Innovative. Vibrant. Thriving. These are words that describe Mexican art. From pre-Columbian times through today, the art of Mexico makes quite an impression on those who view it.
Mexican art history begins with early peoples, such as the Olmecs, Incans, Mayans and Aztecs. These early artists produced works during the 3,000-year period between 1500 BC and 1500 AD.
The Olmecs, the original writers of hieroglyphics, created a calendar, which influenced their architectural designs. The position of sunlight and shadows determined where they placed architectural details. They made sculptures of huge heads that may have represented their rulers.
© Eric Hunt - Olmec Figurines
All these early civilizations and later groups created art for political or religious reasons. For instance, Aztecs embellished knives used for human sacrifice rituals with the heads of gods.
Ancient media included paper, stone, and ceramics. The fertility figurines, ceramic bowls, wall paintings, and jade sculptures, and other art they left behind still fascinate us today.
Once the Spanish came and conquered these empires, Mexican art entered a new era. The Colonial Era lasted from 1521 to 1821. Spaniards introduced a new religion, Christianity. When they built churches, the native craftsmen decorated the stonework with European-style designs and included the Virgin Mary, angels, and the cross.
1500s Mexican Art, Feathers on a wood panel
Native people had created amazing artwork using feathers before the Spaniards came. They used this feather art for religious images afterwards, and they also made beautiful illustrations for manuscripts. Paintings were in the European style, but artists decorated their borders with native motifs such as leaves, corn, cacao, and pineapples.
The Mexican Baroque period began around the middle of the 17th century. Mexican artists preferred to paint or sculpt realistic scenes, even though this wasn't the European style. Wealthy sponsors paid for elaborate canvas murals to decorate the interiors of their churches. They were also willing to pay to have their portraits painted. During this period, Casta paintings showed people of mixed races, notably the Mestizo - a mix of Spaniards and native Mexicans.
Between 1810 and 1821, Mexicans fought for and won their independence from Spain. Until 1911 Mexicans produced art that featured the heroes of their independence. They began to show historic native figures as a way to pull away from colonial culture.
Artists wanted to give society a little shake-up. Native artists began to document the cultures of Mexico and often painted scenes of everyday life.
The Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) had a big impact on art. The people overthrew the harsh Mexican dictator, Porfirio Diaz, who had actually pushed for cultural and artistic development. Yet, the promising artists he supported were not native people. He wanted Mexico to be like Europe. The government used art as propaganda and commissioned murals with political messages for public buildings.
A muralist movement began during this time. Artists broke with European traditions to paint vivid scenes of human activity. Artists believed that Mexican art should reflect Mexican life.
© AlejandroLinaresGarcia - Mural by Rufino Tamayo, Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico City
People who have no formal art training create folk art. Folk art and crafts are handmade and decorative.
In Mexico, folk arts and crafts are called "artesanía". There is a wide variety of artesanía in Mexico. This is because Mexico has many different raw materials and varied people groups. Natural resources in Mexico include many types of clay, wood, metal, stones, and plants. Bold colors and decorative details give Mexican folk art the attractive edge it is famous for.
This style of decoration is used to celebrate the Day of the Dead on October 31st through November 2nd. Family and friends of those who died gather to pray and remember them.
© Paul Simpson - Day of the Dead Figurine
“Sugar skulls”, with their magnificent decorations, are a popular Mexican tradition. They represent a departed soul and may have the names of the loved ones written on the foreheads. Family members place the skulls on an altar or the loved one's grave to honor the return of the person's spirit. While they require a lot of work to make, sugar skulls are colorful, sparkly, and inspire joy.
Handmade masks are also an important part of Mexican culture. They originated to celebrate the Day of the Dead, but are now used for other celebrations too.
© katiebordner - Sugar Skulls
Mexican ceramics date back to the early cultures who lived in Mexico before the Spaniards came. These native people created ceramics using their hands to shape the pottery. They did not use pottery wheels. Each family made their own pinched pots or coiled pieces, but sought out craftsmen for larger ones. Potters used open firing and natural pigments.
The pottery of the Aztecs was especially varied. They made earthenware plates, jugs, cups, and pots, using mostly red and orange clay. When the Spaniards came, they introduced European traditions. Arab art had earlier influenced Spanish art, thus also making its way to Mexico. Today, Mexican ceramic artists create the beautiful wall and floor tiles that tourists enjoy.
© Gabriel Saldana - Mexican Ceramics
Mexican cinema began with the 20th century, when cinematographers documented the Mexican Revolution and other historical events through film.
The first "talkie", called “Más Fuerte que el Deber”, or "Stronger Than Duty", was released in 1931. The 1940s brought in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. A prominent actor named Cantinflas became known as the "Mexican Charlie Chaplin".
Movies with Mexican and Cuban dancers also became popular during the 1940s. Many films focused on social injustice and urban struggles. By the beginning of the 1950s, the film industry began to weaken. Competition from the United States was a major factor. During the 1960s, film makers faced government censorship as causes such as women's liberation arose. In the 70s and 80s, state producers allowed cinematographers more freedom with content.
The 90s, an era called "New Mexican Cinema", gave fresh life to film. Quality actors and producers brought new audiences to the cinema. Held each year in Guadalajara, Mexico, is the Guadalajara International Film Festival. It is a prestigious Latin American film festival. Today, Mexico City is the fourth largest producer of film and television in North America.
© Franco Folini - Mural Depicting the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema
Mexico boasts many important artists. But three of them helped change the face of Mexican art--David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. These “Big Three” used art to change the culture during the Mexican Revolution. They were muralists who helped found the Mexican Muralist movement.
Malú Block, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
Photography is another important form of art in Mexico. Early Mexican photographers focused on travel and exploration. It was Hugo Brehme, a German immigrant, who influenced Diego Rivera. His scenes of the nature of Mexico, colonial architecture, and local people became collector's items. He took photographs for National Geographic. Brehme's photos beautified travel guides and postcards.
Mexican Picnic, photo by Hugo Brehme