Wednesday, August 10, 2016


Mexican art got its start with the Olmecs in the forms of jade art and jewelry, rock art, hieroglyphics, and sculptures. The Olmecs were particularly known for their giant stone heads. I’ve always wondered whether there was some ancient relationship between the Olmecs and West Africans. If you look at these stone heads, they feature large lips and wide noses, giving them a striking resemblance to African features. They also excelled at ceramics as well.  

As the Spanish arrived, they began building churches, and many of these early churches were examples of some great stonework. Aztec codices were also very common during this time as was the beginnings of various types of painting. Painting in this era was a mix of European styles with a definite Mexican quality to the subject matter. Religious and historical paintings dominated. 

During the mid-to-late 1700s, artists started to veer off into more secular art. One of the largest art academies was established during this time: the Academy of San Carlos, not only supporting painting arts but sculpture as well. After Mexico gained its independence, this academy also gained notoriety as the prestigious art school in Mexico, later renamed National Academy of San Carlos. There was still an intense reliance on European artistic styles during the mid-1800s, and many Europeans traveled to Mexico to study and teach. In fact, several English and German artists especially took residence in Mexico to pursue their arts. The late 19th and early 20th century brought along artists such as Pelegrí Clavé, Diego Rivera, and Saturnino Herrán. 

by Diego Rivera
The 20th century brought many changes in Mexican art. There were a lot of political changes going on which was reflected in their art. Mexican artists do not generally create art for art’s sake; it very much served a purpose. Most of their art is created to either make a political/social statement or evoke an emotion or describe a way of life. Throughout all of this, handicrafts were still being made and encouraged to do so. Mural painting is one particular type of art that has its roots all the way to Olmec and Mayan times. Even mural art is often riddled with political and social messages. Identity and history are also common themes seen on mural art. Other well known artists who have made significant contributions to 20th century Mexican art include Frida Kahlo (who is probably most famous for her unibrow), Rufino Tamayo, Manuel Felguerez, Dr. Atl, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and many others. 

Frida Kahlo and her unibrow
Mexico is one of the largest contributors to Spanish-language literature. Its literary history as we know it actually started during the colonial period, and there were a few writers of notoriety during that time, writing mostly in the Baroque styles. (Most pre-colonial writing dealt with histories and other topics.) Codices (stories or poems with elaborate illustrations) were a very common form of art and literature during this time. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain, an emergence of writers focusing on nationalism began to rise to prominence. 

The oldest newspaper in Mexico.
Writers working in Mexico generally followed the literary genres of Europe and America. The 19th century included quite a bit of political instability in Mexico, and the arts suffered for this too, including literature. Romanticism, modernism, realism, and positivism were a few of the literary movements that gained popularity during this time.

The Mexican Revolution helped create a new theme for writers. Many writers of the struggles of this time used this as a common backdrop for their novels and poetry. But a sense of nationalistic and journalistic writing also sprouted out of this conflict as well. These styles continued to flourish even in the aftermath of the revolution, but another type of literature also became prominent: indigenous literature. The original people and their lifestyles became the subject of many pieces of literature. Mexico entered into its Contemporary Literature era in 1947 with the publication of Agustín Yáñez’s novel Al filo del agua, introducing to the world a new era of Mexican literature. A number of foreign writers (including James Joyce, William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, Franz Kafka, and John Dos Passos) were influenced by these works. 

Octavio Paz
One writer in particular, Octavio Paz, has been the only Mexican writer so far to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1990).  He is often considered one of the greatest poets of all time and most influential writers of the 20th century. Not only was he an accomplished writer, but he also worked as a diplomat as well, being assigned to New York, Paris, Switzerland, and India (he was later Mexico’s ambassador to India). Two of his most well known works are the poem Piedra de Sol and the long essay El laberinto de la soledad.

Up next: music and dance

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