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The Popular Graphics Workshop in Mexico City - Viridiana Zavala

El Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP), the Popular Graphic Workshop began in 1937 in the Historic Center of Mexico City and was founded by some of the members of the League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists (LEAR) when this last was dissolved. Led by Leopoldo Méndez, the group’s first members included Pablo O’Higgins, Luis Arenal, Raúl Anguiano and Ángel Bracho; these were later joined by Alfredo Zalce, Xavier Guerrero, José Chávez Morado and Fernando Castro and many others.1 The workshop had the participation of artists from different disciplines, many of whom were interested in the creation of a unified Mexican identity. Among these participants were visual artists, designers and architects with a commitment to political change and a dedication to social parity. The objective was to encourage artist communication with a wider public audience through innovative graphic designs and techniques that married old and new art forms. Though these designs have changed with time since their inception, they continue to be practiced in Mexico City’s art circles. Méndez and his group of artists designed accessible works for the entire Mexican population and used realism, dramatics, expressionism and caricature as tools to communicate with the masses.2 The TGP’s work focused on Mexican history and the day-to-day events that occurred in the country from the perspective of its national capital in order to develop an informed view of the country’s political climate. The workshop engaged in matters of international affairs and used graphic design techniques such as lithography, linocut and etching to create visual representations of their political perspectives.3

Mexico City served as a key geographic point for the work of the TGP members. The group became part of several cultural initiatives, literacy campaigns and urbanism studies that helped paint a portrait of the socio-political status in Mexico City. During its lifespan, the TGP produced countless images that helped maintain the artistic traditions of the City’s urban and rural inhabitants, using the capital as their main distribution hub. In collaboration with public institutions, the TGP established networks and social programs towards the middle of the 1940s and were active in topics related to construction of public schools and design of educational programs. With much support from the Mexican public, the group held exhibitions and created publications on matters of public education, many of which are still considered relevant to educational issues in Mexico today.4

Since the 1930s, Mexico City has had a big international presence and, as quoted from the famed Mexican poet José Emilio Pacheco, it was largely a “cosmopolitan space”.5 The TGP saw this global image as a positive for the City and as a testament to its function as a point of convergence for European and American artists after the Second World War.6 Because of the City’s global reputation, the TGP became exposed to ideas of the Bauhaus movement and had the opportunity to collaborate with several designers like Hannes Meyer, Léna Bergner, and Josef and Anni Albers. The workshop allowed local Mexican art to be placed in the international spotlight; it inserted elements of the Mexican identity into the global artistic combat front whose trenches were replete the use of spatial structures and simplistic typography.

In 1942 La Estampa Mexicana Publishing House was created, a medium with which the TGP built bridges between Mexico City and other important cities—the Chicago art scene was especially interested in the publishing house’s engravings.7La Estampa was directed by Hannes Meyer, the former director of the Bauhaus in Dessau, and its creators included members of various nationalities. The collaborations were critically well-received by artists from other cities; design techniques that were endemic to Mexico City at the time became reused in other global art scenes.8 Though the capital’s geographic location gave La Estampa access to traditional Mexican cultures that shaped and influenced its work, the connections it had formed with international actors was what led it to develop its two main design themes. The first consisted of pro-communist, anti-fascist imagery and representations of social protest; the second was an interest in elements of daily Mexican life and traditions. The principle objectives of La Estampa Mexicana included the stabilization of the TGP’s finances and the projection of its international presence.9

Several members of the collective sought to capture individual perspectives on rural and urban landscapes, and wanted to highlight traditional rituals and customs such as the Otomí and Huichol cultures. Though La Estampa’s editorial activities original focused on the TGP and its anti-fascist efforts, it brought much attention to a Mexico that was culturally rich and artistically vibrant. These activities played an important role in bilateral relations with the United States during and after the Second World War. The Art Institute of Chicago held three exhibitions about Mexican graphics during the decade of the 40s; the first was focused on José Guadalupe Posada (1944), positioning him as a precursor to the group's work and contributing to the construction of the history of graphics, the second was about Leopoldo Méndez (1945), and the third examined the general work of the TGP (1946). This cultural exchange brought Mexico City’s design scene to a larger audience and garnered much public interest in the United States.10

The cultural links formed between Mexico City and other international spaces was not only due to the TGP’s political involvement, but also because it was able to open a window into Mexico’s traditions and daily life. Additionally, the TGP was able to infiltrate government spaces in ways that were previously inconceivable; the “Plastic Integration” of the muralists supplanted the simpler practice of postering and—due to the high demand for their work—were provided with access to the interiors of government and capital buildings. The use of engraving both in architecture and design developed a new form of artistic communication and created artistic dynamics that are integral to Mexico City’s brand of design. The TGP stayed active even after the death of its founder, Leopoldo Méndez, in 1969. After 1968 graphic arts acquired a prominent role in Mexico City’s artistic practices and, as mentioned by the Argentinian-Mexican author Raquel Tibol, it continues to be a visual art that crosses borders and locates itself within hybrid spaces.11

  1. Deborah Caplow, Leopoldo Méndez: Revolutionary Art and the Mexican Print, (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2007), 123.
  2. Cfr. Raquel Tibol, Gráficas y neográficas en México, (México: Secretaria de Cultura del Distrito Federal, 1987).
  3. Caplow, Leopoldo Méndez: Revolutionary Art and the Mexican Print, 125.
  4. An example of the activity of the TGP in the educational realm was Ángel Bracho, who led the orientation of those who taught drawing in basic education. Hannes Meyer, TGP México, (México: La Estampa Mexicana, 1949), 58.
  5. José Emilio Pacheco, “Nota preliminar”, en La vida en México en el período presidencial de Manuel Ávila Camacho, (México: Memorias Mexicanas, 1994), 14.
  6. Cfr. Alicia Azuela, Arte y poder: renacimiento artístico y revolución social: México, 1910-1945, (Zamora: El Colegio de Michoacán; México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2005).
  7. Cfr. Helga Prignitz, Werkstatt für grafische Volkskunst: Plakate und Flugblätter zu Arbeiterbewegung und Gewerkschaften in Mexiko 1937-1986 (Berlin: Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut-Preussischer Kulturbesitz, 2002).
  8. Diane Miliotes,What Way Come: The Taller de Gráfica Popular, (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 2014), 14.
  9. Caplow, Leopoldo Méndez: Revolutionary Art and the Mexican Prints, 176-177.
  10. The three productions are explored by Diane Miliotes in the catalog of the exhibition titled “What May Come: The Taller de Gráfica Popular” realized in 2014, in which works of the TGP are featured from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
  11. Tibol, Grafícas y neográficas en México, 249.