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Leopoldo Méndez

Leopoldo Méndez
Revolutionary Art and the Mexican Print

The first major overview of the works and career of Leopoldo Méndez—one of the most distinguished printmakers of the twentieth century and a contemporary and countryman of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and José Guadalupe Posada—contains over 150 illustrations

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

January 2007
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327 pages | 8 1/4 x 10 1/2 | 24 color and 193 b&w illus. |

Leopoldo Méndez (1902-1969) was one of the most distinguished printmakers of the twentieth century, as well as one of Mexico's most accomplished artists. A politically motivated artist who strongly opposed injustice, fascism, and war, Méndez helped form and actively participated in significant political and artistic groups, including the Estridentistas in the 1920s and the Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (LEAR) and the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP) in the 1930s. To champion Mexican art and artists, Méndez also founded and directed the Fondo Editorial de la Plástica Mexicana, a highly respected art book publishing company.

Leopoldo Méndez is the first book-length work in English on this major Mexican artist. Profusely illustrated with over one hundred and fifty images, it examines the whole sweep of Méndez's artistic career. Deborah Caplow situates Méndez within both Mexican and international art of the twentieth century, tracing the lines of connection and influence between Méndez and such contemporaries as David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and printmaker José Guadalupe Posada. Caplow focuses on the period in the 1930s when Méndez and his fellow artists in LEAR and TGP played a key role in the development of a Mexican political art movement and a modern Mexican cultural identity. She also describes how Méndez created a body of powerful anti-Fascist images before and during World War II and subsequently collaborated with artists from Mexico and around the world on political printmaking, in addition to publishing books and creating prints for films by the eminent Mexican cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa.


A Choice Outstanding Academic Book
International Latino Book AwardsLatino Literacy Now2nd Place - Best Arts Book

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One. The Formative Years
  • Chapter Two. The Stridentist Movement
  • Chapter Three. The Years after the Stridentists: Political Art, Political Activism
  • Chapter Four. LEAR: The Proletarian and Popular Fronts
  • Chapter Five. The Taller de Gráfica Popular: The Early Years
  • Chapter Six. The TGP: The War Years
  • Chapter Seven. The TGP: The Middle Years
  • Chapter Eight. The TGP: The Final Years
  • Chapter Nine. Méndez and Publishing, Last Images
  • Chronology: Life and Work of Leopoldo Méndez
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Illustration and Interview Permissions

Deborah Caplow is a lecturer in art history at the University of Washington, where she teaches a variety of courses, including Mexican art.


The Mexican artist Leopoldo Méndez (1902-1969) participated in a wide variety of historically significant movements and projects in Mexico between 1920 and 1969. He was a political activist, printmaker, painter, art teacher, and book designer. In the 1920s Méndez made paintings and prints as an integral member of the Stridentist movement, a group of avant-garde Mexican writers and artists. In the 1930s he and others founded two important arts organizations, the Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (League of Revolutionary Artists and Writers, LEAR), and the Taller de Gráfica Popular (Popular Graphic Art Workshop or People's Graphic Art Workshop, TGP), producing an extensive body of politically motivated graphic work. And in 1958 Méndez founded and directed the Fondo Editorial de la Plástica Mexicana, a major art book publishing company that under his direction produced several high-quality books about Mexican art. In spite of the recognition accorded to Méndez by those who are aware of his accomplishments, he has remained in relative obscurity both in Mexico and elsewhere.

At the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920, artists in Mexico were presented with a unique set of opportunities and challenges. An economically undeveloped country but rich in tradition and history, Mexico experienced an artistic and cultural renaissance of unprecedented proportions, generated by a community of creative, revolutionary artists and intellectuals. Méndez belonged to a group of young artists who emerged in the 1920s and played a key role in the development of a Mexican political art movement and a modern Mexican cultural identity. Throughout his life Méndez worked tirelessly to support the goals of a generation of Mexican artists. To an unusual degree he remained faithful to concepts developed during the early years of the postrevolutionary period in Mexico, when artists began to see themselves as active participants in a new society, responsible for communicating their ideologies to the Mexican people and helping the oppressed masses achieve political and economic equality. Méndez and his fellow artists constructed political and historical meaning through a rich vocabulary of images that became inextricably linked to their time and place.

