries on in making his alebrijes, brightly colored fantastic creatures of rich imagination. Throughout the country, there are several pockets of skilled artisans weaving textiles, sculpting, working with tin, and giving form to clay.
The gift of Mexican art continues to this day. As the folk tradition of Mexico gains international support and patronage, so do many contemporary Mexican artists working in the post-modern style. These artists can be discovered in some of the best fine art expositions around the world: the Whitney Biennial, the Venice Biennial and Mexico’s own MACO (México Arte Contemporáneo).
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