The Craziest Mexican Murals and the Revolutionary History Behind Them

The 1920s spurred a new art movement south of the US border: Mexican muralism. Catalyzed largely by the Mexican Revolution, the new government hoped to reunify the nation through promoting political and social messages via artworks. The movement was led by three artists, known as “the big three” – Diego Rivera (husband of famed painter Frida Kahlo), David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco.

The Mexican Muralism Movement lasted more than 50 years, from the 1920s to the '70s. During this time, many artworks were commissioned by the Mexican government, and a large number of public buildings were plastered with social, political, and nationalistic allegories in the form of aesthetically powerful and vibrant murals. Most of the murals highlighted Mexico's impressive history and the destruction of morality through war, imperialism, dictatorships, and industrialization.

Orozco described muralism as "the highest, the most logical, the purest (form of art), because it is for the people. It's for everyone." It inspired regional evolution of art in the Americas, serving as the cornerstone for the Chicano Art Movement in the US.

  • La América Tropical (1932)

    La América Tropical is the name given to the mural painted by David Alfaro Siqueiros on the second floor of Olvera Street's Italian Hall in Los Angeles, California. The work radically depicts the literal and figurative crucifixion of Native Mexicans and Americans at the hands of colonial forces, specifically US imperialism. In the center of the mural, a crucified Indian "peon" is displayed on a cross with a bald eagle overhead. In the background of the mural, Mayan ruins are barely discernible through the thick vegetation that grows over them. At the time of its unveiling, Siqueiros's work proved too radical for the downtown Los Angeles scene, and it was painted over. However, in the 1960s, the paint began to peel, and the mural again became visible. It reemerged, fully renovated, in 2012.

    • Man At The Crossroads/Man, Controller of the Universe (1934)
      Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain

      Diego Rivera's Man at the Crossroads was commissioned by the Rockefellers in 1934 and appeared momentarily in Rockefeller Center in New York City. The mural was hugely controversial at the time, because it was created during the surge of global communism and showcased a Soviet May Day parade with Lenin at center stage. In fact, the mural brought such bad publicity that Rockefeller ordered it destroyed, in spite of artist protests. Black-and-white photographs of the original mural exist, which Rivera used to reconstruct the fresco in Mexico City, calling it Man, Controller of the Universe. The mural, as stands today, depicts contemporary aspects of culture at the time, both social and scientific.

      • Artist: Diego Rivera
      • Art Form: Mural
      • Period / Movement: Mexican Muralism
    • Portrait Of Mexico Today (1932)

      Painted in 1932, Portrait of Mexico Today was created by David Alfaro Siqueiros in Los Angeles, California, where he had sought asylum as a political refugee. Though Siqueiros painted three murals in the US, Portrait is the only surviving one from the famous artist that hasn't needed reconstruction as a result of active destruction or neglect. The mural was done inside of filmmaker Dudley Murphy's garden in the Pacific Palisades. In 2001, it was donated to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The entire building was moved to the museum for preservation so that future generations can benefit from the social and political commentary, as Siqueiros presented his perspective on his native Mexico's relationship with the US. 

      • Artist: David Alfaro Siqueiros
      • Subject: Modern-day Mexico
      • Art Form: Mural
      • Period / Movement: Mexican Muralism
    • Eagle And Snake Of The Mexican National Emblem (1924)

      The Mexican coat of arms depicts an eagle – which symbolizes the sun god Huitzilopochtli – devouring a serpent – symbolizing evil. The emblem has religious significance, as well as deep-rooted cultural connotations for the indigenous Mexica people, who referred to themselves as the "People of the Sun." Artist Jean Charlot had deep Mexican roots, himself. Though he was born in Paris, his great-grandfather had immigrated to Mexico and married a half-Aztec woman, which created a myth that Charlot was a descendant of Aztec royalty. This depiction of the national emblem in the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria celebrates Mexican culture and mythology.

      • Artist: Jean Charlot
      • Subject: National Emblem
      • Art Form: Mural
      • Period / Movement: Mexican Muralism