top of page

Revolutionizing Mexican Art: The Role of Jose Vasconcelos in Shaping the National Identity

Updated: Aug 2, 2023



Jose Vasconcelos was a philosopher, writer, and politician who served as the Secretary of Public Education in Mexico from 1921 to 1924. During his tenure, he implemented a series of reforms that transformed the country's education system and had a profound impact on the development of Mexican art. In this article, we will explore the role of Jose Vasconcelos in revolutionizing Mexican art and shaping the national identity.


The Life and Contributions of Jose Vasconcelos

Jose Vasconcelos, a prominent figure in Mexican history, played a pivotal role in revolutionizing Mexican art and shaping the national identity. His contributions to the arts, education, and politics have had a lasting impact on Mexican society.


The Early Years of Vasconcelos.


Jose Vasconcelos was born on February 27, 1882, in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. He grew up in a humble background, and his parents were schoolteachers. From a young age, he demonstrated a passion for learning and a deep interest in philosophy and literature. Vasconcelos received his primary and secondary education in his hometown, and later moved to Mexico City to attend the National Preparatory School. He went on to study law and philosophy at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where he developed his ideas on education, culture, national identity and where he became involved in political and intellectual circles and began his career as a public servant. After completing his education, Vasconcelos became a professor of philosophy at the National University of Mexico. He was a prominent member of the Ateneo de la Juventud, a group of intellectuals who sought to promote Mexican culture and nationalism.


Career and Contributions


Vasconcelos was also a member of the Mexican Revolution, and he served as the Secretary of Public Education from 1921 to 1924 under President Alvaro Obregon. In 1920, Vasconcelos was appointed as Minister of Education by President Alvaro Obregon. He believed that education was the key to transforming society and worked tirelessly to implement his vision of a national education system that would instill a sense of pride and identity in the Mexican people. where he became involved in politics and began his career as a public servant. Vasconcelos was appointed as the Secretary of Public Education in 1921, a position he held for four years. During his time in office, he implemented sweeping educational reforms that aimed to promote the ideals of the Mexican Revolution, including equality, justice, and democracy. Vasconcelos believed that education was the key to social and cultural progress, and he worked tirelessly to provide access to education for all Mexicans. As the Secretary of Public Education, Vasconcelos implemented a series of reforms aimed at promoting Mexican culture and education. He believed that education was the key to transforming Mexico into a modern, progressive society.



Vasconcelos promoted the use of Spanish and indigenous languages in education, and he encouraged the study of Mexican history and culture. He also established the National Library, the National Preparatory School, and the National University of Mexico. Vasconcelos was also a prolific writer and philosopher. He wrote several influential books, including "La Raza Cosmica" (The Cosmic Race) and "Ulises Criollo" (Ulysses Criollo). In these works, Vasconcelos explored the concept of a universal, mestizo race that would unify all of humanity. He believed that Mexico, with its diverse indigenous and European heritage, was uniquely positioned to lead the world towards this vision of a cosmic race.



Vasconcelos also played a key role in promoting Mexican art internationally. He was instrumental in organizing the first exhibition of Mexican art in the United States in 1927, which was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The exhibition featured works by some of Mexico's most famous artists, including Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.


The Role of Art in Nation-Building


In the 1920s, Vasconcelos was appointed Minister of Education by President Alvaro Obregon, and he set out to implement his vision for Mexican culture and education. He believed that the key to Mexico's future success was to promote its cultural identity, and he saw art as a means to achieve this goal. Vasconcelos also championed the idea of "mestizaje," which celebrated the mixing of indigenous and European cultures that had taken place in Mexico. He believed that this blending of cultures had created a unique and vibrant cultural identity that was worthy of celebration. Vasconcelos saw art as an essential part of the process of nation-building. He believed that art had the power to connect people across cultural and political boundaries and to create a sense of national identity. He saw art as a way to express the unique cultural identity of Mexico and to showcase its rich history and traditions. Under Vasconcelos' leadership, the Ministry of Education launched a massive program of mural painting, which brought together some of Mexico's most talented artists to create works that celebrated the nation's history, culture, and identity. The most famous of these artists was Diego Rivera, whose murals can still be seen today in the National Palace in Mexico City.


He sponsored many initiatives aimed at promoting Mexican art and culture. One of his most significant projects was the creation of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, which was designed to provide a high-quality education to students from all social classes. The school had an innovative curriculum that emphasized the study of Mexican history, culture, and art.

Vasconcelos believed that by teaching young people about their cultural heritage, they would become more invested in the future of their country and would be better equipped to contribute to its development. Vasconcelos' influence extended beyond the field of education.

He was a prolific writer and a passionate advocate for Mexican culture. In his many books and essays, he championed the importance of cultural identity and argued that Mexico had a unique role to play in the world. His most famous work, "The Cosmic Race," was a groundbreaking book that explored the cultural and racial diversity of Mexico and argued that the country's mixed heritage was its greatest strength. The book was widely read and helped to shape the way Mexicans thought about their national identity.




