Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Diego Rivera, Mexico's greatest muralist

Primping for the Prom? Two pre-hispanic nobles prepare for a public occasion in Mexican muralist Diego Rivera's monumental work at the Palacio National (National Palace) at the Zocalo in Mexico City. As part of our Caravan Tour, we visited several sites in Mexico City prior to setting off for Southern Mexico. One of our stops was to see this famous mural, which extends along the walls of several floors of the Palacio National. It is the opus magnum of Rivera's work, an amazing, thickly-peopled display of 3000 years of Mexican history.

Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de Maria. Mexico City's Cathedral is the largest and oldest in the Western Hemisphere. It is the headquarters of the Archdiocese of Mexico. After returning from his conquest of Honduras in 1524, Hernan Cortés ordered the construction of a church over the temple of the Aztec war god, Huitzilpochitli, who was their chief deity. This followed the policy of graphically demonstrating Spanish dominance by erecting Christian churches directly on top of pagan temples. Construction on the present Cathedral, which replaced the original church, began in 1573 and continued for over two centuries to 1813. The Cathedral has suffered from floods, sinking earth, and fires, and has been repaired numerous times. Unfortunately, our stay was too short to visit the interior, which has "two bell towers, a central dome, three main portals, five naves, 51 vaults, 74 arches, 40 columns, five large altars, sixteen chapels, and... approximately 150 windows." Next time...

The Palacio National fills the whole west side of the huge Zocalo. The Zocalo, or main plaza of Mexico City, was mobbed that day, although for all I know, it may be mobbed every day. This is a huge city. Mexico City itself had a population in 2009 of 8.84 million people, but the total metropolitan area is 21.2 million, making it the 3rd largest metropolitan area in the world. Like so much of the rest of the Mexico, the Palacio National is built on the ruins of the past. When this was the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, the Emperor Moctezuma built his palace, called the "New Homes," on this site. The palace was destroyed by the Spanish in the taking of Tenochtitlan, and Cortés ordered his own palace to be built in the same location. Later, Cortés sold his palace to King Phillip II and it became the seat of the Spanish Viceroys. In the 18th Century, the current Palacio was built to house them. After the War of Independence from Spain, the Palacio housed all the presidential, legislative, and supreme court functions of the national government. Today, it houses the offices of the President and several of the national ministries, including Finance and Public Credit.

Keeping watch. This handsome young military policeman guarded the main gate through which the tourists pass to view the interior of the Palacio. More military police guarded the interior gateways, and we had to open all bags and backpacks for inspection.
Central courtyard and portales of the Palacio. The Palacio was built in classic Spanish colonial style. The area of the huge building which we visited contained a central courtyard and fountain surrounded by three tiers of open-air, arched walkways. Behind the arches on the 2nd floor, and surrounding the main staircase, are vast murals by Diego Rivera who covered the walls from floor to ceiling with the entire, complex history of Mexico. The scenes, painted between 1929 and 1951, are jammed with people. Many of these are historical figures, while many others are nameless peasants and workers from pre-hispanic to modern times. The scenes are not the tame, sanitized, civics-class historical images that US and Canadian citizens may be used to seeing on their public buildings. Rivera had strong political views, and created his mural in the years following the Mexican Revolution. He was also powerfully influenced by the Russian Revolution and the struggle against fascism and nazism during the 1930s and 40s.

A meeting of equals. Two pre-hispanic nobles meet, backed by their richly clothed retinues. From their dress and adornment they are clearly from different empires or kingdoms. Rivera shows them in animated discussion, possibly of trade issues or border transgressions. Notice the small hairless dog at the heels of the noble on the left. He is probably a xolotzcuintli, a dog raised for both religious and culinary reasons. The setting is the ancient city of Tajin, capital of the Totonacs, north of present-day Vera Cruz. From the design on his shield, the figure on the left may be an Aztec emissary, while the figure on the right is probably a Totonac lord. The Totonacs had been conquered by the Aztecs and were paying them regular tribute at the time Cortés arrived.

Tajin, the great capital of the Totonacs. This painting closely follows the actual structure of the ruins at Tajin. Their temples were noted for the upturned, almost Asian cornices, and the lines of niches built into each level of the temple. The civilization which built Tajin flourished between 600 and 1200 AD, and its influence stretched all the way down the Gulf Coast into Maya territory. Tajin gained prominence after the decline and fall of Teotihuacan Empire in Central Mexico.

Danza de los Voladores. Above you see Rivera's rendering of the Dance of the Flyers, an extremely ancient ritual which may have originated in the mountainous areas of present-day Vera Cruz State, and then spread widely, in this case to the ancient Totonacs of Tajin. These rituals are still carried out throughout Mexico. Carole and I saw them in Chapultepec Park in Mexico City, and later at Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific Coast. The dancers ascend the poles, which are 30 meters (98 feet) high, and then four of them begin whirling about the pole, upside down with their feet tied to the end of the ropes, as the ropes are gradually extended further and further out. While they are whirling, the fifth of the troupe stays on top, beating a drum and blowing a flute. The ritual was meant to appeal to the gods to end drought. However, today it is mainly performed as a tourist attraction, a different sort of "rainmaking."

