The Power of Public Art: Mexico and Poland
By Martin Rosenberg
Art can impact people’s passion, attitudes, values, culture, and politics. This is especially true when it is designed to do so. Though continents apart, with different languages and cultural histories, Mexico and Poland have both used art to impact social change. Governments played a major role in both countries to support visual art as a means of influencing social, economic, and political objectives. The distinctively different art styles of these two countries shared common purposes.
Mexico’s world-famous mural paintings from 1920 to 1970 contained strong social and political messages. Diego Rivera (1886-1957), José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), and David Siqueiros (1896-1974) are the most influential muralists from the 20th century. They are “the three great ones” (los tres grandes). The walls of massive public buildings served as their canvas to reach all of the people, not just elite art admirers. Following periods of armed struggle, Mexico’s government established a mural program that wasn’t solely artistic. It made good on its promise of artistic freedom, but the artists had many serious conflicts when their visualized opinions differed from that of the government. These works were designed with great passion, yet the very lives of the artists were at risk. The expressive murals were produced on large plastered walls of monumental structures. The people were immersed within the large-scale paintings, their imagery, colors, and historical messages.
With Germany’s defeat in WWII, the Polish people were then governed by the Russian victors and subjected to harsh Communist repressions. The newly imposed government understood that the massive rebuilding of cities was necessary, but it also sought to introduce its own socialistic culture and arts to the people. The streets would be the classrooms and galleries. The government wanted to present its view of “populist ideals” using the credibility of Poland’s leading artists who survived the ravages of war. Henryk Tomaszewski (1914-2005), Tadeusz Trepkowski (1914-1954), and Tadeusz Gronowski (1894-1990) were the “three great ones” who founded the art style called the Polish School of Poster Design.
Mexico’s painted murals were on beautiful public buildings; Warsaw’s art medium for their working people had to be in the form of street posters. These were painterly designed visual art works on fragile paper to advertise events, deliver political messages, and promote social values. The most effective posters would inspire viewers artistically and also project hope and national unity.
The “art of the streets” of both countries influenced attitudes and cultural movements. There exists a paradox in having a government commission public art to further its control. But within the works of these six great artists their views of reality impacted their people’s behavior and values. Decades later, we are reminded that courage may take different forms.
Martin Rosenberg, PhD, President, Rosenberg Associates Ltd. Specializing in marketing and strategic planning for business, the arts, and nonprofit organizations. Owner of Vintage Poster Gallery, San Miguel De Allende, www.mrposter.com.