Leopoldo Méndez’s Revolution: Social Activism through Graphic Art

Born on June 30, 1902, in Mexico City, Leopoldo Méndez would become one of Mexico’s most significant and beloved graphic artists of the twentieth century. Méndez was one of eight children in a poor household. At a young age, Méndez used art as a means to bring joy to the Mexican community and attended the Academy of San Carlos located in Mexico City. After Mexico’s revolution started in 1910, the community witnessed a great divide between the rich and the poor, along with discrimination against indigenous populations. Artist Leopoldo Méndez wanted to close this gap by highlighting these issues through graphic art, murals, and wood engravings. In the 1930s, Méndez became politically active and promoted revolutionary ideas such as workers’ rights in his graphic art and founded the League of Revolutionary Artists and Writers in 1933 and the Taller de Gráfica Popular in 1937.

The childhood of Méndez is pivotal to the artist’s relationship with anti-fascist and revolutionary ideas. The youngest of eight children in a working-class home, Méndez also faced the struggle of his mother dying during his infancy. Méndez lived with his extended family under poverty conditions. In 1918, Méndez enrolled in the Academia de San Carlos. Leandro Izaguirre and Saturnino Herrán, two artists that painted cruel depictions of colonization, taught and inspired Méndez to use artwork as a means to bring social injustices to light. It is claimed that “while Méndez would soon reject the techniques and elitist attitudes associated with the academy, Izaguirre’s and Herrán’s sympathetic depictions of their subjects set important precedents on which he and others would build.” [1] Although Méndez strayed from the academy’s elitist teachings, the artist would forever strive to connect his artwork to larger social themes surrounding indigenous and working-class members of the Mexican community.

After the assassination of Cuban communist exile Julio Mella in 1929, Méndez joined the Communist Party of Mexico. Méndez founded The Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios, translated to the League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists. Méndez promoted anti-fascist artwork and influenced artists to create a collection of revolutionary artwork to grasp the attention of Mexican intellectuals. Other artists from the Academia de San Carlos, such as Pablo O’Higgins, joined this group to create artwork that criticized imperialism, capitalism, and warfare. These artists wanted artwork to stretch beyond entertainment purposes, and to mirror Mexico’s discontent community. Furthermore, “Artists from Mexico and other countries created global partnerships, and they also worked with high-level bureaucrats to produce images that illustrated the dangers of fascism through books and posters.” [2] Although Méndez eventually left LEAR to create the Taller de Gráfica Popular, it is evident that this group pushed working class interests into the forefront, cemented a political relationship with the arts, and revolutionized the meaning of artwork relative to the working-class community.

One of Méndez’s most significant contributions to Mexico’s art community is his founding of the Taller de Gráfica Popular in 1937, alongside Luis Arenal and Pablo O’Higgins. He oversaw the acquisition of lithographic equipment and resources for the community of artists, and led the board of the publishing center, known as La Estampa Mexicana [3]. La Estampa Mexicana published lyrics, poems, and posters that favored left-wing politicians worldwide, and criticized fascist leaders. His leadership in the TGP allowed the community of artists to flourish and print anti-fascist rhetoric across Mexico. It is believed that without Méndez, the TGP would not have lasted up until the present day. The TGP has become a beacon in Mexico’s community post-revolution, and “in order to emphasize the need for continued socialist reform, artists at the TGP produced powerful genre scenes that drew attention to those suffering from homelessness, hunger and illness.” [4] Under the leadership of Méndez, the TGP advocated for artwork to mirror the social reality of Mexico and the suffering working class. Méndez helped graphic art and muralism rise across Mexico, as many artists collaborated on large street murals. He specialized in political graphic art and wood engravings and oversaw the production of prints under the TGP. Key issues the TGP reflected in its artwork included “Mexico’s divided heritage and fragmented history, the poverty and oppression of the Native American populations, human rights for the popular classes, defending the land rights of the lower classes, and civil liberties for labour movements.” [5] Méndez did not receive much attention throughout his lifetime for his artwork, as he believed the work of artists should not be done for fame nor fortune.

The Taller de Gráfica Popular went beyond working-class issues, aiding in political issues domestically and internationally. The community’s connection to the Partido Comunista Mexicano, translated to the Mexican Communist Party, also aided in the rise of feminism across Mexico. Artists and leaders of the TGP such as Elizabeth Catlett and Mercedes Quevedo influenced the founding of the National Union of Mexican Women in 1964 to unite women of all social classes [6]. The work of Méndez and the Taller de Gráfica Popular expanded beyond Mexico especially during the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939, and World War II from 1939 to 1945. Méndez supported the side of Republican Spain and condemned the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany. In 1949, the Congress of Peace was held in Mexico City, in which “the TGP collaborated with works that activated the political imaginary of realism in negotiation with the USSR’s rhetoric of nuclear disarmament and the Dove of Peace.” [7] The TGP favored the socialist USSR over Nazi Germany and criticized fascist political leaders like Hitler and Mussolini. Méndez’s own socialist ideas would create hesitancy to showcase his work across the United States, however, the artist did have a successful exhibit in Chicago in 1945. The exhibit strayed from highlighting the artist’s ties to socialism due to growing tensions of the Cold War and enabled American audiences to view Mexico’s connection of artwork and social realities. The Taller de Gráfica Popular continues to operate in Mexico City, advocating for indigenous populations and working-class citizens, continuing long after Méndez’s own death in 1969.

Due to his humbled perceptions of artwork as a profession, Méndez did not enjoy much fame nor recognition until after his death. He preferred to work for low wages and strayed from showcasing his artwork in large-scale exhibitions, believing this would dilute his work and true purpose of representing Mexico’s lower class. However, Leopold Méndez’s contributions and leadership to both The Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios, and Taller de Gráfica Popular throughout the 1930s to the 1960s enabled small-scale artists across Mexico to unite to create a collection of artwork that ensured the needs of the working-class were represented.