Siqueros – Portrait Essay
The Mexican Revolution was a very divisive period in Mexico’s history. It created various factions led by charismatic people of differing ideologies regarding social constructs. Begun as a middle class movement to oust the tyrannical Porfirio Diaz from the president’s chair, it had the unexpected result of galvanizing Mexico’s mestizos (mixed race Mexicans), indigenous peoples, illiterate poor, and rural laborers to arms in defense of their freedom and identity, long overshadowed by the weak Constitution that best served the interests of the oligarchy (Knight). These themes are depicted in David Alfaro Siqueiros’s Portrait of the Bourgeoisie, created in 1939 during the period referred to as the Mexican Muralist Movement, which began as a government-backed project to create a more cohesive Mexican identity fractured by the decade-long war. However, it soon devolved into an opportunity for artists to use their trade to create a unified Mexican identity free from governmental influence and supervision. The most influential artists of this period are a trio referred to as los tres grandes: Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and of course, David Alfaro Siqueiros (Mann).
Of the three, Siqueiros was the most radical in terms of his life, his artwork, and the techniques he utilized to shape them. Throughout his lifetime, Siqueiros took it upon himself to promote social change, both as an artist and a political activist. At eighteen, he quit the Academy to join General Venustiano Carranza’s revolutionary forces in the fight against President Huerta, where he became captain after two years (Gómez-Málaga). Before he left to study in Europe in 1919, an endeavor funded by the victorious General Carranza, he became involved with a group called Centro Bohemio where members discussed the role of revolutionary art in society (Glaves-Smith, Chilvers). Upon returning from Europe in 1922, he helped organize the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors, for which he wrote the manifesto detailing the group’s idealistic and aesthetic aims for art (Glaves-Smith, Chilvers) (Mann). The artistic movement became another opportunity to educate and empower the Mexican people.
He constructed Portrait of the Bourgeoisie with the use of spray cement guns, electric projectors, and industrialized synthetic paints, and utilizes what Siqueiros called polyangular perspective (Goldman). Spanning across three walls, the 1000-square foot mural is a filmic montage that incorporates graphic scenes of the past, present, and future as Siqueiros envisioned it, and the dangers he believed were inherent in the intersections among industry, technology, and fascism.
In addressing the above themes, the mural is more coherent when viewed as a triptych. The mural interweaves past, present, and futuristic elements across the three walls that paint a picture of Mexico as Siqueiros saw it. Moving from the far left to the far right, the viewer is first confronted by the impassioned, anthropomorphic parrot-headed demagogue with two left hands, who is clutching a small flower in one left hand and a flaming torch in the other as a temple goes down in flames in the background. The inclusion of the demagogue and the octopus-legged machine spitting out coins and blood and pinning two figures with closed eyes beneath its cumbersome body comments on the dangerous combination of technology with nature should they grow together and be combined with capitalistic interests (Fernández, 216).
Siqueiros is also making reference to the years when Mexican financial prosperity came at the expense of rural families whose family farms were giving way to cash crops, and which persisted even to the time the mural was completed as Mexico moved from an agrarian society to an industrialized one (Knight).
Continuing with elements present in Mexico’s history, Siqueiros reminds viewers of persisting inequalities, exampled by the man hanging by the rope in the metal eagle’s beak, by the desolate image of huddled figures in the top left corner of the middle panel, by the men pinned beneath the octopus-legged machine. It speaks to the disenfranchisement of the masses living on the margins of political life, often overlooked both antebellum and post-Revolution when the middle class assumed leadership over Mexican politics, leading to a lack of diverse perspectives from those on the lower rungs of socioeconomic status.
The proletariat were not only forgotten by the bourgeoisie, but were often taken advantage of by those in the higher echelons of power. The men in gas masks in the middle panel represent Great Britain, France, and the United States – champions of democracy – on the left side, and Japan, Italy, and Germany – leaders of fascism – on the right side (Fernández, 217). The presence of these men vying for power – both the democratic men and the fascist men –is even more poignant when one considers Mexico’s history with military leaders that often ruled with an iron fist, denying freedom and autonomy to the masses, and the divisive period that followed after Diaz.
There is hope, however. Siqueiros believed in the power of the people to overcome struggles (Mexican Muralism). This is especially true for the proletariat, in trials ranging from the dictatorship of despots, to the taking back of a Mexican identity, to the battle over mastering technology and not vice-versa. Though on the third panel chaos runs amok – burning buildings, fleeing citizens, rising smoke – a lone figure emerges from the ruins. The man, dressed in the simple garbs of guerilla fighters, tightly grasps his loaded rifle and points it at the group of men in the center. It presents hope in the face of common, decades-long struggles that continued even past the conclusion of this mural.
The artists’ motivations behind launching the Mexican Muralist Movement were not unlike those of who fought in the Mexican Revolution. The reasons were the same – each wanted to reclaim an identity lost under the oppressive rule of tyrannical leaders, an identity shadowed over by the educated middle class, an identity fragmented by the divisive power struggles and differing ideologies nurtured by ten years of fighting for an ever-weakening cause. Each of los tres grandes brought to the table a reimagining of history, of the Mexican identity, and what it meant for the people. Though all were communists, it did not detract from – and perhaps actually enhanced – their convictions that Mexico was not just a land of the bourgeoisie, but of all Mexicans: the mestizos, the indigenous peoples, the laborers and the illiterate poor, and they tried their best to represent this through their art in messages that will echo for years.
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Fernández, María. Cosmopolitanism in Mexican Visual Culture. Austin: U of Texas, 2014. Google Books. Google. Web. 16 July 2016.