Mexican art consists of various visual arts that developed over the geographical area now known as Mexico. The development of these arts roughly follows the history of Mexico, divided into the prehispanic Mesoamerican era, the colonial period, with the period after Mexican War of Independence further subdivided. Mexican art is usually filled most of the time with intricate patterns.
Mesoamerican art is that produced in an area that encompasses much of what is now central and southern Mexico, before the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire for a period of about 3,000 years from 1500 BCE to 1500 CE. During this time, all influences on art production were indigenous, with art heavily tied to religion and the ruling class. There was little to no real distinction among art, architecture, and writing. The Spanish conquest led to 300 years of Spanish colonial rule, and art production remained tied to religion—most art was associated with the construction and decoration of churches, but secular art expanded in the eighteenth century, particularly castapaintings, portraiture, and history painting. Almost all art produced was in the European tradition, with late colonial-era artists trained at the Academy of San Carlos, but indigenous elements remained, beginning a continuous balancing act between European and indigenous traditions.
After Independence, art remained heavily European in style, but indigenous themes appeared in major works as liberal Mexico sought to distinguish itself from its Spanish colonial past. This preference for indigenous elements continued into the first half of the 20th century, with the Social Realism or Mexican muralist movement led by artists such as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, and Fernando Leal, who were commissioned by the post-Mexican Revolution government to create a visual narrative of Mexican history and culture.
The strength of this artistic movement was such that it affected newly invented technologies, such as still photography and cinema, and strongly promoted popular arts and crafts as part of Mexico’s identity. Since the 1950s, Mexican art has broken away from the muralist style and has been more globalized, integrating elements from Asia, with Mexican artists and filmmakers having an effect on the global stage.
Colonial era, 1521–1821
The early colonial era and indigenous artists and influences.
An atrium cross in Acolman. During the early period of evangelization, an enclosed open chapels for large congregations of neophytes saw the creation and placement of decorated, anthropomorphized stone crosses with Jesus at their center.
Since the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, Mexican art has been an ongoing and complex interaction between the traditions of Europe and native perspectives.
Church construction After the conquest, Spaniards’ first efforts were directed at evangelization and the related task of building churches, which needed indigenous labor for basic construction, but they Nahuas elaborated stonework exteriors and decorated church interiors. Indigenous craftsmen were taught European motifs, designs and techniques, but very early work, called tequitqui (Nahuatl for “vassal”), includes elements such as flattened faces and high-stiff relief. The Spanish friars directing construction were not trained architects or engineers. They relied on indigenous stonemasons and sculptors to build churches and other Christian structures, often in the same places as temples and shrines of the traditional religion. “Although some Indians complained about the burden such labor represented, most communities considered a large and impressive church to be a reflection of their town’s importance and took justifiable pride in creating a sacred place for divine worship.” The fact that so many colonial-era churches have survived centuries it testament to their general good construction.
The first monasteries built in and around Mexico City, such as the monasteries on the slopes of Popocatepetl, had Renaissance, Plateresque, Gothic or Moorish elements, or some combination. They were relatively undecorated, with building efforts going more towards high walls and fortress features to ward off attacks. The construction of more elaborate churches with large quantities of religious artwork would define much of the artistic output of the colonial period. Most of the production was related to the teaching and reinforcement of Church doctrine, just as in Europe. Religious art set the rationale for Spanish domination over the indigenous. Today, colonial-era structures and other works exist all over the country, with a concentration in the central highlands around Mexico City.
The Mass of St. Gregory, feathers on wood panel, the oldest dated feather work with a Christian subject. Made by or for Diego Huanutzin, nephew and son-in-law of Moctezuma II to present to Pope Paul III, dated 1539
Feather work artists as depicted in the Florentine Codex (ca. 1576).
Feather work was a highly valued skill of prehispanic central Mexico that continued into the early colonial era. Spaniards were fascinated by this form of art, and indigenous feather workers (amanteca) produced religious images in this medium, mainly small “paintings”, as well as religious vestments.
Indigenous writings Indians continued production of written manuscripts in the early colonial era, especially codices in the Nahua area of central Mexico. An important early manuscript that was commissioned for the Spanish crown was Codex Mendoza, named after the first viceroy of Mexico, Don Antonio de Mendoza, which shows the tribute delivered to the Aztec ruler from individual towns as well as descriptions of proper comportment for the common people. A far more elaborate project utilizing indigenous scribes illustration is the project resulting in the Florentine Codex directed by Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún. Other indigenous manuscripts in the colonial era include the Huexotzinco Codex and Codex Osuna.
An important type of manuscript from the early period were pictorial and textual histories of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs from the indigenous viewpoint. The early Lienzo de Tlaxcala illustrated the contributions the Spaniards’ Tlaxcalan allies made to the defeat of the Aztec empire, as well the Hernán Cortés and his cultural translator Doña Marina (Malinche).
Painting Most Nahua artists producing this visual art are anonymous. An exception is the work of Juan Gerson, who ca. 1560 decorated the vault of the Franciscan church in the Nahua town of Tecamachalco,(Puebla state), with individual scenes from the Old Testament.
While colonial art remained almost completely European in style, with muted colors and no indication of movement—the addition of native elements, which began with the tequitqui, continued. They were never the center of the works, but decorative motifs and filler, such as native foliage, pineapples, corn, and cacao. Much of this can be seen on portals as well as large frescoes that often decorated the interior of churches and the walls of monastery areas closed to the public.
The earliest of Mexico’s colonial artists were Spanish-born who came to Mexico in the middle of their careers. This included mendicant friars, such as Fray Alonso López de Herrera. Later, most artists were born in Mexico, but trained in European techniques, often from imported engravings. This dependence on imported copies meant that Mexican works preserved styles after they had gone out of fashion in Europe. In the colonial period, artists worked in guilds, not independently. Each guild had its own rules, precepts, and mandates in technique—which did not encourage innovation.
18th-century painting of God the Father fashioning the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe Baroque painting became firmly established in Mexico by the middle of the 17th century with the work of Spaniard Sebastián López de Arteaga. His painting is exemplified by the canvas called Doubting Thomas from 1643. In this work, the Apostle Thomas is shown inserting his finger in the wound in Christ’s side to emphasize Christ’s suffering. The caption below reads “the Word made flesh” and is an example of Baroque’s didactic purpose.
One difference between painters in Mexico and their European counterparts is that they preferred realistic directness and clarity over fantastic colors, elongated proportions and extreme spatial relationships. The goal was to create a realistic scene in which the viewer could imagine himself a part of. This was a style created by Caravaggio in Italy, which became popular with artists in Seville, from which many migrants came to New Spain came. Similarly, Baroque free standing sculptures feature life-size scales, realistic skin tones and the simulation of gold-threaded garments through a technique called estofado, the application of paint over gold leaf.
The most important later influence to Mexican and other painters in Latin America was the work of Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, known through copies made from engravings and mezzotint techniques. His paintings were copied and reworked and became the standard for both religious and secular art. Later Baroque paintings moved from the confines of altarpieces to colossal freestanding canvases on church interiors. One of the best known Mexican painters of this kind of work was Cristóbal de Villalpando. His work can be seen in the sacristy of the Mexico City Cathedral, which was done between 1684 and 1686. These canvases were glued directly onto the walls with arched frames to stabilize them, and placed just under the vaults of the ceiling. Even the fresco work of the 16th century was not usually this large. Another one of Villalpando’s works is the cupola of the Puebla Cathedral in 1688. He used Rubens’ brush techniques and the shape of the structure to create a composition of clouds with angels and saints, from which a dove descends to represent the Holy Spirit. The light from the cupola’s windows is meant to symbolize God’s grace. Juan Rodríguez Juárez (1675–1728) and mulatto artist Juan Correa (1646–1716) were also prominent painters of the baroque era. Correa’s most famous student, José de Ibarra (1685–1756) was also mixed-race. One of Mexico’s finest painters, Miguel Cabrera (1695–1768), was possibly mixed race.
