Jean Charlot

After their dismissal from the Ministry and the Preparatoria, the young muralists perforce scattered.  Some of them, as we have seen, reformed ranks in Guadalajara.  I remained in Mexico City a while, living from a small job as draftsman with the Department of Publications of the Ministry, which was the same place where Orozco had once found droit d’asile under similar circumstances.  With no more walls to paint on, I tried a hesitant hand at another and very different craft, that of easel painting.  Only too well did I remember Siqueiros’ own Rabelaisian slogan, coined at a time when it seemed only justice that we should be given enough walls to last us for a lifetime: “To paint on cement, or else on toilet paper!”  All through 1924, shame drove me to paint very small and very dark oil pictures, all the better to hide them if any of my muralist friends should casually drop in.  The good muscles of elbow and shoulder called upon to cover large surfaces fell inactive, and those of wrist and fingers were taught to go to work. 

It was soon after this forced retreat from the fresco field that I met Doctor Sylvanus G. Morley, boss of a ten-year project of excavation, restoration, and description of the Mayan Mecca, Chichen Itzá.  I followed him to Yucatán, at first as a draftsman, and later I also wrote about the finds.  Especially rewarding proved an exploration of the jungle-locked walled city of Cobá-Macanxoc, together with the English archeologist, Eric J. Thompson.  There, we discovered stelae of such an early date that the chronology of the Northern Maya––referred to up to then as that of the New Empire––had to be revised. 

It was an enlightening experience thus to dig at the roots of a Mexican art that I had helped to some of its newest buds.  There were moments when my previous faith in the validity of our mural style was rewarded; when similarities between ancient and modern forms justified post-facto our instinctive attempts at reviving a Mexican tradition. 

My first trip to the United States took place at the end of 1928.  Its purpose was to correct, in Washington, the galley-proofs of a monograph, The Temple of the Warriors, cowritten with fellow archeologists Earl and Ann Morris.  The job was short enough, but my stay in the United States lengthened; in fact, it could be said to still last. 

An occasional trip to Mexico allowed me to check on the fortunes of my comrades of the mural group, and especially on the growing status of three of them, nicknamed with awe los tres grandes.  I watched from a distance the transformation of these hard-working artisans into near godlings.  Meanwhile, what I had known as a jeering crowd of onlookers that at times came threateningly close to acting as a lynch mob, was also astonishingly transformed, this once, into a gaping herd of art lovers. 

While writing this book, it is not without diffidence that I revisited the men and the buildings that are described here as I knew them in the early nineteen-twenties.  Much of the paper research concerned with the Vasconcelos era was made in the National Library, whose director happened to be white-haired José Vasconcelos.  The swarm of employees, the court of artists he commanded as Secretary of Education, was pared down to one buxom, amiable typist; the piles of documents that overflowed the giant desk that he liked––carved from hard zapote wood with the signs of the Zodiac––to a few memo sheets on a table. 

The same search also took me to the Hemeroteca where periodicals are housed, the latest avatar of the Church of San Pedro y Pablo, doomed since 1821 to lay uses ranging from Congress Hall to madhouse, one avatar of medium strangeness being that it shelters Montenegro’s Dance of the Hours, the first to be started of the many murals of the Mexican Renaissance.  Though cut off from public view by the maze of tomes shelved in tiers behind the delivery desk, the painted wall still looms over the mousy chores of the few scholars allowed into this inner cubicle.  However, a bureaucrat who rated neatness over authenticity has had the wall thoroughly restored, and in shiny oils.  Indeed, so thorough a job was it that the indiscreet restorer felt entitled to also refresh the date, that now reads 1940! 

The Xavier Guerrero tempera décor of the nave remains in excellent state; at least as much can be gathered from the little that can be seen of it, for today tiers of paneled bookcases and wood balconies wall in most of the mural decoration and slice horizontally the verticalness of the polychrome columns, still rich with garlands of pomegranates, blue birds, black birds, cornflowers, and camellias. 

The first workshop of the mural group was the attic back room of the Auditorium of the Preparatoria School.  On the gray stone of the low thick columns, patches of discoloration still mark the areas that held the first fresco trials made in 1922.  In the Auditorium proper, Rivera’s first mural, Creation, is no longer a trustful witness to the seething group élan that saw it born.  The distinguished geometrical planning remains in evidence, but the wax mixed with the pigment has opaqued, dulling the once intense color. 

Indeed, it is difficult today to remember how living and throbbing was the kind of geometrical passion that filtered into our works via cubism.  In 1922, the spoils of science held, for the artist, an esthetic appeal stronger than did the surges of emotion.  While the mural of the Auditorium was in the making, the hands that plucked at chalked lines, or slackened a string to trace a catenary along its curve, or fitted to a preordained diameter the jaws of the large wooden compasses built to order for the job, these cautious hands experienced as much delight at their precise task as had, before that, the arms and wrists of the romantics swinging[1] blatant autographic brushstrokes. 

