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Monday, October 3, 2011

David Siqueiros

At various times in the past I've bemoaned the fact that all too often, when a country's art is mentioned, there comes to mind only one, or at most, two well-known artists, as if someone had "elected" them to represent all art from that country. Some countries like the US, France, German, England, and Italy are so culturally strong and the artwork there too broad to suffer this problem. But in many others, it's a recurring phenomena. From Spain we can only think of Velasquez and El Greco (who, incidentally, as his name suggests, was Greek, not Spanish). Picasso was Spanish, but ironically leads the pack of French artists instead. From Russia, Chagall seems to be the only one who comes to mind. From the Netherlands, Rembrandt; from Switzerland, Klee; and from Mexico, Rivera. Worse still, some countries are unrepresented at all, seeming to have no painting tradition whatsoever. Quick, name an Israeli painter, an Egyptian painter, an Argentine painter, a Yugoslavian painter. Okay, so that's not quite fair, but you get the idea.

Portrait of the Bourgeoisie, 1939-40, David Siqeiuros
Mexico is an interesting case in point. Diego Rivera seems to be the star atop the tree, but his wife, Frieda Kahlo was no minor talent, and his protege and assistant, Clemente Orozco made quite a mark for himself in the mural business as well. And independent of the Rivera clan was David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose mural work certainly stands on a par with Rivera's and is, in many ways, superior. His massive, 1000 square-foot Portrait of the Bourgeoisie, painted in 1939 for the Electrical Workers Union Building in Mexico City is far bigger than most of Rivera's efforts and seems far more dynamic in its revolutionary upheaval, consumed in the fires of its own incredible detail. In it he depicts the temple of Liberte', Egalite', and Fraternite' (from the French Revolution) in flames while a robotic eagle soars into the unrest amid sweeping factory smokestacks and radio towers soaring toward a vanishing point at the top-center edge of the painting. The work seems to be a horrific vision of WW III industrial chaos verging on the apocalypse.

The People for the University, the University for the People,
1952-56, David Siqueiros, University of Mexico, Mexico City
Siqueiros was born in Camargo City, Chihuahua, in 1896. He studied at Mexico's respected San Carlos Academy where he was a leader in the historic student strike of 1911. An unabashed, Marxist revolutionary, he studied the avant-garde in Europe. In Barcelona, he paused long enough to publish a treatise on new American (not U.S.) art in which he made a case for a modern, heroic style of painting blending the best of European movements with Pre-Columbian traditions. As can be seen by his mural portfolio, he was intensely political (even more so than Rivera) which made him a much harder sell in winning American commission during his years living and teaching in New York. All his life he fought censorship of his own work and others, even being jailed in Mexico for a time in 1964. If you think you "know" Mexican art, based upon Rivera, take another look.

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