In the decades immediately following the Mexican Revolution, political themes, workers’ rights, and land reform were naturally reflected in the work produced by the Taller de Gráfica Popular (the People’s Print Workshop) or, simply, the TGP. The workshop advanced the concerns of a post-revolutionary populace, appealing as much as possible to the common folk in its imagery. While Mexico’s pre-conquest history, as well as its future, was equally as important to the artists who belonged to the TGP, the cause of social justice was of immediate thematic concern. The New Mexico History Museum’s recently opened exhibition A Mexican Century: Prints From the Taller de Gráfica Popular presents some of works produced by artists such as Leopoldo Méndez (1902-1969), Alfredo Zalce (1908-2003), American expatriate Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), and others.
The TGP was founded in Mexico City in 1937 by Méndez, Luis Arenal (1908-1985), Raúl Anguiano (1915-2006), and Mexican-American artist Pablo O’Higgins (1904-1983). These artists grew up in the post-revolutionary atmosphere of reforms targeting poverty and religious intrusion in government and education, as well as leftist concerns for a more equal distribution of wealth and the empowerment of the labor class. In short, they put forth, in visual form, many of the ideals of Mexico’s groundbreaking constitution of 1917, which was intended to secure social rights for the people.
The affordability of prints and the ability of printers to reproduce images in multiples made it a perfect medium for the dissemination of the ideals of social justice. The TGP aimed to reach a wide audience, but its popularity today, decades later, is overshadowed by the work of Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, even though their concerns were similar, and there was some crossover among these artists and the TGP. The TGP produced fine art prints as well as handbills, posters, and children’s books.
The bulk of the works on view are from the collection of Sen. Jeff Bingaman and his wife, Anne, who have been amassing the work of the TGP for a little more than a decade. “We had gone to Mexico, my wife and I, many times, and were in Zacatecas in 2005,” the senator said. “We went into a used bookstore and bought a book about Leopoldo Méndez and his prints. He was probably the most recognized artist that the TGP had. I was impressed with what the book said and with the prints, so I started buying prints whenever the occasion arose. I’ve always thought they told an interesting story about the history of Mexico.”
Among the many themes addressed in their work, the TGP artists often depicted the folkways and customs of rural Mexico, along with its transition from agrarian to industrial-based agriculture. The art had a strong antifascist strain to its political themes. In fact, the latter position is implicitly stated in the group’s declaration set down in 1945, which reads, in part, that the group “undergoes a constant effort, in order to benefit by its works the progressive and democratic interests of the Mexican people, especially in the fight against fascist reaction.” Also stated in their principles is a commitment to the idea that social art and artistic quality are inseparable. “They clearly had a political agenda that they were pursuing,” Bingaman said.
But art itself, particularly the art of engraving and similar printmaking techniques, was integral to the TGP’s purpose. Artists produced woodcuts, linoleum prints, and works in lithography. The imagery was often bold, rendered with high contrasts, and it expressed a didactic sense of right and wrong, using easy to grasp visuals, in part to appeal to people who lacked the ability to read and write. “They were trying to make it as simple as they could and get the message out there in a very understandable way,” the senator said.
Immigrant labor was also an issue addressed by the TGP. A 1947 linocut from the Bingamans’ collection by Méndez, for instance, is titled México en la Guerra: Los Braceros Se Van a Estados Unidos (Mexico in the War: Our Laborers Go Away to the United States). In the foreground, an officer wields his baton, implying authoritarianism, while men stand in a line, each one grasping the waist of the man in front of him in a long, snaking chain. The image recalls a time when Mexican farm laborers called braceros were sent to the U.S. to replace farm workers sent away to war during World War II.
The United States and its officials were not often depicted by the TGP in a positive light. Included in the exhibit, for instance, is a portrait by Méndez of U.S. ambassador to Mexico Henry Lane Wilson (1857-1932), who died before the group was founded. Wilson conspired with Victoriano Huerta against elected president Francisco Madero in 1913. Méndez depicts the ambassador manipulating a doll-sized Huerta, while men with dollar signs for eyes whisper temptations in Wilson’s ears.
But the TGP’s criticisms of U.S. and Mexican relations did not stop some American artists from learning from them. Elizabeth Catlett, an African-American artist, was one. In Mexico, she married TGP artist Francisco Mora and became involved with the workshop for decades after. “Elizabeth Catlett was a remarkable woman from all I can read,” Bingaman said. “She grew up in Washington, D.C. She went to Howard University and then did graduate work at the University of Iowa and got a fellowship to pursue art in Mexico. “Just for being associated with the TGP, I believe, the U.S. Embassy put her under surveillance because of concerns about Communist connections. She wound up renouncing her U.S. citizenship and becoming a citizen of Mexico.” Bingaman has a number of prints by Catlett and Mora, several of which are in the show.
Few of the artists associated with the TGP remain, but their influence was international and long-lasting. “It began to disband when Leopoldo Méndez died,” Bingaman said. “That took away a lot of the leadership. Various artists continued to produce artwork and you can find people who claim they kept the TGP together for decades after that. My sense is that their period of greatest productivity was the late ’30s, the ’40s, the ’50s, and the early ’60s.”