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Using newspaper sources, Esther Acevedo explores the diverse ways in which different groups of artists and intellectuals arose during 1920-1924 around the concept of “what is national,” particularly in the visual arts. She also investigates the ways in which certain aspects were again taken up by historiography in order to construct the trite nationalist discourse and how certain features were left out, diminishing its richness. The chronological revision of the sources permits the author to recreate the diverse controversies of the era, and also to explore the different facets of the problem. During the presidential administration of Álvaro Obregón (1920–24), the subject of “what is national” transcended debates between academics and artists to become a project of the State; indeed, one of Obregón’s goals was to present an image of Mexico through art (both to the interior of the country as well as to foreigners). Spurred forward by José Vasconcelos, first as the head of the Departamento Universitario [College Bureau] and later as the Minister of Public Education at the SEP, the painters quickly became intellectual leaders. Acevedo notes how, during the early years, the distinction between folk art and pre-Hispanic art was not evident, and that artists such as Adolfo Best Maugard, Jorge Enciso, Roberto Montenegro, and Dr. Atl were predominant. Later, the idea of a national art that was connected to pre-Hispanic art gained ground, principally championed by Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros; as such, the idea of “what is national” was linked to folk aspects, to festivities and artistic creations. The creation of the Sindicato de Obreros, Técnicos, Pintores y Escultores (SOTPE) [The Union of Workers, Technicians, Painters and Sculptors], at the end of 1923, brought with it a change in the consciousness of the artists and therefore, new paths in the content of their works. This brought about an increase in conflicts with the philosophical ideas of Minister Vasconcelos. In this way, nationalism not only grew stronger as an ideological aspect of the State, but it was also adopted as a political practice of unity. Throughout the text, Acevedo notes the changes that occurred in the use of key terms of the time, such as “decoration,” “renaissance,” “ornamentation,” and “national art.” Thus the text deals with a language that entails specific concepts; moreover, the author stresses that, during this four-year period, the word “Muralism” was not yet in use.


The importance of this essay stems from the fact that the author manages to shed light on the function of Mexican art during the presidency of Álvaro Obregón, from 1920 to 1924, reconstructing the richness of that period full of contradictions, battles, and ideological complexities. In contrast to the official history, Acevedo characterizes the different ways in which a basic idea such as “what is national” was conceptualized and became reality during those incipient years during the unification and the reorganization of the country. In her approach, the Muralism movement is not analyzed as if it were a unified block (that crystallized in 1910), but rather it appears in its vast, bountiful fragmentation. The act of referring to art during the four-year Obregón administration as “decoration,” “renaissance,” “ornamentation,” and “national art” entails specific concepts. Among these, the essential point that stands out is that the term “Muralism”—the source of the trend and its myth—was not yet in force. 

Pilar García : CURARE A. C.
CURARE, Espacio crítico para las artes, Mexico City, Mexico
Courtesy of María Esther Acevedo Valdés, Mexico City, Mexico
Biblioteca Justino Fernández del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México