Jean Charlot


There are some simplifications which have become history, and one of them is the tie, which in itself is quite true, between the Mexican Renaissance, so called, and the Mexican Revolution.  By Renaissance I speak mainly of the mural period of the 1920s and of the muralists, and of course, the Revolution is the Revolution of 1910, mostly military and a rather bloody affair.  It is true that without the Revolution, the military Revolution, there couldnŐt have been the aesthetic revolution.  The two are linked.  But I have read in some books such simplifications as that the men who painted the walls started with guns, and when they got tired of killing their foes or had killed them all, they took a brush, and they jumped on the scaffolds and covered with frescoes the buildings in Mexico City and in the provinces.  I am sure that will be the version that you will read in history.  It is a simplification. 

So today I am going to try to analyze a little closer to the facts.  They are more complex, not very complex.  Those I am a little afraid of touch philosophy.  I am not a philosopher, but we do have to find that the roots of the Mural Renaissance didnŐt depend on the painters, it didnŐt depend on the soldiers, even after they were the upper dogs, but it depended on a philosopher, one man, JosŽ Vasconcelos.  Now as philosophy goes, Vasconcelos has his place in Mexican philosophy.  I had to read his books (I say I had to read his books because they are not too easy for a painter to read) to understand why that man suddenly offered walls in the most hallowed buildings in Mexico City, which is still known as the city of palaces, to young men who perhaps had not already made their proofs, and let those young men express themselves freely, absolutely freely, on the very large scale with which you are now familiar.

Vasconcelos himself does start, I should say, nearly as a soldier, as a man who is so close to soldiers, even though he hates war, he hates weapons.  But he goes through the bloody revolution quite successfully, in the sense that he comes out of it alive.  And it is somewhere around 1914, in the period which was a sort of Indian summer, I would say, between two slaughter periods, a period that looked like it was going to be a period of reconstruction, that Vasconcelos begins to express himself.  Mexico City at the time was in the hands of a rather fearful lot of people.  There was Pancho Villa (of course, you know the Hollywood version of Pancho Villa; it is not too far from the real version of what Pancho Villa was).  There was Emiliano Zapata, who to so many people remains one of the heroes of the Revolution (and also I think has been impersonated––I donŐt know––I hope it was not by Charles Laughton, but I donŐt remember who it was impersonated Zapata).  And there was the actual president of the Republic, who was a sort of a dark horse that had been chosen by Zapata and Villa and who came to the presidential chair sandwiched between those two fearful fellows, a man by the name of GutiŽrrez.[2]  He was relatively a mild man.  All he had done was with dynamite, usually wrecking trains of troops of the opposing side.  GutiŽrrez had to name a cabinet, and naturally enough he had to name Vasconcelos: a lawyer, so that he could read and write.  Vasconcelos was very careful not to explain to people that he was also a philosopher.  That would spoil everything.

Being a literate man, he was named the Minister of Education, and at the same time, he was also the man in charge of etiquette at the court of President GutiŽrrez.  There is one single slide which I wish I could show you now.  It is not a painting.  It is a news photograph of a famous dinner that was given––the only formal dinner given by President GutiŽrrez––to which he invited Zapata and Villa, who were not very friendly people, and Vasconcelos was in charge, as I have said, of the menu and the seating and the forks and spoons and so on, and it is a very interesting thing.  GutiŽrrez had tried to pacify Pancho Villa by making him the general of a division in the Mexican army, and he had given him a brand new uniform, one of those uniforms with brass all around, and Villa was nice enough to put it on.  I think it is the only photograph of him in a generalŐs uniform.  HeŐs there, and right by him, side by side, Emiliano Zapata.  Zapata was a little more cautious.  He was more the peasant type, not so sure that he wouldnŐt be shot in the back, so just in case, he had brought with him fifteen bodyguards who lined themselves—you can see them in the photograph––along the wall in their large peasant hats and guns ready to protect the back of Zapata.  There is President GutiŽrrez feeling a little uneasy because his sides are not protected from his guests, and there is Vasconcelos, feeling rather pleased because he has arranged the whole thing along what he considered were the lines of a formal presidential dinner.

