The TGP, or Taller de Grafica Popular (Workshop of the Peoples’ Graphics) is a printmaking collective founded in Mexico City in 1937 by a group of radical artists. The term “radical artists” may be overused, but is absolutely appropriate in the case of the TGP. Politically, many TGP artists were to the left of Trotsky. The 2002 film, Frida, offered a colorful vision of the volatile mix of art and revolution that erupted in Mexico City in the 1930’s and 40’s.
The reality was probably even more surreal than the film’s depiction. The most sensational moment in the TGP’s history occurred in 1940. Joseph Stalin had exiled Leon Trotsky, the former Red Army chief, from the USSR. Stalin declared Trotsky a counter-revolutionary, which was essentially a death sentence. Trotsky found refuge in Mexico City in the spare bedroom of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s house. Trotsky and Frida may have had a brief love affair. Diego grew tired of his famous house-guest and found Trotsky another home in the neighborhood.
David Siqueiros, just back from the Spanish Civil War, was a great muralist, a great Stalinist, and a man of action. While not an official member of the TGP, he used the printmaking studio to stage a commando-style assault on Trotsky’s home. Siqueiros and his men wore fake mustaches, real police uniforms, and carried machine guns as they left the TGP. The assault squad was mostly hardened communist miners, but included a few young TGP artists. They attacked Trotsky’s home before dawn on May 24, 1940. An incendiary bomb thrown into the inner courtyard failed to explode. Trotsky hid under his bed as machine gun fire raked the bedroom walls. Trotsky survived, but his grandson was wounded and a bodyguard was killed.
In court, Siqueiros claimed the raid wasn’t an assassination attempt, but rather an “armed demonstration” and received a light sentence. The TGP was shut down briefly and its elected leader, printmaker Leopoldo Mendez, who had no advance knowledge of the attack, was jailed. (Trotsky would not survive the next attempt on his life. Three months later a Spanish communist posing as a Belgian writer stuck a mountaineer’s ice pick in Trotsky’s head.)
Leopoldo Mendez was released from jail, but never forgave Siqueiros. Siqueiros wrote sniping essays criticizing the TGP’s commitment to worldwide revolution. To Mendez’s credit he channeled his considerable creative energy into the TGP’s graphic work. He felt the TGP had been misused by Siqueiros, but the TGP remained staunchly pro-Soviet in the 1940’s, supporting the USSR in the battle against the fascists and Nazis. During these years the TGP produced some of its greatest work, ranging from freely distributed pamphlets and posters to fine art print portfolios exploring the social and political issues of the day.
When I was last in Mexico, I wanted to visit the TGP, but I was unsure if this was a realistic idea. I’d been told the taller (Spanish for studio or workshop) had devolved into an afternoon youth center for kids, not worth a visit. The TGP has no website. My initial online research came up with discouraging info. Some sites declared the TGP had closed down in 1977.
I spent several afternoons at the library of the Institute of Graphic Arts in Oaxaca, reading about the taller. I found a recent book in Spanish by Humberto Musacchio. It stated the TGP had closed, regrouped, reopened, and moved a number of times, but as of 2007 had a permanent home. Unfortunately, Musacchio gives a slightly incorrect address. The TGP is, in fact, at Manuel Villada # 46, not Vincente Villada #46, in Mexico City. The two streets are miles apart, and in a city of 20 million people every block counts.
When I reached Mexico City it took me two days to find the building. As it happened, I got there on January 20. Manuel Villada #46 is near the center of the metropolis, a few short blocks from the General Hospital metro station.
The place seemed deserted. I rang the bell and eventually a woman stuck her head out a second story window and shouted, “Mande? (Can I help you?)” My Spanish is poor, but I had practiced my opening line on the subway. I told her I was a peregrino, a pilgrim looking for the legendary TGP.
“Este es el Taller, fundado en 1937,” she said to my relief. “This is it, founded in 1937.”
The secretary came down to the door. Her name was Guille. She brought me inside, then to a storeroom to show me the taller’s lithography stones. The polished limestone blocks resembled tombstones, about 18 by 24 by 3 inches deep. She told me these were the very stones the great artists Mendez and Beltran had used, but she apologized that she knew little about the process. I knew the stones are reusable. There were no images on any of these stones; they had all been wiped clean. Guille may have sensed my disappointment as she led me to the next room.
