Ancient Art & Architecture

Art in Mexico begins with one piece, called the Tequixquiac bone. It isn't very big, having been made from the sacrum (hipbone) of an extinct form of camelid that existed in the upper Paleolithic. From this sacrum, some artist sculpted the head of a coyote. The bone was discovered in 1870 in the area of Tequixquiac, north of Mexico City. It's impossible to establish with certainty when the bone was worked by human hand, but given where and how deep it was buried, it might date as far back as 12,000 B.C. A striking piece, it merits special attention, should you visit the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, where it's on display.

Aside from a few other artifacts, the record of artistic achievement in Mexico skips forward to the pre-Classic age and the great Olmec and earliest Maya cities. These date from the 3rd millennium before Christ, roughly the same time that cities were growing in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Peru. Fortunately, the inhabitants left behind a wealth of pottery and stone objects with intriguing images and a clear artistic style. These are on view in the National Anthropology Museum and the museums of Puebla, Xalapa, and Villahermosa.

The Classic and post-Classic periods left us with much more artwork and better-preserved architecture. Visiting cities such as Teotihuacán, Palenque, or Monte Albán reveals the clear-cut geometry of these spaces and something of what the builders envisioned. To understand the artistic achievement of these civilizations, you must witness the large sculptures that they left behind, such as the massive Aztec calendar stone or the many stelae (large stone monuments) and murals of the Maya. Their thickly textured imagery, meshed into complex allegorical structures, is difficult to understand but visually striking.

After the Conquest

Everything takes an abrupt turn after the conquest. The Spanish were determined to instill in their new subjects an alien belief system, and the Indians, with a highly complex system of their own, had to make sense of things by using what they knew. This clash of beliefs produced a fluid artistic tradition that reconciled contradictory dialectical symbols, but this synthesis took more than a century. The arrival of the baroque style from Europe was a stroke of good fortune. The baroque breadth of scope and possibility, and its lack of emphasis on structure or even consistency, accommodated both symbol systems. Its parallels with pre-Columbian art resonated with Mexican artists, who began producing with a vigor and brilliance that mark the artistic pinnacle of the Colonial Era. Though little of this work survived, good examples include the Capilla del Rosario in Puebla, the altarpieces of Santa Rosa de Viterbo and Santa Clara in Querétaro, the church of Santo Domingo in Oaxaca, and the Sagrario Metropolitano in Mexico City's cathedral.

Postrevolutionary Art & Architecture

The long regime of dictator Porfirio Díaz, which began in 1877 and ended in 1911 with the Mexican Revolution, brought a measure of stability after the near-constant social and economic upheaval following national independence. During these years, known as the Porfiriato, the ruling ideas and art forms came from Europe. A surge in the construction of public buildings took inspiration primarily from French architecture, especially Beaux Arts. Examples include many of the municipal theaters and opera houses throughout the country, such as Bellas Artes in Mexico City and the Palacio Cantón, now housing the Regional Anthropology Museum, in Merida.

La Revolución did as much to give Mexico its own voice as it did to establish the nation's governing institutions. The great Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera, Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, were a product of these times, as were painters Frida Kahlo and Rufino Tamayo. All believed art is meant for public enjoyment, not just private collectors, and their styles expressed a quintessentially Mexican sensibility that was artistically revolutionary. The same is true of architects Luis Barragán and Juan O'Gorman, especially the former, who absorbed the ideas of modernist architecture (which, at its heart, is internationalist) and wedded them to warm Mexican colors and an Indian stoicism to create architecture with a strong sense of place.

Frida & Diego -- In Mexico, Frida and Diego are like everyone's beloved yet crazy aunt and uncle who delight everyone at family reunions and threaten each other with the good silver by the end of the night. Painter Frida Kahlo and her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, are among Mexico's most prolific artists, but their tumultuous relationship was often more gut-wrenching than their artwork. During their decade-long marriage/relationship, Diego cheated on Frida with her younger sister, and Frida had an affair with Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Many places where their personal drama played out have now been turned into museums. At least 10 museums feature the artwork of Frida and/or Diego in Mexico City, along with historical sites in Acapulco, Cuernavaca, and Guanajuato and works of art in museums across the country.

Contemporary Art & Building

What began during La Revolución continues to this day, as contemporary artists and architects find new ways to express the ever-changing nature of national identity.

Luis Barragán never built anything outside of Mexico, and much of what he built was residential and thus unavailable for public viewing. Yet this didn't hinder the growth of his reputation. In 1980, he was awarded the Pritzker Prize; he died in 1988.

Two architects who have followed in his footsteps, Ricardo Legorreta and Teodoro González de León, have constructed many public buildings both in Mexico and abroad. Legorreta's use of forceful colors and bold lines distinguish his works, including the Public Library of San Antonio (Texas), the Tech Museum of San Jose (California), and the Hotel Camino Real in Mexico City. González de León's work is more futuristic and includes skyscrapers in Mexico City, the Mexican embassy in Berlin, and museums and cultural centers in the U.S.

Gabriel Orozco, an installation artist from Jalapa, Veracruz, is one of Mexico's most prominent artists. He has traveled the world exhibiting his sculptures and conceptual pieces, such as Homerun, in which he placed oranges on the windowsills of various apartment buildings. Miguel Calderon, another notable artist, created oil paintings of masked, shirtless savages, featured in the movie The Royal Tenenbaums.

One of the most impressive collections of modern Mexican art is the Colección Jumex, owned by Mexican juice magnate Eugenio López Alonso. Every year López opens the gallery, located in the otherwise-nondescript Jumex headquarters in Mexico City, for a well-lubricated event attended by art luminaries from all over the world.

Following in the tradition of the great muralists, many of Mexico's most exciting modern artists go beyond the canvas to present their work. Urban art, or street art consisting of graffiti installations, posters, and even fashion, is exceedingly popular in large cities. A good example of this can be seen at the Mercado Michoacán in Mexico City's Condesa (a neighborhood made up almost exclusively of Art Deco buildings). The bright yellow building is the home to fruit and vegetable vendors on the inside, but its facade features graffiti art by a rotating group of artists.

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