I used the magnifying glass to see what was in the plates.  There was chicken and asparagus, and from the way the asparagus bends as the guests handle them, they were a little overcooked.  And the chicken was a sort of unusual feature for those people.  Behind him, right behind Vasconcelos, there was a man who was not afraid of Vasconcelos, Otilio Monta–o.  Otilio Monta–o was the brains of Zapata.  He was a professor, he could read and write, he was a brilliant man in fact.  Zapata wanted to give him a post in the cabinet of GutiŽrrez and had decided on the post of Minister of Education.  That was the same post that Vasconcelos held, so Vasconcelos had to be murdered.  That was one way of conferring the grade of Minister of Education on Otilio Monta–o.  And Monta–o is behind Vasconcelos and looks at him just as if Vasconcelos was made of asparagus and chicken.  A hungry look on Monta–oŐs face.  All that in that little news photograph.  It is a very lovely one.

Vasconcelos found out that he was in great danger and, as he says it himself in his memoirs, if you read them, changed every night his house and his name.  Even though he was a member of the cabinet of the president, he didnŐt feel safe.  Eventually the president himself did the same thing, and they both disappeared.  When Vasconcelos reappeared, he was now with Obreg—n and his Minister of Education.  It is truly a period of reconstruction, very much the one in which Mexico is living rather successfully now, and Vasconcelos can declare himself.  In the period of reconstruction, it is not enough just to read and write.  You can say without risking your life that you are a philosopher.  This is where the books came in that I had to read to try and understand why Vasconcelos gave us that extraordinary chance of painting murals around 1920.

Now I know very little––I know nothing, in fact, about philosophy––but I did write what I considered was the story from the point of view of Vasconcelos.  Fifteen years ago, when he was head of the Library in Mexico City, I gave him my manuscript, and he read it, and he was rather noncommittal, but he said that it could very well have happened so, so that I have in a way his blessings on the subject.

Vasconcelos was a disciple of Pythagoras, but with, I would say, a Latin American nuance.  Pythagoras––when you read the text that concerned him that Vasconcelos put in his books––was a man who had a system of numbers––not the numbers in horse racing or anything like that, but numbers.  You know, some people who are rational believe in numbers, and these big business machines have explained the philosophy of Pythagoras by numbers, 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on.  Mostly Germans.  But Vasconcelos was a Latin American.  He didnŐt believe in arithmetic, and he decided that numbers should not be understood in that sense, and he had really to back him some texts of some people very close to Pythagoras who transfer the number idea to the idea of rhythm.  It is a very different thing.  For example, the story that Pythagoras had his studio––whatever a philosopher has when he thinks––in a place that had for neighbor a smith, and the smith was doing things at the forge and making noise with the hammer, and one of those texts says that Pythagoras could think better when the smith was at work.  Now that rhythm of the hammer––Vasconcelos has written very beautiful things about that––it is not a mathematical rhythm.  It is an organic rhythm, and being human, it is a sort of humanistic, if you want, rhythm, not simply the rhythm of a machine.  It is the rhythm of a man.  And then another text suggests that Pythagoras believed that people could be changed for the better through the influence of beautiful sounds, lines, and colors.  Now that isnŐt Vasconcelos who says that.  It is in the text that is quoted from Pythagoras, and it seems to be a true translation of his thoughts. 

And Vasconcelos banked his all, we could say, around 1920, on the fact that Pythagoras was right.  He decided to educate the people through the influence of beautiful sounds, colors, and lines.  By sounds, he understood very rightly two things: one was poetry, one was music.  He had around him some pretty good poets, a man like Torres Bodet,[3] who later on became well known in UNESCO, the United Nations.  He had around him musicians who apparently could interpret music on the large scale, and a few composers like Ch‡vez,[4] who was an excellent—is an excellent––composer. 

