Susan Saccoccia | 6/17/2009, 7:06 a.m.
(“Vida y Drama de Mexico,” 1957, Alberto Beltrán; Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) ...
(“Vida y Drama de Mexico,” 1957, Alberto Beltrán; Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Early in their careers, Rivera and other Mexican artists traveled to New York and the art capitals of Europe, joining the international give-and-take that was revolutionizing art. Siqueiros explored the accidental effects of industrial paints, experiments that influenced Jackson Pollock and other artists who were seeking new ways to express the unconscious.

Although Tamayo ended up living in New York and Paris, the light and landscapes of Mexico would infuse the semi-abstract paintings he made throughout his career. On view is Tamayo’s powerful woodcut “Virgin of Guadalupe” (1926-1927). The image has the spare geometry of pre-Hispanic art and its praying figures evoke the ancestry of Tamayo, a Zapotec Indian.

Friends and rivals, Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros created epic murals that covered the public buildings of Mexico. Their super-sized national narratives attracted Mexico’s capitalist neighbor to the north. Ford Motor Co. hired Rivera, a loyal Communist, to immortalize its factories. His mural at the Detroit Institute of the Arts on the evolution of technology links the Ford plant with early Aztec and Mayan achievements in engineering.

The artists known as “Los Tres Grandes,” or The Three Great Ones, also turned to lithography, which enabled them to create art that was portable in scale and readily reproducible for fine-art patrons.

A masterful lithographer, Rivera varied the pressures on the engraving plate to create prints that rival drawings in their refinement and tonal range. Among the prints on view is Rivera’s lithographic montage of his wife, the renowned Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Like a surreal X-ray into her psyche, the two-sided print portrays her as a mysteriously androgynous figure. His strikingly vulnerable self-portrait, “Autorretrato” (1930), shows his plump jowls and fleshy face.

Rivera’s elegant, curvilinear lithograph, “Zapata” (1932), portrays peasant-turned-military leader Emiliano Zapata outfitted in white, standing by a white steed and holding a scythe. Surrounded by totem-faced workers and peasants armed with bows and arrows and hoes, he plants his foot on a dead soldier’s sword — celebrating a revolution fought by those close to the earth.

Another Rivera lithograph, “Escuela al aire libre” (“Open Air School” 1932), is a pastoral scene in which a solemn circle of peasants and children learn to read, while behind them, farmers till fields and a rifled guard stands on protective watch.

As muralists and printmakers, Rivera and Orozco were telling different stories. While Rivera idealizes the Revolution, Orozco depicts its human toll and the corruption and atrocities on both sides of the war. Orozco’s print “La retaguardia” (“Rear Guard,” 1929) depicts with spare, slashing strokes a band of “soldaderas,” the women who followed their men into battle and sometimes fought alongside them. The print shows some carrying rifles, others pitchforks and hoes, and still others, babies.

Like Rivera, Orozco took U.S. commissions. But his fresco in the Baker Library of Dartmouth College portrays the saga of the Americas as an epic tale of greed and violence. The mural starts with the Aztec and Spanish conquests and concludes with a machine-age meltdown, an apocalyptic vision of Christ destroying his cross in a smoldering wasteland.