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Opinion | The painting is on the wall

A history of Mexican muralism from the works of Diego Rivera and Jos Clemente Orozco to contemporary artists

Diego Rivera’s ‘Man, Controller Of The Universe’ at the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
Diego Rivera’s ‘Man, Controller Of The Universe’ at the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

In 1932, John D. Rockefeller commissioned the legendary Mexican artist Diego Rivera to paint a mural at New York’s newly-built Rockefeller Center. The agreed price was $21,000 (around 15.5 lakh now), a handsome sum by the standards of the day. But the mural had a tragic end—Rivera, a communist, snuck in an image of Lenin into the collage-like composition of the massive mural, something the Rockefellers were neither expecting nor willing to accept—and the mural was erased from the wall. Rivera then repainted the same mural in Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes, sweeping across one full wall in the first floor corridor, a stunning piece titled Man, Controller Of The Universe.

That’s where I am now, sitting in front of it, trying to take in the enormity of the mural, its beauty and wit, the mind-bogglingly complex composition, the layers of characters and social comments woven into it, like some cheeky communist version of the Sistine Chapel ceiling tightly packed into one wall length. And as I sit there, I wonder not only about the extraordinary talent of Rivera (who also happened to be Frida Kahlo’s husband) but also the uniquely Mexican tradition of murals.

And I am curious: What if Rockfeller-like, you feel the urge to have a mural on your walls—for what can be more luxurious than a private commission —would that be possible today? In your corporate office, or your private home? Would you be able to get the kind of exquisite artistic expression that I am staring at now? These questions led me through an unlikely visual feast of Mexican muralism in the early 20th century, how it has evolved and is finding expression today in extremely vibrant street art (if you are thinking messy graffiti, hold your judgement), and how it is coming back full circle to not only public buildings, but also cafés, gyms, parks, schools and more.

Painting on the walls seems to be a thing here. It is everywhere. Rivera alone has done huge quantities of it—for example, the expansive ministry of education building has three floors of external corridor walls covered in mural after superb mural, most of them by Rivera. There are many other muralists from that period, including his famous contemporaries, José Clemente Orozco and David Siqueiros, both very prolific, who along with Rivera are known as the fathers of Mexican muralism. Their murals, commissioned by the Mexican government for the most part, invariably had strong social and political messages—typically glorifying workers and dissing the elite—but this is not mere propaganda. It is awe-inspiring art.

This painting-on-the-walls tradition thrives today in the form of street art, Mexican muralism 2.0 so to speak. Riotous, colourful, varying in style and complexity, often with Rivera-like thought-provoking social and political comment, street murals dot the canvas of Mexico City, turning up in unexpected little neighbourhood corners, or emblazoned boldly on gigantic building sites. Clearly, there is a large and active community of street artists—for example, Smithe (who does surreal sci-fi figures with piercing beam-throwing eyes); Paola Delfin (pensive feminine portraits enveloped in menacing flora) and Revost (fantastical spirit animals, ferocious and colourful, reminiscent of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic art).

Collaborations between street artists are common, and create unexpected results. One of the pieces I love is a joint project in the Roma neighbourhood by the above-mentioned Revost and Martin Ferreyra, who is known for his anime-like figures (think boxy head, blank oval eyes, nose like a bottle cork). Both artists bring their signature styles together—so you have Revost’s colourful unruly dragon sprawled across a pedestrian sidewall, slowly strangling Ferreyra’s unsuspecting anime figure. Add to it an unwelcome “collaboration"—a round of “bombing" or defacing by others, among them a rogue taxi-driver-cum-graffiti-artist who goes by the name of Defek, who has sprayed his signature “cat face" on the mural. The whole thing is a riot, but it is so cool.

The most extraordinary street mural—and by far, my favourite—is by Italian artist Ericailcane, who has the reputation of a superstar in the field. Straddling two interconnected buildings are a fox and a rabbit—illustrated meticulously in old fairytale style—with a twine bound tightly around the fox’s mouth and paws; the rabbit nibbles away at the twine, slowly liberating the fox. The scale is massive and the visual impact takes your breath away, for this is very fine craftsmanship. And then you ponder over the artist’s intended meaning. Ericailcane is known for commenting on the ill-effects of consumerism and capitalism— there are peso notes popping out of the fox’s shirt—and you wonder if the poor little consumer is unleashing, nibble by nibble, a predator that is going to finally consume him?

What if you want to commission a mural? One of the companies that does that is Street Art Chilango, and I spoke to Jenaro de Rosenzweig, its co-founder, about how commissioned murals work. They are a team of four—the other co-founder, Alex Revilla, dreams up the idea, Rosenzweig turns it into computer drawings, and Andrik Noble and Franc Mun paint it up on the client’s premises. Sometimes they collaborate with other established artists, as in the case of a mural for the private home of a top executive in a tech company, which Rosenzweig painted along with Lourdes Villagomez, an up-and-coming contemporary artist. Subjects and clients are eclectic—a stylized Frida Kahlo for an art gallery in Miami; a colourful bird in a lush Mexican forest for a Starbucks café; a funky snake painted as a live performance for Instagram’s opening party in the city.

What is his favourite? A mural his company did for the movie Coco—a smiling blow-up of the musician protagonist Ernesto de la Cruz strumming the guitar, spanning the side wall of a building. Why, I ask Rosenzweig. He is proud of it because the Disney CEO came specially to take a selfie in front of it.

Street art may have a risky ephemeral lifespan, but on the web, a mural lives forever.

Radha Chadha is a marketing and consumer insight expert. She is the author of the book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

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