About Alfredo Zalce's

Untitled Woodcut


REPRODUCTION: What can I learn about how this reproduction is different from the original artwork?

The image on the computer is a digitized image taken from a photographic slide of the original woodcut. The original woodcut is 15" high x 18" wide.

CONDITION: What can I determine about the condition of the artwork?

The original work is in generally good condition except that there is a triangular-shaped discoloration in the middle area (just in front of and slightly including the nose of the locomotive) which is reflected in the digitized image.

SUBJECT MATTER: What can I determine about what the artwork depicts, if anything?

The woodcut depicts a scene containing well-known features of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1919. In the foreground lies a humble, wounded Mexican revolutionary of Indian stock. He wears the traditional dress and sandals (called huaraches) of the Mexican peasant. His head wound is being tended to by his barefoot female companion. She is identified as one of the rieleras (camp followers, riding the comandeered trains with their male revolutionary counterparts) through reference to the locomotive that fills the upper left background. In the right foreground, rifles are arrayed in a self-supporting tripod, in the middle of which is a large cache of ammunition, including cartridge belts. In the right background appear Mexican peasants. One is a male revolutionary with a rifle and three are women carrying loads.

TOOLS, MATERIALS, AND PROCESSES: What can I learn about how the artwork was made?

Alfredo Zalce's woodcut is an example of one of the earliest methods of making prints from a relief surface, dating from at least the 5th century AD in China. A woodcut print is one of a series of multiple original artworks all printed from the same woodblock. The artist cuts into the surface of a block of wood using a gouge. The gouge cuts more smoothly and easily with than against the linear grain of the wood. The predominance of horizontal lines in Zalce's print (in the sky, on the ground, and on the train and its tracks) suggest that the grain in his block ran horizonatally. Straight lines are easier than curved lines to cut into a hard wooden surface. Zalce executed even curved forms, like the woman's arms and the folds of her clothing with rather angular lines.

After the artist completes the image on the block it is printed onto a sheet of paper. The artist applies ink to the surface of the block with a brayer (roller). The brayer rolls across the uncut surfaces of the block distributing ink, but does not reach down to ink the gouged areas. The artist places a sheet of paper over the inked block and applies pressure. When the paper is removed it presents a reverse image of the block.

Zalce's brown (now discolored) paper was larger than the block. The block was only as large as the outermost areas of black on the print. The brown areas of Zalce's print are untouched paper. The black areas were printed with the ink from the uncut top surfaces of the block. When Zalce planned his print he had to work backwards, making marks where there would be untouched paper in his print and placing guns on the left, if he wanted them to appear on the right in his final print.

As a form of print permitting editions of multi-originals, the woodcut gained popularity in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s through the illustrations of Rockwell Kent and the artists working in the Work Projects Administration that was established by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression. Similarly, in Mexico the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP) was established by the Mexican government as part of a national printing program and a workshop for popular graphic arts. Alfredo Zalce was one of the cofounders of TGP and worked occasionally in the medium of the woodcut.

Sensory Lesson Index

SENSORY ELEMENTS: What visual elements do I see?

Texture is often the dominant sensory quality in woodcuts. Zalce's print includes a variety of textured areas, for example, thin, parallel straight lines in the train engine; long, slightly curved tapered gouges in the sky; shorter gouges in many directions in the mounatins; and quite short, almost triangular gouges on the ground.

FORMAL ORGANIZATION: How do the elements in the artwork work together?

There is a strong formal contrast between, on the one hand, vertical and horizontal lines, and on the other, diagonals. The vertical and horizontal lines are prominent in the recumbant, ailing revolutionary, the horizontal railroad tracks, and the locomotive. Set against these and somewhat in opposition to them are the diagonals that characterize the rifles and the woman. The diagonals that frame the woman especially contrast with the horizontals that set off the man. In this formal use of line, in the subject matter (a woman nursing a wounded man with a bandage), and in the dynamic posture of the woman, caught in mid-movement, partially kneeling and steadied by her covered right leg and tense left foot which is supporting her weight, there is an echo of the Pietás and similar images of women comforting Christ or a saint that was common to the Old Masters.

On the left side, the locomotive which appears in midground, blocks off the foreground. In the right half of the print a traveling Mexican male and female peasants are in the background against the backdrop of mountains or large hills.


