When I think of World War II-era propaganda, I think of top-down attempts to bolster patriotism: women elated to be working in factories while their husbands proudly massacre cowering enemies. I don’t think of a grassroots campaign against governments in Mexico City. Or, I didn’t, until I went to see “Vida y Drama de México,” an exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery that runs Oct. 17 until February.
While absurd caricatures and demonization of the enemy may slightly resemble standard propaganda, prints from the Taller de Grafica Popular — a small collective of poor teachers and devoted activists whose work makes up the exhibition — have a distinct style. The posters combine clear, journalistic fonts with neo-indigenous artistic styles to both send a message and reclaim the artists’ native culture.
Artistically, some posters are stronger than others, and the collection as a whole offers a spectrum from purely political to purely aesthetic. Some posters were printed solely to raise money for the TGP’s expenses, and so focus more on visual appeal. One such poster, “Raíces” or “Roots,” simply shows a tree, gray and shadowed, with its roots rising from the ground. Other pieces, like “Libertad,” combine romanticism and surrealism while also conveying political messages. The wall of “Villains” is complex and artistic; skeletons lurk in backgrounds, and every element of every print is a symbol. But some other posters are just words or generic caricatures of international politicians — one simply features Joseph McCarthy standing in a trashcan.
Other posters focus on internal issues. “El Día Internacional de la Mujer,” or “The International Day of the Woman,” is unique because unlike posters of its time, it both celebrates women and was crafted by a woman.
The issues addressed were those of immediate relevance to the artists, who had to constantly juggle their jobs, their activism and their printing. They printed their signs on fragile wood pulp and pasted them on telephone posts and building fronts to advertise for upcoming rallies. The posters, says the exhibition’s co-curator Lucy Gellman, “were meant to be ephemeral and transitory — they would oftentimes be washed away in the next rain.”
Yet they have certainly stood the test of time. Not only are these prints physically intact, but their messages remain relevant. Many prints are devoted to solidarity among workers; they plead for eight-hour workdays, health care, six-day weeks. This is surprisingly relevant given the Mexican government’s current efforts at undermining labor rights by allowing employers to modify contracts. Messages against the privatized oil industry are also pertinent today, given its recent re-privatization. One wall of prints focuses on promoting Mexican education reform, still a deeply conflicted issue; just last month, Mexican authorities found a mass grave of schoolchildren whose bus had been ambushed while they campaigned against new education laws. The TGP itself still operates, but its members must stay hidden to avoid being captured or imprisoned.
The endurance of the exhibition’s themes is a credit to Monroe E. Price ’60 LAW ’64 and Aimée Brown Price GRD ’72, who , in their collections, focused on discovering obscure works of art, particularly ones related to the Chicano movement. A central theme of their collection is “the relationship between art and politics,” which explains the refreshing timelessness of the issues the prints tackle. Where most art exhibits are either traditional or modern, these progressive posters effectively bridge the gap between the old and new, making it well worth the walk up all four flights of stairs to see this early intersection of art and activism.