A mural with Maya influence by graffiti artist Nunca.

Mural by Nunca in the courtyard of Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Oaxaca. Photo © Urban Girl, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Though most pre-Columbian cities were abandoned or destroyed by the 16th century, their ruins offer a glimpse into the accomplished architecture, city planning techniques, and artistic achievements of early Mesoamerica. The most distinctive features of Mesoamerican cities are the stepped temple-pyramids, which are generally surrounded by wide public plazas, palaces, and Mesoamerican ball game courts. Early civilizations, like the Olmec, were imaginative and impressive sculptors, carving detailed large-scale stone pieces. Their successors, the Maya, displayed an original and beautiful artistic aesthetic, from detailed frescoes on palace walls to laboriously carved stone urns and decorative pieces. Today, pre-Columbian art and artifacts can be viewed in the country’s numerous and fascinating anthropology museums.

Today, Mexico has a small but growing contemporary-art scene.

As the Spanish began to colonize the Americas, they built new cities in the European style. Catholic missionaries and Jesuit educators were active throughout the country, and wealthy benefactors helped support their efforts by funding massive religious projects. Baroque art and design, which originated in Italy, was the dominant aesthetic during the colonial era. Inside chapels, religious oil paintings and elaborate retablos (altarpieces) show enormous creativity and skill on the part of Mexican artists. Among the most famous names of the era, indigenous artist Miguel Cabrera contributed hundreds of religious paintings to chapels in Mexico City, Guanajuato, and other colonial capitals.

The French occupation and the ensuing dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz also left a mark on the country’s architecture, especially in the capital. Emperor Maximilian oversaw the construction of the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City, a large and central avenue that was designed to resemble a Parisian boulevard. During his decades of presidency, Porfirio Díaz followed in the emperor’s footsteps, investing in buildings, monuments, and sculptures that would transform Mexico City into a European-style capital with public monuments and neoclassical buildings.

At the same time President Díaz was constructing marble monuments, a new and more national strain of art was emerging in Mexico. The wildly original printmaker José Guadalupe Posada produced political and social satire in lithography, woodcut, and linocut for local publications, often depicting Mexican aristocrats as calaveras, or skeletons. His wry wit and whimsical aesthetic would become synonymous with Mexico, and today, his pieces are often used as illustration during Day of the Dead.

After the Revolution of 1910, art, culture, and intellectual thought flourished in Mexico. Through progressive movements in government, the folk arts began to receive institutional support, while a new, government-sponsored public murals program brought artists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siquieros to a greater public and international fame. American photographer Edward Weston spent extensive time living and working in Mexico, not long before Manuel Alvarez Bravo began photographing nationalistic scenes in Mexico, rising to international prominence. A fixture in Mexico City’s political circles and wife of muralist and political painter Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo was another expressive oil painter of the post-revolutionary era, who became internationally renowned for a series of powerful self-portraits.

Today, Mexico has a small but growing contemporary-art scene. The National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City opened a large contemporary art museum, and Mexico City’s annual art fair, MACO (México Arte Contemporáneo), has become increasingly diverse and prestigious. Mexico’s most celebrated international artist, Gabriel Orozco, presented a massive retrospective at the New York Museum of Modern Art, not long after he opened the gallery Kurimanzutto in the capital with a team of partners. The wildly famous British artist Damien Hirst has spent months living on the Mexican coast (and shows new work at the Hilario Galguera gallery in Mexico City), while Belgian ingenue Francis Alÿs lives and works in Mexico City. Collectors have also been important in stimulating Mexico’s art scene, particularly Eugenio López Alonso, the owner of the Colección Jumex, a vast and important collection of Latin American and contemporary art.

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Mexico.