Vasconcelos truly was more inclined as a person toward music and poetry than he was toward painting.  I suppose that as a philosopher painting has something physical that is a little distasteful.  But he was following the lines of Pythagoras, who definitely mentions lines and colors, which represent painting, so that he looked around for painters.  And there was a rare phenomenon in Mexico that there were painters there, but they were very much afraid of giving in to VasconcelosŐ ideas, and very much afraid of tackling the very large walls that were offered to them, and they declined.  Said they were busy.  ItŐs a little bit like in the gospel where somebody just got married and somebody else has to till the fields.  They all had something else to do, usually easel pictures of roses and ladies. 

So Vasconcelos was getting desperate, but he remembered that some very good painters indeed were expatriates.  In fact, they were in Paris, apparently mingling with the School of Paris and Cubism.  One of them was Rivera, another one was Siqueiros.[5]  Vasconcelos wrote those people, and I am not saying that just because I read it somewhere.  I did look for the original documents, and happily enough, the files of letters exchanged between Vasconcelos and Rivera and Vasconcelos and Siqueiros are in existence––or were in existence before I spoke of them––in the National Archives. 

Both men were rather reluctant to come back.  Siqueiros, for example—they are just human stories connected with it, but they are nice stories––Siqueiros answered he was going to have a show, I think it was at the Rosenberg Gallery, his first one-man show.  He was a young man, he was a young painter, he wanted to show off.  Where could a young painter show off around 1920?  Why, of course, in Paris.  And being involved with Cubism, Rosenberg was the dealer to show him.  So he said, ŇPlease donŐt disturb me.  My one-man show is coming.Ó  Well, Vasconcelos had a rather powerful weapon in hand, that is, the pension that Siqueiros received as a young veteran of the Revolution.  He didnŐt receive it as an artist.  He received it as a captain in the troops of Carranza, and that pension was, of course, what he was living on in Paris.  He was also at the time in some way fifth attachŽ to the Mexican Embassy in Madrid.  How he could do those two things at the same time I donŐt know.  But Vasconcelos said, ŇI am going to send you expense moneyÓ—it was all done by telegram, both men being very quick on the trigger, I would say—ŇI am going to send you expense money and come back immediately.  It is an order from your superior.Ó  I think militarily speaking Vasconcelos was more than a captain, so he sends a nice check to Siqueiros, I think 700 pesos or so, which at the time was enough to come back.  The next telegram from Siqueiros was from Italy.  He just happened then to be in Florence, and he said, ŇDramatic happening.  I have no money.  I cannot come back.Ó  So the next telegram of Vasconcelos is to say, ŇYou will find in our consulate in Rome the tickets to come back with.Ó  Vasconcelos, of course, forced a reluctant Siqueiros to come back to mural painting and fame.

With Diego Rivera it was a little different.  Rivera had really made a big name for himself in the Cubism movement.  It is not usually known, but if you will read the Parisian critics of the 19-teens and around 1920, Rivera is always mentioned with a group of young Cubists who really helped form Cubism as it was then.  There were slightly older men, Braque and Picasso, but Rivera and Metzinger and Severini are people who were also reckoned with.  Rivera had spent eighteen years in Europe by then.  He had missed the whole military Revolution, and he was considering himself a Parisian painter.

The things that he was doing were Cubist.  Perhaps we can try to explain a little better what there was in Cubism which was preparing Rivera––against his knowledge, I would say––for his future role as a mural painter.  At first when you look at the Cubist paintings of Rivera and at the mural frescoes of Rivera perhaps ten years later, there is no relationship.  The frescoes he was painting for the people, a very clear story presentation, and something that can be clearly understood by those who are not artists or artistic.  Ten years before, when Rivera was working in his Paris studio, he was doing pictures that were what people like to call nowadays experimental in the sense that they could be understood only by a small minority of people.  I say ŇunderstoodÓ because there are always people who pretend that they understand.  There are more of those than of the others.

