Saturday Art (and Politics): David Alfaro Siqueiros
David Alfaro Siqueiros was a fascinating personality and painter. Bigger than life in many ways, the date and place of his birth, and even his name, have been hard to pin down. Over time, however, researchers have established that he was born December 29, 1896 in Mexico City and that he was baptized Jose de Jesus Alfaro Siqueiros, but adopted the name ‘David‘ because his first wife called him that, comparing him to Michelangelo’s famous statue of the same name.(1)
Siqueiros was a member of the Mexican Communist Party, very devoted to the struggles of the Mexican people and the proletariat in general. He was jailed and exiled several times for his political activity. He fought in the Spanish Civil war against Franco. He even participated in a failed assassination attempt on Leon Trotsky in 1940 and fled to Chile in the aftermath, with the help of the great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda.(2)
There was tremendous social, political and artistic ferment during Siqueiros’ teen-age years and he was embroiled in much of it. He became an anarchosyndicalist and founded the Syndicate of Revolutionary Mexican Painters, Sculptors and Engravers, which had a newspaper, El Machete.(3) Together with several other School of Fine Arts students, Siqueiros served in the Constitutional Army and, In the aftermath of the fighting, was also involved in the political struggles for control, including between Zapata and Villa. (1)
While in his early 20s, Siqueiros went to Europe to study painting and there met Diego Rivera. Back in Mexico City, Siqueiros and Rivera linked up with the other great Mexican muralist of the time, Jose Orozco. Siqueiros even wrote a manifesto about art and its relationship to the working class–collective art he called it, as distinguished from traditional art which focused on the individual. (1)
It was during his exile of 1932 in the US that he painted an extraordinary mural on a wall above a roof of the Italian Hall on Olvera Street in Los Angeles.
Part of the mural was visible from the street, requiring Siqueiros to accommodate the “normal transit of a spectator” who would be viewing the mural while walking by. (6) Spurning the usual mural technique of water-based pigment on fresh plaster, Siqueiros gathered automotive lacquer paints, and applied them with brushes and an air compressor-powered spray gun, thus pioneering use of the spray gun in artistic painting. Siqueiros was attracted to the automotive lacquer because of its intensity and the startling effect when colors ran together (he later introduced the young Jackson Pollock to these effects). (7) Finally he produced the mural, Tropical America, “a searing attack on US imperialism”. (8)
At the center of the mural is a Mexican peasant who has been strung up on a cross, his wrists tied to the cross’ upper cross-bar and his legs to the bottom one. A rope appears to be around his neck, his lifeless head drooped toward his left shoulder. Standing on the top of the cross is an American eagle, its wings partly spread. Immediately behind the scene of the crucifixion is a building very reminiscent of those at Mayan sites such as Uxmal or Tulum, seemingly going to ruin as jungle vegetation encroaches. The eagle has its head turned to the left, facing two figures, a peasant and a campesino atop a red structure, armed and ready to defend themselves, one with his rifle pointed toward the eagle.
Tropical America so enraged the city fathers that they had the portion of it viewable from the street whitewashed so the “normal transit of a spectator” would not actually enable the spectator to see the mural. The larger part, which is not visible from the street, but has to be seen from the rooftop, did not escape the wrath of the city fathers, either–they finally had the whole thing whitewashed. And by the end of 1932, Siqueiros was deported from the US for his political activities and the mural forgotten. (8)
Tropical America was rediscovered briefly in 1968 simply because the whitewash had peeled off enough to reveal “tantalizing bits of the long forgotten artwork”. Unfortunately, the automotive paint that Siqueiros found so fascinating was cracking and pulling away from the cement and the whitewash worsened the situation. A photographer took a series of photographs which documented, even with the deterioration that had already occurred, the greatness of the mural. (8)
Several years ago, CA Assembly member, Kevin de Leon, was taken into the closed and shuttered old Italian Hall and guided through the ‘dust, disrepair, and general disorder” up to the rooftop where he was able to see enough of the mural to be, as he put it, “blown away”. (8) Finally, interest was kindled in preserving the mural and bringing it back to life. The project to resurrect the mural was the combined effort of the City of Los Angeles, the Getty Conservation Institute and Amigos de Siqueiros.
It was remarkable enough that the old Italian Hall building survived time and the elements. It has now been retrofitted and brought up to code. While a full-color restoration of the mural is not possible, it is being preserved using special chemicals and panels to shield it from the elements.(4) (5) An “Interpretive Center” is nearing completion which will include a large space where a 30-foot long picture of the mural, duplicating as nearly as possible the original color and detail, will be projected onto a wall. Other rooms will show various portions of the mural together with explanations of each. Visitors will be able to view what’s visible of the mural itself, preserved and protected, by access to the roof though they will have to stand a respectable 125 feet from the work.
And so, 80 years after Siqueiros completed Tropical America, and the city fathers of the day had it whitewashed to cover its alarming depiction of the miseries brought on by imperialism, the current city fathers have taken a very active role in bringing the mural back to life and to the place of honor it deserves. Even a priest was present at a celebratory gathering of all involved in saving the mural. As the chronicler of the effort to save Tropical America says, “I can only imagine what Siqueiros, the implacable communist militant, would make of his legacy being blessed by a Catholic Father, warmly embraced by U.S. politicians, and enshrined by a major Yankee art museum.” (8)
The Tropical America project is scheduled to be completed this year. The Getty Center calendar is at this link and hopefully will soon announce the grand opening of Tropical America. It’s quite thrilling to think that, after all this time, one of the greatest works of this passionate artist–for whom art and political struggle were inseparable–will once again be accessible.
“If Frida Kahlo had painted a mural in Los Angeles during the 1930s, the L.A. city government would have long ago wrapped it in an edifice designed by Frank Gehry.” (8) Frank Gehry and the Dwight David Eisenhower memorial provide a different example of the intersection of art and politics. Stay tuned.
(1) Siqueiros Biography:
(2) Trotsky Assassination Attempt
(3) Overview of Tropical America
(4) Technical Challenges to Preservation
(5) Steps Taken to Preserve the Mural
(6) Site Challenges for the Artist
(7) Siqueiros Influence on Pollock
(8) Tropical America