Mexico was one of the first countries in the world to establish a critical framework for linking art to the development of productive forces in society at large. In the early decades of the twentieth century, left-wing governments marshalled the talents of artists to promote their cause. The mural program led by Diego Rivera (1886–1957) is the best-known manifestation of what can be described as political art. Rivera and his associates covered the walls of mainly public institutions with compelling imagery that conveyed finely tuned political messages. Despite the subsequent fame of their work, it was printmaking that most effectively expressed the social and political concerns of the period. Prints documented the plight of the oppressed and commemorated the struggles and achievements of social reform. The use of printed images to document these matters, beginning in 1910, the first year of the Mexican Revolution, continued after the Revolution ended in 1920. Prints were produced in Mexico in large numbers during World War II (1939–45) that addressed international concerns, principally the tyranny of fascism and the virtues of socialist ideology.
Mexico has the oldest printmaking tradition in Latin America. The first presses were established there in the sixteenth century mainly to print devotional images for religious institutions. Because of their ephemeral nature, few of these early impressions survive. A rare early exception is a 1756 thesis proclamation printed on silk presented by a candidate for a degree in medicine (46.46.559). With the introduction of lithography to Mexico in the nineteenth century, printmaking and publishing greatly expanded, and artists became recognized for the character of their work. José Guadalupe Posada (1851–1913) is often regarded as the father of Mexican printmaking. His best-known prints are of skeletons (calaveras) published on brightly colored paper as broadsides that address topical issues and current events, love and romance, stories, popular songs, and other themes (46.46.282; 46.46.307). A number of Posada’s prints relate to the Day of the Dead festivities. During this celebration, held every year on November 1–2, families make altars and leave offerings of food for the souls of the departed. Posada’s prints became something of a benchmark for artists who appreciated their immediacy. They were also easy and cheap to print, and could reach a wide audience. Manuel Manilla (ca. 1830–ca. 1895)—a close contemporary of Posada—addressed very similar subjects, and works by the two artists are sometimes hard to distinguish from one another (46.46.343). Posada and Manilla demonstrate how effective prints were for creating a visual language that everyone could understand and enjoy. In the early twentieth century, their example had a profound impact on artists who, in response to the turbulent political climate and social unrest, were similarly eager to reach broad audiences.
The best-known artists in Mexico from the early decades of the twentieth century are Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949), and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974)—“Los tres grandes” (The Three Greats). They were all committed to politics but expressed their views through their art in very different ways. Of the three, Rivera—who returned to Mexico from Europe at the invitation of the government in 1921 to work on a mural project—rose to greatest prominence. Rivera’s 1932 lithograph Emiliano Zapata and His Horse (33.26.7), based on a detail from one of his murals at the Palace of Cortés Cuernavaca to the south of Mexico City, has become an iconic twentieth-century print. Zapata was a landowner-turned-revolutionary who formed and led the Liberation Army of the South. He embodied the aims of agrarian struggle that aspired to improve conditions for those who worked on the land. Zapata was assassinated in April 1919. Rivera’s print conflates different moments of oppression with optimistic emancipation. It was commissioned and published by the Weyhe Gallery in New York for sale to American collectors.
Orozco and Siqueiros also made prints for the U.S. market, a number of which are devoid of political content (29.63.3). These represent an elite category of printed material and are concerned mainly with artistic merit rather than political ideology. The same artists, however, were also involved in making prints for the popular press. Siqueiros and Xavier Guerrero (1896–1974), for example, produced a number of striking prints for the left-wing paper El Machete (30.14.11). This paper was established in 1924 as an organ of the Union of Painters, Sculptors, and Technical Workers; Siqueiros and Guerrero, along with Diego Rivera, were its principal founders. The paper was available from street stalls, and its supporters were encouraged to paste it on walls.
