This daring show sheds light on the many fine artists – native and foreign – who thrived in revolutionary Mexico in the early-20th century, says Alastair Smart.

mexicoThe tale begins in 1910, with the ousting of dictator Porfirio Díaz after a corrupt, 35-year rule. A decade of bloodshed ensued, as various opposition groups – from democrat parliamentarians to Emiliano Zapata and his landless peasants – vied for supremacy in constantly shifting factions.

A constitution was finally signed, and peace largely restored, by 1920, and – in a far-reaching programme – the new government placed its trust in art to heal a battered nation. Artists were granted wall space in schools, hospitals, town-halls, government offices and other public buildings across the country, invited to paint murals in praise of the Revolution and other high points in Mexican history.

The results were staggering: Diego Rivera at the Palacio Nacional, in Mexico City; José Clemente Orozco at the Hospicio Cabañas, in Guadalajara; David Alfaro Siqueiros at the National Preparatory School, in Mexico City… Gone was the belle époque academicism favoured under Díaz, easel paintings for the elite. Here was a new, direct, monumental art: visible to all, on the side of public property, and intelligible by all, in a clear figurative style that mixed realist and folk elements.

Which brings me to the boldness and barminess mentioned above. These vast murals are all immovable on Mexican walls, and anyone wishing to see them needs to traverse the Atlantic rather than just Piccadilly.

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