To fulfill this responsibility, Méndez and others established printmaking and illustration (for books, broadsides, posters, leaflets, and films) as an alternate and equally significant practice to mural painting in Mexico. Méndez's involvement with the art of the book in Mexico extended from his first Stridentist illustrations in the midtwenties, to the prize-winning illustrated book Incidentes melódicos del mundo irracional (Melodic Incidents of the Irrational World) of 1944, to his impressive accomplishments in publishing near the end of his life, when he turned from making his own art to promoting the cause of Mexican art. His monumental illustrated books on pre-Columbian art, on the prints of José Guadalupe Posada, on mural painting, and on Mexican folk art are unsurpassed in quality.

During the 1920s and 1930s a powerful unity of purpose developed among the artists and intellectuals of Mexico, and, in spite of notable political complexities that often divided them into ideological factions, an atmosphere of collaboration and mutual interest prevailed to an extraordinary degree. Leftist politics brought a large number of artists together, and Méndez was a major figure in this world, although he claimed little individual credit and tended to stay in the background. In addition, as a member of artistic and political organizations in Mexico he formed international connections with leftist artists and intellectuals in the United States, Europe, and South America. During the 1930s and 1940s Méndez worked closely with his fellow artists and the community of European exiles in Mexico to produce powerful antifascist images. After the Second World War and through the 1950s and 1960s he continued his international collaborations, focusing on the cause of world peace. The significance of these efforts was recognized when he was awarded the International Peace Prize by the World Council of Peace in Vienna in 1952. Until the end of his life, he continued to create powerful images concerning Mexican culture, history, and politics.

Méndez's personal background was consistent with the postrevolutionary popular myth of the anonymous worker-artist from a humble environment: his father, a political radical, was a shoemaker, and his mother, whose family was of indigenous Nahuatl origin, came from a village in the state of Mexico. From an early age Méndez identified with the working class and made class issues a central theme of his work throughout his life. He opposed the concept of making art for profit, and his financial circumstances were always modest. For Méndez, the true value of art was in its social utility, rather than its value as a commodity. To this end, he generally chose a style of figurative realism over abstraction, a choice that partially consigned him to a narrow art historical category of socially motivated realist art. As a political artist, Méndez positioned himself in opposition to injustice, fascism, and war by producing images of violence and oppression through which he strove to represent power relationships and the effects of those relationships upon society. He saw himself as an active social agent with an obligation to analyze politically charged subjects, a task he undertook with a high degree of technical skill and imaginative ability. Méndez exhibited an unusually adept stylistic control, altering the appearance of his prints to suit his material and audience. He was an exceptionally versatile artist, with an extraordinary aptitude for distilling the most significant aspects of the subjects he portrayed into strong, expressive images. Méndez employed a wide range of art historical sources in his work, including pre-Columbian art, Renaissance and Baroque art of Europe and Mexico, nineteenth-century Mexican painting, and Mexican Muralism. He also based much of his work on Mexican vernacular art, especially the work of Posada, whose satirical prints of skeletons and other folk motifs provided Méndez with a model for his political prints from the early 1930s on. In addition, he was inspired by theater, cinema, and photography. Although Méndez considered himself a realist, his work was highly imaginative, incorporating influences from Cubism, Italian Futurism, Russian Constructivism, German Expressionism, and Surrealism. He was not generally drawn to Russian-style Socialist Realism, although he produced several images that emulated the Soviet style, nor did his prints resemble those of American Social Realist and Regionalist printmakers of the 1930s, whose works tend to be less confrontational and more generic in their criticism of social conditions than Mexican prints of the era. Méndez's ability to incorporate these diverse sources into his work increased during his career, so while his early prints are lively, inventive, and powerful, the prints from his middle and later years are richly layered, visually sophisticated images.

Because of his adherence to social, political, and aesthetic ideals associated with the Mexican Revolution, his indifference to wealth and fame, and his de-emphasis on the self, Méndez is in many respects more representative of the ideal of the "Mexican artist" as imagined in postrevolutionary cultural discourse than more well-known artists. Méndez believed that artists should work collectively and anonymously, not for personal gain but for the benefit of society. He lived out his beliefs while participating fully in the progressive artistic circles of his time. Méndez is highly respected in Mexico, and in Mexican scholarship he is often referred to as the direct successor, or heir, of Posada, whose work he admired deeply. In fact, in 1971 the celebrated Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros painted a wall of portraits of six prominent Mexican artists in his mural at the Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros (Siqueiros Cultural Polyforum) in Mexico City. Four of these artists were painters: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, Siqueiros himself, and Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo); and two were printmakers: Posada and Méndez. Siqueiros's inclusion of Méndez in his pantheon is meaningful, as here the muralist formulated a clear visual statement about the most important Mexican artists of the twentieth century and concluded that Méndez deserved to be among them.