Vasconcelos was very worried indeed by the fact that Rivera––not, of course, the Rivera of the future, but the Rivera of 1920––was working in the Cubist language, which apparently was unfit from PythagorasŐ point of view to make the people at large better.   So he had an idea.  He had an idea that worked like magic, and he told Rivera, ŇI think you ought to go to Italy before coming back here, and when you are back here in Mexico, I will give you a fat salaryÓ––which was a lie; we never had fat salaries then––ŇBefore coming here, I will give you a thousand dollars so you can go through Italy and look at some of the masters that you would like to know.Ó  Now as a Cubist, Rivera had a list of names of Italian masters––considered by his generation as precursors of Cubism––which he wanted very much indeed to see.  And it is easy to make the list: there are the Byzantine mosaics, there is Giotto and his school, there are the perspectivists, people like Uccello and Francesca.[6]  The Cubists considered these people pioneers.  So he accepted.  He said, ŇI will go to Italy and then, to follow your orders, I will go back to Mexico.Ó 

He went to Italy, that was in 1921, and in 1921 Rivera really, in front of those frescoes, had a conversion.  Once I mentioned the conversion of St. Paul in relation to the conversion of Rivera.  They have one thing in common, and that is the quickness, the rapidity, with which it happened.  St. Paul falls back from his horse, and Rivera just falls prone in front of Byzantine mosaics and the Giotto frescoes and of Uccello and FrancescaŐs pictures.  But it wasnŐt quite for the reason he had expected.  He found in those old masters all the geometric manipulations and perspective manipulations that he had worked on in Paris, and that was a wonderful mirror held from the past to the present School of Paris.  But there was much more than that.  He found that those people had never been experimental painters in the sense of being difficult painters for the people at large.  He found that those people decorated churches not for the art lovers, not for the museum men (they are two different types of people), but for the parishioners, for example, if it was in a church, or if it was in a civic hall, for the citizen at large.  And he then understood on this Italian trip that art was greater, that art was better, if it was an art, not for the few, but for the many.  That was the great lesson that Rivera learned in Italy.  And again I am not making it up.  I have read a letter of RiveraŐs which explained the change of heart––itŐs the best way of putting it––in a letter to Vasconcelos written from Florence in which he speaks of Florence as a unit in which art is distributed to all.  So he came back to Mexico a changed man.  The people, though, who will explain the coming of the Renaissance by the fact that those people who had been members of the School had turned their backs on the School of Paris, are in error.  Again this is a simplification.

I mentioned before that there were elements in Cubism, even experimental Cubism, that allowed a man like Rivera to become, without having to change but simply to enlarge his point of view, a mural painter.  Geometric perspectives are some of the great manipulations of the Cubists, and they are also some of the great manipulations of the muralists.  I have always felt that the Cubism of Paris would have been greater and eventually would have become a mural language.  And there was a moment, kind of a touch-and-go moment, in Paris just at the time that Rivera was there, the year before he left, somehow, in which the Cubists nearly realized one of their desires, and that was an art that would be impersonal.  Not an art of formality, but an art that would transcend the individual.  There is a very simple little story about Braque and Picasso hanging their pictures in a show of Cubist painting.  Suddenly Picasso realizes that Braque is hanging PicassoŐs pictures and Picasso is hanging BraqueŐs.  The pictures looked so much alike that they didnŐt notice the difference.  It goes much further than just sort of a comedy of errors.  It is true that at that moment, those fellows had managed a language that transcended the individual.  In our day, when much is based on absolute individuality, it seems a very strange idea, but when you look also at the collages of the Cubists, when you take, for example, newspaper type and incorporate them in the pictures, we have the same relationship of the person to what they could call maybe the nonperson: the lettering that is typed is preferred to the handwriting of the painter.  There was also a time when Rivera, Picasso, and others liked to sign their pictures in imitation of type instead of in cursive letters. 

