Saturday, June 15, 2024

At this market are Mexico City’s best murals, which almost no one visits

One of Mexico City’s best mural collections by students of Diego Rivera can be viewed in mellow market serenity away from the tourist crowds. 

In the northeast corner of the historic center of Mexico City sits a far too rarely visited gem of classic 1930s mural work by acolytes and students of famous muralist.

These enormous and astonishingly gorgeous works of Mexican and American masters remain absurdly neglected, especially given that their value is ranked fourth after the murals of the Bellas Artes palace, the Secretariat of Education and the National Palace.

However, wandering inside the spacious, easy-going Abelardo Rodríguez Market affords a chance to view some world-class artworks, set apart from the tourist throngs behind everyday juice counters, through tiny vestibules, spread across ceilings and winding up massive staircases.

The market includes works by lauded artists, many of them students of Rivera at the Academy of San Carlos: Ramón Alva, Pablo O’Higgins, Antonio Pujol, Ángel Bracho, Pedro Rendón, Raúl Gamboa, Miguel Tzab, Isamu Noguchi, and sisters Marion and Grace Greenwood.

“La minería” by Grace Greenwood, 1935, at the market entrance at Calle Rodríguez Puebla and Callejón Girón.
“La minería” by Grace Greenwood, 1935, at the market entrance at Calle Rodríguez Puebla and Callejón Girón.

Work on the murals began in earnest in June of 1934, with the market opening its doors on November 29 of the same year. The project ran under the supervision of Rivera, with sketches requiring his approval, and the artist adding 2,000 pesos of his own money as a work guarantee. 

Each artist was paid 13.50 pesos per square meter, not including the cost of materials – right down to the rented scaffolding. The paintings were originally intended to cover 2,733 square meters, but this was reduced to 1,500 after disputes with supervisors at the Departmento Central. Under contract, mural work was to be completed by December 1, 1935, but wasn’t finished until May of 1937.

Most of the artworks cover themes common in the days after the Revolution: food production, exploitation of the poor, industrialization, the lives and working conditions of factory workers and miners and the rise of fascism around the world.

Among the most well-known works at Abelardo Rodríguez are at the market entrance on the corner of Calle Rodríguez Puebla and Girón: La minería by Grace Greenwood and La industrialización del campo by her sister, Marion, running up the stairway to the Cuauhtémoc Community Center and on to the second floor. 

Marion Greenwood’s vast, striking piece shows workers transitioning from farming to industrial manufacturing, pulled by the strings of capitalism. On the second floor, at the top of another, roped-off staircase, Marion’s The Industrialization of the Countryside and Grace’s Mining join together, where an industrial worker and a farmer each hang one end of the communist flag. 

After studying at the Art Students League in Manhattan and the Académie Colarossi in Paris, Marion was the first of the sisters to come to Mexico in 1932, when she hitched a ride to Taxco. There she met up with American artist and assistant to Diego Rivera, Pablo O’Higgins, who taught her the basic fresco technique – simply applying pigment to wet plaster. 

“Influencia de las vitaminas” by Ángel Bracho, 1934, is one of the most deteriorated of the market’s murals, though still quite striking.
“Influencia de las vitaminas” by Ángel Bracho, 1934, is one of the most deteriorated of the market’s murals, though still quite striking.

She quickly talked her way into a commission to paint Mercado en Taxco along the stairway of the Hotel Taxqueño. In a letter to her mother she called herself “the first woman who has ever done a fresco in Mexico.” Her sister Grace joined soon after, and the two Greenwoods would go on to paint a number of large works throughout the country.

Along the stairway Marion’s signature is visible, but there’s not really any onsite information to be found.

An employee of the community center, delighted that someone had ventured up to enjoy the piece, told me that he’s seen the murals cleaned once or twice but didn’t know much about them, other than what was written on a nearby informational poster – mainly concerning the history of the neighborhood and market. He said there used to be a metal placard on the wall, but it had since been stolen.

In this same room along the opposite wall is Historia de México, the first public work by United States artist Isamu Noguchi, a politically charged piece in copper and cement featuring a Nazi swastika, a hammer and sickle, a clenched and extended fist and Einstein’s theory of relativity. 

Noguchi had a short-lived affair with Frida Kahlo on his visit to Mexico, and they remained friends until her death. At two meters high and 22 meters long, History as Seen from Mexico makes for an impressive view with the sun blazing in through surrounding windows. 

It’s a joy to walk through the friendly market stalls with art popping up around every corner and stairwell, or above the Coca-Cola refrigerator in a tiny restaurant nook. I’m told that certain vendors or organizations within the market may deny access to individual works, but I simply asked politely and everyone seemed happy to accommodate.

The high ceilings and uncrowded passageways of Mercado Abelardo Rodríguez.
The high ceilings and uncrowded passageways of Mercado Abelardo Rodríguez.

There’s plenty of good food to be found, with cold mayonnaise salads of cooked veggies and meats among the specialties. Despite the mural decline, the interior market is bright and appears well-maintained, the huge domed ceiling keeping it cool and airy. 

Over coffee at a lunch counter, I chatted with a hospitable woman who’s been at the market for 20 years. I asked if she’d seen anyone come to maintain the murals. “No,” she said. “I don’t think they do anything. They painted the cupola and redid the floors a couple of years ago. But the floors are worse than they were before. And it still rains in the corners in some parts.”

In the market’s southwest corner, up the stairs that formerly led to the Teatro Cívico but now end at the entrance to Cendi Pingui school for children, the ceiling is covered with a massive mural by Mexican artist Ángel Bracho.

Best known for his socially conscious work with Taller de Gráfica Popular (“The People’s Graphic Workshop”), Bracho’s piece at Abelardo L. Rodríguez is one of the most vibrant, despite its unfortunate decline. 

Influencia de las vitaminas shows the actual physical effects of vitamins on the human body and encourages their use with the phrase, “No hay vida sin vitamina” (“There’s no life without vitamins”) painted below it. 

Unfortunately, much of the mural has fallen victim to years of water damage, with large portions sealed and plastered over. The plaster covers the subjects’ bodies and internal organs in a white cancer, as if they’d disobeyed the artist and suffered damage from vitamin neglect. 

• Mercado Abelardo L. Rodríguez runs along República de Venezuela and Callejón Girón between Calle Rodríguez Puebla and Calle del Carmen in Centro Histórico, Mexico City, and is open daily from 7:00am to 6:00pm.

This is the 16th in a series on the bazaars, flea markets and markets of Mexico City:

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