The church produced the most important works of the seventeenth century. Among the important painters were Baltasar de Echave Ibia and his son Baltasar Echave Rioja, also Luis Juárez and his son José Juárez, Juan Correa, Cristóbal de Villalpando, Rodrigo de la Piedra, Antonio de Santander, Polo Bernardino, Juan de Villalobos, Juan Salguero and Juan de Herrera. Juan Correa, worked from 1671 to 1716 and reached great prestige and reputation for the quality of its design and scale of some of his works. Among the best known: ‘Apocalypse in the Cathedral of Mexico’, ‘Conversion of St. Mary Magdalene’, now in the ‘Pinacoteca Virreinal’ and ‘Santa Catarina and Adam and Eve casting out of paradise’, the latter located in the National Museum of Viceroyalty of Tepotzotlán.
Colonial religious art was sponsored by Church authorities and private patrons. Sponsoring the rich ornamentation of churches was a way for the wealthy to gain prestige. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Mexico City was one of the wealthiest in the world, mostly due to mining and agriculture, and was able to support a large art scene.
It is believed that the American continent’s oldest rock art, 7500 years old, is found in a cave on the peninsula of Baja California.
The pre-Hispanic art of Mexico belongs to a cultural region known as Mesoamerica, which roughly corresponds to central Mexico on into Central America, encompassing three thousand years from 1500 BCE to 1500 CE generally divided into three eras: Pre Classic, Classic and Post Classic. The first dominant Mesoamerican culture was that of the Olmecs, which peaked around 1200 BCE. The Olmecs originated much of what is associated with Mesoamerica, such as hieroglyphic writing, calendar, first advances in astronomy, monumental sculpture (Olmec heads) and jade work.
They were a forerunner of later cultures such as Teotihuacan, north of Mexico City, the Zapotecs in Oaxaca and the Mayas in southern Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. While empires rose and fell, the basic cultural underpinnings of the Mesoamerica stayed the same until the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. These included cities centered on plazas, temples usually built on pyramid bases, Mesoamerican ball courts and a mostly common cosmology.
While art forms such as cave paintings and rock etchings date from earlier, the known history of Mexican art begins with Mesoamerican art created by sedentary cultures that built cities, and often, dominions. While the art of Mesoamerica is more varied and extends over more time than anywhere else in the Americas, artistic styles show a number of similarities.
Unlike modern Western art, almost all Mesoamerican art was created to serve religious or political needs, rather than art for art’s sake. It is strongly based on nature, the surrounding political reality and the gods.Octavio Paz states that “Mesoamerican art is a logic of forms, lines, and volumes that is as the same time a cosmology.” He goes on to state that this focus on space and time is highly distinct from European naturalism based on the representation of the human body. Even simple designs such as stepped frets on buildings fall into this representation of space and time, life and the gods.
Art was expressed on a variety of mediums such as ceramics, amate paper and architecture. Most of what is known of Mesoamerican art comes from works that cover stone buildings and pottery, mostly paintings and reliefs. Ceramics date from the early the Mesoamerican period. They probably began as cooking and storage vessels but then were adapted to ritual and decorative uses. Ceramics were decorated by shaping, scratching, painting and different firing methods.
The earliest known purely artistic production were small ceramic figures that appeared in Tehuacán area around 1,500 BCE and spread to Veracruz, the Valley of Mexico, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas and the Pacific coast of Guatemala. The earliest of these are mostly female figures, probably associated with fertility rites because of their often oversized hips and thighs, as well as a number with babies in arms or nursing. When male figures appear they are most often soldiers. The production of these ceramic figures, which would later include animals and other forms, remained an important art form for 2000 years. In the early Olmec period most were small but large-scale ceramic sculptures were produced as large as 55 cm.
