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Revolutionary Art for the Language Classroom

History Hans
September 4, 2021

Effective teachers are always trying to stimulate and inspire their students. Over the years I have found that utilizing visuals can help motivate students. By using art and placing that art in historical context, the teacher can more easily ignite students’ historical imaginations. In addition, for the language teacher, analyzing a painting, no matter what level you are teaching, can encourage discussion and analysis or even serve to practice simple vocabulary. As a World History teacher, I have designed lessons related to art from many diverse settings, but some of the most thought-provoking art was born out of the tumultuous events of early 20th century Mexico. 

For over thirty years, the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship had stifled any opposition. Ultimately, the aging dictator could not contain the tempest of political and social forces that exploded between the years 1910-20. The Mexican Revolution is very complex and bloody. Out of a population of roughly 15 million, nearly 1.5 would perish and hundreds of thousands became refugees. Numerous leaders were assassinated, including two of the more radical and romantic: Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. The Mexican Revolution was the first major revolution of the 20th century, though the Russian Revolution soon followed in 1917, and the two were eventually connected via Leon Trotsky (he had an affair with Frida Kahlo) By 1920 the violence had receded, and towards the end of the decade, a new Mexico emerged, one founded on, at least in theory, progressive and enlightened tenets. 

For many of the young artists coming of age during this period, idealism and radicalism were very seductive. Some more politically progressive leaders wanted to employ the talents of artists to portray this new revolutionary Mexico, whether that message was national pride or industrial and social progress. Politicians knew that they had to use all forms of propaganda, especially visual modes since most of the population remained illiterate. Many of Diego RIvera’s massive murals were commissioned by the Mexican government. Rivera, a larger than life bohemian radical who for a time was married to Frida Kahlo, exemplifies the spirit of a Mexican “renaissance”, and also one of rebellion. His History of Mexico in the National Palace and Man Controller of the Universe at the Belles Artes Museum are simply awe-inspiring. Although Rivera is perhaps the most famous of Mexican muralists, he was actually one of an iconic trio. Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros (who was even more radical than Rivera) produced equally impressive works, and their lives are no less fascinating than Rivera’s. Many of their murals make fantastic center-pieces for history and language lessons. 

Fortunately, there are countless videos and websites that can help teachers and students navigate the world of art history in order to gain some context and deeper understanding. Khan Academy offers a wide range of Art History videos. And while the Mexican muralists of the first half of the 20th century present engaging opportunities for lessons, of course the Spanish speaking world has produced many other masters.

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