However, there are several reasons Méndez has not been as widely appreciated as he deserves. His highly collaborative approach and his wish to remain in the background have contributed to this lack of recognition. In addition, the printmaking medium is generally not accorded the high status of painting and sculpture by scholars and collectors (a fact revealed by its relatively low market value). Also, many of his best works, as politically motivated objects, had an ephemeral quality. His posters and broadsides were timely and topical and not intended to be preserved, and his book illustrations were not designed as autonomous art objects.

While in the 1940s many American museums and private individuals in the United States, Mexico, and Europe purchased Méndez's prints, after 1950, as his production waned and political art was devalued in the art market, his work was not always collected with the same fervor. As the art historian Eva Cockcroft points out, in the United States in the 1950s Mexican political art was reassessed as being nationalistic, and direct attacks on capitalism were classified as propaganda. In general, since the late 1940s mainstream modernist art criticism and art history in the United States have marginalized representational political art, and only recently have critics and art historians taken political art as a serious topic for discussion. In Mexico, political subject matter has never been entirely rejected by artists, art critics, or art historians, although after the 1950s succeeding generations of artists came to view the work of their predecessors, the muralists and political printmakers, as historically determined and old-fashioned. Méndez's obscurity to the general public in Mexico and elsewhere certainly has more to do with his self-effacing policy of anonymity and the general privileging of painting over printmaking than with the content and quality of his work.

European and American art history and criticism have also relegated Mexican art generally to a marginal position, reducing the field to a few major figures, usually Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco, Rufino Tamayo, and, more recently, Frida Kahlo. Twentieth-century Mexican art during Méndez's lifetime was much more than the work of these painters, and the high quality of art production in Mexico included many other art forms that are almost unknown outside of the country. Within Mexico, the muralists were only one part of a large group of painters, printmakers, photographers, cinematographers, architects, musicians, composers, dancers, actors, writers, and sculptors who worked in concert to create a vital and powerful artistic milieu. Their innovative work produced a dynamic cultural environment, and their influence extends into Mexico's contemporary culture today.

Recent examinations of Méndez have emphasized the high quality of his work, his keen sensitivity to world events, and his ingenious blending of signs and symbols to express political conditions. His friends and colleagues in Mexico and other countries recognized these qualities during his lifetime. He is remembered by those who knew him as a warm companion and an inspiring artist of high integrity. In Mexican art scholarship Méndez is always mentioned as a central figure, often on an equal footing with Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros, and yet little in-depth documentation of his life and work exists. There have been few studies of his life and work in Mexico: the most recent is Leopoldo Méndez y su tiempo: colleción Carlos Monsiváis: el privilegio del dibujo (Leopoldo Méndez and His Time: Carlos Monsiváis Collection: The Privilege of the Drawing) (2000), a comprehensive collection of images and essays that appeared on the centennial of his birth in conjunction with a large exhibition of his work at the Museum of Bellas Artes in Mexico City. In the same year, the journal Galera devoted an issue to Méndez. Leopoldo Méndez: oficio de grabar (Leopoldo Méndez: Art of Engraving) is a brief, insightful study by the art historian Francisco Reyes Palma that provides excellent illustrations and short excerpts from Méndez's published writings and private notebooks. In 1970 Méndez's friend the writer Manuel Maples Arce wrote a biographical account of the artist titled Leopoldo Méndez, offering a personal view of his life and work. A large-scale book of reproductions of his prints, drawings, and paintings, Leopoldo Méndez: dibujos, grabados, pinturas (Leopoldo Méndez: Drawings, Prints, Paintings), published by the press Méndez established, also illustrates a wide selection of his work. In 1963, the Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska published an in-depth interview with Méndez that serves as the best single primary written source on Méndez. An exhibition catalogue from 1981, Leopoldo Méndez: artista de un pueblo en lucha (Leopoldo Méndez: Artist of a People in Struggle) presents a number of short texts about Méndez by his colleagues, along with excerpts of his writing. In the United States, Codex Méndez: Prints by Leopoldo Méndez (1902-1969), by the scholar and printmaker Jules Heller, is the first monograph on Méndez in English. This work is a catalogue published in conjunction with the Arizona State University Art Museum's Codex Méndez (1999), the only large-scale exhibition of the artist's work in the United States since the 1940s. An examination of the general literature on Mexican art of the twentieth century yields little information about Méndez.