Alfredo Zalce was born January 12, 1908 in Patzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico. His father and mother were both professional photographers. Zalce attended elementary and high school in Mexico City; during these years he also helped his parents develop film. He studied art (supporting himself as a photographer) at the Escuela Central de Artes Plásticas, which later was to be named the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes. At the age of 20 his works were exhibited in the Mexican pavilion of the Exposición de Artes e Industrias, Seville, Spain (1928), where he won second place in the category of painting.

In 1930 the Mexican government gave him the assignment to found a painting school in Taxco, Guerrero. In 1931 he began attending the lithography workshop of Emilio Amero together with other artists including Carlos Orozco Romero, Carlos Mérida, and Francisco Dosamantes, and he has produced numerous lithographs dating from that year. In 1932 he became an art teacher working for the Mexican Secretariat of Public Education and he completed two al fresco murals at two separate public schools.

His first one man show (both graphic arts and painting) was in 1932 at the Sala de Arte de la Secretaría de Educación Pública. The following year he exhibited in Chicago.

Zalce was a very active member of politically-progressive groups including the Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, 1933-dissolved in 1937), and in 1937 he was one of the cofounders of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (Workshop of the People's Graphics), together with other important artists including Leopoldo Méndez (1902-1969), Pablo O'Higgins (1904-1983), and Luis Arenal (b. 1908).

Between 1937-1950, Zalce painted four murals on the walls of schools in the states of Colima, Puebla, Michoacán, and in Mexico City. In 1945 he completed one of his most famous works, the portfolio Estampas de Yucatán after spending four months in southern Mexico. In 1948 he had a major exhibition at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes that was subsequently offered in his home state of Michoacán at the Museo Michoacano de Morelia.

In 1950 he became the director of the Escuela Popular de Bellas Artes de Morelia (sponsored by the University of Michoacán) and the Escuela de Pintura y Artesanías de Morelia (sponsored by the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes). He has worked primarily in Morelia from that date. In the 1950s he completed major commissions including the Chamber of Deputies of the State of Michoacán and the City Hall of Morelia.

In 1960, seventeen of his prints formed part of the collective exhibition of the TGP, "450 años de lucha. Homenaje al pueblo mexicano." In 1981, the Museo de Arte Moderno de Chapultepec (Mexico City) had a major retrospective celebrating 50 years of his work in which were exhibited 200 works of painting, sculpture, textiles, drawings, and graphics.


NATURAL CONTEXT: What can I learn about the natural environment where the artwork was made?

The work reflects the essentially dry, barren area of northern Mexico with great, relatively uninhabited spaces. This region that mostly experienced the commandering of trains for revolutionary purposes as well as the rielera (female camp follower and occasionally revolutionary fighter) phenomenon during the Revolution of 1910.

It should be noted that the natural context of the work in this project is not typical of Zalce's work generally. Zalce himself was born in one of the lushest parts of Mexico, at its most famous lake (Pátzcuaro) and he worked primarily in a lush, subtropical environment of Morelia and most of his art reflects those physical qualities.

FUNCTIONAL CONTEXT: What can I learn about how the artwork was used?

The work is printed with only one color, black, on brown paper which lends itself to inexpensive duplication and distribution among ordinary Mexicans.

The work reflects what Art historian Raquel Tibol calls Alfredo Zalce's "missionary sense of art." That mission was to instruct the younger generation in the achievements of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, to continue to stir the people to revolutionary zeal, and to help the Mexican people see their potential for progressing through concerted political action.

Tibol goes on to observe, "If the Revolution [of 1910] had provided to artists a way to combat a framework of sanctioned traditions and national landscapes, the cultural mission of these artists reflected their understanding of the needs of the people who aspired to conquer an elemental level of human dignity. The artistic result was a humanism without poses, the intimate humanism of artists like Zalce, Leopoldo Mendez, Angel Bracho, and Pablo O'Higgins. (translation, Gary D. Keller Cárdenas). Raquel Tibol, Gráficas y neográficas en México. Mexico City: Secretaría de Educación Pública/Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1987, pp. 187-8.

CULTURAL CONTEXT: What can I determine about what people thought, believed, or did in the culture in which the artwork was made?

