- How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture: Murals, Museums and the Mexican State
The military phase of the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910, was a decade-long civil war, a highly traumatic period that shook and brutalized an already fragmented nation. Following this, successive governments attempted to stabilize the country by promoting a cohesive sense of Mexican national identity. The centrality of visual cultures to the dissemination of notions of Mexicanness is widely acknowledged; it was accomplished through the co-optation of mural art and other visual forms like documentary photography into a state-sanctioned narrative of Mexican national identity, and it transformed visual culture into official cultural propaganda. Mural art, a radically politicized form of expression, was thus appropriated as a legitimizing tool and employed in the dissemination of state-sanctioned ideology in exhibition spaces.
Mary K. Coffey’s fascinating analysis of the relationship between muralism, the state, and museums in Mexico opens by stating the paradox central to her study, and to which she consistently [End Page 825] returns: namely, “how a revolutionary art—or at least one that intended to be revolutionary—became an official art that helped to legitimize an authoritarian state” (1). Each chapter of the book has an epigraph composed of observations by the essayist Octavio Paz, all of which concern the newborn Mexican state’s use of mural art’s visual messages to promote a unifying sense of Mexicanidad predicated on characteristics such as mestizaje.
There are three substantial chapters, which are framed by a shorter introduction and conclusion. The study covers the period from 1934 to the late 1960s, and it chronicles the policies of each successive government alongside the trajectory of museum policy in Mexico. Each chapter is dedicated to a key Mexico City museum, providing a lens through which national politics, aesthetic and political debates, and mural works are analyzed. Coffey also devotes significant attention to questions of gender, unpicking the codes employed in mural representations of female and male bodies, and she examines the genderedness of space in museums and galleries, particularly with regard to the ways that viewers are positioned.
The first chapter takes as its focus the Palace of Fine Arts. Its inauguration in 1934 marked “the beginning of a sustained state-level investment in an institutional infrastructure for the promotion and dissemination of national culture” (25), with mural artists commissioned to produce frescoes and permanent works for the building. Coffey highlights and examines various artistic and political dilemmas raised by this level of state patronage of artists, raising questions around the potential of state commissions to compromise the position of the mural art form as politically radical and to co-opt it into the state machinery. Coffey also points out a crucial fact: employing a term such as “muralism” accords a sense of unity that was simply not present, either in terms of the aesthetic or political views of artists themselves, the stylistic characteristics of their works, or the aspects of national identity they expressed. Furthermore, it revealed the limiting effect that such a “symbolically loaded” building has on the power of radical art to reclaim such a space (31). The author details the history of the building itself and its reflection of Mexico’s tumultuous journey. For example, its opening, originally intended to form part of the celebration of the centenary of independence in 1921, was delayed by the fighting of the revolution. She devotes detailed attention to the Rivera and Orozco murals contained within, demonstrating their engagement with national and international political debates.
The second chapter focuses on the National History Museum, which opened in 1944. From its beginnings, the museum was promoted as an educational space that would engage the participation of the public in a sense of Mexican national identity that was at once modern and historically rooted. It did this by effacing the trauma and violence of the conquest and the destabilizing effect of civil war, promoting the institutionalized myth of the revolution as part...