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Mexican art: from ancient relics to pop culture

Article - May 22, 2012
Over the centuries, Mexicans have made an outstanding contribution to the arts
Mexico has given the world figures of international standing in modern art in everything from architecture, literature, and painting to music. Much of their work is of a distinctive, and uniquely Mexican style, echoing historical, religious and folk art influences, but at the same time engaging with the modern world to make a major contribution to international culture.

Diego Rivera (1886-1957) is an influential figure who has had a profound effect not only on Mexican painting but also on artists in the United States. One of the leaders of the Social Realism or Mexican muralist movement in the first half of the 20th century, Rivera was inspired by the political ideals of the Mexican and Russian revolutions. His work is populist and politically engaged, reflecting the lives of the working class and native peoples of Mexico.
Internationally exhibited paintings and a series of large-scale fresco-style murals in public buildings – including a number in the United States – have won him worldwide fame.

Rivera’s wife Frida Kahlo (1907-54) is an iconic figure in her own right. A lifelong sufferer of ill health, she is best known for her self-portraits, which reflect the passion and pain of her life – including her stormy marriage to Rivera – in a naive style with vibrant colors and strong Amerindian and folkloric elements.

She had little success in her short lifetime (she died at 47), but her work has since been universally recognized and now fetches high prices on the international art market. Today, more than half a century after her death, her paintings fetch higher prices than any other female artist.
The writer Carlos Fuentes, one of the most important Mexican writers of the twentieth century, said of Kahlo: “She’s Mexican, but she brings in many other things, as most Mexican artists do.”

Fuentes, who died at the age of 83 on May 15, 2012, was one of the most important, and widely translated, writers in the Spanish-speaking world. His 1985 novel Gringo Viejo became the first bestseller in the United States written by a Mexican author, and was later filmed as Old Gringo (1989) starring Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda. The impact of Spanish and North American influences on Mexican culture and the search for a Mexican national identity feature in much of his writing.
Historical influences are also to be found in contemporary Mexican architecture, which often combines traditional Mexican styles with cutting-edge European and North American design. One of the leading architects in Mexico today is Javier Sordo Madaleno, whose fusion of traditional and contemporary architectural style has won him world attention. Born in Mexico City in 1956, the son of another famous architect, Juan Sordo Madaleno, Sordo Madaleno has been influenced by the work of his father and by another famous architect of the previous generation, Luis Barragan Morfin, who like Sordo Madaleno senior was influenced the European avant-garde, notably Le Corbusier.
Sordo Madaleno’s main works include shopping malls, the Westin Regina resort in Los Cabos, the Puebla Convention Center in Puebla, and the Iron Palace retail store in Monterrey.

One of Sordo Madaleno’s most recent and striking buildings is the San Josemaria Escriva Church, completed in 2010, a new city landmark on the west side of Mexico City, clad in zinc and distinguished by its curved pyramidal shapes.
In architectural terms one of the most striking museums in Mexico is one of its newest, the Museo Soumaya, a privately owned museum built by one of the world’s wealthiest men, the telecom tycoon Carlos Slim. Named after the owner’s late wife and designed by his architect son-in-law, Fernando Romero, the building – an aluminum-clad trapezoid in motion – has drawn both praise and criticism.

What is without doubt, however, is that it houses one of the most important art collections in Latin America, with some 6,200 artworks displayed over six floors, including paintings and murals by Mexican masters such as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, as well as works by El Greco, Miro, Van Gogh, Matisse and Rodin.

“She’s Mexican, but she brings in many other things, as most Mexican artists do.”

Bestselling writer
Carlos Fuentes,
discussing Frida Kahlo

The modernity of the Museo Soumaya complements the city’s other museums such as the Museo Arqueologico de Mexico, which houses an outstanding collection of ancient Aztec and Mayan artifacts.

Mexico’s success in producing internationally recognized artists is not limited to high art. Since coming to fame for her portrayal of Frida Kahlo in the film Frida  – for which she was Oscar-nominated –  Salma Hayek has developed as an actress, director and producer, with Entertainment Weekly ranking her among the ‘25 Smartest People in TV.’ Hayek was an executive producer for the hit TV series Ugly Betty, and played a guest-starring  role in the third season of 30 Rock, yet also finds time for social causes, particularly those relating to domestic violence. 

But as a symbol of global success Luis Miguel, one of the world’s top male pop singers, is in a class of his own. Now in his 40s he has had a career that has extended nearly three decades and is known as ‘The Sun of Mexico’, Latin America’s Frank Sinatra.
Numerous awards include five Grammys and four Latin Grammys. Tickets for his international tours rapidly sell rapidly. The 124 concerts of his record-breaking Mexico En La Piel Tour of 2005–2007 attracted almost 1.5 million fans and grossed more than US$95 million – the longest and most successful tour by a Latin American artist.

This year’s ongoing The Hits Tour has taken in appearances in Mexico, Uruguay, Venezuela and Spain, with Las Vegas and Argentina still to come. In September, he will perform songs like When the Sun Heats, The River and We are a Couple in three concerts at Caesars Palace, followed by concerts in Buenos Aires in October.