Mexican Modernism: A Brief History

Mexican Revolution Francisco Goitia: Zacatecas Landscape with Hanged Men I & II, both c1914

Photo: Unsplash/@sadswim

Photo: Unsplash/@sadswim

Mexican Revolution

The Philadelphia Museum of Art just closed one of the most monumental Mexican art exhibitions since 1943. But fear not! The show opens at the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City in February. Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910-1950 tells the story of the start of the revolution to a post-revolutionary and modern era. During this period, the art, filled with European aesthetics but uniquely Mexican, was not only influential within Mexico but became important in the United States as well. Paintings by Mexican artists such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera depict Mexican resilience, pride, woes and celebrations. Here are five of my favorite paintings contributing greatly to the storyline. #art


The Mexican Revolution, from 1910 to 1950, comprehensively transformed Mexican culture and its government. In this work, Goitia draws a scene of the Battle of Zacatecas taking place in the summer of 1914. Supposedly, he drew this painting on the spot when decaying corpses were hanging from tree branches. The artist was part of the Mexican Revolutionary general Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s army and witnessed much of the horrors of the Mexican Revolution.



After the Mexican Revolution, indigenous pride and appreciation soared. Here you see Zapotec, Oaxaca-born legendary Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo represent campesinos in traditional white cotton clothing. This type of art—gearing towards the image of the everyday Mexican—became very popular post-revolution.

Modern Mexico

Emilio Zapata was one of the leaders in the Mexican Revolution and the principal commander in the peasant revolution in the state of Morelos inspiring the agrarian movement called Zapatismo.

The Zapatistas, part of The Zapatista Army of National Liberation, became the revolutionary group during the Mexican Revolution and the image of Emiliano Zapata remained as an iconic hero since. Alfredo Ramos Martinez, who immigrated with his family to Los Angeles in 1928, stood there for the rest of his life becoming extremely successful by drawing figures like Zapatista and other important parts of Mexican history.

A Revolution in Art

In one of Siqueiros’ few easel paintings, you see the evident shift of style where a much more revolutionary artists approach is taken using materials such as spray paint. On the right you see the conquistadors and the left you see the Aztec people all ready to fight. As the conquistadors approached the other side, a group of Aztec people jump off the cliff.

These acts of collective suicide were not uncommon among indigenous groups. Similar stories are recorded from the Caribbean where pockets of Taino tribes were so oppressed or refused to become slaves, they jumped off cliffs as well. In one particular case, a Taino tribe in Cuba collectively drank poisonous, unprocessed cassava juice. More info on this piece.


Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo was an era all on her own. Although she claimed she was born in 1910 to coincide with the Mexican Revolution, she was really born in 1907. She started to paint at the age of 19, after a terrible accident left her bedridden. Here was when she painted one of her biggest self-portraits.

Aside from her self-portraits, Frida was also sought out to do exvotos—a traditional Catholic ofrenda to a saint(s) that helped the wisher grant their wishes or prayers. Catholics sought out artists/painters to draw these on metal plates where the wisher would then go to the church and hang it on the wall. The painting above is a mimic of a exvoto dedicated to the American actress Dorothy Hale who jumped off a New York City building. Hale’s playwright friend, Clare Boothe, asked Kahlo to commemorate her friend through this gesture.

Frida’s work didn’t become recognized until after her death.

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