These artworks by Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros show how art can be a great way to bring about social change.
By Olympia Villagrán
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are known as the best Mexican artists of all time, with international recognition that goes beyond the imagination. However, they weren’t the only ones. Actually, there were at the time an important number of artists as skillful (or more so) than the toxic power couple.
During the early 20th century, Muralism became the most important artistic current in the country. This tradition that exalted Mexico’s culture, history, and politics went back to the country’s indigenous past, its colonial period, and its tempestuous history as an independent country to express a political opinion of the reality they were living during their time. And among the many artists that adopted the tradition was David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose work is highly recognized in Mexico though he never reached the popularity of his contemporaries Frida and Diego.
“El Coronelazo” | David Alfaro Siqueiros
For Siqueiros, art wasn’t exclusive to the elite nor should it be enclosed in museums or art galleries. On the contrary, he believed art should be considered public property and a right for all citizens no matter their social class or condition. At the same time, the idea of art’s purpose as the expression of beauty wasn’t a priority for him. The former soldier and artist saw art as a tool to generate and share ideologies. Unlike many artists who used their easels and brushes to satisfy their egos, Siqueiros didn’t see art as individual satisfaction. These traits made him one of the “tres grandes” (big three) Mexican muralists along with José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera.
The passion with which David Alfaro Siqueiros defended his social interests and political beliefs (all aligned with Communist ideology) took him to his demise. Despite being one of the most important and influential artists in the country, his political actions ended up taking him into exile. Among the many incidents he had were his active defense of the economic and work conditions of workers through manifestations, different riots as head secretary of the Mexican Communist Party, and the assassination attempt of Communist leader Leon Trotsky. He went into exile to the United States and later on to Chile during the forties. His activities earned him several periods of time in jail, yet he never lost his determination, since his political activities were what drove him in life.
“Del Porfirismo a la Revolución” (From the Porfirist Era to the Revolution)
"Muerte al invasor" (Death to the Invader)
“El pueblo a la universidad, la universidad al pueblo” (The People to the University, The University for the People)
Through vivid colors, accentuated perspectives, and a really powerful expression, his murals reflected that passion with which he led his political life. His work is full of symbolism and ideological meaning, but besides muralism, one of Siqueiros’ main goals was finding the ideal fusion between painting, sculpture, and architecture. For that reason, he was one of the founders of the Syndicate of Mexican Revolutionary Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers, together with an experimental workshop in New York where artists like Jackson Pollock came from.
The success of his school, and his work in general, came from the main features of his art. One of the characteristic aspects of his style was the polyangularity of his shapes. This technique allows the spectator to experience different perspectives and sizes from a two-dimensional area. This concept was developed by Siqueiros himself, who wanted his works to have unity and dynamism regardless of the size and shape of the walls he was working on.
Once again, his main intention was to create something that the spectator would understand and get completely whether they were in movement or just passing by. In this way, the polyangularity, space, and volume of his works became a clear and complete image to those seeing it. Now, when it came to the maintenance of his work, Siqueiros also developed a technique that prevented damage and deterioration. This unique mixture was applied before he started working so that the mixture would help the painting get solidified and thus to last longer.
“El tormento de Cuauhtémoc” (The Torture of Cuauhtémoc)
“Caín en los Estados Unidos” (Cain in The USA)
Works of art like “Muerte al invasor” (Death to the Invader) made him be seen as an irreverent figure in politics, but also as a devoted fighter willing to defeat the high bourgeoisie through the education of the masses. His legendary career as a muralist was filled with obstacles, starting with an important lack of economic means. As mentioned, he was also persecuted for his radical political views.
“Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros”
“La marcha de la humanidad” (The Course of Humanity)
However, not everything was hard for Siqueiros. The prolific muralist received the Lenin Peace Prize in 1966 (something he was proud of), and that same year the Nacional Prize of Fine Arts in Mexico. The artist also adapted important buildings in Mexico and other places in the world. He became a symbol of “proletarian art” and one of the biggest defenders of the revolutionary ideas of the time. Through his work and the movement he embraced, he managed to take art to the people to make them question their social realities. He wasn’t only a painter, but a politician and ideological soldier of the social revolution. He considered himself a defender of democracy who through art allowed his country to rediscover their true cultural and historical identity.
Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards