Mexican Modern Masters: Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros
Early 20th century was a flourishing time for artists. Under different political and social contexts, Avant-Garde artists around the world each contribute their works of art to express their own subjectivities and ideologies toward the society. From Parisian Cubism and Surrealism to Russian Constructivism, the spirits of being challenging, experimental and unorthodox retains. However, for Mexican artists in 1930s, merely being radical in brushstrokes and color palettes is far not enough. Historical background determined that Mexican artists need to challenge and transform their roles in the society to make an impact.
After the 35-year regime of President Diaz with his political inactivity and civil repression, Mexican Revolution burst out in 1910. Followed by several regional rebellions as well as constructions from the 1920s to 30s, Mexico was undergoing a tough time of rebuilding the nation and stabilize its citizens. Mural painting, with its strong accessibility to the public, became the medium between the state and the people. Mexican government began to fund artists and encourage them to create historical or political themed mural paintings in public areas. Compared with frescos in the 14-16th century in European society, which was at service of the church, murals in the 20th century in post colonialized Mesoamerica is at the service of this newly founded nation. Among several Mexican mural masters in the 20th century, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros are the two most characteristic, yet quite different from each other in painting techniques and their relationships to political and social dynamics. Through their artworks, we can reconstruct the social background, political situation, and history of Revolution in Mexico during these times.
The Avant-Garde movement in the early 20th century and its visual styles spread out worldwide from the center of western Europe. At the beginning of the century, a group of Mexican artists funded by the state was sent to Europe to have the classical art education, which includes Diego Rivera, who learned cubism in Paris and later brought it back to Mexico. However, there was a clear shift in the visuals under different social context when Avant-Garde art arrived at Mexico, considering that the Mexican audiences are mostly peasants or working class rather than bourgeoisies. Rivera contended: “I stopped painting in the Cubist manner because of the war, the Russian Revolution, and in the belief in the need for a popular and socialized art. It had to be a functional art related to the world and the times, and had to help the masses achieve a better form of social organization”. Indeed, making Cubism arts only make sense to a small group of audiences. In order to reach out to the general public at this utopian moment, and for art to function as revolution power to support people, shifting in the visuals and contents is an essential step and it signatures the transformation of Mexican Avant-Garde from European Modernism. The key concept in Mexican murals was that “arts should serve for the people”, and the idea of “pure art” in European modern art was abandoned. Just like Siqueiros argued: “we repudiate so-called easel painting and every kind of art favored by the ultra-intellectual circles, because it is aristocratic and we praise monumental art in all its forms, because it is public property… Art must no longer be the expression of individual satisfaction, but should aim to become a fighting, educative art for all.” In another word, the inner spirit of the European Avant-Garde was partly retained in its art forms and partly transformed with more political intentions in Mexican Mural Movement.
Unlike Rivera and his western studying experience, Siqueiros learned art locally in Mexico City. Before the 1930s, he didn’t have the chance to go to the Soviet Union like Rivera to closely learn about and experience Constructivism modern art that similarly functioned as an instrument for political agenda. Nevertheless, Siqueiros was also committed to social themed art. During the revolution, Siqueiros, as the “big shot” or “red devil”, had a “fundamental presence” in the visual arts of Mexico in the 1920s. His sympathies for working class and farmers and his political inclination towards socialism made him one of the leading social activists at the time. Therefore, in both artists’ artworks like The Grinder (Fig.1) and Peasant Mother (Fig.2), Diego Rivera and D.A. Siqueiros portrayed the working people from a similar local perspective. They happened to coincide with this idea and both idealized Mexico as the serene images of the agricultural life and incorporate lives of hard-working indigenous people into the scenes.
“An environment of economic distress and sociological conflicts took its toll, spreading unrest, political activities, and a reliance on government for support.” Muralists accepted the financial support from the Mexican government, and in return, they were exploited artistically and became vehicles of propaganda. While the influence of murals in Mexico was highly praised, the reputation of artists also traveled internationally. After the 1920s, Diego Rivera became the world-famous artist and began to receive commissions outside Mexico, especially the United States. In 1934, the influential and wealthy Rockefeller family from New York City invited Rivera and his assistant team to paint a mural at the ground-floor wall of Rockefeller center, and later this mural became one of the most controversial paintings of the day. In this artwork, Man at the Crossroads (Fig.3), Rivera reflected his political ideology towards Communism by painting Lenin and Soviet Russian May Day parade into the scene. Nelson Rockefeller, the patron of this mural, an upper-class capitalist, was so furious about its content and eventually ordered to hammer it down before the painting was even finished. Fortunately, thanks to the photograph copy, the sketch of this mural was luckily preserved and later reproduced in Mexico City.