The authoritative study of the TGP by the art historian Helga Prignitz-Poda, El Taller de Gráfica Popular en México 1937-1977 (The Taller de Gráfica Popular in Mexico) (1992), represents many years of scholarship by Prignitz-Poda on the organization Méndez founded and in which he worked for more than two and a half decades. The TPG documented its work of the period from 1937 to 1949 in a comprehensive, illustrated survey entitled TGP México: El Taller de Gráfica Popular: doce años de obra artística colectiva/The Workshop for Popular Graphic Art: a record of twelve years of collective work (1949).

The written works on Méndez contain valuable information and perspectives on the artist and his milieu, but they offer, at most, brief examinations of his art. However, his various roles in the major artistic movements of his time situate him squarely in the context of twentieth-century Mexican art and politics, and his role in the creation of a new model of Mexican political art was of paramount importance. Because of these immense contributions Méndez is a primary figure in the history of twentieth-century Mexican art and, by extension, in modern art generally.

While much of the information gathered here will be familiar to scholars of Mexican art, new material on Méndez's work in Mexican political art will provide insights for any reader interested in the subject. This book is the first to examine Méndez's artistic production in the context of the art and politics of his time, analyzing demarcations in his career that have not been previously noted. The book will demonstrate how the stylistic and iconographic development of his prints paralleled local and world events and outline the clear, consistent aesthetic trajectory he followed in the service of his leftist political ideals. Accordingly, the book is organized chronologically, considering Méndez's oeuvre in terms of the crucial stages of his career; it examines almost one hundred graphic works by the artist, a representative proportion of the approximately seven hundred prints Méndez created during his lifetime. This analysis of his work will consider his influences and sources and make a number of comparisons with other prominent work, Mexican, North American, and European. Most Méndez scholars stress the influence Posada had on Méndez, for example, but my book is the first to explore specific stylistic and conceptual relationships between the two artists' works. I also present new interpretations of Méndez's position in the Stridentist movement, the avant-garde, Futurist-inspired literary and artistic movement in which Méndez participated from 1923 to 1927. The chapter on the Stridentist movement is the only in-depth examination of Stridentist visual artists in English to date. Luis Mario Schneider's work, which is available only in Spanish, focuses primarily on the writers of the movement. Joël Audefroy's unpublished manuscript "Stridentopolis 1921-1929: Essai sur une avant-garde au Mexique," although it includes the visual artists of the movement, is not readily accessible to researchers. The only written material in English about Stridentist art is a brief article by the French art historian Serge Fauchereau that offers a partial view of the visual artists of the movement.16 The information presented here on the artists of LEAR is also a unique contribution. Reyes Palma and the art historian Alicia Azuela have studied LEAR and its publication Frente a Frente (Head to Head) in great depth, but they have not presented lengthy analyses of LEAR's visual production or the work of individual artists. There is virtually nothing in English about LEAR except for Azuela's articles on Frente a Frente. There are also no published sources that focus on the powerful antifascist and anti-Nazi images created by Méndez and his colleagues or on the remarkable El libro negro del terror nazi: testimonios de escritores y artistas de 16 naciones (The Black Book of Nazi Terror: Testimonies from Writers and Artists of 16 Nations) and the contributions to that work by the artists of the TGP. In addition, neither Méndez's film images nor his achievements in art book publishing have been previously studied in any depth.

This book does not focus on Méndez's personal life, for several reasons. The most obvious is that there is a distinct lack of detailed information about it; he kept his domestic sphere separate from his artistic practice, and there is little in the written record about his emotional experiences or relationships. There are only a few published photographs of the artist, three of which are included here (figs. 0.1, 0.2, 0.3). In addition, Méndez worked collaboratively during most of his career, so his creative endeavors were part of a collective process, linked to the groups in which he was a major player. He functioned as an exemplar of an inspirational social and political mythology, subsuming his individuality within a broader collective project. He produced most of his art in the context of public, political activity, and as a consequence most of his prints can be understood only in terms of his dedication to purposes defined and outlined by the ideologies and practices of the movements to which he belonged.

Although published biographical information about Méndez is limited, visual and circumstantial evidence of his participation in the artistic community of his time is extensive, so this study of Méndez's work and activities from 1919 to 1969 will enable readers to acquire a unique understanding of Mexican art and politics. Méndez's life and work are part of a larger story, which is itself only one strand of many histories in Mexican art. Mexico's revolutionary graphic art and Méndez's central role in that story have both been largely overlooked and deserve a new examination. What follows is the most detailed examination of the work and career of Méndez to date.

