The Avant-Garde movement began in the French military among French left-wing radicals in the late 19th century. By the end of the 19th century, the term “Avant-Garde” had shifted to define “groups of intellectuals, writers, and artists, including architects, who voice ideas and experiment with artistic approaches that challenge current cultural values” (Kostelanetz, 2001). The Avant-Garde movement, once exclusively European, migrated to the western hemisphere post World War 1 and adapted to the culture and people of the Americas. In Mexico, Avant-Garde art took the form of ‘Estridentismo’. Estridentismo, which has no dictionary definition and a rough English translation would be ‘Stridentism’,encompasses the presentation of a controversial point of view in an abrupt and forceful manner. The movement began just as abruptly and forcefully as the works that it entails with the distribution of the manifest of a young lawyer, Manuel Maples Arce, around the streets of Mexico City titled “Actual Núm 1” in the December of 1921, following the end of the Mexican Revolution. Stridentism not only sparked a newly remodeled Mexican form of the Avant-Garde, but it created dialogue among artists and visionaries that inspired new generations of artists and art movements in Mexico.
Background and the Basis of Estridentismo
As the Avant-Garde movement in Europe became criticized for the movement’s “individualism, elitism, [and] unpatriotic liaisons”, it was just beginning to pick up momentum in Mexico (Flores, 2006). Perceptions of Avant-Garde art in Europe was heavily influenced by the first World War, as the severity of war tainted feelings towards such art movements as pretentious and perhaps naïve to the harsh post-war reality. In Mexico on the other hand, Avant-Garde movements were unaffected by post-war sentiments and could flourish at a time when European Avant-Garde began to decline.
The Estridentismo movement began in December of 1921 in Jalapa, Mexico, after the publication of the manifest “Actual Núm 1” by the poet Manuel Maples Arce. The movement was a rather optimistic art form, despite the forceful manner in which it was introduced officially by Maples Arce in “Actual Núm 1”. Estridentismo sang praises of modern technology while neither reflecting in retrospection or looking ahead to the future. Maples Arce “believed that because of the rapid spread of information brought about by the radio, the telegraph, and the airplane, it was possible to stay abreast of current developments from anywhere in the world, and therefore old frameworks of center and periphery no longer applied” (Flores, 2014). While his work was a justification and explanation for the Estridentismo movement, it was also a call to arms for his contemporaries. He implored that artists and scholars “find inspiration in the city and new technologies and to employ verbal and visual languages that would convey the experience of modernity” (Flores, 2014).
Estridentismo was similar to, if not intertwined with the Modernist movement. Mexico certainly experienced Modernism in the 1920s as urban life, education, culture, and science which were stagnant during the time of the Mexican Revolution industrialized and expanded at an unprecedented rate. As Mexico City experienced a huge increase in population, the expanse of the city’s boundaries was essential, and class lines became increasingly divided with the rich settling in the west and the impoverished in the east. Estridentismo was “a dream of utopia” however, the areas and aspects of the city that inspired Maples Arce contrasted this with “the dystopia of extreme poverty, unsanitary conditions, and lack of education that afflicted the majority of Mexicans in the capital” (Flores, 2006).
Maples Arce and “Actual Núm 1”
Maples Arce was born in Papantla, Mexico, in the Northeastern state of Veracruz. It was in Veracruz and Jalapa that Maples Arce received his formal education before moving to Mexico City in 1920, where he became a lawyer in the Free School of Rights. The following year, in December 1921, Maples Arce took to the streets under the cover of night to commit what to him was considered a radical act of rebellion and posted his Avant-Garde manifesto, “Actual Núm 1” on walls across the city. On a poster meant to resemble an advertisement, Maples Arce used large bold letters to advertise the title of his work, with a picture of himself dressed as a nobleman under the title, and a list of his fourteen arguments for Estridentismo.
In his manifest, Maples Arce boldly declared himself the first and best Estridentista, and lists several radical ideas such as “Muera el Cura Hidalgo” (Maples Arce, 1921) which essentially means “Death to the Priest Hidalgo”— a radical statement about Miguel Hidalgo, a hero of the Mexican Revolution. He continues and says, “Down with San Rafael - San Lazaro”. San Rafael refers to the town in the West of Mexico that is known for the wealth of its townspeople and the bourgeoisie. San Rafael represents the opposite, a town on the East side of Mexico with a strong blue-collar population. In this sense, he notes the disparate socio-economic divisions in post-revolutionary Mexico. Finally, Maples Arce lists the word “Corner…” followed by “It is prohibited to post signs”. This is an interesting comment to make especially due to the fact that Maples Arce distributed his first manifest by posting it around the city in the form of an advertisement.
In the following introduction to his manifesto and his fourteen arguments, Maples Arce proceeds to praise the beauty of technology, the need for Stridentist reform in the architecture and urban spaces of Mexico, and harsh critiques of his contemporaries. The manifest shocked many as Maples Arce brought his radical ideas to the forefront of art in the form of a first-person, frantic rant about his new ideas.
His manifest is arguably a response to an essay by his contemporary, David Alfaro Siqueiros, titled “Tres Llamamientos de Orientación Actual a los Pintores y Escultores de la Nueva Generación Americana” (Three Appeals for the Current Guidance of the New Generation of American Painters and Sculptors). Siqueiros, who was heavily influenced by the renowned Mexican artist Diego Rivera. While both Siqueiros and Maples Arce call for a new modern way of art and urban reformation, Siqueiros notes the importance of reflecting on the past to create ever-improving art, whereas Maples Arce specifically calls for “no retrospection” (Maples Arce, 1921).
Estridentistas such as Maples Arce and Siqueiros dreamed of a Utopia where their artistic ideas could be expressed in the architecture of a city and urban spaces as well as the culture of the city. This Utopia was supported in Jalapa, Mexico where Estridentista Germán Cueto created the “Estridentista building” and the University of Estridentópolis was erected as well.
Estridentismo, though short-lived (from approximately 1921-1927) allowed for the beginning of the “aesthetic war that opened Mexico up to the current modernism of the Avant-Garde” (Schwartz, 1991). Maples Arce and the Estridentismo movement inspired future art movements in Mexico such as the explosion of mural art around the country, and socially conscious art forms that critiqued Mexican politics and society.