Beginning with the administration of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) and running at least until the massive student protests against Mexico and the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) at the time of the Olympic games in Mexico City (1968), there was close collaboration between the government and artists' groups. The PRI considered itself and was accepted by the vast majority of Mexicans as the political inheritor of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. With official government support, images of the Mexican Revolution abounded and were directed primarily at instructing the post-revolutionary generations about the glories of that Revolution.

There was a political calculus in the Mexican government to foster art that helped perpetuate its position of almost absolute authority, that reinforced its revolutionary image (although the promise of the Revolution of 1910 had long since been highly attenuated) and also, to a certain degree that stirred up nationalist sentiment, particularly directed toward the United States. It wasn't until decades later, especially beginning in 1968, that the stagnation of the PRI and for the most part, its corrupt betrayal of ordinary Mexicans became apparent. In the 1940s the artists of the Taller de Gráfica Popular, depicted the Revolution or other images of workers, peasants, and ordinary Mexicans without self-consciousness or a sense that they were being coopted for public relations purposes by the Mexican government. Similarly, the Mexican public strongly supported the PRI, even though essentially it reflected a one-party system in Mexico.

The Taller de Gráfica Popular emerged out of the earlier Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, 1933-1937), as a leftwing, progressive group of artists in response to and encouraged by the administration of Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas. This was a period of intense nationalism. Cárdenas is best known in the United States for having expropriated the interests of American oil companies and nationalized the industry under a Mexican government oil company. It was also a period of official government anti-fascisim, leading up to Mexico's involvement on the part of the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and the Mexican declaration of war against the Axis in 1942.

ARTWORLD CONTEXT: What can I learn about the art ideas, beliefs, and activities that were important in the culture in which the artwork was made?

This was a period where there was a close correlation between the creation of art and political activities. The "Declaration of Principles" of the Taller de Gráfica Popular makes that clear, stating: "The T.G.P. undergoes a constant effort, in order to benefit by its works the progressive and democratic people, especially in the fight against fascist reaction. Considering that the social aim of plastic art is inseparable from good artistic quality, the T.G.P. strives to develop the individual technical capacity of its members. The T.G.P. lends its professional cooperation to similar workshops and cultural institutions, to popular or labor organizations and to all progressive movements and institutions." TGP Mexico: El Taller de Gráfica Popular: doce años de obra artística colectiva/The Workshop for Popular Graphic Art: A Record of Twelve Years of Collective Work, (Mexico City: La Estampa Mexicana, 1949), 1.


MAKER'S INTENTION: What can I learn about why the maker wanted the artwork to look the way it does?

Writing in 1947, Alfredo Zalce expressed his general views about the goals of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP). That statement well summarizes the artist's intention about the work digitally reproduced in this project: "The goals of those of us who founded the TGP were to do graphics for the people: our clients were workers organizations. Prints had an established function and a real consumer, not a hypothetical client. The TGP did not enter contests nor did we win prizes or honorifics. We did not follow fashions because our work was vital. With all frankness, if a print was not liked by those who had asked for it or by other members of the TGP, it was redone and that was that. If critics liked it or didn't like our art was of no importance because our efforts reflected our participation in an anti-Nazi celebration, the founding of a school, or a First of May celebration. A specific social climate caused our art to flower." Alfredo Zalce letter to Antonio Rodríguez, 1949, in Raquel Tibol, Gráficas y neográficas en México, Mexico City: Secretaría de Educación Pública/Universidad Nacional de México, 1987, 179 (Transl. from the Spanish by Gary D. Keller Cárdenas).

Viewer Lesson Index

ARTWORLD VIEWER UNDERSTANDING: What can I determine about how the viewer, patron, or user understood the artwork?

The viewers for which the work was created were the common or humble Mexican workers and peasants, both men and women. The work has a certain didactic purpose, to illustrate a liberating aspect of the Mexican revolution in which men and women worked together for a common purpose.

With official support from the Mexican government and its ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, this work and many others like it were widely circulated at exhibitions or printed in books and on posters in order to evoke the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and instruct the generation that immediately followed about its achievements.

CULTURAL IMPACT: What can I learn about how the artwork was understood within culture in which it was made?

