Can propaganda be considered art? That question became relevant in the 20th century after the emergence of such Russian agitprop pioneers as Viktor Deni, British political cartoonist Phillip Zec, and Norman Rockwell, whose patriotic ideals and nationalism were reflected in such iconic work as his “Rosie the Riveter” poster. Equally influential for Mexico was El Taller de Gráfica Popular (the Workshop for Popular Graphics a.k.a. TGP), an art collective that strived to improve the living conditions of their country’s working class through art and activism from 1938 to 1960.
An important chapter in the history of Mexico’s printmaking tradition, TGP used lithographs, linoleum cuts, water-based pigment on paper, woodcuts and other mediums to depict thought-provoking social and political issues with such exquisite craftsmanship that the total effect has an immediacy and power rarely achieved in any visual medium.
Thanks to the Georgia Museum of Art’s current exhibition, “El Taller de Gráfica Popular: Vida Y Arte,” you can sample approximately 270 of these revolutionary works, selected by curator of American art Sarah Kate Gillespie from the private collection of Michael T. Ricker, the independent Texas-based scholar and author of To Spin a Yarn: Distaffs: Folk Arts and Material Culture (2013).
The offerings on display can be broken down into three major categories: public work such as posters and flyers, fine art portfolios that were created by the group’s publishing branch “La Estampa Mexicana” as a money-making venture, and Calavera newspapers (satiric treatments of government and political figures utilizing calavera “skull” figures).
The tone and approach of the workshop varies with each artist. For example, Compañas extranjeros (Foreign Friends), ca. 1950 by Arturo García Bustos, is a linoleum cut depicting a musician performing a corridor (ballad) as the lyrics come to life above his head. Foreign interests such as Esso and United Fruit Company are portrayed not as friendly allies but deadly predators in this grim vision of exploitation and victimization—one of the details shows a protestor hanging from the gallows.
Much more contemplative is 1 de mayo. Elevar el nivel de vida del pueblo mexicano,… (May 1st. Raising the Standard of Living of the Mexican People), 1947, in which the artist, Leopoldo Méndez, uses his two children as models in a composition that poses both a hopeful future (education for the children of workers) and the current reality (homeless kids sleeping in the street).
A dark strain of comedy runs through the work of some artists, such as Raúl Anguiano’s Dichos populares (Popular Sayings), 1944, a special edition of six lithographs that provides unsettling illustrations to accompany some well-known Mexican expressions. Hay riata, no te revientes…que es el ultimo jalon!! (Oh, rope, don’t break on me … this is the last pull!!), for example, transforms what looks like a violent domestic dispute into a grotesque Punch-and-Judy puppet show.
Other work has a genuine sense of urgency that is almost epic in scope, like Adolfo Mexiac’s two color poster, Unidad Obrera el torno al programa de Ruiz Cortines (Workers United Around the Program of Ruiz Cortines), 1953, which conveys group solidarity in one impassioned image. Just as prevalent is a sense of outrage that plants seeds of rebellion in such work as Everado Ramirez’s poster El nazismo, 1938, where a giant swastika with a tank body rolls over a crowd of fleeing people. Alfredo Zalce’s Delito de Disolución Social (The Crime of Social Dissolution), 1958, a large format color relief printing from the waning days of TGP, takes a similarly surreal approach to a violent confrontation in which the bestial nature of armed soldiers attacking civilians becomes more horrific amid the tear gas smoke and trampled victims.
A great deal of the subject matter is violent in nature because members of TGP were reacting to exceedingly harsh conditions in their country and in the world during the post-Mexican Revolution years. Massacres of peaceful protestors by government troops, assassinations of respected leaders, executions (accused Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg turn up in several works) and deplorable work conditions are common themes. At the same time, it is not uncommon to see idealized portrayals and beautifully rendered homages to such folk heroes as Emiliano Zapata, Francisco “Pancho” Villa and even Fidel Castro.
In many ways, the TGP were continuing the progressive work of such previous Mexican art collectives as Estridentismo and LEAR (League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists). In fact, it was after LEAR disbanded in 1938 that a handful of printmakers from the group, including Leopoldo Méndez, Pablo O’Higgins, and Luis Arenal, formed TGP as a means to raise awareness of the need for affordable education, medical care, decent wages, and other crucial concerns that the Mexican working class was denied.
The vast range of styles and materials employed by the workshop’s artists over a 22-year period not only illustrates their reactions to the events of the time but also reveals a constantly evolving conception of propaganda as something more than the term implies. Some of the later work has a haunting, dreamlike quality: Angel Brach’s vibrantly colored linoleum cut of a laborer harvesting chicle in the jungle and Alberto Beltrán luminous black and white linoleum cut of a peasant wandering through a lush landscape featuring an embedded Olmac head while an industrial oil field looms in the background.
Even though the TGP disbanded in 1960, you can still see their influence in the work of contemporary printmakers/artists like Art Hazelwood and Ronnie Goodman, whose linocuts, etchings, and woodcuts continue TGP’S tradition of social and political commentary—samples of their work are also being exhibited at the Georgia Museum of Art in conjunction with the “El Taller de Gráfica Popular” show.
“El Taller de Gráfica Popular: Vida Y Arte” is on view at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens through September 13.
Jeff Stafford writes about art, film, music, gardening and other favorite topics for various digital publications.