Mexican Muralism and the Flow of Ideas

From the beginning of the New Deal arts programs, the renaissance of muralism in America was in some measure the product of influence from south of the border.

When the Mexican Revolution ended in 1921, the populist government was faced with the problem of how to continue to cultivate revolutionary ideals in its largely illiterate population. The Mexican Ministry of Education turned to muralism, commissioning artists to glorify the revolution and instill pride in native heritage with images painted in public spaces. Decorating Mexico's public buildings with murals was a massive effort, and with it, Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) rocketed to fame as the movement's masters, focusing as they did in their work on the struggles of the peasants and the workers who fought for social justice and democracy.

Mural by Jose Clemente Orozco

Mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros

When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, his old college friend George Biddle, himself an artist and a wealthy patron who had spent time in Mexico, suggested that the New Deal take a cue from Mexico: the New Deal's building programs should include funding for public art, and not just any art, but art that depicted contemporary and historical scenes and celebrated national history and the work of its people. Several programs, including the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) and The Treasury Section of Fine Arts ("The Section") sprung out of this suggestion and supported thousands of artists during the Depression.

The New Deal arts program weren't just about providing artists with jobs or educating the populace, however; they were about laying the groundwork for an American arts renaissance. "The idea," says New Deal scholar Gray Brechin, "was that if government becomes a sponsor of the arts, it is not only going to be great, but it's going to provide the opportunity out of which greats emerge." Just as they had in Italy in the fifteenth century, and just as they did in Mexico with Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros.

In California, however, the influence of the Mexican muralists was perhaps more intense than anywhere else in the country. In those days, the border between Mexico and the U.S. was easily crossed, resulting in a rich cultural exchange. "The fluidity and porousness between California and Mexico made not only the movement of painters back and forth possible, but in fact encouraged them to do so and had enormous influence," says art historian Tony Lee. "A whole series of cultural exhibitions went back and forth across the border that made the language of Mexican muralism seem not remote, but in fact very tangible and present for a lot of California artists."

Among the famous California artists to make pilgrimages to Mexico to expand their horizons and learn about different media were the photographers Edward Weston and Tina Modotti. Artists who painted the frescoes at Coit Tower were also influenced by Mexico's art scene. Several of the artists who worked there studied extensively in Mexico; Victor Arnautoff, Clifford Wight, and Bernard Zakheim had all worked as assistants to Rivera prior to taking on Coit Tower. "They were all deep within that studio practice and they all had first-hand knowledge of how a fresco gets made," says art historian Tony Lee.