Category: Chicanarte-Chicano art

Siqueiros: América Tropical Press Conference

Siqueiros: América Tropical – Event program for the March 31, 2010 presentation on the status of the Siqueiros Mural and Interpretive Center.

Siqueiros: América Tropical – Event program for the March 31, 2010 presentation on the status of the Siqueiros Mural and Interpretive Center.

The Mexican Muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros completed his second Los Angeles mural, América Tropical, in 1932. Created on the rooftop of the Italian Hall building located on the city’s historic Olvera Street, the mural was formally presented to the public in an official unveiling that took place on the evening of October 9, 1932. Within six months the portion of the mural visible from the street was whitewashed by conservative city authorities because of the artwork’s political message – a searing attack on U.S. imperialism. Inside of a year the authorities obliterated the entire mural with whitewash. América Tropical has remained hidden from public view for the last 77 years – but that is about to change.

By invitation I attended the March 31, 2010, event at the Los Angeles Central Library’s Taper Auditorium, heralding the progress of the future David Alfaro Siqueiros América Tropical Mural And Interpretive Center. Sponsored by Amigos de Siqueiros, the city government of Los Angeles, and the Getty Conservation Institute, the event was the first opportunity for the public to learn the details regarding the upcoming $9 million visitor center – which is on the verge of being constructed. The event was attended by some 200 people, including foreign dignitaries, elected officials, museum staff, arts professionals, and members of the media. The program lasted nearly two hours and included several informative Powerpoint presentations about the future center.

Close to 200 people filled the Los Angeles Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium to hear the latest news on the status of the Siqueiros mural project. In this photo, Father Richard Estrada of Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Los Angeles, gives a benediction to open the event. Father Estrada blessed Siqueiros, and all artists who work for social justice. Photo/Mark Vallen ©.

Close to 200 people filled the Los Angeles Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium to hear the latest news on the status of the Siqueiros mural project. In this photo, Father Richard Estrada of Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Los Angeles, gives a benediction to open the event. Father Estrada blessed Siqueiros, and all artists who work for social justice. Photo/Mark Vallen ©.

The moderator for the evening was Armando Vazquez Ramos, co-chair of Amigos de Siqueiros, which has as its mission the conservation, protection, and promotion of the América Tropical mural.

Ramos briefly introduced a number of VIP’s in attendance, such as the Secretary of Culture for Mexico City, Elena Cepeda; the Director of the Getty Conservation Institute, Timothy P. Whalen; the Executive Director and Chief Curator at the Autry National Center’s Museum of the American West, Jonathan Spaulding; as well as a delegation of staff members from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, which houses the only intact U.S. mural by Siqueiros – Portrait of Mexico Today: 1932. After opening remarks by Ramos and fellow co-chair of Amigos, Dalila Sotelo, the two introduced Father Richard Estrada of Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Los Angeles, who gave a benediction that blessed Siqueiros and all artists who work for the people and social justice.

Los Angeles Councilmember José Luis Huizar of the 14th District of L.A., addressed the gathering of foreign dignitaries, politicians, museum staff, arts professionals, and members of the media. Photo/Mark Vallen ©.

Los Angeles Councilmember José Luis Huizar of the 14th District of L.A., addressed the gathering of foreign dignitaries, politicians, museum staff, arts professionals, and members of the media. Photo/Mark Vallen ©.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was scheduled to address the gathering but at the last minute could not attend. Consequently, following Father Estrada’s blessing, a representative spoke on the Mayor’s behalf. After assuring the audience of the Mayor’s full commitment to the Siqueiros mural project, she promised those gathered that by “the end of this summer, there will be a groundbreaking ceremony to start this project.”

Here I must note a statement that the Getty’s Timothy P. Whalen gave the press at the event, explaining that once there is a groundbreaking, it will take 18 to 24 months to complete the construction of the center, now scheduled to be finished by 2013.

The Mayor’s representative was followed by L.A. Councilmember José Luis Huizar of the 14th District, who delivered an address further confirming the city government’s devotion to seeing the Siqueiros mural project completed. He told those gathered that “We have to uncover this beautiful mural and show it to the world.” Following Councilmember Huizar was California State Assembly Member, Kevin De León, of the 45th Assembly District of Los Angeles.

