Diego Rivera's famous murals at the Palacio Nacional are on every 'Top Ten' list of what to do in Mexico City. Their epic sweep of Mexican history is grand and awe inspiring.
But when I need a fix of Rivera, I prefer his 'other' murals in the Centro Histórico, just two blocks away from the Zócalo, at the offices of the Secretaría de Educación Pública (SEP). This series of earlier murals--over 120 individual works--is on a more human, accessible scale. Painted between 1923 and 1928, they exhibit Rivera's skill in composition, color and his ability to characterize his subjects just as well as the larger, more spectacular murals do at the Palacio.
The SEP is housed in several adjoining colonial buildings which had previously been used as a church, a convent and a customs house. Enter the complex from Plaza Santo Domingo #31, checking out the stairwell murals by Siqueiros, and follow the passageway to the main building where the Rivera murals are.
There's a lot to see here, so I recommend starting on the top floor. A series of paintings depicting the glory of the revolution and the struggle of the working class are tied together with a ribbon, upon which are written the words of several revolutionary songs. There are some wonderfully sarcastic images of rich aristocrats, and one of Frida as a sword-toting mama.
The downstairs murals deal with arts and sciences, and Mexican traditions and fiestas. The color palette is muted in these earlier works, and they have been dulled by years of exposure to the elements. But they are full of the exuberance and teeming energy that is so characteristic of Rivera's work. He often used compositions that reflect the passion of Christ--arms flung wide in crucifixion--to make the cultural and political messages of his work easily understandable to his largely Catholic audience.
The building is open to the public on weekdays only.
Web site in Spanish: http://www.sep.gob.mx/es/sep1/sep1_Murales_de_la_SEP
Restoration and maintenance of the murals, which are in covered arcades open to the air,
goes on constantly.
Rivera made several grisaille paintings--no color--that show off his wonderful sense of line and volume.
The area around the SEP building, especially Plaza Santo Domingo, is well worth exploring.