EXHIBITION: REVOLUTION ON PAPER- MEXICAN PRINTS 1910-1960. BRITISH MUSEUM, ROOM 90
By Edwin Bentley
THE MEXICAN revolution, which started in 1910 and which was to last in one form or another for some 20 years, started as a local rebellion among peasant farmers and grew to embrace a wide range of progressive causes. This revolution most certainly was not a unified, planned, single-minded action by a highly organised political party. Rather, it was a series of frequently chaotic popular struggles against an economic model that had handed Mexican industry, agriculture and railways over to foreign investors. It was a revolt of women against the stifling conservatism of a totally male-dominated society. It was an uprising to overthrow the power of vastly wealthy landowners who blocked all attempts at land reform. The revolution also dealt heavy blows to the Catholic Church, which had acted as an obstacle to progress and had identified itself with the powers of reaction. It was a time to rediscover a national identity that went back centuries before the Spanish conquest, a time to celebrate and elevate the position of indigenous peoples.
Mexican society flung its windows open to all the exciting new ideas that were blowing around the world in the early 20th century, and adapted them to form a distinctive national character. This identity was to last until the 1990s and the re-introduction of unrestricted market capitalism and the economic anarchy that is so optimistically labelled “de-regulation” and “free trade”. Mexico’s identity centred around national sovereignty in all things, state control of major industries and public services, an often aggressive secularism, equal rights for men and women, and at least a basic social welfare provision.
The Mexican revolution did not lead to socialism, but it did create a nation that supported progressive causes throughout the world. Apart from the USSR, Mexico was the only country to give unqualified support and recognition to the Spanish Republic, welcomed at least 20,000 Republican refugees, and never had diplomatic relations with the Franco regime. In fact, relations with Spain were only re-established in 1977.
However it is certain that the revolution was stalled and prevented from going further by the liberal bourgeoisie that had benefited most from the overthrow of the old order. The Communist Party, founded in 1919, was illegal for much of the period. The new ruling class was made up of lawyers and professionals who were certainly social progressives, but had a real fear of the masses seizing power. They had no hesitation in using force to put down trade union militancy.
It is perhaps not surprising that they were happy to grant asylum to Leon Trotsky at the same time as clamping down on Marxist-Leninists. David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of the artists featured prominently in this exhibition, was even arrested and expelled from Mexico for his alleged involvement in one of the many plots to assassinate Trotsky, who was certainly not welcomed with open arms by Mexican revolutionaries! As the years and decades progressed, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party sank into a mire of corruption and patronage and became a self-serving elite.
It was in the field of art that the Mexican revolution made perhaps its greatest impact on the imagination of the world. Vast murals, monumental buildings, paintings, ceramics, and textiles, and an enthusiastic promotion of completely free artistic expression in all fields made Mexico the centre of innovation. The indigenous culture of Aztecs, Olmecs, and Mayans was fused with European styles to create a dynamic resurgence of national identity.
Printmaking was just one aspect of the cultural awakening of Mexico, but it was an art form immediately accessible to the masses it celebrated. What we see in this exhibition is an affirmation of the dynamism of the downtrodden sections of society once they stop regarding themselves as defenceless victims. This art is empowering and glorifies the dignity of every human being. The enemies of humanity are not invincible; they are paper tigers, parasites that shrivel away when they can no longer leech from the people they oppress.
In this exhibition there are some striking images of the great Emiliano Zapata, who lead the movement for agrarian reform and became a symbol of the revolution. A symbol, certainly, but one appropriated and glorified by the Mexican state to help the people forget that so many of Zapata’s demands had in fact not been delivered.
Readers of the New Worker will find particularly interesting the prints that openly promote class awareness and the struggle against fascism. Many of these are from the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP) – People’s Graphic Art Workshop – formed in 1937 by Luis Arenal, Leopoldo Méndez and Pablo O’Higgins as a movement inspired by the triumphs of socialism in the USSR. TGP members had access to printing equipment at the workshop and anyone was free to come along and try out their skills. The collective produced prints for posters, flyers and portfolios which were produced on cheap paper. Their prints often supported the campaigns of workers and trade unions in Mexico. For example, Pablo O’Higgins and Alberto Beltrán collectively made a poster advertising the first Latin American Petrol Workers’ conference, which is on display here. Other printmakers here address subjects such as corruption, the link between capitalism and fascism, and labour conditions. There is one particularly striking and shocking print of a building worker falling to his death from rickety scaffolding
The TGP was particularly committed to the fight against international fascism. Angel Bracho’s striking red and black poster, Victoria! (1945), which celebrates the Red Army’s victory over the Nazis in 1945, is a key example of the TGP’s anti-fascist stance. There are posters calling people to lectures on the fascist threat, and one attacking Japanese militarism with a violent caricature of Emperor Hirohito. A further print that really remains in my mind is of the great Marshal Timoshenko, who organised the Soviet defences to resist the Nazi invasion. Here, Timoshenko is presented as a true hero of the working class throughout the world.
This exhibition helps us all to celebrate our international struggle, as well as providing a powerful lesson in how vested interests can control, manipulate, and eventually suffocate true revolutionary advances. The Mexican revolution promised so much. We must rightly acknowledge its achievements, while also learning from its eventual failure.
Admission to this exhibition is free. It is on until 5th April 2010, after which it will be touring the country