The establishment of the print collective known as the Taller de Gráfica Popular (Workshop of Popular Graphic Art, TGP) in Mexico City in 1937 best expresses the symbiosis between prints and politics that had developed in Mexico. Its founders, Leopoldo Méndez (1902–1969), Luis Arenal (1907–1985) and Pablo (Paul) O’Higgins (1904–1983), were committed communists who abandoned mural painting to concentrate on printmaking, demonstrating how important prints had become as a vehicle for artistic, social, and political expression. Some of its members had belonged to the League of Writers and Revolutionary Artists (LEAR), which had been launched in 1934. The TGP has a fascinating history steeped in astonishing artistic production and political intrigue. The Bolshevik revolutionary and Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky arrived in Mexico in 1937, much to the horror of the communists represented by Siqueiros, who regarded him as a pro-fascist provocateur. Rivera was a supporter of Trotsky and established a Mexican branch of the Fourth International, a socialist organization that had its own journal, Clave, and ran articles attacking the USSR and the Mexican Communist Party. Siqueiros, then a guest member of the TGP, with fellow printmakers Antonio Pujol (1913–1995) and Luis Arenal, led an attempt to assassinate Trotsky in May 1940. The TGP workshop was their rendezvous point. After the failed attempt, Pujol ended up in prison and Siqueiros fled the country. Their action caused terrible ruptures in the TGP, with some remaining committed to the communist cause and others pressing for a more moderate line.
Members of the TGP rose to great prominence. Apart from being one of the politically committed members of the workshop, Leopoldo Méndez was also one of its most productive, making hundreds of prints that demonstrate his skill and artistic sensibility. Some of his prints were inspired by the work of Posada, whereas others drew on popular traditions like breaking the piñata during celebrations; Méndez instilled his rendition of this subject with a clear political message (39.16.23). The artists working at the TGP also produced some of the most remarkable posters of the twentieth century. Published in 1939, Isidoro Ocampo’s (1910–1983) The Japanese Fascist shows Emperor Hirohito with the body of a spider (46.46.520). The poster refers to Hirohito’s invasion of China in 1937 and was used to advertise a seminar on the subject of fascism in Japan planned for July 9, 1938, in Mexico City. This was one of several posters made at the TGP to publicize seminars organized by the League for German Culture in Mexico that focused on fascism and how to fight it. A striking poster by José Chávez Morado (1909–2002) satirizes the Mexican press (46.46.502), while others address similar matters of corruption and deceit.
The link between politics and prints that continued to be a focus of Mexican artists during the first half of the twentieth century is demonstrated through a portfolio of eighty-five linocut prints by sixteen artists published by the TGP in 1946. Entitled Prints of the Mexican Revolution (Estampas de la revolución Mexicana), the portfolio contained a prologue collectively signed by the artists of the workshop and a declaration of their principles. The prints address subjects from the 1870s to the 1940s and denounce civil and social injustices (1993.1133.5). It also includes prints by foreigners such as Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012) and Paul O’Higgins, who were drawn to Mexico because of their political convictions. The portfolio, aimed mainly at collectors, reflects the TGP’s desire to cultivate an international market for their prints.
Artists who were involved in the TGP and other political collectives, along with those who were not, also made many prints relating to Mexican heritage, customs, and daily life (46.46.453(1)). This aspect of printmaking in Mexico has not received much attention from scholars because of the dominant narrative around prints and the Mexican Revolution. The simple early woodcuts by one of Mexico’s best-known artists, Rufino Tamayo (1899–1991), show Indians in different settings (30.95.1). Tamayo went on to produce hundreds of prints, mostly after 1950. Few artists, however, could match the productivity of French-born Jean Charlot (1898–1979) who moved to Mexico in 1921 and became deeply interested in the country’s culture and customs (42.111.2). Charlot’s donation of his own prints, as well as his role in facilitating the purchase of those by other Mexican artists, forms the basis of the Met’s extensive and rich collection.
McDonald, Mark. “Printmaking in Mexico, 1900–1950.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/prmx/hd_prmx.htm (September 2016)
Ades, Dawn, and Alison McClean. Revolution on Paper: Mexican Prints 1910–1960. Edited by Mark McDonald. Exh. cat. London: British Museum, 2009.
Caplow, Deborah. Leopoldo Méndez: Revolutionary Art and the Mexican Print. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.
El Taller de Gráfica Popular: Vida y arte. Exh. cat. Athens: Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, 2015.
Ittmann, John W., ed. Mexico and Modern Printmaking: A Revolution in the Graphic Arts, 1920 to 1950. Exh. cat. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2006.
Prignitz-Poda, Helga. El Taller de Gráfica Popular en México, 1937–1977. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, 1992.