María Izquierdo and the Female Face of National Identity

Proclaimed by Pablo Neruda ‘perhaps the greatest of all Mexican painters’, María Izquierdo was born in 1902 in San Juan de los Lagos, Jalisco. She was active at a time when Muralists such as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco (also known as ‘los tres grandes’ or ‘the three great ones’) were putting forward a view of Mexican art that was largely concerned with establishing an idea of the male, socialist hero and class struggle as the epitome of mexicanidad (Mexican-ness). This term designates that particular essence of Mexican identity, which became a focus for artistic investigation in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) and which was crucial to establishing the country’s autonomy vis-à-vis the dangers of foreign political domination.

Diego Rivera, The History of Mexico, 1929–1935, National Palace in Mexico City

In this cultural context, María Izquierdo was initially a part of the Muralist movement. However, she abruptly changed the direction of her artistic explorations when her mural project for the Department of Federal District building was vetoed by Rivera and Siqueiros. Consequently, she began challenging the Muralists’s construction of politically charged nationalism with her explorations in Mexican traditions, indigenous art and the role of the Mexican woman in forming a national identity. Indeed, with her explorations of mexicanidad Izquierdo moved beyond politics, initiating a dialogue between concepts such as feminism, nationalism and modernism and disrupting the gender politics, deriving from the age of colonialism. So far, the feminine had been aligned with socialist ideology and was viewed as a powerful entity in itself. Nonetheless, women were thought to belong to the domestic space, given their role of sustaining the family unit.

The relationship between male and female, which was seen as lying at the heart of Mexican identity is illustrated by Mexican poet Octavio Paz. In Paz’ work Labyrinth of Solitude, Mexican-ness is understood as being the result of male dominance and female submissiveness. Paz recounts the story of Julio Cortes’ Amer-Indian mistress, presented as a woman who has lost her identity by submitting to the foreign invaders. Thus, a cornerstone of Mexican post-colonial nationhood is the issue of gender relations of power, seen through the prism of a national/foreign dialectic.

María Izquierdo’s work epitomizes a subtle, yet poignant response to these issues, accomplished by considering the female as part of the essence of mexicanidad. During the period 1943–48, she created a series of paintings, depicting temporary altars to the Virgin of Sorrows. This is in reference to a tradition of Mexican folk Catholicism, which consisted of assembling altars to the Virgin on a day called Viernes de Dolores (6th day of Lent, late March). Erected just before the Holy Week, these altars were also intricately connected to the agricultural cycle, as this was the day by which the seeds had sprouted, watered by Mary’s tears. Izquierdo reclaims this tradition dating from colonial times, in order to establish an important female presence indicative of national identity.

María Izquierdo, Viernes de Dolores, 1944–55

Her painting Viernes de Dolores presents the viewer with a three-quarter view of the Virgin and offerings which include bowls of sprouted wheat, a candlestick and an unlit candle, two pink roses in a wine glass, oranges, angels molded from sugar paste (alfenique) a cactus fruit and flags made from thin colored paper (papel picado). The painting is hence a tribute not simply to a tradition, which was in danger of being forgotten, but also to Mexican craftsmanship and the popular arts. This is also reflected in the formal qualities of the painting, which are reminiscent of the chromolithographs circulating in Mexico, forming a subtle reference to everyday Mexican culture. Moreover, the Virgin has a noticeably darker skin tone than the typical for such depictions. Hence, Izquierdo’s Dolorosa is overtly associated with an indigenous or a mestiza woman, thus making her more relatable to Mexican women and placing the female at the heart of Mexican identity.

Another example of Izuierdo’s association of mexicanidad with the female and with tradition are her paintings of rural scenes such as gardens and granaries. There is an important common element shared by these works: an enormous type of clay pot used to store a family’s harvest, called a coscomate. Those depicted by Izquierdo are in a shape typical of the state of Morelos — the home of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, whose agrarian reform (a call to the owners of haciendas to return the lands they had appropriated to their lawful owners), which proved crucial to the principals of Post-revolutionary Mexico.

María Izquierdo, Coscomates, 1945

In addition to referencing Zapata’s homeland, Izquierdo’s coscomates have a curvaceous hour-class shape, which is highly evocative of the female body. Their shape being dependent on the amount of harvest that they house, this allusion to the female form constitutes a link to the fertility of the land. This idea of the land as female is further elaborated in Izquierdo’s painting La Tierra (Earth), 1945 where a nude indigenous or mestiza woman emerges out of the ground, one arm raised in a fist and one leg still in the land. Thus, Izquierdo manages to bridge the national, expressed in the political, cultural and everyday significance of Mexican land, and the female, through a personal exploration into the depths of mexicanidad.

Maria Izquierdo, La Tierra, 1945

It is notable that Izquierdo’s paintings have an exquisite childish and naïve quality to them, which has even been described as primitive. Her disregard for three-dimensionality and perspective, the direct handling of line and the flatness of her bright, saturated colors are all factors, which contribute to the anti-academic qualities of her work. This is partly due to the fact that Izqierdo turned for inspiration to the formal qualities of indigenous art, namely Aztec art. The indigenous was largely associated with the female the spiritual.

Although this turn to traditional art forms in search of a specifically national artistic language is reminiscent of the actions of the Russian Neo-Primitivist avant-garde, the possibilities for parallels with other modernist avant-gardes end here. The context of Mexico’s colonial and political history, coupled with centuries old traditions of Mexican Catholicism, make it impossible to link successfully such a profound and culturally specific exploration of Mexican-ness as María Izquierdo’s to any other artistic output. Thus, Izquierdo’s work should be recognized for its peculiar pertaining to a different type of female inclusion in Mexican art and as an expression of Mexican modernism, deviating from the dominant ideology of the Muralists, but maintaining a significant independence from European influences.


Deffebach, Nancy, María Izquierdo & Frida Khalo: challenging visions in modern Mexican art, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015

Greely, Robin Adele, ‘Painting Mexican Identities: Nationalism and Gender in the Work of María Izquierdo’, Oxford Art Journal, 2000, Vol. 23, No 1, pp53–71

Paz, Octavio, The Labyrinth of Solitude: The Other Mexico, Return to the Labyrinth of Solitude, Mexico and the United States, the Philanthropic Ogre, Grove Press, 1944

Colección Andres Blaisten

Art History and Russian MA student at the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store