The Collective Action in José Hernández Delgadillo's Art: What Matterd in His Works

The works of José Hernández Delgadillo, more linked to collective action, were what mattered to him, and to the circumstances of the time.

The Collective Action in José Hernández Delgadillo's Art: What Matterd in His Works
Mural "Marx, Engels, Lenin and the proletariat" by José Hernández Delgadillo. Acrylic painting, 1983. Faculty of Sciences, "Alberto Barajas" Auditorium, interior. Photos: MLV

José Hernández Delgadillo was, above all, a man committed to his political ideas and a promoter of collective art, says Daniel Garza Usabiaga, curator and Ph.D. in Art History and Theory from the University of Essex, who completed postdoctoral studies at UNAM's Institute for Aesthetic Research.

The painter was part of a generation of creators who forged their ideas and artistic work during the 1960s, who radicalized their ideology motivated by events such as October 2, 1968. Hernández Delgadillo himself wrote in his Autobiographical Notes that after the events of Tlatelolco:

"...I had the conviction to do other things, I wanted to do combat murals, popular murals under the influence of 68... The decision to do nothing for the Mexican State and very few things for private initiative, just to survive, did not come out of a quixotic or idealistic attitude, but because after 1968 several artists exchanged a series of experiences about the role of our cultural work in the revolution, and we carried out a series of tasks of a political nature."

The mural Marx, Engels, Lenin, and the proletariat, painted in 1983 on the walls of the auditorium of the Faculty of Sciences of the UNAM, is a demonstration of that political commitment. "His work is as an artist, agitator, and politician. The mural that is in the Faculty of Sciences, not just anyone does that: to capture the faces of these revolutionary historical figures. There are few murals in general made in Mexico that included this kind of representation and survived", points out the specialist.

Hernández Delgadillo began to acquire visibility at the beginning of the 1960s and joined the group Nueva Presencia, a group little studied, but very relevant in those years, also included Arnold Belkin and Francisco Icaza, among other artists. They sought to be a bit of a critical and humanist continuation of the Mexican pictorial avant-garde of the first half of the 20th century, of muralism, but through other solutions and referring to the concerns of their time.

"His group was focused on a new form of figuration and rescue of the human figure, not only as an icon but also as a historical and social subject. In the Nueva Presencia group, they always talked about how the artist should not be indifferent to the conditions of his time. After 1968, Hernández Delgadillo radicalized his production and concentrated on the production of murals throughout his life. I believe he did more than 150, many in educational institutions, normal schools, rural schools, and homes.

Detail of the Mural "Marx, Engels, Lenin and the proletariat" by José Hernández Delgadillo.
Detail of the Mural "Marx, Engels, Lenin and the proletariat" by José Hernández Delgadillo.

The mural

Located on the sidewalls of the Alberto Barajas Celis Auditorium -named in homage to the mathematician, physicist, and professor of the Faculty of Sciences- is divided into two parts: one dedicated to the proletariat and the other with the faces of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Lenin, who frame a group of demonstrators carrying red flags.

"On one side there is a composite figure that synthesizes the proletariat, which is a very common form in his work that he used with these dynamic forms that could group several people, so to speak. In this mural, there are four men and a woman in this dynamic form that represents the proletariat, and from which they emerge as his face and limbs. In the mural he painted in the CCH Azcapotzalco he also used these forms, a bit between organic and dynamic, which combine several characters.

If with that mural of the CCH of '73 these forms that are in the auditorium of the Faculty of Sciences are not so dynamic, they are somewhat static, they are a bit restricted and, it seems, not completely resolved. This is the first section of the mural, the one on the other side together with the portraits of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, which are a little out of scale and barely fit in that section that gives them.

Between the three characters they form a strange trinity and in the center there is a crowd that also refers to the proletariat, again it is a representation that is not very dynamic and much more traditional, this is expressive of the way he worked with students and people who are not professionalized in the arts. And, above all, this way of executing Delgadillo's work, which is a bit fast. It is not a mural that has taken months of work, it is an act of occupation that takes place at the same time as other activities, such as rallies or social or political assemblies," adds the professor of the Postgraduate Program in Art History at the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of the UNAM.

José Hernández Delgadillo: Muralist Committed to Political Ideas
José Hernández Delgadillo: Muralist Committed to Political Ideas

In his Autobiographical Notes, Hernández Delgadillo highlighted that form of artistic work:

"I did not set out to make masterpieces or exhaust the possibilities of muralism. What I could do, based on the time available and the people who could help me was precisely to cover a political and propagandistic need to represent the revolutionary struggle, the people's struggle. Some forms are repeated, and there is a certain reiteration of the same ones, but the main aspect for painting this work -and this is no justification- is that what is seen in Oaxaca is not seen in Zacatecas or Puebla, or elsewhere.
So this explains why my murals have the sense of a big poster, a big call to consciousness, to struggle, to recognize themselves as a class, to recognize themselves as workers, as a people. An important aspect is that these murals do not omit the armed struggle. I think that in revolutionary art, to be consistent, it is necessary to take into account that the objective of every revolution is the seizure of power.
For all these reasons, there is a reiteration of the themes, the faces will be repeated, the revolutionary action, but it will not be mechanically or always. I think that sometimes people who want to make a fuss take the negative aspect of my work and forget the positive. If we look at them one by one, some of them correspond to concrete facts of a certain region, to the characteristics of the place, and suggestions are given to me by my knowledge of the situation and the comrades", added the painter.
Marx Mural
Marx Mural


For Daniel Garza Usabiaga, the intentions of collective production in the work of José Hernández Delgadillo differentiate him markedly from other artists, who put their creation above their political activity.

Unlike other muralists or historical artists -and many of the murals on the campus of Ciudad Universitaria-, defines the specialist, "Hernandez Delgadillo never had the pretension of having his works considered masterpieces or transcendental works. They were much more closely linked to this collective action, which was what mattered to him, and to the circumstances of the time, the historical moment. There was a whole series of negotiations to see if they would add Mao Zedong to the mural or not, for example."

"The 1980s is a very convulsive decade in the economic and social spheres, all these issues have to do with the mural. He represents a new practice of muralist activity in the second half of the 20th century, it is a collective work based on dialogue, reaching conclusions and resolutions with different people involved in that particular moment. Another of the great merits of the work in the auditorium is that it introduces these characters to the murals in Ciudad Universitaria in a way that had not been done before, nor will be done later. It is the mural or work of art with the most explicit vocation in Marxist and revolutionary terms that exist on campus."

"He was never a popular artist in the sense of institutional or commercial visibility, he wasn't constantly looking for group exhibitions; a museum represented by a gallery was not the kind of concern he had. He was interested in doing these decentralized mural exercises in Chiapas or Zacatecas, at that time artistic production was concentrated in Mexico City, it was the center of visibility of the arts at the national level. It is valuable to remember today that practice committed to society, a political artistic production that is political beyond what is said in the discourse and is backed by activism," concluded Garza Usabiaga.