There was another movement connected with Cubism, which was mainly the one in which Siqueiros worked, and which was pittura metafisica, the metaphysical painting which was Italian, mainly of Chirico and Carlo Carrˆ.  And there we have the creation of a man that is perhaps not dehumanized but depersonalized in the representation of those mannequins.  There are some great figure paintings of Giorgio de Chirico in which the heroes, sometimes Greek, are represented by showing mannequins, and their faces are featureless.  Now that is that same tendency of going further than the individual.  It was never more than a tendency in the European form of art, but it is true that Siqueiros and Rivera had been prepared, had been processed, so to speak, to an art that would transcend the individual already in what was done in the School of Paris. 

And the last touch, so they would be able to work in Mexico as they did, nearly as soon as they got there, was contacting the large mural scale of the Italians, not only the primitives like Giotto, but Michelangelo, who was after all a painter of true frescoes, and even the Venetians, men like Tintoretto, were a great lesson to Rivera.  I happen to own a number of the original sketches that Rivera made in Italy from those masters with his own annotations, and again what you are getting now is from the horseŐs mouth, I would say. 

There was also something in Mexico that was brewing and that helped the Mexican Renaissance.  Certainly it would have been impossible to get results that would have been Mexican if the only sources of the Renaissance had been, let us say, Greek or French or Italian.  There was very much going on in Mexico, but it was not going on in what the people liked to call the cultured circles, God forbid, but in the lowest low of the pelado––that is lowbrow—circles.  And there was only one man, who was too poor to leave Mexico and who had remained there, and maybe even he liked it there, and that was Orozco, JosŽ Clemente Orozco.  Orozco himself in his memoirs has stressed very much the influence of what we call the popular theater and which really has no name, but perhaps a sort of striptease theater would be the closest, if you imagine the tickets being only five cents each—that type of thing.  Orozco was a faithful theatergoer as far as this kind of play was going on.  And there were sort of assassinations and drunkenness and brawls all through the theater, so that at times the actors, if you can call them actors, played with the public turning their backs on the actors, looking at some more interesting things happening in the pit, people falling from paradise, and so on.[7]  And Orozco was sketching––I will not say sketching from nature, he wasnŐt the type of fellow––but the next morning he would clear his head with a swig perhaps of the same thing, and would do the most wonderful watercolors and the most wonderful cartoons.  The watercolors remained in his portfolio for a long time.  Oh, he showed them once in a show that nobody went to, but he was very well known as a cartoonist, and again as a cartoonist of the lowest order, who published his work in the lowest type of magazine.  Even the so-called Mad magazines are highbrow magazines compared to those that Orozco worked for. 

So even though he was in Mexico all the time, Vasconcelos, who was full of Pythagoras, didnŐt think he would contact that common fellow and ask him to paint on the walls.  Happily enough, eventually Orozco was offered walls, and you know, of course, the rest of the story.

There is another element which is very much Mexican, perhaps even more than that one which is after all a mongrel form of folk art in Mexico City, and that is the Indian one.  Now Ňthe IndianÓ is a term that is so vast that it can be taken in many ways.  In Mexico we could speak of the Indian as a reality when we speak of the Indian as a myth, as representing Mexico as such, sometimes even in opposition to Spain and sometimes in opposition to France, that is, the France that had sent Maximilian to Mexico.  Mexico is represented even in Colonial times as an Indian girl dressed up in rather romantic feathers and feathered skirt, as opposed to the Spanish lady that represented Spain.  Sometimes, most times, they are quite friendly, the one to the other.  At other times of stress, certainly, the Indian woman becomes the image of independence––future independence, of course, before Mexico becomes independent––but at times a fierce connotation: just to see the Indian woman is to make you see red as to any form of invader.  Some of the best cartoons of the 1860s, of the time of Maximilian, used that Indian woman as the representation of Mexico independent, Mexico fighting the invader.  And naturally the Indian as a myth was the natural image that came to the painters when they had to personally find, after the Renaissance began, not only the political independence of Mexico but the cultural independence of Mexico.  That explains how we have so many Indians in the Mexican murals.  They may not have the same ideological content for nonMexicans that they do have for Mexicans.

