A lesser-known icon of Mexican muralism credited with introducing Jackson Pollock to his technique: a controversial visionary who urgently needs to be acknowledged in today’s political climate
WHAT’S GOING ON: David Alfaro Siqueiros painted this self-portrait on a wall in a hospital in Mexico City in 1945: it shows him in 1938 when he was a colonel in the Spanish Civil War fighting against Franco. While also a prolific canvas artist, Alfaro Siqueiros had a particular love for the mural, like other great Mexicans before and after him. He also engaged in various projects that involved ephemeral techniques, such as posters and parade floats, which allowed him to speak to his audiences through an easily diffused medium. His monumental murals grace many buildings in Mexico, as well as those in the US and Chile.
WHO MADE IT: David Alfaro Siqueiros was an interesting man. Vehemently a leftist throughout his life, Siqueiros was usually picking the side of the weak. He was, however, so captivated by Stalin and his take on bolshevism, that he carried out an unsuccessful attempt on the life of Leon Trotsky, which resulted in the execution of Trotsky’s American bodyguard, who, as later was found, worked for the NKVD. Following the events, Siqueiros escaped to Chile with the help of Pablo Neruda. Is this why he’s lesser-known than Diego Rivera, who made the more sustainable choice in the Stalin vs. Trotsky battle? But picking Stalin didn’t seem to interfere with Neruda’s fame as much. Or was it because Siqueiros wasn’t pulled along by a person of Frida’s caliber? Either way, when he wasn’t assassinating fellow communists, creating art, or fighting the war against Franco, he taught students, including Jackson Pollock—in fact, Siqueiros is credited with teaching him the drip and pour technique that made Pollock’s works so original.
WHY DO WE CARE: I have a very special place in my heart for socialist realism. When a painting isn’t calling for revolution, something is lacking. And this one makes me want to grasp for freedom until bloody nails. Of course, the feeling is somewhat dampened by Siqueiros’s Stalinism, although there isn’t enough info on the subject for me to make cohesive assumptions about the timeline and the maintenance of his beliefs throughout. So I go by the eye and by the gut: and they tell me that Siqueiros was incredibly good at empowering the people in his works. Although it’s fair to view the more politicized art movements of the 20th century, such as muralism, as rebound strategies aimed at reclaiming space formerly occupied by the bourgeoisie, I also think that it was independently valid. And current: in today’s art we could sure use more depictions of the simple man, instead of the elites. Mindblowing largescale murals remain to be, along with architecture, some of the most prominent and politically open artworks that we still possess. Today’s big cities are usually full of more centrist stuff. The only way to look for the art of equal authority to that of Mexican murals is to go far into the war zones and less developed regions, or the centers of inequality, like the Israeli-Palestine border. Thankfully, the neoliberal governments had not influenced the art produced there—yet.
WHY YOU NEED TO PAY ATTENTION: Today, the political situation in Mexico, Russia, and the USA is just as fraught and complex as in the times of Siqueiros. And the common folk are habitually thrown out of the narrative for the sake of capitalism, just like previously, if not even more so. Perhaps his politics were at times askew, but David Alfaro Siqueiros was a master of making sure that the people are the focal point of art. His artworks were inclusive even in their reflection of the epochs: depicting both the past, the present, and the future. Whether you’re more interested in exploring the liberation of Americas from the colonial oppression, in the relationship between man and technology, or the discovery of the cure against cancer, Siqueiros has a mural on the subject. And this scope is an indicator of a vast, genuinely inclusive mind, that sees the events happening in the world as intertwined. He may not have seen through Stalin, but quite often, such myopia is an affliction of the visionary.
For more content like this sign up for our weekly newsletter