Celebrated muralist Diego Rivera’s print of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata and his horse forms the centrepiece of the British Museum’s new exhibition.
This small collection illustrates how left wing and satirical artists in the early decades of the 20th century were moved by the gross inequalities of Mexican society.
They produced prints to be sold to collectors as well as popular posters, leaflets, news sheets and book covers.
The collection opens with Jose Gudalupe Posada, widely regarded as the “grandfather” of Mexican printmaking. He used cartoons of dancing skeletons illustrating popular songs to fling contempt at the rich and corrupt and ridicule them.
In this world the dead rich still have a good time. They cavort around their fine tombs stepping on the unmarked graves of the poor. Presumably the collectors able to buy this work didn’t realise it was aimed at them.
Many of the later prints are also full of anger at the poverty, evictions, and abuse of the peasants.
Other posters touch on international issues. One commemorates Communists Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who were murdered by the US state in 1953, and another remembers Julius Fucik, the Czech communist leader killed by the Nazis in 1943.
There are prints that comment on the treatment of black people in the US as well as posters demanding the release of political prisoners in 1952.
There are celebrations of the defeat of fascism in Europe and cartoons lampooning home-grown fascists.
All three of the great artists of this period, Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco – known as Los Tres Grandes – are here.
For Siqueiros, Latin America itself is a peasant wracked on a tree like the bodies in Goya’s painting The Disasters of War.
Many of the images don’t use any text. You don’t have to be able to read to recognise the eviction of peasants by soldiers or to understand the bloated factory owners backed by dollar signs.
But the poster Tram Workers Fight for the Benefit Of All (1943) is also a news sheet plastered up for those who can read to share with the thousands who can’t.
It has detailed arguments about fewer trams running than in 1910, the problems of low wages, profiteering owners backed by foreign capital and the threat of job losses.
In much of this work there is a sense that the artist is looking in two directions at once.
For instance, in one woodcut a woman lays her hand on the table and stands with downcast eyes – she is submissive or resigned.
But from a slightly different angle she has just slapped her hand down on the table and glares furiously.
In another piece by the same artist, a peasant works in the forest and is barely distinguishable from the wood. He is as strong and as vulnerable as the trees. He is totemic and barely human.
This idealisation of the peasants as deeply connected to the earth and somehow expressing true Mexico is also expressed in Rivera’s idealised indigenous figures and the banner of his May Day mural. This reads, “True civilisation shall be the harmony between man and earth, and between man and man.”
This contradiction runs throughout the collection – on the one hand the compassion and anger at the impoverishment of the peasants, but on the other the overidealised and spiritual symbolism of peasant as nation.
This reflects a wider problem of the 1910 Mexican Revolution itself. The government that followed it chased national economic growth by suppressing the needs and demands of the people and doing deals with US capital.
It used populist rhetoric and imagery to help get away with it.
So it is appropriate that this exhibition is supported by the Mexican tourist board – in other words the Mexican state. We can all agree that poverty and oppression are bad things, especially among previous generations.
There is much to admire in this exhibition – and it is good to have the opportunity to see these prints for free.
The Siqueiros abstract print of a black woman’s face is very beautiful. Many of the prints are technically brilliant. But whatever the exhibition’s title, this art is not revolutionary.
However, there is a warning in one print of a mass demonstration.
The artist appears to be angry at the workers whose banners and placards are depicted as a meaningless collection of letters and numbers. They march in government-formed compliant unions under a one-word banner, “Protest!”
But the workers are countless thousands stretching back into the distance and their thin haggard faces are also a threat.
What happens when those workers break away and act for themselves?
Revolution in Paper: Print Making in Mexico 1910-1960 is at the British Museum in London until 5 April 2010, admission free
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