She pointed to a rusting hulk of an offset press, half-covered with tarps. She told me, without much conviction, it would soon be repaired. She then led me upstairs to meet an art teacher, Carolina Mucina, who, in turn, introduced me to her class. The six teenagers sat around a large table sketching, one boy, and five girls. They asked where I was from. When they heard I came from Pennsylvania to visit their school their jaws dropped. Ms. Mucina insisted that her students share their sketchbooks with me. They did so with reluctance. The sketches were earnest, personal, and bordered on the sentimental. There was nothing political, pages of flowers and hands, one surreal sketch of eyeglasses doubling as a bicycle. I tried to say something encouraging to each of them.
I was about to take my leave, but decided to share my own sketchbook. I showed them sketches of folk dancers I had done in Oaxaca. I am glad I stayed those extra few minutes. A man entered the building and Carolina Mucina introduced me to Reynaldo Olivares just as he was putting on a canvas apron. She told me I was very fortunate to meet one of the last of the TGP’s master printers.
I told Maestro Reynaldo I was a peregrino, or pilgrim. I recycle my Spanish sentences whenever I can. I asked if I could watch him print. He smiled broadly, told me he would enjoy my company. He spoke a little English, said he had been to the states. He once painted a mural at the University of Michigan.
He quickly set to work. He opened a can of ink and with a putty knife spread the thick black ink on a glass plate. He kneaded the ink with the knife and used a bent nail to pick out the odd glob. When the ink reached the right consistency he took a brayer and methodically inked the carved woodblock. Even in reverse, I could see it would be a portrait of Zapata.
Maestro Reynaldo talked as he worked; he told me he was born in Veracruz. He was 61 years old, and he had studied with one of the TGP’s greatest artists, Alberto Beltran, in Xalapa. He moved to Mexico City in the 60’s. In 1968, on the 2nd of October, the Mexican army massacred an unknown number of protesting students. Reynaldo commemorated that great tragedy in his art and in his life. He lived in the urban squatter’s protest camp named for the date of the massacre, Camp 2 de Octubre. He was the official muralist of the camp, a sort of visual community organizer. Like other Mexican muralists, when he ran out of walls he turned to making prints.
When he learned I was from Pennsylvania, he asked if I’d ever met Andrew Wyeth, who had just died. I had not. He spoke with reverence of Wyeth’s painting, Christina’s World.
Reynaldo was in good spirits. That very day he had found a bright white paper that cost just 10 pesos a sheet, about 75 cents. He was hoping it might be suitable for woodblock printing and was preparing a test run. His excitement about this paper’s potential was contagious.
He set the carved woodblock, inked side up, on the press bed, then he draped the clean white paper over it. On top of the paper he positioned a large rectangle of printer’s felt to help equalize the pressure. He announced that he was going to dedicate this first print of the afternoon to the memory of “Andrew Wyeth de Pennsylvania.”
Hand over hand, he began turning the great wheel, forcing the press bed slowly under the solid steel roller. It clearly took some strength to turn the wheel. He ran the block through the press three times. He lifted the felt. He took a deep breath before pulling the paper away from the board. His eyes shone with delight as he turned the fresh print toward me. It looked spectacular. There was solid ink coverage, high contrast, and crisp edges. “Exito!” I said. Reynaldo repeated the word, smiling, “Si, Exito!” “Success!”
Reynaldo set the print on the floor to dry. He turned cranks on the press to make slight adjustments to the pressure. He went back to the inking station and began re-inking the block. He spoke of his love for the TGP’s tradition as an artists’ collective. Mora, Beltran, Bracho, those who preceded him, they put aside their egos when they worked here, he said. They cared deeply about art and about human rights issues worldwide, not just Mexican issues. He told me some of great TGP printmakers, including founding member Pablo O’Higgins, and the African-American artist Elizabeth Catlett, came from the United States.
I would later learn from his friend, journalist Dick Reavis, that Reynaldo Olivares never earned enough from his art to provide for his family. The TGP doesn’t permit artists to number their prints. This rule defies the art gallery business practice for affixing value to prints. Lower numbers and limited editions command higher prices. And while TGP prints sometimes sell in the US auction market for hundreds or thousands of dollars, none of that money goes to the artist. The secondary art market only enriches the gallery owner or collector.
Reynaldo never complains about money. Reavis, a former Texas Monthly editor, told me he had covered the Mexican left for nearly forty years. He said he’d “met them all” and had met only one saint, Reynaldo Olivares.
