Jean Charlot

The term fresco is often used loosely as a synonym for mural.  Thus in Chapter XI of this book, del Sena asked Rivera: “Please tell me what the kind of fresco means with which you are going to decorate the Auditorium, Diegote, and how you are going to paint it?”

In his answer, Rivera restores to fresco its narrower technical meaning: “In encaustic.  I decided upon this technique because it lasts longer than fresco….” 

Correctly used, the word fresco implies not only a monumental work adjunct to an architecture, but also a specialized technique.  In all other painting methods, the pigment is mixed with a binding medium––oil, gum, glue, egg yolk, or wax––to insure its adherence to the ground.  In fresco, the pigment is soaked in water only, its ground of fresh mortar acting also as a binding medium: the chemical changes that occur in the drying process seal in the color.  As a corollary of this condition of mortar freshness, a portion of wall must be prepared each morning, equal to the area that the painter hopes to cover that same day.  Usually considered in our day as an index of true fresco are the resulting seams visible between daily tasks that divide the wall surface in mosaic fashion. 

Such is the accepted description of true fresco.  It is based on the average procedure used in the Italian buon fresco, and a stamp of orthodoxy was given to it in modern times by Paul Baudouin, founder of the famed school of fresco at Fontainebleau.  It remains nevertheless a dogmatic ideal rather than a factual reality.  From country to country, and naturally from continent to continent, local variations––some slight and others substantial––make it delicate at times to determine if a given mural is painted in true fresco.  This is especially true of prehispanic Mexico, culturally as distant from Italy as if it were on another planet.  It is true to a lesser degree of Spain, where Arabic mastery of the stucco technique deeply influenced fresco procedures.  By blending both traditions, Colonial Mexico did produce frescoes that are indeed baffling for the Italianate purist. 

Daily seams joined on a slant in the orthodox Italian manner are present in some of the prehispanic murals of the Teotihuacán region, but they remain an exception.  Mayan and Mixtec omit the seam, and yet the soaking of the washes of color into the depth of the wall mortar points to the chemistry of true fresco. 

Colonial murals, even when they cover large walls, fail equally to show a partitioning into daily tasks.  This fact, and the many opaque passages, tempt one to classify most colonial murals as painted in tempera.  After a close examination of conventual murals of the type seen in Actopán and Acolman, such a technical expert as Carillo y Gariel does not feel justified in calling them true frescoes.  His tentative explanation is that the walls were painted when dry, but that part of the pigment stuck to the wall in true fresco fashion, and he proposes for this seamless kind of wall painting the name of accidental fresco. 

To the mural practitioner, despite their opacity and the absence of task partitioning, Acolman and Actopán can be held as true frescoes.  The transference of the pattern to the wall before painting was done by pressing outlines into the mortar with a blunt point, probably the back end of a brush, and the resulting furrow can still be felt by passing a finger over the once soft mixture.  In the transparent passages, the washes have spread into the wall as if it were a blotter, with a corresponding haziness of the wash edges as wet brush met wet mortar in the unmistakable manner of true fresco. 

The features that ran counter to what is expected of the Italian fresco technique may still be within the usage of Spanish fresco tradition.  Its technical bible is Don Antonio Palomino Velasco’s Museo Pictórico, whose recipes were mostly gathered at the end of the seventeenth century.  We learn there that a thick opaque texture was considered an asset in fresco painting.  To attain it, Palomino suggested that the pigment be mixed with a finely sifted mortar or with marble or alabaster crushed to a fine powder.  The same treatise points to a possible explanation of the absence of daily tasks: Palomino’s insistence on the use of sponges used to wet the wall repeatedly while the work was in course suggests how the mortar, once troweled onto the wall, could have been kept for days at a stage of working fitness in a country where, and at the same time when, slave labor was available. 

The use of fresco, which Mexico illustrates with splendor on the walls of its pagan and early Catholic temples, was gradually replaced by techniques of more complex recourses.  Tempera, tempera with oil, or even oil on canvas were media better able to express the clustered compositions in deep space that became fashionable in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  As the nineteen century opened, only a provincial original of genius like Tresguerras still yearned for the more orthodox mural medium.  His admirable paintings on funereal themes in the Church of El Carmen, Celaya, were completed in 1810, the year in which Hidalgo opened the cycle of revolutionary struggle that closes historically the colonial era.  Though the paint is applied directly on the wall, the technique differs from that of the conventual frescoes.  It lacks the transparent washes blotted into the wall mortar; the chalky hues of the consistently opaque pigment have rubbed off in part, baring the smooth white ground, a thing that would be impossible if the medium were true fresco.  It appears that Tresguerras, in this last mural masterpiece of the colonial era, used the kind of fresco secco where the pigment is mixed with lime and applied on a dry mortar that is wetted at the time of painting it.  

