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Picturing the Proletariat

Picturing the Proletariat
Artists and Labor in Revolutionary Mexico, 1908–1940

Spanning the late Porfiriato to the end of the Cardenista reforms, this is a multifaceted exploration of the production of visual narratives that offered competing interpretations of gender, class, nationalism, and internationalism that came to define modern Mexican identity.

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

January 2017
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390 pages | 6 x 9 | 6 x 9 | 15 color and 133 b&w photos |

In the wake of Mexico’s revolution, artists played a fundamental role in constructing a national identity centered on working people and were hailed for their contributions to modern art. Picturing the Proletariat examines three aspects of this artistic legacy: the parallel paths of organized labor and artists’ collectives, the relations among these groups and the state, and visual narratives of the worker. Showcasing forgotten works and neglected media, John Lear explores how artists and labor unions participated in a cycle of revolutionary transformation from 1908 through the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940). Lear shows how middle-class artists, radicalized by the revolution and the Communist Party, fortified the legacy of the prerevolutionary print artisan José Guadalupe Posada by incorporating modernist, avant-garde, and nationalist elements in ways that supported and challenged unions and the state. By 1940, the state undermined the autonomy of radical artists and unions, while preserving the image of both as partners of the “institutionalized revolution.”

This interdisciplinary book explores the gendered representations of workers; the interplay of prints, photographs, and murals in journals, in posters, and on walls; the role of labor leaders; and the discursive impact of the Spanish Civil War. It considers “los tres grandes”—Rivera, Siquieros, and Orozco—while featuring lesser-known artists and their collectives, including Saturnino Herrán, Leopoldo Méndez, Santos Balmori, and the League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists (LEAR). The result is a new perspective on the art and politics of the revolution.


2017 Rocky Mountain Council for Latin American Studies
Thomas McGann Book Prize in Modern Latin American History

Honorable Mention for the 2018 Latin American Studies Association Mexico Humanities Book Award


JOHN LEARTacoma, WashingtonLear is a professor of history and Latin American studies at the University of Puget Sound. His publications include Workers, Neighbors and Citizens: The Revolution in Mexico City and Chile’s Free Market Miracle: A Second Look.


“Elegantly written...[Lear's] critical reading of the images is as sensitive to issues of gender as to distinctions of political affiliation and economic theory, and the study makes an important contribution to both visual culture studies and labor history.”

“With his focus on labour, interdisciplinary approach, and deep research, Lear has produced an original historical study that not only expands our knowledge of Mexico's revolutionary and post-revolutionary eras, but one that also provides engaging insights for those who study art history and labour history as well.”
Bulletin of Latin American Research

“Lear's interdisciplinary study will appeal to historians of art, labor, and twentieth-century Mexican cultural history…[Picturing the Proletariat] further demonstrates the commitment of middle-class Mexicans—teachers, professionals, students, and intellectuals—to fight for social justice on behalf of working people.”
American Historical Review

“Written in an engaging style and including a generous sampling of prints, Picturing the Proletariat is a major contribution to Mexican cultural history, to the history of Mexican art, and to the history of working-class culture generally. It will make readers better appreciate the influences that shaped Diego Rivera’s exalted representations of the proletarian man.”
Labor: Studies in Working-Class History

“[Lear's] illustrations…carry his narrative as well as the written text. His is a unique study of a popular culture in a society undergoing radical renovation.”
New Politics

“A piece of lucid and informative history…a fine, original, well-crafted study of the Mexican art and artists during the radical decades of the Mexican revolution.”
Latin American Research Review

“Even though [art, labor, and politics] dominate the historiography on modern Mexico, this thoroughly research and copiously illustrated book is a welcome addition. John Lear offers expert analysis of visual culture, a feature often lacking in the historical literature on labor politics...Lear's book will...reward experts and novices alike as the topic is inherently fascinating, and the illustrations exemplify the best of Mexico's proletarian art.”
Hispanic American Historical Review

“This superb study intertwines a history of artistic representations of Mexican workers on public walls and in labor publications with that of the artists who produced them. I know of no other work that attempts such an endeavor and, though it is an ambitious project, it is most successful. The wide swath cut by Lear makes the book important for a broad audience: the history of Mexico, the history of Mexican labor, and the history of Mexican art. The scholarship is impeccable.”
John Mraz, Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, author of Photographing the Mexican Revolution: Commitments, Testimonies, Icons, Looking for Mexico: Modern Visual Culture and National Identity, and Nacho López, Mexican Photographer

“A very finely researched work on Mexican political/worker art, which, in the first half of the twentieth century, was globally recognized as a unique and outstanding contribution to modernism and to politics. The book is particularly engaging and innovative in its focus on ‘lesser’ artists, whose work turns out to be politically, socially, and historiographically important.”
Mary Kay Vaughan, University of Maryland College Park, author of Portrait of a Young Painter: Pepe Zuñiga and Mexico City’s Rebel Generation and Cultural Politics in Revolution: Teachers, Peasants, and Schools in Mexico, 1930–1940


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3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca