Mexico City: Vast, Baroque and Filled With Great Art

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Mexico City has always left its visitors tongue-tied. In his second amazed missive back to Carlos V in Spain, the conquistador Cortés wrote: "I cannot describe one hundredth part of all the things that could be mentioned, but, as best I can, I will describe some of those I have seen that, though badly described, will, I well know, be so remarkable as not to be believed, for we who saw them with our own eyes could not grasp them with our understanding."

And so Mexico City remains today. Those unfamiliar with its legendary sprawl will find it incredible that a plane can fly over the city for a full 10 minutes before touching down at the Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juarez. Also incredible is the varied humanity that packs its crowded street corners, the unending stream of cars that races down its avenues with no regard for traffic signals, the desperate quality of the indigent men, women and children who loiter in the city's public monuments and plazas. The numbers engendered by Mexico City are just as remarkable.

Its official population of 18 million souls swells to around 27 million, according to some counts tallied by social scientists and NGOs. The oldest city in North America (it was founded 675 years ago) and the highest (it sits at 7349 feet above sea level), Mexico City covers 572 square miles of the Valley of Mexico, bulging dangerously at its rough edges, clambering like a tired, determined burro up the sides of the surrounding Sierra. Flanked on its south by twin volcanoes, the Popocatéptl and Iztaccíhuatl?whose snowcapped crowns are constantly obscured by the yellow smog produced by millions upon millions of automobiles?Mexico City sits uncomfortably on the site of an older, Venice-like metropolis: the pre-Columbian Tenochtitlan. Some five centuries after Cortés passed for the plumed serpent-god Quetzalcoatl among the gullible Aztecs, the city is sinking into the dried-out mud of the ancient lakebed (the worst year for this subsidence was in 1950, when parts of the city sunk as much as 18 inches).

Throw in the not infrequent 7.0 tremors, the cholera outbreaks, the climbing crime statistics, the repeated strikes and demonstrations numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and one might consider Mexico City?called simply Mexico by its hardy inhabitants?a modern-day city of the Apocalypse. Yet the place thrives like few others. Mexico City is too vast, too heavy, too unwieldy; it is also a cauldron of activity and innovation?commercial, artistic, criminal, etc.?an international megalopolis straddling not only the First and Third Worlds but also the constricted, baroque space between its traditional, impoverished past and the ambitions of a globalizing, uncertain future. The city brims with white-collar businesses encased inside steel and glass towers, yet also boasts more colonial architecture than any other in the hemisphere, vibrant film and book publishing industries and some 92 museums (compared to New York's 88 and Madrid's 47), featuring, among other treasures, the finest pre-Columbian art, excellent exhibitions of contemporary art and, not least, the knockout work of this country's most ambitious and inventive generation of artists: the Mexican muralists.

"Where are the descendants of those who sculpted the Coatlicue and the Olmec heads?" Diego Rivera asked nearly 70 years ago. His immodest answer was simple: "They became painters." The best known of a group of geniuses and near-geniuses that included David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco and lesser knowns Fernando Leal, Fermín Revueltas, Ramón Alva de la Canal and the Frenchman Jean Charlot, Rivera was at once leader, apostate, propagandist and subverter of the first genuine artistic movement of the Americas. The muralists, herded into an uneasy federation of irascible, often warring individuals by the revolutionary Minister of Education José Vasconcelos, set about inscribing public buildings with Renaissance-sized frescoes intended to provide a binding idealism for a largely illiterate nation. "As we are small," Vasconcelos declared, eyes fixed confidently on posterity, "we must perpetuate ourselves in large works."

And perpetuate themselves they did. Scattered throughout the city, inside churches, schools and government buildings, are the works of these muralists, illuminating and preachy by turns, though rarely less than absolutely unique in their explosive artistic and cultural achievements. The Antiguo Colegio de San Idelfonso is the first and, in its own way, the most impressive of these sites. An old Jesuit school commandeered by the Mexican revolution into an elite preparatory academy, this three-story, 18th-century building was the unlikely testing ground for Vasconcelos' vision of a homegrown renaissance to match that of Florence. He hired what was then a group of total unknowns whom he paid just 3.30 pesos a day, and launched the muralist experiment among artists who had little or no experience with the tradition and technique of the fresco. Rivera, Siqueiros and Revueltas appealed initially to encaustic, a mixture of pigment and beeswax that they were forced to heat constantly with blowtorches to anneal. Other artists, among them the gruff, one-armed Orozco, leaned on assistants practiced in decorating the walls of cantinas with virgins and beer bottles to make their large, aggressive figures.

More stylistically original than the others, Orozco's expansive contributions prove a mixture of Boschian verve and radical political zeal, particularly the series of seven murals the artist titled "The Social Falsehoods." Orozco's wall paintings picture the Law cavorting drunkenly with winking Justice, fanged Liberty flying with the help of rope pulleys, Christ described as a fat merchant in tails and God derided as a cross-eyed tyrant dispensing indulgences to the rich, while dispatching toothy devils to plague the poor. These and other murals?most especially the one Orozco painted of a naked Cortés and La Malinche, his Indian consort, as a hemispheric Adam and Eve?provoked the school's Catholic students to physically attack both the murals and muralists. Pistols were quickly drawn. Shots were fired. In the end, the murals were saved, thanks mainly to the thunderous sound of Siqueiros' .44 caliber cannon.

Other important buildings that contain the epic historical and artistic revisions of the Mexican muralists are the National Palace with 1200 square feet of Diego Rivera frescoes inside; the Museo de las Culturas with the outstanding Orozco mural that welcomes visitors; and the art noveau Palacio de Bellas Artes, with wall paintings by Siqueiros, Rivera, Orozco, Tamayo and others included in the significant collection of these artists' work. The best, most powerful mural in all of Mexico City is contained inside the Museo Mural Diego Rivera at the southwest corner of the Alameda Central, a poplar-lined park popular with retired men, food and trinket vendors, kissing couples and truant children. Titled, fittingly, Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central), Rivera's 50-foot painting vividly summarizes Mexican society, past and present. There, alongside the park's prostitutes, newsboys and candy sellers, are the figures of the nation's heroes, dictators and saints with Rivera himself as a well-dressed fat boy in the center: what he remembers, his wicked smile seems to say, will become history, despite what anyone else thinks.

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