To my knowledge, an Independent Mexico failed to practice true fresco on a mural scale through its first century of existence.  Even more at odds with simplicity than the preceding baroque ideal, the photographic realism that reigned through most of the nineteenth century could not condone the limitations of this austere medium.  The murals of that time are in tempera or oil or desiccated oil.  Juan Cordero, outstanding muralist of the period, painted in a glazed tempera of his own invention those of his murals that are still standing in the churches of Santa Teresa and San Fernando.  The walls are painted in a vivid palette with a texture that resembles the glue tempera or distemper of stage scenery.  The medium is described somewhat mysteriously by a critic like López-López, a contemporary and friend of the artist: “Sr. Cordero has used a special method that combines the advantages of oil, as concerns handling, with the opacity of tempera, as regards effect.” 

Juan Cordero’s last mural, painted in the Preparatoria School in 1874, was destroyed in 1900.  Eager to discover antecedents for modern fresco less remote than colonial examples, Diego Rivera refers to this lost work, which he had seen in place when he was a student of fourteen, as having been a true fresco.  Contemporaneous texts contradict the assumption.  To signalize the mural’s unveiling, the faithful López-López published in El Federalista a description entitled, “A painting in tempera, work of the distinguished Mexican artist, Juan Cordero….”   

Preoccupied as he was with problems of mural technique, Cordero remained an exception in his day.  His rival Pelegrin Clavé was more typical of the period when he chose to paint the dome of El Templo de la Profesa in oils, each panel framed with gold moldings. 

The last important group of murals to precede the modern renaissance were done in the 1880’s in the Basilica of Guadalupe, under the leadership of Salomé Pina, a favorite student of Clavé.  The technique used is desiccated oil. 

This summary of past Mexican mural methods can be rounded out with an analysis of the technique of folk murals.  There are many such folk productions painted on the walls of pulquerías, butcher shops, and country chapels.  They are usually done in a kind of glue distemper applied directly to the wall.  A minority are painted in oils.  I know only of one that is done in fresco secco.  

To find in the craft of folk painters rudiments of technique that approximate true fresco, one must stick narrowly to technique and drain the word fresco of its implied concept of drawing and coloring with the brush.  For example, to give a finish to the outer walls of a house, masons mix dry pigment in a trough with a mortar, often made, in our day, of sand and white cement.  This is called pasta and applied to the wall with a trowel.

In his unpublished memoirs, Siqueiros mentioned a method used by another class of craftsmen: “The Indian painters are accustomed to incorporate coloring earth––usually almagre––to the mortar with which they paint the brazeros [open stoves] that are a common fixture of Mexican homes.” 

With the start of the Preparatoria murals, the problems connected with fresco painting were very much in the air.  In Chapter XII are related some of the trials that marked the reacclimatization of true fresco to modern Mexico.  The preliminary steps were a group effort, and it is not until the moment that fresco painting reached a mural scale that individualities asserted themselves.

Later on, as the movement gathered momentum, as the importance conceded to Mexican murals increased, art critics attempted to unravel the facts that established buon fresco in the prominent position it holds today in Mexico.  Who did the first modern fresco?  The names of Montenegro, Xavier Guerrero, Orozco even, have been mentioned, and, more validly, Ramón Alva’s and my own. 

Both of our walls were commissioned at the same time, in May 1922.  On December 28, 1922, Ortega published a review of the closing year’s art events, stressing the new phenomenon––murals––at a time when only a handful of muralists were at work.  Despite the care with which Ortega husbanded his limited topic, he failed to describe Alva’s fresco.  This corroborates Alva’s story that his cartoon was slow to reach the painting state, as he counted on a two-year contract. 

June 7, 1923, Renato Molina printed in El Universal Ilustrado a photograph of Alva’s still unfinished mural over the caption: “Detail of the fresco with which the painter Ramón Alva is decorating one of the walls of the Preparatoria School.” 

