The land called Mexico has many moods and faces. Without a doubt Mexico is steeped in ancient Indian lore, seasoned with Spanish colonial customs. The array of folk art and crafts in Mexico is simply mind-boggling. Each region of Mexico has its own specialty, with villagers maintaining the traditions handed down from countless generations.
Mexican culture is a fascinating blend of Native American traditions and Spanish colonial influences. Long before the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, the indigenous civilizations of Mexico had developed arts such as ceramics, music, poetry, sculpture, and weaving. After the conquest, the intricate designs and bright colors of many Native American arts were often mixed with European techniques and religious themes to create a hybrid and uniquely Mexican artistic style.
Numerous churches constructed during the colonial era reflect the blending of Spanish architectural designs with the handiwork of Native American workers who built and decorated the buildings. Many of Mexico’s most popular modern crafts—such as textiles, pottery, and furniture making—borrow designs and techniques from Native American culture. Mexican painting and music have also been shaped by this heritage.
Indigenous influences were given a tremendous boost by the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). During and immediately after the revolution, many Mexican artists celebrated the nation’s unique mixture of races and cultures in their work. Political and social themes from the revolution—such as efforts at land reform and the right of common Mexicans to participate in the nation’s government—were also reflected in the arts.
Immediate post revolutionary governments supported the arts and contributed to efforts to make them more accessible to average Mexicans, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. The individual most responsible for this support was José Vasconcelos, a leading intellectual who served as secretary of education in the first post revolutionary government.
The government was especially influential in promoting mural painting, commissioning artists to paint murals depicting Mexican history on public buildings (Hutchison, 2003). During the 1930s, painters came to Mexico from the United States to study the mural movement. Many people from Europe, the United States, and Latin America also visited Mexico as tourists in the 1930s and 1940s, increasing the popularity of native arts such as the making of silver jewelry.
Mexican arts, with the exception of folk arts, generally followed European patterns during the colonial period and the 19th century. The Mexican Revolution was instrumental in fostering a new sense of nationalism and experimentation at the School of Fine Arts in Mexico City. Artists such as David Alfaro Siqueiros belonged to a group of painters who decided that content and form was as important as aesthetics.
A number of these artists, including Siqueiros, were political activists as well as artists who aimed to inspire the lower classes in Mexico by creating paintings that dealt with revolutionary themes. They encouraged the development of public murals, so that ordinary Mexicans could view the work of leading artists (Martin & Jacobus, 2004). Painting with a permanent medium on large walls, these muralists—including Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Juan O’Gorman—dominated the Mexican art world in the 1920s and 1930s.
Other artists pursued a different tack. Frida Kahlo painted numerous small self-portraits, which captured her own vision in strange, often surrealistic presentations. Kahlo fractured her spine and pelvis in a traffic accident as a teenager and began to paint while recovering from her accident. The constant pain Kahlo suffered due to her injuries, as well as her sadness over being unable to bear a child, are reflected in much of her work.
In the 1930s Rufino Tamayo combined native folk themes with European art forms such as cubism. His work reached a much larger foreign audience than that of other Mexican artists, particularly in Europe and New York City. Tamayo was an outspoken opponent of the painting style of the revolutionary muralists, arguing that their focus on political and social themes came at the expense of artistic quality. The intense colors of many of Tamayo’s paintings and his use of flattened two-dimensional figures—a style that is common in Mexican folk or pre-Columbian art—gave his work a distinctly Mexican flavor.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo, who associated with some of the leading creative photographers in the United States, such as Edward Weston and Tina Modetti, became the first Mexican photographer to reach a large international audience. He was influential in promoting photography as an art form in Mexico. See also Latin American Painting; Latin American Sculpture.
From the 16th through the 18th centuries, architecture overshadowed other forms of art in Mexico. The early buildings of the Spaniards tended to be simple and practical. In the 17th and 18th centuries, however, architecture in Mexico became highly decorative and elaborate. It was during this period that many of the country’s famous churches were built, including the
Cathedral of Mexico in Mexico City. Examples of Spanish colonial architecture are found throughout Mexico.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the French splendors of the Second Empire style were introduced in Mexico City. This trend began under Emperor Maximilian, who ruled Mexico briefly during the 1860s, and later under President Porfirio Díaz. Díaz commissioned the ornate Palace of Fine Arts, which was completed in the 1930s. Since the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), many outstanding examples of modern architecture have been built in Mexico.
The National Autonomous University of Mexico contains many spectacular modern buildings that feature murals in fresco and mosaic. It includes a multistory library almost completely covered by mosaics designed by Juan O’Gorman. Another Mexican architect, Félix Candela, created highly original concrete shell designs for several churches and for the sports palace at the 1968 Olympic Games (Billington, 2003). One of Mexico’s most internationally admired architects, Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, designed the renowned Museum of Anthropology and History in downtown Mexico City.
Ceramics (Clay Art)
Since the appearance of the Olmec culture, considered to be the “mother of the Mesoamerican cultures”, ceramics took a prevailing place in the lives of the Mexican people. The earthenware vessels, anthropomorphic figures, and various types of utensils found in the archaeological ruins of the ancient Olmec cities of Tajin, San Lorenzo, La Venta and Tres Zapotes, suggest the techniques used in their ceramics: the use of clay, the knowledge of some primitive firing techniques, their means of coloring and painting designs.
