By Brooke Gazer
Mexico City has numerous museums and galleries, so if you are passing through on your way to the coast, why not stop to explore this treasure-trove of art and culture? The centrally located Museo Nacional de Arte (National Museum of Art), now called MUNAL, can easily be incorporated into your itinerary. It’s easy to spot, with an enormous equestrian statue of King Charles IV of Spain out in front.
The permanent collection of over 3000 pieces takes you on a unique journey through Mexico’s history of art. The staff do not speak much English, but with signage in both Spanish and English, you should have no trouble understanding the significance of each display.
The exhibit begins on the second floor with art of the sixteenth-century colonial era. The collection has two main aspects. The first shows predominantly religious works that represent the adoption of the styles and subjects current in European painting, while the second aspect is the museum’s collection of paintings done after the Mexican War of Independence (1810 – 21) that depict the creation of the Mexican state.
Most of the religious works are by European painters (Flemish, Spanish, Italian) brought over to fill new Christian cathedrals and churches with religious paintings, murals, and screens. The first artist of Mexican descent who appears in MUNAL’s collection is Luis Juárez (1585 – 1639), who emulated the work of Baltasar Echave de Orio, a Basque painter who had come to Mexico; Juárez’s painting of Christ praying in the garden of Gethsemane (La oración en el huerto, no date) is considered one of his best works.
The historical paintings range from scenes of pre-Hispanic life or Columbus and colonial activities, to portrayals of Mexican customs and ceremonies, along with early landscapes (volcanoes make several appearances). It is in this section that we begin to see more Mexican painters, and much of the work seeks to establish a Mexican identity, although still driven by European ideas and techniques.
The most important element of this exhibit is that on Christmas Day of 1783, King Charles III of Spain issued a “Royal Card” establishing the first school dedicated to training artists in the Americas. Unfortunately, the Academy of the Noble Arts of San Carlos imported European teachers, who not only promoted styles and themes firmly established in Europe, they also gave preference to foreign born artists.
First Floor Exhibits
It was not until after the War of Independence that a true Mexican identity in painting began to develop; in the latter part of the nineteenth century, a unique style of landscapes was solidified. For me, this is where the work becomes interesting and these works can be found in the first floor.
Eugenio Landesio (1810 – 79) was an Italian-born painter who significantly influenced Mexican art. He taught that a composition required two separate elements. The first comprised the location (sky, foliage, fields, water, buildings) The second equally important element included an episode or story. This usually involved groups of people to give the landscape a sense of scale, but it also provided a narrative interest. The Valley of Mexico from Tenayo Hill (1870) is a perfect example. A group of picnickers in the foreground provide perspective to the immensity of the plains and the mountains beyond. But the figures also provide another dimension, drawing you into an intimate family setting and portraying an historical place in time. Landesio’s time at the Academy was short (1873 – 75), but he transformed the concept of landscape painting into a higher art form among Mexican artists.
One of his promising pupils, José María Velasco, went on to become Mexico’s foremost teacher of the next generation. He elevated Mexican landscape painting to international standing. Patio of the Ex-convent of San Agustín (1860) is a romantic depiction of everyday activity inside the ex-convent walls; women doing laundry communally, a horse being attached to pull a cart, and men carrying bundles. Later in the nineteenth century, technological advances sometimes appear in Velasco’s work. The Metlac Ravine (1881) is a powerful illustration of a locomotive dissecting a pastoral landscape.
In the early part of the twentieth century (1910 – 21), Mexico suffered through a long and bloody revolution, basically a civil war that some estimates say claimed up to 3.5 million lives. During the aftermath, the Secretary of Public Education was tasked with reconstructing a national unity in a country that had been torn apart. To this end, he promoted Mexican modernism, a school of art that married Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past and agricultural roots with developing industry. He encouraged scenes of everyday life and themes idealizing social justice; this type of art was intended to communicate the alma nacional (national soul).
Many artists are part of Mexican modernism, including the internationally known muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose work tends to eclipse other modernist art and artists. While MUNAL has wonderful non-mural work by these three, it shows a much wider range of modernists. One fascinating artist is the short-lived Mexican-Swiss Saturnino Ferrán Guinchard (1887 – 1918), who was Diego Rivera’s teacher at one point, and formed the Society of Mexican Painters and Sculptors with Orozco. Ferrán’s work focused on purely Mexican themes, with special attention to painting indigenous peoples with strength, dignity, and beauty; his style of painting, however, still embodied European influences.
This museum holds a wealth of art history, but the architecture is another reason to put it on your list of things to see. Constructed between 1904 – 1911, the exterior is a fine example of the Neoclassical period. This is characterized by a grandeur of scale, simplicity of geometric forms, and the dramatic use of columns. Over time, the building deteriorated but in 1982, the National Museum of Art was founded. By 2000, restoration of this palatial building was completed, along with upgrades in technology to preserve the art housed here.
In contrast to the building’s relatively austere exterior, the interior holds an eclectic mixture of styles. Entering, you are greeted with an elaborate pair of curving marble staircases encased in extravagantly cast bronze balusters; each is flanked with a bronze lion at the base, High above the stairs is a marble frieze with ornately carved wood inset with Rococo paintings. The Reception Hall and the Patio de los Leones are two highly decorated spaces where events, lectures, films, and concerts are regularly presented. Many of these are free. You can check their website below for details.
Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view B&B in Huatulco. www.bbaguaazul.com.
MUNAL – National Museum of Art
Calle de Tacuba 8, Centro Histórico CDMX
Hours: 10 am – 5:30 pm;
Closed Mondays, December 25, January 1
Guided tours: 2 – 4 pm
$70 MXN General Admission
$5 MXN photography permit
$30 MXN video permit