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The Roots of Mexican Art

Mexican Art can be traced as far back as the Aztecs who, in addition to being great sculptors, made paintings on walls and pots, as well as drawings in manuscripts. However, the Indian element was just one of the cultural ingredients that influenced Mexican art.

In the early sixteenth to early nineteenth centuries, the Spanish colonial empire occupied the greater part of what we now know as Latin America. Within the Spanish viceroyalties, the Church enjoyed a power it had never possessed in Europe, though it was still subject to the Spanish crown.

The Church's most urgent task in Mexico was to convert the Indians to Catholicism. As one of the most effective instruments for this purpose, the art of the early period was accordingly primarily religious, and possessed so much importance that the Franciscans trained Indian artists to produce paintings and sculptures according to the Church's requirements. Consequently, religious influence has never been entirely lost in Mexico's art.

The stylistic ruptures that soon emerged between New World religious painting and its European models corresponded to differences in training, organization, and social status of artists. Given that the New World was conquered before the transition from the Middle Ages was complete in Europe; Spain, which ruled Mexico, retained many medieval characteristics. Inevitably, Mexican artists banded together to form a craft guild based on the old medieval patterns, regarding themselves as tradesmen and aspiring to European standards of skill.

The colonial artists' guilds, though they confined the artist to the role of craftsman, were also instruments of class struggle. Seeking a formal art education, many Mexican artists traveled to Europe to study under the most celebrated academic artists of the day since one of the functions of the guild was to raise the social status of the artist and to draw a line between the artisan and the learned professional.

From the late eighteenth century onwards, Mexican art evolved through several distinct stages, closely connected to the political and social developments of the time. As the power of the Church weakened and more worldly influences from Europe began to influence the colonial world, art responded in step with the rest of Latin American culture. The religious imperatives remained, but became less rigid. Consequently, the end of the eighteenth century witnessed a broadening of acceptable subject matter.

The nineteenth century shows the beginnings of an attempt to come to grips with Latin American reality - an issue that colonial art had nearly always avoided. Because they appealed to national sentiment, the costumbrista artists, painters of picturesque customs and scenes, earned the lion's share of art-historical attention within Latin America.

The reality issue soon departed the Mexican art scene in the early twentieth century when Diego Rivera returned to settle permanently in Mexico in 1921 after a long period of studying art in Paris. Arriving in Mexico City, Rivera was invited by the Minister of Education to complete the decorating of the National Preparatory School. Assisted by Carlos Mérida, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, the resulting "mural" forged a style that was distinctively different than the European method. From this point, Mexican Muralism became the expression of a new national consciousness, which appealed to the ordinary people of Mexico.

Muralism was not Diego Rivera's only contribution to Latin American art. His close association with French artist André Breton introduced Surrealism to Mexico in 1938. Since then, fantasy in art has appeared throughout the twentieth century and Latin American artists have employed it with a particular genius, drawing from their own cultural history, including pre-Columbian religious myths and practices.

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