Doing it the old-fashioned way. Grains have been ground world-wide in this fashion since stone-age times. The roller is called a mano, and the tray is a metate. You can still find a mano and metate set in most hardware stores where I live. They are sold as kitchen equipment, not as tourist souvenirs. In this case, the woman is preparing maiz (corn) for tortillas, seen on the griddle behind her. Tortillas are also extremely ancient in origin, and still ubiquitous in Mexico. The panel where this appears illustrates the Huastec civilization, which existed in the coastal area north of present-day Vera Cruz. Their language is related to the Maya language and the Huastec may have been a segment of Maya culture cut off from the main area in the south by historical migrations. The Huastec built cities and had a high level of culture, especially music. Although the woman above is partially clothed, the Huastecs wore no clothes until the Spanish Church authorities finally forced them.

Ancient women preparing cotton cloth. Cortés and his men remarked on the extremely fine cotton clothing among the indigenous people they encountered on the way to conquering the Aztecs. Above, Rivera has used his own face for the woman on the right with the round face and bulging eyes. He often used his own face or the face of wives, or lovers, or friends in his murals.

Scene from the tianguis, or central market, of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. Cortés and his men expressed their amazement at the thousands of people who participated in this market. Available in the tianguis were every sort of food or other product imaginable, including the services of a prostitute exhibiting her wares, and a recently butchered human arm, both shown above. The Aztecs engaged in ritual cannibalism. Some archaeologists postulate that the cannibalism was also for dietary reasons, because their food system--while innovative--was not sufficient to provide all the protein they needed. Rivera, while he sympathized with the native inhabitants whose brilliant civilizations were destroyed by the Spanish, did not sugarcoat some of the grim realities.

An ancient workshop creates beautiful gold jewelry. A mixed group of men and women work to smelt, mould, and shape ornaments to be worn by indigenous nobles and others rich enough to possess them. While preparing this photo, I noticed the oven being used to smelt the gold. The old baker who makes my bread in a tiny shop at the back of his house uses an oven virtually identical to the one Rivera painted above. Another ancient technology lives on in the age of space travel and the internet.

Cortés and the Spanish fight for their lives. Contrary to popular belief, the Conquest was not a "walk in the park" with the Indians fleeing Spanish guns and horses. The Aztecs fought bitterly and with such bravery, skill and ingenuity that it aroused the admiration of the Spanish themselves. The battle for Tenochtitlan lasted many weeks, with ferocious combat virtually every day. In order to overcome the Aztec defenses, the Spanish had to tear down the city, stone by stone. They expressed some regrets at this since they considered it to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. In addition, Cortés and his men would almost certainly have been defeated and ended up on Aztec sacrificial altars without the assistance of tens of thousands of indigenous allies. These allies had been enemies of the Aztecs, or were in some cases subject peoples who saw a chance for freedom from Aztec domination. In the end, they traded subjugation to the Aztecs for a much more brutal and thorough-going subjugation under the Spanish.

What it was all about. The Spanish cloaked their Conquest under the mantle of Christianity and spreading civilization to the barbarians, the usual excuses of imperialists down to modern times. As always, the real driving motivation was greed, well expressed by Rivera in this vignette of Spanish traders in Vera Cruz. The rather gray and pasty-looking fellow on the left was modeled on a friend of Rivera. The first things the Spanish sought were gold and silver and precious jewels. Mining was the favored activity for centuries, with Mexico producing 2/3 of the world's silver supply at one point. Hundreds of thousands of Indians died digging it out.

Welcome to New Spain. Above, an African slave is held tightly in preparation for his branding, while another waits apathetically in the background. The Spanish imported Africans because the indigenous people were dying like flies in the face of European diseases and extreme overwork. The music of Vera Cruz, where this scene takes place, still reflects African influences. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of Cortés young lieutenants, wrote rather matter-of-factly about the wholesale branding of indigenous slaves, including men, women, and children so that they could be properly allotted to the conquistadors. There was constant grumbling among Cortés men about his tendency to keep the best of everything, including good-looking women (properly branded, of course).

The role of the Church was to teach the indigenous people the value of cooperation. Rivera shows a priest with a cross urging on a straining group of Indian workers. Since much of the work in the early years revolved around the construction of great religious edifices, and the clearing and tilling of vast lands to support the Church's needs, the Church leaders had a common interest in helping the conquistadors and their hacienda-owning successors to subjugate the population.

