West of the Zócalo, on Avenida Juárez, stands the impressive Palacio de Bellas ArtesIt was designed in 1901, at the height of the Díaz dictatorship, by the Italian architect Adamo Boari and built, in a grandiose Art Nouveau style, of white marble imported from Italy. The construction wasn’t actually completed, however, until 1934, with the Revolution and several new planners come and gone. Some find the whole exterior overblown, but whatever your initial impressions, nothing will prepare you for the magnificent interior – an Art Deco extravaganza incorporating spectacular lighting, chevron friezes and stylized masks of the rain god, Tlaloc.

Much of the interior splendour can be seen any time by wandering into the amazing Art Deco foyer (free) and simply gazing around the lower floor, where there is a good arts bookshop and the Café del Palacio restaurant. Some of the finest interior decor in the building is generally hidden from view in the main theatre, an important venue for classical music, opera and dance, but it can be seen, without attending a concert, if you join a tour, on which you’ll be shown the amazing Tiffany glass curtain depicting the Valley of México and volcanoes, as well as the detailed proscenium mosaic and stained-glass ceiling.

Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes

If you want to see more of the building, you might consider visiting the art museum on the middle two floors, the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes. In the galleries here you’ll find a series of exhibitions, permanent displays of Mexican art and temporary shows of anything from local art-school graduates’ work to that of major international names. Of constant and abiding interest, however, are the great murals surrounding the museum’s central space. On the first floor are Nacimiento de la Nacionalidad (Birth of Our Nationality) and México de Hoy (Mexico Today) – dreamy, almost abstract works by Rufino Tamayo. Going up a level you’re confronted by the unique sight of murals by Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros gathered in the same place. Rivera’s El Hombre en Control del Universo (Man in Control of the Universe), celebrating the liberating power of technology, was originally painted for Rockefeller Center in New York City, but destroyed for being too leftist – arch-capitalist Nelson Rockefeller objected to Rivera’s inclusion of Karl Marx, even though he was well aware of Rivera’s views when he commissioned the work. This is Rivera’s own copy, painted in 1934, just a year after the original. It’s worth studying the explanatory panel, which reveals some of the theory behind this complex work.

Several smaller panels by Rivera are also displayed; these, too, were intended to be seen elsewhere (in this case on the walls of the Hotel Reforma, downtown) but for years were covered up, presumably because of their unflattering depiction of tourists. The works include México Folklórico y Turístico, La Dictadura, La Danza de los Huichilobos and, perhaps the best of them, Agustín Lorenzo, a portrayal of a guerrilla fighter against the French. None of them was designed to be seen so close up, and you’ll find yourself wanting to step back to get the big picture. Catarsis, a huge, vicious work by Orozco, occupies almost an entire wall, and there are also some particularly fine examples of Siqueiros’ work: three powerful and original panels on the theme of Democracía and a bloody depiction of the torture of Cuauhtémoc in El Tormento de Cuauhtémoc, and of the same Aztec ruler’s heroism in Apoteosis de Cuauhtémoc (Cuauhtémoc Reborn). The uppermost floor is devoted to the Museo de la Arquitectura, which has no permanent collection, but frequently has interesting exhibits.

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