The Olmecs transcended their era (1500 B.C. –800 A.D) and bequeathed their knowledge to the cultures that flourished after them. The Teotihuacans (100 B.C. – 800 A.D.) prepared the majority of their vessels with clay and decorated them with a variety of techniques: mainly stucco, painting, and smoothing. The pottery of the Aztecs (1325 A.D. – 1521 A.D.) was extremely varied. They made all types of earthenware, plates, jugs, cups, and pots, mostly with red and orange clay.
The Mixtecs stood out for their polychrome lacquer ceramics, in which after polishing a piece, they would cover it with white stucco and then paint it. To the north, the Casas Grandes culture (100 A.D. – 1360 A.D.) produced beautiful polychrome ceramic, basically with geometric motives and influences from the Mimbres culture. Each region had its own unique characteristics in pottery. However, in all these cultures, the potter himself was given a great deal of importance. The Aztecs summed it up in the following way:
“A good potter:
he puts great care into his work,
he teaches the clay to lie,
he speaks with his own heart,
he brings life to things,
he creates them,
he knows everything as if he were a Toltec
he makes his hands skillful.”
The ancient techniques employed to make ceramics are still used today – mostly in the rural parts of Mexico. It’s curious how these groups were able to preserve their artistic techniques – coil building, open firing, natural pigments – and yet they lost their original language and their religion.
When the Spaniards arrived, the blending of societies allowed the indigenous people to learn new techniques, and the combination of styles gave life to some of the more famous ceramic styles of Mexican earthenware, such as the “majolica” or Talavera. Puebla’s Talavera is a direct descendant of the Arabic-Andalusian tradition, which began in Spain in the ninth century, when the influence of the Arabic culture passed on its techniques to peninsular potters. In Talavera de la Reina, Spain, it became very popular and took a characteristic stylistic form toward the 16th century. It was then that it was brought to the Americas, especially to the Nueva España, the New Spain, as Mexico was called in colonial times.
Although Talavera is only produced in Puebla, other majolica type earthenware is also produced in places like Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende. To the west, in Tonala, Jalisco, is another Mexican state with a long tradition of ceramic production. Here, there is more of a Persian influence, including pieces such as stew urns, using gold and silver.
In Metepec, State of Mexico, the ceramic tradition has been influenced by Christian beliefs. Here they create the well-known arboles de la vida, trees of life, which are made to look much like tree. Wire is used to attach the clay leafs and figurines to the “tree”. It is called de la vida because it explains the origins of life. Usually there are figures of God, angles and Adam and Eve, as well as the serpent and some fruit are represented by special figures.
Day of the Dead trees is also made using skeletons, and images related to the festivity. Some are made in terracotta, without glaze; others are painted in every imaginable color. Red ware, which is used to make everything from large cooking pots to rice dishes to table dishes, is typical of Michoacan. The characteristic decoration of these dishes are small flowers made with the thick part of the paintbrush, with white or green paint around a small black circle, as if it were a margarita (the flower).
In Oaxaca, the town of San Bartolo is famous for its barro negro, black clay. The artwork made with this clay acquires its color through the pigments in the polishing process, which brings out the red color from inside the clay. There are some more recent techniques that bring out a mixture of the natural dark and light tones of the clay, which artists protectively keep to them (Wasserspring, 2000).
The small town of Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua stands out for its beautiful pottery as well. It was here that they reinvented pre-Hipic ceramics techniques after shards of ancient pottery were found in the ruins of Paquimé. This renaissance was mostly due to Juan Quezada, outstanding Master Potter of Mata Ortiz.
Some Mexican creators have implemented new forms and new designs for typical Mexican artwork, such as ceramic eggs from which little frogs are born, lizards and other little animals; glass and ceramic twisters; key chains with eclipses; masks with a pre-Hipic or oriental motif; dish sets with images of Tamayo or Rivera; tiles with geometrical figures, etc.
In the 1950s, High Temperature ceramics or stoneware appeared in Mexico. The origin of this type of ceramics is from China, Korea and Japan.
This technique was introduced to Mexico by a small group of Mexican ceramic artists who studied abroad, mainly in Japan and the United States. Little by little, it caught on, and these days there are several regional centers in which artists work with Stoneware, such as Michoacan, Veracruz and Jalisco.
As we can see, Mexican ceramics bring together the influences of pre-Hipic, European, Arabic and Oriental cultures. Whatever technique is used, Mexican ceramics have individuality and “flavor” that is appreciated for its art and quality worldwide.
Hutchison, P., (2003). Footprint Central America and Mexico 2004 (p. 93). USA : Footprint Handbooks
Martin, F. D., Jacobus, L. A. (2004). Humanities through The Arts (p. 399). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill
Billington, D. P., (2003). The Art of Structural Design: A Swiss Legacy (p. 136, 162). USA : Other Distribution
Wasserspring, L., Ragan V., (2000). Oaxacan Ceramics: Traditional Folk Art by Oaxacan Women (pp. 1, 22). San Francisco, California: Chronicle Books