The artwork was part of a government-supported and sanctioned corpus of popular, widely-circulated revolutionary images. While the images were stirring, militant, and often violent, they were not controversial. The Mexican citizenry of the 1930s and 1940s reflected back on its Revolution with great pride and for the most part strongly supported the Mexican government and the PRI which had inherited that Revolution

Jean Charlot, one of the major Mexican artists of the period has stated: "President Lázaro Cárdenas was a man of good faith, sworn to implement the goals so much talked of, so much fought for, of the past revolution: education, repartition of farm lands, expropriation of foreign oil interests. The newly created graphic workshop, eager to help, took it upon itself to act as image maker to the government. Pamphlets, penny sheets, portfolios--each played its role in a plannng that was both vast enough to embrace a nation and minute enought that, however isolated, no Indian minority group was slighted. When World War II loomed imminent, it added as targets three puppet-figures, international dictators that no image maker could resist: Mussolini, Hitler, Franco." Jean Charlot, "José Guadalupe Posada and His Successors," in Posada's Mexico, ed. Ron Tyler (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress; Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, 1979), 51.


STYLE: How does the artwork look like other artworks?

The print has an immediacy that permits the ordinary Mexican to readily recognize the subject matter. The revolutionary and his caring woman, the locomotive, the railroad tracks, the rifles, and the cartridge belts are all represented large and sharply so that the Mexican proletariat and peasantry can easily identify the subject matter as a representation of the participation of two of their own class in the Mexican Revolution of 1910. This revolution has had the status of the premier liberating event of the 20th century for economically disenfranchised Mexicans.

The characteristics of immediacy, illustrative images quite readily understood even by illiterate Mexican workers or peasants, and relative accessibility through the printing of inexpensive editions, was the trademark of the Taller de Gráfica Popular. During the years from 1937-1949, the TGP published 555 portfolios and 46,750 prints. Over the years there were 26 active members.

The work is comparable in techniques and themes to several other major artists of TGP including Luis Arenal (b. 1908), the African-American Elizabeth Catlett (b. 1919, in the U.S. who became a naturalized Mexican citizen), Francisco Dosamantes (b. 1911), Leopoldo Méndez (1902-1069), Francisco Mora (b. 1922), José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), and Everardo Ramírez (1906-date of death unknown).

INFLUENCE: What can I learn about how earlier artworks influenced this artwork or about whether this artwork influenced later artworks?

The artists of the Taller de Gráfica Popular, founded in 1937, saw Daumier, Goya, and the great master of 19th and early 20th century popular Mexican art, José Guadalupe Posada, as their precursors. About Posada, Alfredo Zalce stated in an interview: "The Taller de Gráfica Popular was inspired by the philosophy and ideas of Posada. Our goal was to transform our art into a means of social education and reform." Roger Crossgrove, "An Interview with Alfredo Zalce," Artists Proof VII (1967), 34.

It has been noted by Paul Schimmel, curator of the "Calfifornia Collects: El Taller de Gráfica Popular en México exhibit of the Newport Harbor Art Museum, May 14 through June 27, 1982, who writes in the exhibit catalog, that recently "woodblock prints are emerging again as a major grpahic media in contemporary art" and that for this reason, "artists are looking back at German Expressionism and popular Mexican graphics as a source for a rejuvenated graphic art that addresses human issues. The return to the medium of woodcuts is characteristic of a few Chicano artists, most notably Carlos Cortez "Koyokuikatl" whose image of Ricardo Flores-Magón shows the direct influence of the Taller de Gráfica Popular with which it also shares the political goals of solidarity and consciousness-raising among common people.

THEMES: What general ideas connect this artwork to other artworks?

The theme of the artwork is the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1919 as realized not by generals and commanders but by Mexican peasant men and women, humble people who make use of the advanced technology of the times for combat. Both the subject matter, e.g., a Mexican peasant woman comforting a man and the way it is composed reinforces the theme in a direct, understandable, and immediate way that permits common or humble Mexican workers and peasants, both men and women, to identify with that Revolution. The specific technological aspect that is depicted is the comandeering of trains by the Mexican revolutionaries of 1910 of both sexes. The print shows that through the use of trains a quicker, less difficult mode of military transportation is established, thus permitting revolutionary action that is enhanced and extended to women, including in the form of physical combat.

The elements of relief and comfort relate Zalce's print to Luis Jiménez and other pietás such as Michelangelo's Vatican and Rondanini pietás. However, the subject matter radically departs from traditional representations of comfort in that divine or exalted figures are not present. Instead, two humble Mexican peasants are depicted. This presentation highlights the theme of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 as a mass movement that incorporated both humble men and women, almost a family movement.