The formative events of Latin America’s twentieth century were the revolutions in Mexico and Cuba—the former marking the first stage in the unravelling of the continent’s liberal oligarchies, the latter opening a phase of renewed resistance to us imperialism. Though the Mexican Revolution was gradually domesticated, as the social conflicts unleashed in 1910 were absorbed into what would be a remarkably durable corporative structure, the debates it sparked had a tremendous impact in the Western Hemisphere and beyond; over the course of the next few decades Mexico City became a cultural centre to rival Buenos Aires or São Paulo. The overthrow of Batista in 1959 had a comparable galvanizing effect, with Havana now the focal point for urgent discussions on questions of national identity and international solidarity. The success of the Cuban revolution also provided oppositional forces in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua with a template for insurrection that met with resounding success in 1979, with the toppling of Somoza.

What was the cultural impact of these events? David Craven’s Art and Revolution in Latin America follows the different trajectories of art in Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua during their revolutionary periods, discussing both the policies for art and education adopted by the new regimes and the artistic output of the time. The three cases form an interesting set of contrasts: Mexican art was dominated from 1920–40 by muralists sponsored by a state seeking a legitimating ideology; Cuban culture, however, was marked by a wide-ranging pluralism that drew on mainstream us and European trends, colonial Spanish motifs and Afro-Cuban traditions. These had been present in the Cuban modernism that began to gather pace in the late 20s, but the revolution greatly improved popular access to the arts and education, for the most part fostering diversity and lively public debate. Cultural policy in Nicaragua was greatly influenced by the Cuban experience, and the fsln had planned as early as 1969 to democratize both consumption and production of art; the result was a brief flowering of popular and public art that was progressively undermined by the regime’s economic isolation during the late 80s.

Although Craven can add little to the considerable literature on the Mexican muralists, his readings of individual paintings contain many intelligent insights, and are notable for their emphasis on the political and social context in which these epic works were executed. His abundantly illustrated surveys of Cuba and Nicaragua also perform a useful service to Anglophone readers unacquainted with artistic developments in these countries (though the latter does retread much of the same ground as his earlier The New Concept of Art and Popular Culture in Nicaragua Since the Revolution in 1979). But his discussion of Cuban art stops arbitrarily in 1989, and the lack of an account of trends that have emerged in the periodo especial detracts from its overall value. Similarly, it would have been instructive to follow the fate of culture after the fsln’s ejection from power in 1990. More significant, however, is the absence of any synthesizing chapter that would draw Craven’s three cases together, explaining their relationships with one another, and with the divergent experiences of other countries in the region. The result is a wide-ranging but unfocused work that leaves unexplored the wider question of how art and revolution relate to Latin America’s experience of modernity.

Carlos Fuentes has described the Mexican Revolution as three revolutions in one: an agrarian revolt, with Emiliano Zapata as its figurehead; a middle-class struggle for civil rights and social democracy; and an incipient proletarian revolution that was staved off by integration into the state apparatus. The first revolution was defeated by an alliance between the second and third, sealed with the election of Álvaro Obregón as president in 1920. The following year the philosopher José Vasconcelos was appointed to oversee Obregón’s vastly increased spending on education, and became the sponsor of an ambitious public art programme, luring Diego Rivera back from Europe with commissions for murals; other leading artists, such as José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, were also recruited at this time. Much like Lunacharsky in Soviet Russia, Vasconcelos had rather staid bourgeois tastes, but encouraged an artistic pluralism that gave free rein to his employees’ more radical inclinations. Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros—los tres grandes—were among the signatories of the 1922 manifesto of the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors, which vowed to create ‘ideological works of art for the people’, seeking to circumvent the market mechanisms of capitalist society through direct visual contact with the masses. The result was a mode of painterly expression that dominated the Mexican art scene for decades to come; while it did not petrify into an insipid official idiom as did Soviet Socialist Realism, its overt radicalism provided a form of ideological cover for a regime that, after the end of Cárdenas’s term in 1940, was increasingly bent on a conservative project of modernization.

The muralist movement began in decorous, slightly mystical vein, but became more stridently socialist as the 20s wore on and its protagonists found a vocabulary that combined exploration of indigenous traditions with the urgency of the turbulent conjuncture. In his murals at the Ministry of Education (1923–28) Rivera deployed the Cubist procedures and lessons learnt from Cézanne and, strikingly, Giotto during his spell in Europe, merging these elements with the compositional strategies of Aztec codices. Craven argues that Rivera’s sumptuous, elemental frescoes for the chapel of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Chapingo (1926) embody an aesthetic of uneven development—re-engaging with progressive features of the pre-Columbian past while embracing modern technological means for national economic advancement. From here Rivera moved to what Craven terms ‘epic modernism’, in the teeming murals at the Palacio Nacional (1929–35), where ‘history never slows enough to become transparent’. This was a period that saw a shift from social stalemate, in the aftermath of the Cristero revolt against Plutarco Elías Calles’s anticlerical reforms, to the renewal of the revolution under Cárdenas; the Palacio Nacional murals partake of the tensions unfolding around them—the clashes between workers and police depicted in the south stairway actually took place as Rivera was working. With good reason, Trotsky was to describe these murals as ‘a living part of the class struggle’.

If Rivera’s work was the affirmative expression of Mexico’s revolutionary state ideology, Orozco gave vent to the darker feelings aroused by the upheavals of 1910–40. His slanting diagonals and moody palette complement the apocalyptic overtones of his work, in which one can identify debts to El Greco, Austro-German Expressionism and the popular engravings of José Guadalupe Posada. The severity of the 1926 frescoes at the Escuela Preparatoria Nacional gave way to fiery tumult in his works of the 30s at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City (1934) and the Palacio de Gobierno in Guadalajara (1937). While Rivera’s eirenic visions of pre-Columbian Mexico gradually shifted from dynamic process of recovery to nostalgic reverie, Orozco seemed best to register the sense of disappointment at the institutionalization of the revolution.

Siqueiros did not paint his first mural in Mexico until 1939, but his unrelenting use of rich colour and vertiginous perspectives was to prove influential across Latin America into the 80s, notably in Nicaragua. Less well known is the connexion Siqueiros provides between Mexican muralism and Abstract Expressionism: his 1936 experimental workshop in New York was attended by Jackson Pollock, and introduced several American artists to industrial paints and spray guns, and also to the vast compositional scale on which Ab Ex was to operate. Indeed, the art that was the quintessential expression of the coming of the ‘American Century’ in a sense provides a subterranean continuity between Craven’s three case studies, since the formal strategies of abstraction were to serve the cause of anti-authoritarianism in Cuba and Nicaragua in the 50s and 60s. For example, the Cuban painters of the Los Once group—notably Raúl Martínez—embraced abstraction in the 1950s, as what Craven terms a ‘pictorial negation of the established order’.