After the middle pre-Classic, ceramic sculpture declined in the center of Mexico except in the Chupícuaro region. In the Mayan areas, the art disappears in the late pre-Classic, to reappear in the Classic, mostly in the form of whistles and other musical instruments. In a few areas, such as parts of Veracruz, the creation of ceramic figures continued uninterrupted until the Spanish conquest, but as a handcraft, not a formal art.
Mesoamerican painting is found in various expressions—from murals, to the creation of codices and the painting of ceramic objects. Evidence of painting goes back at least to 1800 BCE and continues uninterrupted in one form or another until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Although it may have occurred earlier, the earliest known cases of artistic painting of monumental buildings occur in the early Classic period with the Mayas at Uaxactunand Tikal, and in Teotihuacan with walls painted in various colors.
Paints were made from animal, vegetable and mineral pigments and bases. Most paintings focus one or more human figures, which may be realistic or stylized, masculine, feminine or asexual. They may be naked or richly attired, but the social status of each figure is indicated in some way. Scenes often depict war, sacrifice, the roles of the gods or the acts of nobles. However, some common scenes with common people have been found as well.Other subjects included gods, symbols and animals. Mesoamerican painting was bi-dimensional with no efforts to create the illusion of depth. However, movement is often represented.
Non-ceramic sculpture in Mesoamerica began with the modification of animal bones, with the oldest known piece being an animal skull from Tequixquiac that dates between 10,000 and 8,000 BCE. Most Mesoamerican sculpture is of stone; while relief work on buildings is the most dominant, freestanding sculpture was done as well. Freestanding three-dimensional stone sculpture began with the Olmecs, with the most famous example being the giant Olmec stone heads. This disappeared for the rest of the Mesoamerican period in favor of relief work until the late post-Classic with the Aztecs.
The majority of stonework during the Mesoamerican period is associated with monumental architecture that, along with mural painting, was considered an integral part of architecture rather than separate. Monumental architecture began with the Olmecs in southern Veracruz and the coastal area of Tabasco in places such as San Lorenzo; large temples on pyramid bases can still be seen in sites such as Montenegro, Chiapa de Corzo and La Venta. This practice spread to the Oaxaca area and the Valley of Mexico, appearing in cities such as Monte Albán, Cuicuilco and Teotihuacan.
These cities had a nucleus of one or more plazas, with temples, palaces and Mesoamerican ball courts. Alignment of these structures was based on the cardinal directions and astronomy for ceremonial purposes, such as focusing the sun’s rays during the spring equinox on a sculpted or painted image. This was generally tied to calendar systems. Relief sculpture and/or painting were created as the structures were built. By the latter pre-Classic, almost all monumental structures in Mesoamerica had extensive relief work. Some of the best examples of this are Monte Albán, Teotihuacan and Tula.
Pre-Hispanic reliefs are general lineal in design and low, medium and high reliefs can be found. While this technique is often favored for narrative scenes elsewhere in the world, Mesoamerican reliefs tend to focus on a single figure. The only time reliefs are used in the narrative sense is when several relief steles are placed together. The best relief work is from the Mayas, especially from Yaxchilan.
Writing and art were not distinct as they have been for European cultures. Writing was considered art and art was often covering in writing. The reason for this is that both sought to record history and the culture’s interpretation of reality.(salvatvolp14) Manuscripts were written on paper or other book-like materials then bundled into codices. The art of reading and writing was strictly designated to the highest priest classes, as this ability was a source of their power over society.
The pictograms or glyphs of this writing system were more formal and rigid than images found on murals and other art forms as they were considered mostly symbolic, representing formulas related to astronomical events, genealogy and historic events.Most surviving pre-Hispanic codices come from the late Mesoamerican period and early colonial period, as more of these escaped destruction over history. For this reason, more is known about the Aztec Empire than the Mayan cultures. Important Aztec codices include the Borgia Group of mainly religious works, some of which probably pre-date the conquest, the Codex Borbonicus, Codex Mendoza, and the late Florentine Codex, which is in a European style but executed by Mexican artists, probably drawing on earlier material that is now lost.