Today, the circle traced with passion looks twin to any other circle traced by rote.  While we incised in cement the verticals so dominant in Creation, we labored under the illusion of creating a new kind of ascending Gothic.  Twenty-five years later, and in a more temperate mood, the same verticals can look as dull as rain in windless vertical descent.

In the same building, the Orozco patio is of course beautiful, only it seems that time has frozen to a stop what once had depth and movement.  To recapture the thrill of the work in the making, one should be able to discern under the mortar, become translucent, the layers of superimposed subjects that succeeded each other on the same stretch of wall as the artist, bent on an expedition to fetch the golden toison of style, worked, wrecked the work, and tried again.  Where The Trench grips us, one looked once at the vertigo of the fallen inverted Tzontemoc, and before it, there stood Orozco’s first fresco, The Sun and a Group of School Girls.  Today, only The Strike obeys the rules of a plastic palimpsest, disclosing over the black and red banner held by two strikers the salvaged remain of an earlier theme, a giant head of Christ. 

Going up the main stairs, I pass my first fresco, intact but for the exertions of unkind students.  Light washes of pale color and reserves of white mortar proved too much of a temptation to scribblers.  A generous quota of witty mustaches and eyeglasses sketched in pencil adorn grotesquely the faces of my heroes; the despair of the massacred Indians is mocked by teardrops coarsely sketched in chalk. 

I remember how I painted this wall in full originality and full passion and yet, now, I can also understand the disdainfully curved lip of the informed passerby who gave it one look and muttered, “Uccello,” as Lawrence had flung “Gauguin” at the Revueltas wall in an attempt to crush its good physical matter with a mot.  Why Uccello ever played with lances a game of alternating stripes and crisscross patterns, would be clarified only if we could reconstruct the architecture for which the artist’s metal-hard fancy ideated it.  In my case, lances were chosen not because of any medieval yearning, but for the mason’s sake: their straight outline providing an easy cutting edge, and one of minimum length, against which to abut the next day’s mortar patch. 

On the top floor of the school, the Orozco frescoes on revolutionary themes are as maculate with graffiti and doodles as if they had not been hallowed by critics, widely reproduced, and admired.  On this visit, I found Rearguard and Adieu to the Mother disfigured by blatant slogans that bolstered the election of a college queen: “Pompeia para reina.”  A janitor as zealous as the one we knew rubs off each offending addition, and not always with the light hand of a mural devotee. 

The stairwell of the third court of the school still tells of the brutal action that stopped the first Siqueiros frescoes in course, when enraged students bent on championing Beauty stoned the awkwardly painted colossi.  The more mutilated portions have now been neatly chiseled out of their misery, and the resulting bare patches filled with a plain, dun-colored wall enamel.  What remains of the mat frescoes, modeled brown on brown, contrasts with the oily and varnished texture of the makeshift repairs.  However unsightly the effect, one should be grateful that a love for neatness did not suggest a total whitewash as the easier solution. 

In the Ministry of Education, the open archway that divided the inner court into patios, and was Vasconcelos’ special pride, has been torn down to make place for an opaque box-like partition that hides elevator shafts.  It is as awkward as it must be exceptional to see an architecture shot from under the mural that rides it.  Because sound mural painting obeys the perspective rules that its habitat dictates, the new construction hurts forever previously correct optical decisions concerning scale and color. 

Those of the ground floor frescoes that were painted by Rivera ą la mode Teotihuacana, brushing pigment mixed with nopal juice on a thin film of pure lime, have paid the penalty for this picturesque technique.  The sand packed underneath has burst through the painted film, each grain leaving a microscopic trail of white.  As a result, the early Tehuántepec and mining scenes fade optically as if seen through layers of tracing paper. 

Painted in the traditional Italian technique, the later Corrido panels of the top floor have in turn suffered from the weakness of the architecture.  Cracks did open that split heads in two and distort body proportions.  Each crack is scientifically recorded, bridged by dated paper stickers glued to the picture itself, with some papers already burst apart as the wall segments recede further apart from each other.

Besides the oversights of the architects and the blind care of scientists, the walls have suffered from doodlers, would-be wits, and plain defacers.  A crop of scratched-in swastikas answers the painted crop of red stars; jokes of the privy type thrive on nude allegories. 

The second patio of the Ministry was the one originally given to Guerrero, de la Cueva, and myself, for a first attempt at communal painting.  Today, it is crammed with building material just as it was when we were at work.  Scaffolds sprout from eviscerated floors; planks, crates, and rolls of petates pile high against the frescoes––and at least on the day I was there––there was not a sightseer besides myself. 

I rather liked the implications: In Mexico, people have enough faith in the present to nurse little more than an academic interest in the near past. 



[1] Replaces: impressionists that swung.