If choosing a single work of Mexican art for sheer beauty makes sense, this would be that painting. Among the hundreds of creators of pictorial works that make up the catalog of Mexican art, the most often mentioned would likely belong to Diego Rivera.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Diego Rivera painted a series of large-scale works that established the period of muralism in Mexico and in the broader world. Some of them contain metaphors alluding to relevant issues of the time, primarily of political and social justice issues. Among these is the mural Man, Controller of the Universe, originally titled, Man at the Crossroads.
Among Rivera’s most famous works, the painting’s controversial history helps to explain that fame. A first version was conceived to adorn Rockefeller Center in New York, in 1933. It was to be a work of massive political propaganda, to enlighten the world. It may have worked too, but for Rivera’s decision to include an image of the Soviet Communist, Vladimir Lenin, in the painting. Perhaps obviously, the Rockefellers didn’t appreciate the positions of the communists. They interrupted the mural’s creation and it was destroyed.
Man, Controller of the Universe was designed to show, in three planes, the poles of capitalism and communism (right and left, respectively), with a man at the center who works the universe as one might a machine. He manipulates life and divides the macrocosm from the microcosm. Much is unknown about the details of the first version, even to this day, as Rivera changed elements of the mural multiple times. Five different sketches of that work are exhibited at the Anahuacalli Museum.
This second version of the mural can be seen in Mexico City, the Palacio de Bellas Artes. One of the most beautiful products of Mexican culture, the mural is an artistic reflection of a reality that includes all of the most important events of its era. From the right, the capitalist and rational side, are themes of science, philosophy, war, repression, society, technology, and religion. On the left side, the antagonistic side, is communism. Here appear the persons of Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky and Friederich Engels, as well as the Red Army, in contrast to the American army of the world war. Other important symbols are the industrials worker with their lunch pails, and a decapitated statue.
The nearness of Diego Rivera and the muralists of his time to communism is well documented. The ideological current resonated deeply within Mexican political and social circles, and profoundly affected that decade’s approach to the particular problems of the emerging Mexican 20th century. Irrespective of the politics of the 1930s, Rivera’s vision remains extraordinary even to this day.
With the version completed at Bellas Artes, the work was retitled Man, Controller of the Universe and Diego Rivera’s name was forever associated with it:
Images: Wikimedia Commons
Though the internet makes lots more information available to lots more people, Mexico City libraries have simply not been supplanted. Charged with continually re-inventing themselves, and their places in the public imagination, one can still encounter eras gone by and great historical minds in a library as in few other places.
Knowledge, after all, belongs to everyone. Opening a book, reading it at a study, or just meeting in the silence of one these Mexico City libraries enhances concentration, and provides a welcome respite from everything going on out there in the world.
Of all Mexico City libraries, the oldest were part of the church and one or another of its offshoot organizations. Among these was the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, founded in the 1530s and surviving today as the Biblioteca José María Lafragua. Most of these ecclesiastical libraries were not truly open to the public, and Mexico had to wait for the National Library of Mexico, inaugurated by Benito Juárez in 1867 to enjoy the benefits of a truly public library system.
The list below is intended to let you enjoy some of that system, too.
Opened just ten years ago, in 2006, the Vasconcelos is visited by thousands for the sheer spectacle of its innovative design. Graced by the iconic whale from artist, Gabriel Orozco, it’s always a good library for art and visual spectacle. The facade retains something of a colonial appearance, but for sheer scale, and jaw-dropping space, the interior must be experienced.
We’ve written a lot about it in these pages, but the UNAM library with the Juan O’Gorman murals remains one of the most outstanding of all Mexico City libraries. As a UNESCO site with some 428,000 volumes in the collection, it’s the biggest in Mexico, but lots of folks visit just to see the facade and the surrounding grounds.
Opened by Benito Juárez in 1867, there’s still a good one million books inside, today administered by the folks from UNAM. Originally located in the San Agustín church in the city center, the current building was opened in 1979. Geometric, and massive, it’s an extraordinary place to visit.
Specializing in economic materials, this collection of some 86,350 books and 114,852 journals is administered by the Secretary of Finance and Public Credit. Founded in 1928, it’s one of the cities true public art spectacles. Inside the main nave of the old Oratory of San Felipe Neri “El Nuevo,” the baroque façade outside is just the beginning. Inside, the murals are futuristic, and not to be missed.
One of Centro’s truly outstanding historical buildings, for centuries it was the convent of the Clarisas from the 16th century. Today it’s something like a “Library of Congress” with a stunning collection of publications and artifacts, but also with a lush, deep, dark intellectual interior, that beckons from centuries past.
Address: Tacuba 29, Centro Histórico
Photographs this page: Flickr – Creative Commons
Mexico City’s Tepito neighborhood has for a millennia history offered resistance, rebellion, and hope. Tenochtitlan relegated dissidents to Tepito’s crooked alleys. The “brave neighborhood,” even hundreds of years later, is still marginalized and bent on survival. Somehow residents seem to bear that history in the very DNA.
With a reputation for violence, deprivation, and overcrowding, some of the great characters of Mexican history have come from Tepito. The cradle of Mexican boxing, in the 1970s an important literary movement emerged in Tepito, and the neighborhood has contributed as much to the culture of the city and country as have many, much wealthier places.
Among all the stories of people whose hard work is performed with an enviable dignity, there are thousands of women who carry out similar work for their families. Resident Mayra Valenzuela Rojas remarked, “In Tepito there’s a matriarchy (…) Every woman has her own story. Each of us is a spark, but together we are lighting a candle for Tepito.”
German photographer, Anja Jensen, is currently exhibiting her work in a show called “Ciudadanas-Caminamos a oscuras” (Citizens-We Walk in the Dark). Having spent months in Tepito, she’s documented the women challenging the stereotypes of the neighborhood.
Jensen was assaulted and threatened, but she was also clothed and cared for by the women who opened their stories and lives to her. The result is a series photographs, “Las Cabronas de Tepito,” (Bad Girls of Tepito) a collective portrait of the matriarchy whose fervor makes the neighborhood better and regularly improves the lives of the people living there.
The photographs will be exhibited through February 12, 2017, as part of the Mexico-Germany Dual Year, at the German Pavilion on the Plaza Rio de Janeiro, in Roma Norte.