This week, for Art Around the World PT II, we’ll continue our country series with Mexico. Because Mexico has such a long recorded history, we’ll divide this week’s posts into three longer periods: The Pre-Hispanic Period (also known as the Pre-Columbian), the Colonial Period, and Modern Mexico. In Mexico City, these three periods are celebrated in La Plaza de Las Tres Culturas.
First, the Pre-Hispanic Period
This ‘period,’ which is really made up of many periods, refers to the time before Europeans arrived in Mexico (which of course was not called Mexico until later), when it was just populated by indigenous peoples. These peoples include the Olmecs, Mayans, Toltecs, Zapotecs, and Aztecs, among others. Something wonderfully interesting (though a little bit unsurprising) about the painting of these civilizations is what it has in common with the painting of other, faraway civilizations. It was done on the walls of caves. Mexico, France, Brazil, China, India, Norway, Ghana, Canada, Egypt. If you google ‘cave painting _________’ and insert the name of basically any country (we tried it), you’ll find results. It’s an idea that’s been expressed many times before, but it’s amazing that so many societies that had no contact with each other produced the same things. Today, advancements from any country can be shared with every country, so it’s easy to think that our societies might have all turned out very differently without interaction. But these caves give us reason to ask: Are we really so different from each other?
The Colonial Period
It isn’t hard to see the link between art and history in the paintings from this period. Spain injected itself into Mexican government and society, and it injected itself into Mexican art. An example: The Spanish government established The Academy of San Carlos, an art school in Mexico City (the name given by the Spanish to the city formerly known as Tenochtitlan). The Academy taught European techniques., and the faculty were Spanish. An interesting fact and another result of the European influence in Mexican painting is that, in painting the Puebla Cathedral, Mexican painter Cristóbal de Villalpando used brush techniques used by Peter Paul Rubens (a Flemish painter).
This period in Mexico brought us perhaps the most famous female painter in history: Frida Kahlo, the accidental artist. You may have heard the story before–she was severely injured, bedridden, and bored, so she decided to paint.
Her paintings are full of indigenous themes, which is very reflective of Modern Mexico as a whole. In the United States, for example, indigenous cultures have been largely pushed aside and ignored for quite a long time. In Mexico, the opposite is true. You can walk around Mexico City and find streets and neighborhoods with names like Chapultepec, Cuauhtémoc, and Iztacchiuatl. These are not Spanish names. And it’s not just the names–indigenous art, food, language, and religious traditions thrive all over Mexico in a way that they don’t in many other countries. If there’s any doubt that art reflects the world around it, one can consider the fact that: In a country that celebrates the civilizations that came before it, one of the most beloved artists is a person who did the same.