The Studies in Art Education Invited Lecture, 2001: The Escuelas De Pintura Al Aire Libre in Mexico: Freedom, Form, and Culture

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The Escuelas alAire Libre in Mexico (1913 and 1920 through 1933) can be identified as the only modernist trend in the teaching of art that deliberately and programmatically integrated the idea of art as free expression and as culture. Therefore, this Mexican movement can be considered an anticipation of postmodernism, using its ideas of production and culture as a kind of ideological umbrella.

In 19th-century England and at the beginning of the 20th, there was some public interest in teaching art as culture. There was an attempt to take art to the common people, to teach them art as history and to awaken an appreciation of art. However those attempts never included the making of art, as if the lower classes were able only to absorb but not to produce art, as if they were not able to be artists. On the other hand, modernism gave priority to expression and to the principles of design.

Thus, one of the findings of the present research is that, although all known modernist approaches to art education between 1910 and 1930 associated freedom of expression with some kind of systematized knowledge, Adolf Best Maugard, the author of the textbook used at the Escuelas al Aire Libre, associated freedom of expression with the analysis of visual culture. His method was used right away at the Escuelas al Aire Libre, even before it was published (Maugard, 1923). Besides presenting beautiful drawings and almost impressionist paintings by children and adolescents, it suggests a series of exercises starting from a systematization of the prevailing forms and lines of Mexican arts and crafts, which he had researched for almost 20 years. He established a kind of formal alphabet of Mexican art composed of 7 patterns, which he advised teachers to use with children, adolescents, and adults, encouraging free combinations among them. For example, his book contains examples of the use of pattern 6 combined with pattern 2, 3, 4, and even of a single pattern combined with itself

I have consulted widely-books, articles, and statements-about the introduction of modernist teaching, and the only parallel with the Escuelas al Aire Libre I was able to find was the work of Marion Richardson, who taught at the same time as Maugard. Richardson attempted to integrate free expression in painting and drawing with the exercise of handwriting. These exercises gradually became graphs with a plastic function and resulted in exercises of abstract form, despite the fact that they were basically linked to the idea of line legibility, control, and beauty in a manuscript. The abstract painting produced by Marion Richardson's students in her calligraphy class had great success in Great Britain, where abstract art was at a point of formal initiation through the decorativism of the Arts and Crafts Movement, of the Omega Workshop, and of the Glasgow Art School.

Marion Richardson established 6 patterns based on the diversity of movements in writing and proposed matching exercises among them, initially only in her calligraphy classes with the same pupils that studied Art with her. Gradually writing patterns and painting intertwined.1

The establishment of formal exercises was a common concern at the Dudley School in England and at the Escuelas al Aire Libre. The difference is that the patterns established by Maugard were based on a reading and analysis of Mexican culture and his objectives, and besides being formal and aesthetic, were also social and political. He intended to awaken the young to an appreciation of Mexican art and help them recover their national pride lost with the submission to European standards until 1911.

Up to the revolution in 1910, Mexican culture, Mexican art and crafts were looked down upon by people of all social classes and only what was produced in Europe aroused admiration. On the other hand, Maugard's book and the Escuelas al Aire Libre attempted to educate the poor people -especially the spoliated Indian. …