In this mural, we can clearly see the sophisticated simplicity of how Rivera expanded his visual languages. He used frontal portrayal of two different scenes, which consists of workers standing by Communists on the right side, and as an ironic contrast, the bourgeoisie in New York City enjoying themselves on the left side. In the very center, a working man is controlling a complicated machine. Rivera, influenced by the idea of “new man” in Russian Constructivism, had a fascination for modern technology and machinery, and he deeply believed that industrialization would eventually lead to the realization of a classless society. Before the worker in the center of the mural, there was a giant orb which is formed of several scenes of biology, chemistry, medicine, and cosmology. These are all important scientific fields that can move a nation forward through technological development. Beneath these characters, it is the rich soil that nourishes everything above it, including plants, people, and all their creations, which is a reference of Rivera acknowledging the land of Mexico and of the mother nature. It is truly amazing how much information Rivera managed to incorporate into a single mural. He carried out his mural as a scientific investigation, outlining the main components, major conflict and the origins of the modern society. He directly showed the heroic figure of working class and contrasted the evil of bourgeois culture. Rivera embodied his solidarity with the working class and the Communist Party, and it occupied a unique historical moment in the 1930s, all of which according to Trotsky, echoed Marxist conception of the social utility of art. This mural, therefore, is a great example of his murals showing that Rivera is loyal to his core principle: to make art for the people, and the protagonists are always heroic workers and peasants.
Just like many other great muralists at that time, David Alfaro Siqueiros was also very dedicated to social and political related themes. However, he was a rather aggressive and bold communist practitioner. Prioritizing political rebellions, he successively experienced several exiles and countless incarcerations in his life. Yet, his journey to the United States, Soviet Union, and Latin America gave him great opportunities to work with artists around the world, and they influence each other in the way of exploring the boundary of modern art. Unlike Rivera, Siqueiros discarded conventional method of mural painting and was keen about technological innovations. In the Portrait of the Bourgeoisie (Fig.4) in Electrical Workers Union Building in Mexico City, Siqueiros creatively applied poly-angular perspective composition into the mural that expanded along the spiral stairs. By doing so, he took the movement of viewers into account, making the whole viewing experience of the mural much more coherent. Traditionally, mural painting was a laborious process. Artists need to map out the original sketch onto the wall and direct a team of assistants finish the painting, like Rivera and his team. Siqueiros, on the other hand, constructed this mural by using spray compressors, auto paint, camera and projectors to increase work efficiency and to explore the potential of painting techniques with the help of technology.
The Portrait of the Bourgeoisie is an interesting and unique mural among Siqueiros’ works. At first glance, the huge silver machine in the center that is making coins easily captures viewer’s eyes. Instead of portraying bourgeoisie as a group of well-dressed old men, Siqueiros showed the voraciousness of bourgeoisie and capitalism in an innovative way by painting a machine that only deals with money. Surrounding this machine, there are a couple of impassioned and robot-like men with gas masks, which may be a reference to politicians. In the background, workers who bear heavy loads are slowing marching and the fire is swallowing a classical temple at far left. “The process is a metaphor for the fate of labor in the late thirties, ‘pulled irresistibly into a final and static and social slot, and subjected to the hub of official power’”. Siqueiros was very likely making reference that the accumulation of capital of Mexico was accomplished at the expense of suffering rural peasants and working class. According to an art critic, the artist was attempting to achieve an “active realism”, in which “the work’s formal strategies, subject matter, and deeper meanings would confirm an essential component of Marxist theory: Hegelian dialectics”. He was very aggressive and blunt about revealing the ugly side of the society, depicting the cruelty of revolution, and showing the sorrow of the people in such an animated figuration.
During the decade of 1930, Mexican Mural Movement reached an unprecedented level. Some art historians call this period “the Mexican Renaissance”, which is a very accurate description the of the productive cultural activities that the time. Mexican modern artists use the wall as their canvas to map out their ideology of the Marxian ideal and cultural values. They brought this traditional painting form back to the forefront of Western modern art, and spread its influence abroad, especially to promote the idea behind mural paintings to its further core values of social and political concepts. Despite the difference that Rivera and Siqueiros had in mural techniques and their relationship to political and social dynamics, both mural masters were “the visual component of [the] need to create that Mexican citizen necessary for the survival of the post-Revolutionary state” and “officially intrusion into political consciousness and social life”. They left invaluable historical and cultural legacies for the future generations. Because of great artists like Diego and Siqueiros, the concept of art as a political message and sociological intentions as in Mexican Mural Movement was further transplanted to other places of the world and served as great inspirations to many modern artists and later art movements.
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 Siqueiros, David Alfaro. Declaration of Social, Political and Aesthetic Principles, 1922
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 Rivera, Diego. The Grinder, 1924. Museo Nacional de Arte.
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 Lecture from professor Grant Kester, VIS22 Formation of Modern Art in Spring 2016
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