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David Alfaro Siqueiros

David Alfaro Siqueiros. Self-Portrait.

(1896 - 1974)



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David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896 - 1974) was a Mexican painter and one of the founders of the Mexican Mural Movement, one of the "Big Three", with Jose Clemente Orosco and Diego Rivera. He was also a Communist, life-long political activist, veteran of the Mexican Revolution and Spanish Civil War, sometime political prisoner, outspoken polemicist and would-be assassin. Throughout his life, he espoused the ideal that art, by its nature, had to be political in order to carry any substance, decrying the art of capitalist Europe and the United States. Siqueiros went, perhaps, the furthest of all the muralists in his attempts to combine his political views and aesthetic ideals with modern technical means to create a truly "public art"

Early Life

Jose David Alfaro Siqueiros was born on December 29, 1896, in the town of Santa Rosalia, in the northern Mexican province of Chihuahua (today, the town is called Camargo) as the second of three children. David's father was Cipriano Alfaro, an affluent lawyer who came from a line of well-to-do land-owners, a disciplinarian and a religious Catholic. David's artistic qualities came in large part from his mother's side of the family, Teresa Siqueiros de Barcenas, of Creole hacendado stock, which included musicians, poets and artists.

Teresa died in 1898, soon after giving birth to David's younger brother Chucho. Cipriano, unsure of how to deal with his three children, gave them into the care of their paternal grandparents Eusebita and Antonio Alfaro. Antonio, called "Siete Filos" or "Seven Blades" for his prowess, had fought on the Republican side against the Mexican Imperialists and the French in the War of the French Intervention (1861-1867). He was a strict disciplinarian, as befit his military background, but also held quite a different set of values than his cultured, university-educated son Cipriano. A true vaquero, he taught his grandchildren to ride half-tamed horses, handle fighting bulls that he raised at his ranch, and shoot. Eusebita, a much more gentle soul, took care to see that the children did not run completely wild, but she would unfortunately pass away a short time later. Siete Filos lost no time getting married again -- this would be his third wife -- after which the children were taken out of school and began a wholly carefree existence at the ranch.

When their father learned of this, he was not amused. In 1907, after a row with Siete Filos, Cipriano took his children back to live with him in Mexico City, where the boys were enrolled at the Catholic Franco-English School, run by the Marist monks. Here, for the first time, David was exposed to art: religious paintings by Mexican colonial artists, which produced an indelible effect on him. Later, he had his first art lessons at the Marist school with the painter Eduardo Solares Gutierez.

By 1910, the young Siqueiros had firmly decided to pursue a painting career, even if his father was not in love with the idea, and so, upon enrolling at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, he simultaneously began taking art lessons at the San Carlos School of the National Academy of Fine Arts. These were years of great political upheaval in Mexico. Since 1884, the country had been ruled by Porfirio Diaz, nominally an elected president, but in reality retaining power through electoral fraud and violence. Needless to say, after more than a quarter-century of his rule, there was growing discontent in Mexico. In the countryside, peasants were forming into armed gangs to resist the hacienda system. By the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1911, there would be entire guerrilla armies in the North and South, led by men like Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata and Pascual Orozco. Society in Mexico City was split down the middle, and Siqueiros was in a position to closely observe both ends of the spectrum. The students at the National Preparatory School, all hailing from affluent backgrounds, -- not to mention Siqueiros' own father -- had very conservative leanings, supporting the porifirista government or, at the most, advocating gradual reform. The art students at the San Carlos School were, by contrast, very left-leaning. The budding painter was not long in choosing sides.

Mexican Revolution

In 1911, the art students went on strike in protest against a particularly conservative professor. This rapidly escalated to a protest against the establishment in general, fanned by the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. The artists' movement took inspiration from the ideas of Geraldo Murillo, called "Dr. Atl", who called for a rejection of European, especially French, academism -- then the prevalent school of art in Mexico -- and the creation of a Mexican National art, based on Pre-Columbian Native American art. The leaders of the students included many painters who would later become prominent figures in the Mural Movement, notably among them Jose Clemente Orozco.

Through his fellows, Siqueiros soon became familiar with communist and anarchist writings, embittering him further against the upper middle class to which he himself belonged. He had an argument with his father, witnessed by several of his father's wealthy friends, and, after an explosive scene, David left the house for good, lodging with his classmate Jose Maria Fernandez Urbina.

Meanwhile, the Mexican Revolution was heating up. In 1911, Porfirio Diaz had been ousted from power and Francisco Madero, a moderate pro-democracy politician, was elected president. Unfortunately, he was unwilling to take a hard-line stance against Diaz' supporters, which allowed many of them to retain important positions in the new government. In 1913, this allowed Victoriano Huerta, a general under the porfirista regime elevated to Commander-in-Chief of the Mexican army, to stage a successful coup against the new democracy. This plunged the country into a new period of chaos and violence that was to last for the next three years.

The art students were faced with a new political climate. The Huerta regime wanted to hear none of their grievances and was prepared to use violence to quell the unrest. The academy was raided. Several of the more outspoken student leaders were arrested and executed. The rest dispersed. Siqueiros, along with two friends, fled to Veracruz where they enlisted in the anti-Huerta Constitutionalist army, led by Venustiano Carranza.

While in the military, Siqueiros traversed much of Mexico. With his battalion, he fought in Veracruz, Chiapas and Oaxaca, before being sent west to Nayarit. He was soon promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and became a staff officer. After Huerta's fall from power, the victorious Constitutionalists fell out among themselves, with Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata aligning themselves against the new government of Carranzo. Fighting the villistas, Siqueiros would further see action through most of the north and west of the country. By the end of the war in 1918, some four years later, he had attained the rank of Captain and had been wounded. The military life had allowed him to interact with people from all walks of life that he would never otherwise have met -- workers, peasants, Indians. These experiences would influence his political views and give him a greater understanding

The First Murals

At the end of the war, Siqueiros settled in Guadalajara in the west of the country, where he began to paint after over 4 years in which he hadn't so much as held a brush in his hand. Works included portraits, executed primarily for profit, and paintings themed on the Revolution as the artist had experienced it. There is much religious imagery present in his output of this early period that would be absent after Siqueiros came fully to embrace Communist ideology.

Later that year, the artist married Graciela Amador (called "Gachita"), the sister of his comrade-in-arms Captain Octavio Amador. Soon afterwards, Siqueiros received a grant from the government to study art in Europe. On their way to the continent, the couple made a stop in New York City where Orozco was living in self-imposed exile, ultimately staying for the better part of a year. They finally arrived in Paris in 1919.

The French capital was a disappointment for Siqueiros in artistic terms. He quickly found Diego Rivera, with whom he had been acquainted before the outbreak of the Revolution, and who was then going through a Cubist period. Through him, David was introduced to Georges Braque and other Cubists. He admired and was influenced by the work of Cezanne. The artist found, however, the art of Europe of this period to be dispirited and decadent, narrowly concerned with painting as an end in itself, rather than its greater meaning for society and the world.

Siqueiros thought very differently of the murals of the Italian Renaissance, which he had the chance to see during a trip to Italy with Rivera. These, he claimed, were true public art, imbibed with meaning and accessible to the people. Later that year, while staying in Barcelona, the artist organized the publication of the magazine Vida Americana (American Life). In its first -- and only -- issue, he called for the creation of a national monumental art, based on pre-Columbian Native American art.

This idea had already captured the minds of the artistic avant-garde in Mexico and that very year, the Minister of Public Education Jose Vasconcelos inaugurated a government program to sponsor the painting of nationalistically-themed murals. When Siqueiros and Graciela finally returned to Mexico in 1922, work was already under way.

Siqueiros' first mural, painted in a stairway of the National Preparatory School, was The Elements (1922). The work is rather neutral in theme, but this was soon to change. In 1923, the artist joined the recently-formed Mexican Communist Party (PCM). Simultaneously, and at his urging, the artists formed the Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors, of which he was elected secretary general. In 1924, they began to publish the newspaper El Machete, with a stated goal of safeguarding the revolution and protecting the interests of the working class.

However, as the painters were leaning further to the left, Mexican politics were going into a reactionary phase. General Alfaro Obregon, hero of the revolution and president of Mexico since 1920, turned out to be no friend of democracy, and Siqueiros often criticized him on the pages of El Machete. Though the Union of Painters stood by Obregon in 1923 during an attempted counterrevolutionary coup, it was only because they saw him as the lesser of two evils.

In 1924, Siqueiros finished work on The Burial of the Martyred Worker, also in the National Preparatory School, taking the bold step of painting a hammer-and-sickle on the coffin. This provoked outrage on the part of the students at the School, then, as prior to the Revolution, representing the conservative element in society. There were several clashes, and the muralists took to carrying firearms to defend themselves. At one point, a battalion of Yaqui Indians, all devout supporters of the Revolution marched into the school to defend the murals.

A short while later, the artists received a major blow when Vasconcelos resigned from his post as Minister of Public Education. Quite soon, the government issued an ultimatum: either the painters had to abandon their Union (and El Machete, its publication), or they would be fired from the government payroll. The painters refused. When Diego Rivera adopted a more conciliatory tone, they voted to expel him from the Union. As a result, within a short period of time, he was the only muralist still allowed to work.

In response, Siqueiros turned to political activism. Leaving Mexico City, he traveled to the state of Jalisco, where he helped organize trade unions for the silver miners there. He was so successful that by 1927 he was head of the United Syndicate Confederation of Mexico (Confederacion Sindical Unitaria de Mexio, or CSUM), a national trade union organization that brought together miners, peasants, factory and railroad workers, schoolteachers and other professional groups. He quickly became persona non grata with the government, and was harassed and detained several times by the police. In 1928, he visited the Soviet Union to attend the Congress of Red Trade Unions. This only further enflamed the Mexican government against him.

During this time, he met Uruguayan writer and fellow Communist Blanca Luz Blum and became romantically involved with her, eventually divorcing his wife, Gachita. Blanca Luz did not meet with the approval of Mexican Communist Party, who questioned her loyalty and in 1930, Siqueiros was expelled from the party. By this point, however, the government was already hot on his heels.

In May of that year, he was arrested while participating in a May Day parade and thrown into prison, without trial or hearing of any sort. After several months that Siqueiros spent in agonizing limbo, unsure of his status and his future, he was allowed to go free, on condition that he would leave Mexico City and settle in the town of Taxco, without the right to travel.

Here, unable to continue his political activities, he at last returned to art -- with a fiery passion -- producing several hundred works in the span of just a few years. In 1932, he had his first one-man exhibition at the "Spanish Casino" in Mexico City, organized by his friends and sympathizers. The works included such politically-charged paintings as Mine Accident, Peasant Mother, Proletarian Mother and Portrait of a Dead Child.

Later that year, the Mexican authorities granted the painter permission to leave for the United States, in an effort to get rid of his noisome interference. In 1932, Siqueiros, accompanied by Blanca Luz and her son from an earlier marriage, arrived in Los Angeles.

Years Abroad

The Mexican Mural Movement had attracted the interest of American intellectuals. Siqueiros was invited to exhibit his works in Los Angeles and subsequently offered to teach fresco at the private Chouinard Art Institute. Here, he took the time to experiment with new exterior mural painting techniques, using modern materials and paintings. As usual, Siqueiros was unable to leave his outspoken politics behind. The practice mural he painted together with his class, depicting whites, blacks and Indians standing side-by-side, scandalized the American public. Within a decade, this one, together with one of the other two murals he'd painted during his stay were brought down.

In the United States, Siqueiros finally officially married Blanca Luz, though their relationship by this point was becoming increasingly strained. One of the final blows was the painter's meeting with the young and attractive Angelica Arenal, a fellow Mexican living abroad, and who would eventually become his third wife. Though there is no evidence of the two becoming romantically involved at this stage, Siqueiros and Blanca Luz would be divorced within a little over a year.

Howsoever, when the painter's visa expired several months later and the US government refused to extend it, he and Blanca Luz departed together for Montevideo in Luz's native Uruguay. There he read a series of lectures to the local artists about the social importance of art. In his painting Proletarian Victim (1933), he experimented, for the first time, with pyroxylin paint applied using a spray gun. This medium would later become his signature.

In June 1933, the painter was invited to lecture and paint in Argentina. Though Siqueiros was initially welcomed and even commissioned to paint a wall, the Argentinean intellectuals and government had not bargained for the sort of firebrand rhetoric that the artist brought with him. Very soon, Siqueiros fell foul of the increasingly fascist government, and was expelled from the country six months later, in December of 1933. Shortly before his departure, he broke up with Blanca Luz.

The painter sailed for New York. Despite his expulsion from the United States less than a year previously, he had no trouble getting back into the country. Soon, he was back in contact with American artists, and once more busy promoting his ideas, both artistic and political.

In 1934, in Mexico, a new president, Lazaro Cardenas, took office. Though originally anointed by the dictatorial jefe maximo Plutarco Elias Calles, he soon clashed with his patron and took control of the government firmly into his own hands, allowing exiled Mexican dissidents a safe return. Siqueiros returned in the beginning of 1935 and immediately resumed his political activity. He was soon reinstated in the PCM. The painter clashed bitterly with Diego Rivera, whom he saw as a traitor to the MMM. Their debates over each other's political stance, artistic vision and personal qualities for several months captivated the intellectual life of the country.

In January 1936, Siqueiros was sent as a delegate to the American Artists' Congress in NYC, where he exhibited two works painted using pyroxylin paint and a spray gun: The Birth of Fascism (1936) and Stop the War (1936). In New York, the painter was visited by Angelica Arenal -- the first time they had seen each other since his time in Los Angeles. Quite soon, and despite initial difficulties, the two had moved into an apartment together.

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