I entered in my diary the date of the inauguration of the finished fresco, June 24, 1923 [ed.: February 1, 1923].

As to my wall, I also noted in my diary of the year before the first and last daily tasks of my fresco: 

October 2, 1922.  Start fresco!

November 25.  Paint inscription on the left. 

This inscription, which landed me unwittingly in the thick of future controversies, reads: “This fresco is the first to be done in Mexico since colonial times.  Painted by Jean Charlot and plastered by master mason Luis Escobar.” 

The next stage in the evolution of the fresco technique related to the start of Rivera’s murals in the Ministry of Education early in 1923.  Because Luis Escobar was now his mason and I was Diego’s helper, the first two panels were executed with the same procedures that I had used in my Preparatoria fresco. 

To change from encaustic to fresco proved a painful ordeal for Rivera.  Late one of the first evenings that we were on the job, as I walked through the dark court, I noticed that the scaffold was trembling as at the start of an earthquake.  Coming near, I saw Rivera’s dim bulk at the top.  Climbing up to investigate, I found him crying and viciously picking off his day’s job with a small trowel as a child will kick down a sand castle in a tantrum.  Guerrero came upon similar tableaus in those hectic first days. 

Xavier Guerrero understood that a remedy should be found to allay a mental crisis that threatened to wreck the job at the start.  At this juncture, some change in the technique used might prove efficacious. 

My sources of fresco knowledge had been bookish: the treatise of Baudouin and that of Cennino Cennini.  This had been tempered in practice by the common sense of the master mason Escobar, not at all a bookish man.  Xavier, who rightly says of French Baudouin, “I never read that book,” approached the same problem afresh, rich in his family experience of similar undertakings: 

Father used to put up a coat of mortar, then on top a coat of plaster mixed with marble dust, then paint a make-believe marble design, then iron the surface as smooth as glass.  I started from there, changing the plaster for lime.  I experimented a long time on portable samples with mortars of distinct contents.  I made trips to Teotihuacán to compare my results with prehispanic murals, then made matched mural samples in the Ministry. 

At last I made a successful sample, proudly showed it to Diego.  Said he, ‘We will save this sample, embed it in the finished work, and paint by it your portrait with the date of the discovery.’  I suggested that Diego let me take the sample out myself, as he is somewhat clumsy with his hands, but he insisted on doing it himself.  He hammered the sample to bits, and the last rather large fragment to fall he crushed absent-mindedly under foot, and spoke no more of painting my portrait. 

Xavier thus states the honest essentials of his experiments, but the best cure for Rivera’s heartache proved to be a more dubious “secret,” mainly the invention of overeager reporters.  As Rivera’s difficulties were mostly mental, the publicity attendant upon the discover of this “secret” renewed his faith in himself, and the Ministry work proceeded smoothly from then on. 

McKinley Helm came upon this secret while gathering material for his book, but it remained a secret for him: “They [Rivera and Guerrero] conducted experiments together and evolved a formula which was used in the newly built Ministry.  Something untoward happened which both Rivera and Guerrero are now shy of discussing.” 

Contemporary sources are less reticent.

The secret is first alluded to on May 31, 1923, by Renato Molina in El Universal Ilustrado: “A new reason must be added to bolster our thankfulness towards the painter Diego Rivera.  He is now revitalizing fresco painting just as it was practiced by the ancient Mexicans, a technique reconstructed thanks to his own investigations and those of his assistant.” 

El Universal, June 19, 1923, amplified the theme:

Diego Rivera Discovers a Secret of the Mexica.

The artist painter Diego Rivera has rediscovered, in the opinion of certain technicians of painting, the process used by ancient Mexicans to produce their splendid frescoes, such as those we admire today in the monuments of San Juan Teotihuacán. 

This extremely important and transcendental discovery seems quite simple.  From what is said, it consists of using the procedure current among our more humble artisans of painting, of mixing nopal juice with the fresco preparation, completing the work with a special polish adopted after numerous trials by the helper of artist Diego Rivera, SeĖor Xavier Guerrero. 

The resurrection of this ancient process of painting is of basic importance for our pictorial art, giving as it does to our painters access to a genuine and characteristic technique that answers the necessities of our climate and general local conditions.