Another, somewhat lesser role. Some priests, and even the occasional bishop, protested the most brutal extremes practiced against the indigenous people. Diego Rivera acknowledges this in the scene above. The priest with the cross confronts an arrogant Spaniard while desperate Indians clutch at his robes. Between the priest and the Spaniard lies a dead man, killed by one of the Spaniards. Behind the priest on the left, other Church officials eagerly accept offerings from members of their flock, greed glittering in their eyes. Some of the Spanish atrocities would have made Heinrich Himmler blush. These tended to cause the local people to flee into the mountains, making it difficult to raise a workforce. Thus the positive actions of some members of the Church may have resulted from mixed motives.

Following the War of Independence, Mexico suffered repeated foreign invasions. One of the most disastrous of these (for Mexico) was the invasion by the United States in 1846, in Rivera's scene above. President James K. Polk, a Virginia slaveholder, determined that the best hope for the survival and extension of slavery as an economic system in the United States was territorial expansion. He began this with the annexation of Texas, which had already been seized from Mexico by slave-holding immigrants primarily from Southern US states who had created the Republic of Texas in 1836. Mexico had abolished slavery shortly after Independence and this was one of the fundamental issues that caused the Southerners who moved there to break away. After the US annexation in 1846, tensions increased. A manufactured "border incident" led to wholesale invasion, and ultimately to the theft at gunpoint of Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and California (not to say Texas). The conquest by the United States was so outrageous that even General Zachary Taylor, who led one of the invading armies, felt that it was unjust. A young congressman named Abraham Lincoln protested bitterly, and some of the New England states actually considered secession. Little of this is taught in US schools, although the history is there for all to see, and few Americans have any but the fuzziest understanding of the actions which brought about the current geographical shape of the United States.

"Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss..." Mexico's history following the War of Independence played out like the words of a famous rock song. Many of those in leadership when the Independence War ended had zero interest in social revolution. They just wanted to move up and take over the privileges and riches of the former Spanish overlords. The hacienda system continued, and although there were constant coups and revolts by various generals, the lot of the campesinos changed little. About a decade after the US sundered half the country, a great reformer named Benito Juarez was elected. Remarkably, he was a full-blooded Indian, 150 years before the US elected its first non-white president. He pushed strongly for reforms, and especially sought to break the stranglehold the Church held on Mexican society. The conservatives revolted but Juarez ultimately won the Reform War. Many of these themes are expressed in Diego Rivera's panel above, with Juarez and the reformers on the upper left, and some of their haciendado opponents on the right. In the foreground, a fat friar, a be-ribboned general, and a bishop look on with smug approval as campesinos trudge in front of them, bent over with huge loads.

After the Reforms, treachery and a French invasion. A short time after Juarez' victory in the Reform War, the conservatives struck back, encouraging the French to invade and install an Austrian Duke named Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico. This led to a prolonged war, coinciding with the American Civil War. Juarez finally forced the French to withdraw, and this led to the defeat, capture and execution of Maximilian. Abraham Lincoln strongly supported Juarez, politically and with arms, and at one point sent a US army to the border to encourage the French to depart. Lincoln is remembered fondly in Mexico for his friendship with Juarez and support at a critical moment in Mexico's history. Above, Mexican soldiers blaze away at the French, and others hold Maximilian at gun point after his surrender at Querétaro.

¡Viva la huelga! A worker rouses his mates to la huelga (the strike) against oppressive conditions. Just above the speaker's head, a worker brandishes a hammer and another a sickle. These symbols do not contain the deeply negative connotations in Mexico that they have in the United States. Diego Rivera was a member of the Communist Party of Mexico for many years, and his work is strongly sympathetic to the plight of workers and campesinos, and to the reforms that the Mexican Revolution brought. Rivera was a rather odd communist though, since his clients included Nelson Rockefeller among others. Famously, Rockefeller destroyed the Rivera mural he had commissioned for the Rockefeller Center in New York, because a central figure in the painting was Vladimir Lenin, which Rivera refused to remove or paint over.

Workers educating themselves about Capitalism. Above, two workers cheerfully chat while one holds a copy of Karl Marx' Das Kapital (El Capital in Spanish). Karl Marx himself appears elsewhere in the mural. Having been raised under the extremely narrow range of political viewpoints considered to be "legitimate" in the US, I have found it astonishing to discover portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Che Guevara, and even Ho Chi Minh in prominent, even honored, positions in Mexican government buildings. It is beyond my imagination that such art would survive even moments in my home country, much less to have been commissioned by the government itself.

If you ever have a chance to see Diego Rivera's work, don't hesitate. It is remarkable, stupendous, funny, disturbing, outrageous, and much more. If you would like to leave a comment, you can do so in the comments section below, or by emailing me directly. If you leave a question in the comments section below, PLEASE leave your email address so that I may respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. I just read Bernal Diaz's "The Conquest of New Spain" for my Social Foundation class and wanted to find another viewpoint on the interaction between the Spaniards and the Aztecs...and I found your blog, which did an amazing job on explaining Rivera's murals on the indigenous history of Mexico. Plus, I ended up reading the entire article because it is so well-written and educational.

    Thank you so very much.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim