‘The History of Mexico’: Diego Rivera’s Murals at the National Palace

Diego Rivera, “From the Conquest to 1930,” History of Mexico murals, 1929–30, fresco, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City

In an overwhelming and crowded composition, Rivera represents pivotal scenes from the history of the modern nation-state.

By Megan Flattley
PhD Candidate in Art History and Latin American Studies
Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Community-Engaged Scholarship
Tulane University

How Is History Told?

Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (photo: Paula Soler-Moya, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Typically, we think of history as a series of events narrated in chronological order. But what does history look like as a series of images? Mexican artist Diego Rivera responded to this question when he painted The History of Mexico, as a series of murals that span three large walls within a grand stairwell of the National Palace in Mexico City. In Rivera’s words, the mural represents “the entire history of Mexico from the Conquest through the Mexican Revolution . . . down to the ugly present.”[1]

Diego Rivera, “Mexico Today and Tomorrow,” detail featuring Karl Marx, History of Mexico murals, 1935, fresco, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (photo: Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0)

In an overwhelming and crowded composition, Rivera represents pivotal scenes from the history of the modern nation-state, including scenes from the Spanish Conquest, the fight for independence from Spain, the Mexican-American war, the Mexican Revolution, and an imagined future Mexico in which a workers’ revolution has triumphed. Although this mural cycle spans hundreds of years of Mexican history, Rivera concentrated on themes that highlight a Marxist interpretation of history as driven by class conflict as well as the struggle of the Mexican people against foreign invaders and the resilience of Indigenous cultures.

For Rivera class conflict drove history, an idea developed by Karl Marx. Rivera joined the Communist Party in 1922 but was expelled a few years later because of his support for Leon Trotsky, a Bolshevik intellectual who fled Russia for Mexico when Joseph Stalin consolidated power.

A New National Identity

In the immediate years following the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), the newly formed government sought to establish a national identity that eschewed Eurocentrism (an emphasis on European culture) and instead heralded the Amerindian. The Mexican Revolution started when liberals and intellectuals began to challenge the regime of Porfirio Díaz, a dictator who had been in power since 1877. The result was that Indigenous culture was elevated in the national discourse. After hundreds of years of colonial rule and the Eurocentric dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, the new Mexican state integrated its national identity with the concept of indigenismo, an ideology that lauded Mexico’s past Indigenous history and cultural heritage (rather than acknowledging the ongoing struggles of contemporary Indigenous people and incorporating them into the new state governance).

José Vasconcelos, the new government’s Minister of Public Education, conceived of a collaboration between the government and artists. The result were state-sponsored murals such as those at the National Palace in Mexico City.

Why Murals?

Rivera and other artists believed easel painting to be “aristocratic,” since for centuries this kind of art had been the purview of the elite. Instead they favored mural painting since it could present subjects on a large scale to a wide public audience. This idea—of directly addressing the people in public buildings—suited the muralists’ Communist politics. In 1922, Rivera (and others) signed the Manifesto of the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors, arguing that artists must invest “their greatest efforts in the aim of materializing an art valuable to the people.”[2]