Times & Places

Mexico: Mexican Art and the Revolution (1910-1920)

Mexicans in Paris: Cubism and the "Return to Order"

In the early 20th century, several Academy-trained Mexican artists traveled to Europe with stipends from the Mexican government to learn from the old masters, experience the rising European avant-garde, and establish their careers. There, they delved into post-impressionist motifs and explored futurism and cubism. For more than a decade, artists such as Diego Rivera, Ángel Zárraga, and Roberto Montenegro earned ample recognition in Paris’s avant-garde inner circles. When the Mexican Revolution in 1910 broke out, however, their artistic futures seemed uncertain.

Since their student days at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas (National School of Fine Arts) in Mexico City, Diego Rivera and Ángel Zárraga had shared the same interests. From 1914 to 1917, they actively participated in the cubist movement in Paris and developed their own style of color and composition. After the tumultuous years of World War I many artists—including Mexican artists—distanced themselves from avant-garde movements and sought a “return to order” in their compositions. European artists sought refuge in figuration. Some Mexican artists returned to Mexico and founded their own movements responding to a national visual language. Zárraga expressed the “return to order” through innovative subjects, like his women soccer players, but his style remained distinct from that of the Mexican avant-garde led by Diego Rivera, whose works convey the very essence of what he considered to be “Mexicanism.” Other artists such as Nahui Ollin and Agustín Lazo sought refuge in Europe with the help of their wealthy families to avoid the revolutionary conflict.

Mexico and the Revolution: Nationalism

The Mexican Revolution had enormous impact on the country’s political, historical, and cultural formation. Armed conflict took thousands of lives, changing the country’s social structure and subsequently its visual languages. Undoubtedly, the most significant, but not the only, artistic movement that formed as a consequence of the Revolution was muralism, which epitomized the search for a national visual language. From this movement, the so-called “Big Three” emerged: Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros.

Nationalism became institutionalized in the visual arts with the support of personalities such as José Vasconcelos, then Secretary of Public Education, who promoted mural art as a way of transmitting the ideals of the Revolution. Thus, perspectives expressed in the arts shifted between criticism of the past and hopeful projections of the future. By expressing left-wing ideologies and experimenting with innovative materials, Mexican artists of the 20th century created a unique, powerful oeuvre that transcended Mexico’s borders. Saturnino Herrán was one of the artists who forged the idea of a “national soul”—a notion borrowed from French-born Ernest Renan, who explained it as a sentiment of nationality—with the aim of apprehending the complexity of Mexican history and cohering the nation into a single imaginary whole. In their search for a national language, artists looked to the people and concentrated especially on the representation of the native. Although miscegenation predates the modern era, it was in the 20th century that it was exalted as an intrinsic peculiarity of Mexico. The basis of this lies in José Vasconcelos’s notions of a “cosmic race” and Manuel Gamio’s and Federico Gamboa’s concept of a “national soul” emerging from the fusion between the pre-Hispanic and European cultures.

Tragedies of the Revolution

Rather than seeing the Revolution as an episode of hope, some artists, such as Francisco Goitia and José Clemente Orozco, interpreted it as a tragedy that took many lives. The works of José Clemente Orozco—murals as well as easel paintings—provide some of the most powerful perspectives on the violent events that Mexico experienced in the last century. Orozco focused on recovering his continent’s perspective on history, unfiltered and in all its complexity, contributing to a national visual language. The Revolution—specifically the participation of the people—was represented in his work through contradictions in which mankind’s power and melancholy merged to create a vision of the future of Mexico and of humanity, an approach that was nevertheless critical. The sculptors of the post-revolutionary period, who also took part in the construction of a national iconography, adopted the techniques and the volumetric and abstract aesthetics of the ancient American past. Later, Mathias Goeritz and his peers continued to call on the spirit of abstraction as practiced in the past, and to make a vehement denunciation of violence in different Mexican spheres.

Magical Realism and Proto-Surrealism

Mexican artists in the first half of the 20th century frequently depicted factory workers, condemning the deprivations they suffered as representative of all proletariats, while others referenced the imminent advance of technology and space exploration, presenting a positive view of machinery and the future. The renewal of national art was not, however, limited to themes that extolled field or factory workers. The explosive growth of the city and popularization of new media such as photography allowed some artists to faithfully represent everyday urban life with subject matter that at times embraced fantastical elements, as noted by founder of Surrealism André Bretón during a visit to Mexico. Despite the influence of Surrealism and metaphysical painting, artists transferred dreamlike language to the realm of the everyday. In this way, they developed a magical realism imbued with metaphors, as seen in in the paintings of Antonio Ruiz, Juan Soriano, and Alfonso Michel, and the photographs of Manuel Álvarez Bravo.

Strong Women

From the Mexican Revolution onward, several segments of society were restructured as men participated in the war or left their homes in search of work and food. Women took on new jobs, first in the armed struggle and later in rebuilding national culture and education. Therefore, the image of the soldaderas—the women who followed the guerrilla camps—acquired significance at the time and was symbolically compared to the Bible’s “strong women.” Women also seized a prominent role—a protofeminist one even—in the art world by serving as collectors, as patrons for outstanding artists, or searching for a visual language of their own.

Adapted from

  • México 1900-1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, and the Avant Garde, Gallery text [Mexicans in Paris; Cubism and the "Return to Order"; Mexico and the Revolution; Saturnino Herrán; The Artist as Witness: Francisco Goitia; The Archetypes of Indigenous Society; Orozco and the Revolution of Man; A Metaphysical Landscape; The Workers; Masses and Utopia; Magical Realism and Proto-Surrealism; Strong Women; Art Patrons], 2017.

Related Multimedia

Audio Files
Audio files
Audio files
Audio Files
Audio Files
Audio files
Gallery talk by Paulina Lopez, McDermott Intern for Visitor Engagement, DMA
Audio Files
Audio files
Audio Files
Audio Files
Audio files
Audio files
Audio Files
Audio Files

Web Resources

  • Khan Academy
    Learn more about Latin American art.
  • Khan Academy
    Read more about the Mexican Revolution and Independence.
  • Khan Academy
    Learn more about Mexican muralism and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco.
  • Khan Academy
    Watch a video about the influence of abstraction.
  • Khan Academy
    Learn about modernism from 1850 to 1960.
  • Khan Academy
    Read more about modernism and its legacy.
  • Khan Academy
    Read more about expressionism.
  • Khan Academy
    Learn more about futurism.
  • Khan Academy
    Read more about cubism.
  • Khan Academy
    Read about realism.
  • Khan Academy
    Learn more about surrealism.
  • Khan Academy
    Read more about the influence of the World Wars and dynamism.
  • Khan Academy
    Watch a video with Curator Chris Stephens as he explores art from 1910-1914 at the Tate.
  • Khan Academy
    Watch a video with Curator Chris Stephens as he explores art from 1914-1915 at the Tate.