A quiet Sunday in the park – but who are all these people? They’re a parade of figures from the history of Mexico, brought together in the dream of the country’s most famous artist, Diego Rivera. And characteristically, he assembled them in a mural — called Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central, or Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central.
The Alameda is a large park in the historic centre of Mexico City. And just beside it stands the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, where I photographed this mural. The park, created on the site of an ancient Aztec marketplace, was the centre of social life in the city for many years. So it was here that Rivera decided to gather together figures from centuries of Mexican life, and mingle them with each other on a placid Sunday afternoon just before the country’s revolution in 1910.
And what cast of characters he chose for his dream of a Sunday afternoon – everyone from emperors and politicians to artists and common thieves, as well as people from his own life. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, with bloody hands, looks on from the far left, while below him a young thief picks the pocket of a bourgeois businessman. Near the centre, the short-lived Emperor Maximilian (with red whiskers) and his Empress Carlota stand behind a pair of old men dozing on a park bench. At right, in more contemporary times, a peasant revolutionary rides in on a horse, while an indigenous family is threatened by police batons. (Click on the photo to see the entire group in detail.)
Front and centre is Rivera himself, as a nine-year-old boy in short pants, holding the hand of the skeletal cartoon icon called La Calavera Catrina. His future wife Frida Kahlo stands behind him, with one hand on his shoulder and the other holding the yin-yang symbol. La Catrina’s other hand is held by the artist Jose Guadalupe Posada, who created her to satirize Mexico’s aristocracy. Posada, meanwhile, is exchanging stern looks with La Malinche, a native woman who was Cortés’ lover and a reputed collaborator in the Spanish conquest.
The Dream of a Sunday Afternoon, painted in 1947, is a work of art and a history lesson all in one. And it’s distinctly Mexican: mural painting is an art form that harks back at least 1,000 years in Mexico, to paintings found on ancient temples. But it became a signature style after the Mexican revolution, when the new government commissioned prominent artists, including Rivera, to paint murals in an effort to reunify the country.
The original murals were political, and Rivera became famous – and in some cases notorious – for painting murals promoting his communist beliefs. But along the way the artists became more interested in depicting Mexican life. Still, many of today’s murals do carry a message, like this one I found in the streets near Mexico City’s main plaza, which shows the many faces of the country’s diverse population. As always, an ancient art keeps evolving, and the cast of characters keeps changing.