The Cultural Revolution of the 1920s


The 1920s was a time of great cultural and artistic transformation in Mexico. The Mexican Revolution had just ended, and the country was in the process of rebuilding itself. Jose Vasconcelos saw the arts as a vital component of this process and believed that they could play a crucial role in shaping the national identity. Under Vasconcelos' leadership, the Mexican government launched a cultural revolution that aimed to promote and celebrate the country's indigenous heritage. The reforms included the establishment of a national education system, the promotion of indigenous languages and cultures, and the recognition of the arts as a fundamental aspect of Mexican culture. One of the key initiatives of the cultural revolution was the creation of the Ministry of Public Education's Department of Fine Arts, nowadays known as INBAL: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura which headquarters are in the Palacio Nacional de Bellas Artes. This department was responsible for promoting the development of Mexican art and artists, and it provided funding and support for a wide range of artistic endeavors.



Impact on Mexican Art


Jose Vasconcelos' vision for Mexico's future had a profound impact on Mexican art and culture. He believed that art was a crucial element of national identity, and he promoted the development of a distinct Mexican art that would reflect the country's unique history and culture. One of Vasconcelos' most significant contributions to Mexican art was his support for the muralist movement. He believed that murals could be used as a means of educating the public and promoting Mexican culture. Vasconcelos commissioned several murals for public buildings, including the National Preparatory School and the National Palace. These murals depicted scenes from Mexican history and culture, and they celebrated the country's indigenous heritage. Vasconcelos' influence can also be seen in the work of prominent Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco. These artists were part of the muralist movement and created some of the most iconic works of Mexican art. Their murals were characterized by their large size, bright colors, and bold, political themes. They often depicted scenes of Mexican history and culture, and they celebrated the country's indigenous heritage.




Jose Vasconcelos and Adolfo Best Maugard and their influence in Mexican Art Movements


Both had a significant relationship in promoting Mexican nationalism through their work in the arts. Best Maugard, an artist and art historian, shared Vasconcelos's vision and collaborated with him on several projects. Together, they developed a method to add arts “mexicanidad” which aimed to create a distinct Mexican style of art by incorporating indigenous motifs and techniques. Adolfo Best Maugard was the head of the Department of Artistic Education in Mexico and created his Best Drawing Method during this time.

“The Best Method” was a drawing manual with theoretical foundations that he created, based on the idea that any natural form could be constructed using seven primary lines. These primary lines or "elements" were based on the straight line, circle, and spiral. Maugard sought to find universal laws through these basic rules of application, which were inspired by his study of pre-Columbian cultures and influenced by Manuel Gamio. The Best Method was promoted under the guardianship of José Vasconcelos and taught in primary and normal schools throughout Mexico starting in 1921. The method was published as a manual in 1923 and continued to influence graphic design even after being modified by painter Manuel Rodríguez Lozano in 1924 and eventually discontinued in 1925.


The Best Method had a significant impact on artists of various generations, including Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, Abraham Ángel, and Frida Kahlo, who later developed their own artistic styles. It laid the foundations for plastic nationalism in Mexico and emphasized the importance of national education in the arts.


Their collaboration resulted in the publication of the book "El Muralismo en México" (Muralism in Mexico), which celebrated Mexico's artistic heritage and emphasized the importance of art in promoting nationalism. Best Maugard's "Method of Mexican Popular Art" also became popular, inspiring a generation of artists to incorporate indigenous elements in their work.


The influence of Adolfo Best Maugard and Jose Vasconcelos on the development of the NeoCrotalic Art Movement was significant, as the movement drew inspiration from their work and ideas. In other words, the two men played a crucial role in inspiring and shaping the NeoCrotalic Art Movement. In addition, it should be noted that the 2003 NeoCrotalic manifesto, authored by Javier Lopez Pastrana, emphasized the importance of achieving a sense of Mexican identity in this new artistic form. To accomplish this goal, the manifesto called for the incorporation of the Canamayte pattern, which was discovered by the archaeologist and journalist Jose Diaz Bolio. The influence of Adolfo Best Maugard and Jose Vasconcelos on the development of NeoCrotalic art cannot be overlooked, as their ideas and methods helped shape the movement and its emphasis on promoting Mexican nationalism through the arts.




Vasconcelos' Legacy towards the End of His Life


In 1929, José Vasconcelos was nominated for the Presidency of the Republic by the Anti-Reelection National Party. He gained popular support, particularly from students, but he lost against Pascual Ortiz Rubio in an election that was considered the greatest political fraud in Mexican history. Pushed by murders an threatenings presidential elections were held, organized by the interim president Emilio Portes Gil, after the assassination of the elected president Álvaro Obregón, His election was riddled with irregularities, it was highly disputed, and there are doubts about the veracity of the official results that allowed Ortiz Rubio to become president.




Later that year, Vasconcelos proclaimed the Plan de Guaymas in Sonora, which resulted in his imprisonment. After regaining his freedom, he went into exile in Europe.

Vasconcelos suggested the design and motto of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) shield: "For my race, the spirit shall speak".

Vasconcelos passed away in Mexico City on June 30, 1959. And was considered on the most important education advocate, this reputation cause him to be named “Teacher of America” in Mexico and other countries.

271 views0 comments
bottom of page