And there is another kind of Indian which is very real too, and that is the Indian himself.  Now there may be sort of a problem of semantics, because when we speak of Indians here, we see those figures that we see in the westerns: they are very brave fellows, they wear large feather headdresses, sometimes they are friends, sometimes they are foes.  You know they always fall from their horses dead while the white hero keeps his seat.  But it isnŐt the Plains Indian, it isnŐt the American Indian that are thought of in Mexico: it is really the backbone of Mexican culture.  Maybe the best way to make you understand what Indian means to Mexico is to say that it means the same thing—donŐt stop me, I know that I exaggerate—it means the same thing as when we speak of Greece and Rome in relation to this country.  It is the classic past of Mexico.  Not only the classic past, but it is the living past.  I have lived with Indians myself and I know very well that they have had that great culture, that they are still part of that great culture.  And I would say that it doesnŐt take much to make them come out, even though they are rather diffident, and, for example, recite poems by the great poet-emperor Nezahualcoyotzin, called the hungry coyote.  This is a man that is so real that I actually went and sat in his stone bathtub on the top of a mountain.  He was the first man in history known to have sung in his shower.  He composed his poetry when he was in his bath.  And that poetry is known, not in books, because it is known by people that donŐt read books, and some of them donŐt read, but they have memorized it for generations.  And it has more meaning to them than any Spanish poetry, however beautiful it may be. 

Now we still have time, and I have decided to throw my all into this lecture and to recite to you in honor of the language department one of the NezahualcoyotzinŐs poems in the original language, for you canŐt translate those things.  ItŐs true poetry, as you all know, and the sound and the quality of the sound will do more for you than the English text.  DonŐt be impatient.  ItŐs short.  ItŐs only two strophes of four verses each.  It will not eat into our precious time, and after that, I donŐt want to tell you before, but afterwards I will try to tell you what it is.  It is two things.  One of them is the subject matter of the little story, which is a very gentle story.  ItŐs about the son who is dying, and he gives his mother his last thoughts before dying.  ThatŐs all it is.  The testament of a faithful son, perhaps we could call it.  But under the story, inside the story, and, I hope, even through my approximation in English of the poem, you probably will understand the quality of the Mexican Indian much more than we could with a text that would not be their own.

Nonantzin ixkwak nimiki
Motlikwilpan xinechtoka
Iwan ixkwak titlaxkalmanaz
Nopampa tichoka

Tla aka michtlaxtlaniz
ÔNonantzin tlika tichokaŐ
Xikilwi ÔXoxoki in kwawitl
Iwan ikaion popokaŐ[8]

ThatŐs the end of the poem.  Even those of you who donŐt speak in N‡huatl know popoca, from Popocatepetl, that is, the mountain that smokes; popoca means smoke.

Now IŐll not translate, but try to give you an idea of the content of the poem.  The man, the boy, and the mother are obviously in the kitchen, which is a kitchen of beaten earth, without other floor than the beaten earth, as all those Indian houses are.  He says, ŇMother, when I die, bury me in the kitchen, and when you do the tortillas, when you handle the dough for the tortillasÉÓ––you have to imagine the kneeling woman in front of the metate with the dough, patting the tortilla––Ňand when you handle the tortillas and you cryÉÓ––the Indians have a rather quiet way of crying––Ňif someone asks you, ÔWoman, why do you cry?Ő answer him, ÔIt is the wood that I burn that is green, and the smoke chokes me.ŐÓ 


[1] Tape-recorded lecture at the Art Department, the University of Texas at Austin, May 11, 1960.  Edited from the transcription by John Charlot.  Jean Charlot made changes to the transcription, which have been incorporated.  All footnotes are by the editor. 

[2] Eulalio GutiŽrrez. 

[3] Jaime Torres Bodet. 

[4] Carlos Ch‡vez. 

[5] Diego Rivera.  David Alfaro Siqueiros. 

[6] Giotto di Bondone.  Paolo Uccello.  Piero della Francesca. 

[7] A gallicism: le paradis is the uppermost gallery in a theater, where those with the cheapest tickets are accommodated.  

[8] CharlotŐs transcription in a modern orthography learned from Robert Barlow in 1945.