For years Reynaldo earned a living by painting numbers on taxis. Every morning, armed with a can of black paint and a brush, Reynaldo Olivares of the Taller Grafica Popular, the master printmaker, would stand on a busy Mexico City street corner. Cabs would pull over to the curb, and he would freehand letter the taxi identification numbers on the auto body. Nowadays, 21st century technology, in the form of vinyl lettering, has put an end to Reynaldo’s source of income.
After printing four equally fine impressions of the Zapata print, Reynaldo showed me the photo he had used for reference. It was the famous photo of the two revolutionary generals, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, at their meeting in Mexico’s presidential palace on Dec. 4, 1914. That day, Villa and Zapata were the two most powerful men in Mexico. Villa joked with Zapata insisting they take turns sitting in the presidential chair for a photograph. “I didn’t fight for that,” said Zapata. “We should burn that chair to end all ambitions.” The brief exchange sums up the two men, and today, long after they were each assassinated, it is Zapata who is remembered as the greatest of the great revolutionaries. I suppose that is also why Zapata prints outnumber Villa prints by a wide margin.
I understand that not everyone shares my affection for the old-fashioned didactic imagery of Mexican political prints. Some might argue these narrative images and the physical process of woodblock printing are outmoded in our digital age. When I see a printed image that combines the right mix of technical ability, humanity and conviction, it stops my heart. Standing there in the TGP, I realized I really was a pilgrim, and I had found a sacred place.
It was getting dark; I told Reynaldo I had to be going. He asked me to stay to watch him print one more print. He explained he wanted to make a special dedication. It seemed it might be rude to leave, so I consented to stay for one last print.
Reynaldo left for a moment and came back from a storeroom with a large weathered woodblock. I looked at the image and could see a snarling German Shepherd.
He told me he had carved this image years ago. It was based on a 1963 photo from Life magazine of the police in Birmingham, Alabama using police dogs to attack civil rights demonstrators.
While he inked the block, he asked me if I had seen President Obama’s inauguration that morning. I hadn’t; I was staying with friends who had no TV. Then he asked me if I thought Obama would change the way the United States deals with the rest of the world. His question was sincere; I gave it some thought. I told him, yes, I thought Obama would change things, ‘por grados,’ by degrees.
Reynaldo Olivares nodded slowly, as if that was good enough for him. When he finished the inking he carried the woodblock to the press. He spread down a fresh sheet of paper, covering the face of the snarling dog. He spoke softly in Spanish. For my sake, he kept it simple, “ I dedicate this print in honor of President Barack Obama,” he said, “—and Rosa Parks.”
From top: TGP logo; “Soviet Marshall Timoshenko, (defended Moscow from the Nazis) Lithograph, Leopoldo Mendez,1942; Photo of Taller Grafica Popular, 2009; “Refugees”, relief print, Reynaldo Olivares,1998; “Corrido del Voto de la Mujer,” (Ballad for Woman’s Voting Rights), Alberto Beltran,1955; “The Campesino’s (landless peasant’s) Situation”, by Leopoldo Mendez, linocut; “2 DE OCTUBRE NO SE OLVIDA!” (Never forget the 2nd of October) silkscreen, Reynaldo Olivares,1992, Photo of Reynaldo Olivares printing at TGP in January, 2009; “1953 Workers Congress Poster,” (detail) woodblock, by Pablo O’Higgins and Francisco Mora, “Zapata,” and “Birmingham, Alabama,” (detail) woodblock, Reynaldo Olivares.
Special thanks to Karina Rodriquez, Archivist at TGP, Mexico City, and Dick Reavis for images. All rights retained by original artists.
Docspopuli site with images from UC Berkeley library:
Leopoldo Méndez: Revolutionary Art and the Mexican Print, by Deborah Caplow, 2007, University of Texas Press, focuses on Mendez and is the best English language book on the TGP. Review by Lincoln Cushing, art historian, here: http://www.docspopuli.org/articles/CaplowReview.html
English and Spanish essay on the Blanco Collection of TGP prints:
Their Boots Were Made for Walking: El Taller de la Gráfica Popular, illustrated essay by Mexican writer, Carmen Boullosa, based on her 2007 Princeton University lecture. Reprinted at Words Without Borders, online magazine. http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?lab=BoullosaBoots
Princeton’s TGP site:
The Attempted Assassination of Leon Trotsky by Joseph Hansen
From the U.S. Socialist Workers Party publication, Fourth International, August, 1940