At a date not so remote, a French painter allegedly applied the fresco technique in Mexico, such as the Italians had know, but with this modification of mixing cement with the classic mixture of lime and sand.  Notwithstanding the fact that the work executed by this French artist seems to fulfill certain conditions of permanency, experts agree that within the next twenty years the causticity of the calcareous substances present in the cement will completely destroy what this artist achieved. 

The painter Diego Rivera used the same technique that the Frenchman had used and that we have just described, to paint a single panel out of those with which he is decorating the Ministry of Education, but given the poor results, he switched to the technique referred to already, with most gratifying effect.  Numerous artists flock to the Ministry of Public Education to admire the brilliant decoration of Diego Rivera, which, it is prophesied, will last for a number of centuries, as have the frescoes of the ancient Mexicans. 

Crispin interviewed Rivera on the subject July 10, 1923:

“Who are your collaborators?”

“Xavier Guerrero, who, well knowing the craft of the painter in his noble approach to it as a laborer, discovered a procedure that resuscitates the manner of painting in fresco of the ancient Mexicans.  I use this technique,” adds Diego modestly. 

That the technique of fresco the modest painter Xavier Guerrero has unearthed is that of the ancient Mexicans is something requiring patience to prove, some two hundred years hence, when, God willing, the present work will have successfully withstood the injuries of time… 

El Abate Benigno coined a refrain:

Dipped in cactus juice authentic

Rivera’s brushes in waltz time tick. 

“Araujo” once defined the nationalist approach to things Mexican as a search for “picturesqueness, for what differentiates us most obviously from foreigners…picking eccentric spectacles as all the more genuine for it, a fact that dovetails neatly with the touristic point of view.”  Rivera’s picturesque secret excited tourists as much as it had pleased him.  Fred Leighton published in The International Studio, February 1924, an article written in June or July 1923:

 Although Rivera is decorating now not with the technique of encaustic but in fresco, it is not the fresco of Italy but a process indigenous to Mexico, one used by ancient Indian mural workers, a process from the civilization of the past.  Simply to brush wet plaster with one’s paints as did Florentine masters, while a method capable of creating wondrous beauty, can never escape the dullness of surface, the slight roughness which is the nature of the medium.  But the frescoes of Rivera are smooth (to the touch they are like a finely waxed floor); theirs is a dull lustre, a clearness that presents an optical illusion of depth somewhat as does well-fired china.  Doubtless many persons riding across the deserts of our Southwest have seen the nopal or, as we know it, the prickly pear, and have said, “What an odd plant, picturesque, but worthless!”  But the fruit of the prickly pear is much prized for food and candy in Mexico, and the leaf, cleared of spines and boiled, tastes not unlike string beans.  What has this to do with painting in Fresco?  the reader will ask.  The leaf of the nopal, when pressed, yields a colorless viscous fluid which, properly applied to the wet plaster and mixed likewise with the artist’s pigments, produces a surface with the effects above described and has the paramount virtue as well of ensuring that the wall dries evenly. 

The invigorated Rivera imposed his technique, as “head of the Plastic Crafts,” on the painters at work in the second court, de la Cueva and myself.  It consisted in practice of slices of nopal leaf left to rot in the bucket of water in which we dipped our brushes.  A cynical attitude towards the secret of the Mexica and an abhorrence of the stink of the decomposed nopal stumps kept but a few leaves in our two buckets, enough for inspection, and made us change the water surreptitiously. 

After more than twenty years, a judgment can be passed on the incident.  Schmeckebier tells of the state of the early Rivera frescoes today:

The technique is not permanent, for the obvious reason that the nopal juice is an organic substance that will not combine with plaster.  Instead of drying into the plaster as the color does in fresco, the paint remains as a layer on the surface…The water coming out of the plaster then, as it does in drying, must penetrate this glue-like coating.  One can see those walls covered with tiny holes where the water has formed blisters and caused the paint to chip off. 

Despite the layman’s acclaim, Rivera soon shifted without fanfare to a chemically normal procedure.  The secret, first tried in the Tehuántepec scenes––Dyers, Weavers, etc.––was last used on the Potters.  Time has helped transform the incident into a soothing myth.  Rivera stated in 1942: 

There has never been through the last four centuries any decorator in Mexico master of his office that has not been master also of fresco painting.  I feel proud to have learned this office from such men and not from any European.