Because so much of Méndez's work concerns visual political commentary, I want to briefly summarize Mexican history. The themes of Mexican art in the first half of the twentieth century were both local and international. The primary purpose of the artists of the postrevolutionary generation was the creation of a national art, one centered around the great dramas of Mexican history: the Conquest of Mexico in 1521, the Wars of Independence from Spain from 1810 to 1821, the presidency of Benito Juárez from 1858 to 1872, the French invasion of Mexico under Maximilian from 1864 to 1867, the long, despotic dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz from 1876 to 1911, and the Mexican Revolution, a complex, bloody civil war that lasted from 1910 to 1920.

The Mexican Revolution, the most recent and immediately significant of these episodes, was the formative event in the lives of Méndez and most of the artists who came to maturity during the 1920s. Because the Revolution was so dramatic and cataclysmic, the major participants in the conflict took on a mythic stature and inspired Mexico's artists to create an ongoing narrative in which the Revolution and its promises were always present. Several historical figures, heroes and villains, stood out in the procession of victory and defeat that was the Revolution, and their stories were later the basis of much of the narrative and iconography not only of Méndez's work, but also that of an entire generation of Mexican artists.

The drama of the Revolution had unfolded in a cycle of violence. President Porfirio Díaz was forced to leave Mexico in 1911, in the first phase of the Revolution. In 1913 the liberal Francisco I. Madero, elected to office in 1911, was brutally murdered on the orders of General Victoriano Huerta, a former Díaz supporter. In turn Huerta was deposed by the combined forces of the charismatic agrarian reformer Emiliano Zapata; the armies of Pancho Villa, the wild "Centaur of the North"; and the forces of the aristocratic statesman-soldier Venustiano Carranza. The three generals, however, subsequently turned on each other. Carranza emerged as the victor and arranged to have Zapata murdered in 1919, only to fall to an assassin's bullet himself the next year. His successor, Alvaro Obregón, took office in 1920, instituting a period of relative peace in Mexico. Over a million people had lost their lives in the Revolution, and the country was ready for peace and stability. The new government initiated a process of reconstruction that included vast educational projects, political restructuring, and the construction of a myth of national unity. Interest in Mexico's heritage, focusing on its indigenous aspects, became a dominant theme in Mexican cultural policy. Initially the people of Mexico responded with great enthusiasm, only gradually coming to realize that corruption and oppression were a continuing condition of their political system. It was in this atmosphere of spectacular drama that artists like Méndez came of age and began to create a new national identity through their art.

The pattern of broken allegiances, betrayal, false friendship, and assassination set during the Revolution, counterbalanced with the much-discussed but unfocused ideals of the Revolution, created a unique political and artistic milieu characterized by these tensions. The Revolution promised a future that included democratic equality, agrarian reform, universal education, national control of natural resources, and other benefits of a modern society, but the Mexican government only partially achieved these goals. During the 1920s artists were the agents of a visual construction of the triumph of the Revolution and the future of Mexico, though later, in the 1930s and afterward, they became the critics of the successes and failures of Mexican governmental policies. In Mexico, intellectuals conceptualized the Revolution as continuing and unfinished. This was the vision of contemporary history that inspired much of the work of Méndez and others. Their awareness that the dreams of the Revolution had not been met reinforced their view that a socialist revolution was forthcoming. The leftist concept of the continuing revolution paralleled the official position that the Mexican government was continuing the work begun during and after the Revolution, an idea symbolized by the successive names of the ruling parties. The Partido Nacional Revolucionario (National Revolutionary Party, PNR) ruled Mexico from 1929 to 1938, becoming the Partido de la Revolución Mexicana (Party of the Mexican Revolution, PMR) from 1938 to 1946, and the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI) from 1946 to the present. Although the PRI finally lost the national presidential election in 2000, the party continues to dominate Mexican politics.

Méndez and his colleagues also focused on compelling international issues, particularly the rise of fascism throughout the world in the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, and the Cold War. Artists in Mexico felt an urgent need to warn of the dangers of fascism and to express the unwavering determination of the antifascist forces. They were also deeply affected by the divisions between capitalist and communist countries before and after the Second World War. As an engaged, activist artist, Méndez created a body of art that responded to these historical forces from his earliest creative years in the 1920s to his death in 1969. Méndez's artistic legacy is unparalleled in the history of Mexican art. His socially concerned prints reflected his love of Mexico and his deep commitment to social justice. Powerful at the time of their creation, they continue to resonate with contemporary audiences.