Assemblyman De León told a humorous but heartfelt story about how he came to discover the América Tropical mural. Mr. De León has a friend with access to the Italian Hall, the building on Olvera Street where Siqueiros painted his mural on the exterior of the second floor rooftop. The friend kept telling De León about the rooftop mural by Siqueiros, but the Assemblyman simply did not believe the story. One day that friend arranged to have De León visit the Italian Hall, and upon entering the building and surveying the dust, disrepair, and general disorder of the historic site (which is presently closed to the public), De León became convinced his friend was playing a practical joke on him – until the two made their way to the rooftop.

When De León set his eyes upon the mural that he never knew existed, he was, in his own words, “blown away.” He described his discovery as a life changing experience, and ended his address by vowing to do everything within his means to see the Siqueiros Mural And Interpretive Center brought to completion. “América Tropical,” De León said “is a treasure we must preserve.”

In this 1933 photograph of Olvera Street, the whitewashed Siqueiros mural América Tropical, can be seen in the upper right half of the photo. The authorities whitewashed the part of the mural that could be seen from the street – which is seen here as a large blank space. City authorities later obliterated the entire mural with whitewash. Photo/Los Angeles Times archives.

In this 1933 photo of Olvera Street, the whitewashed Siqueiros mural América Tropical, can be seen in the upper right half of the photo. The authorities whitewashed the part of the mural that could be seen from the street – seen here as a large blank space. City authorities later obliterated the entire mural with whitewash. Photo/Los Angeles Times archives.

Assemblyman De León’s presentation wrapped up the formal statements issued by members of the city’s government, and the audience then began to receive details on the progress of the Mural And Interpretive Center project. I am certain that, as someone who has followed the story of América Tropical since the late 1960s, I was not alone in feeling a sense of astonishment that at long last the mural was actually being brought back to life; that its regeneration was backed by the City of Los Angeles and the prestigious Getty museum, and that the mural would rightly take its place as a major historic site for L.A. and for the international arts community.

Leslie Rainer, a conservator at the Getty Museum’s Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), was introduced, and her Powerpoint presentation ran through the history of the mural, with a focus on the GCI’s involvement in the mural’s preservation, which began in earnest in 1989. Rainer gave a step by step account of GCI efforts over the years; seismic retrofitting of the wall on which the masterwork is painted, the installment of rigid protection panels over the mural to shield it from the elements, the stabilizing of the mural with protective chemicals, and the analysis of the paints Siqueiros used in creating his mural. Here the artist left conservators a vexing challenge, and while Ms. Rainer did not go into those details, I will share the particulars as I understand them.

In his desire to use the most revolutionary techniques and materials, Siqueiros abandoned the time tested fresco mural technique of painting with water-based pigments on fresh lime plaster – the method fellow muralist Diego Rivera utilized. Siqueiros instead created his mural by painting on cement with automobile lacquer paint applied with a spray gun and brushes. Using a compressed air spray gun powered by a generator was something only Siqueiros had done in his previous works, likewise his use of pyroxylin, the aforementioned auto lacquer paint. A nitrocellulose based lacquer once used to paint cars; pyroxylin was the artist’s favored paint because of its intense pigmentation, rapid drying time, and tendency to produce startling effects when different colors were allowed to flow together.

While previous works by Siqueiros were created on masonite or other stable grounds given an underpainting of gray pyroxylin, América Tropical was painted by direct application of pyroxylin on a single layer of cement – and the two did not bond well; the pyroxylin immediately fixed on the cement surface instead of penetrating it. After some time the pyroxylin began cracking and pulling away from the cement, a process exacerbated by the whitewash coating. GCI conservators have exerted a great amount of energy in successfully arresting the degradation of the mural. They determined that a complete full-color restoration of the original mural would only destroy the integrity of the work, so it was decided to preserve the mural as it is – a ghost of its former appearance.

Ms. Rainer went on to recount how América Tropical became almost entirely lost to memory, until the late 1960s Chicano Power movement in L.A. rediscovered Siqueiros and his mural – which in large part inspired the Chicano Arts Movement. In 1968 the mural came to public attention simply because the whitewash had begun to peel off, exposing tantalizing bits of the long forgotten artwork. Rainer told how in that year Shifra Goldman made photographic documentation of the devastated mural, kicking off a campaign to preserve América Tropical as well as providing impetus to the Chicano Arts Movement. Ms. Goldman has been a pioneer in the study of modern Latin American art, and it is hard to imagine this area of research without her scholarship and fortitude.

View from Main Street – Pugh + Scarpa Architects. Watercolor. In this artist’s conception of the future Mural and Interpretive Center, the Siqueiros mural is located on the rooftop pictured at far left. This would be the view from Main Street, parallel to the foot traffic area of Olvera Street.

View from Main Street – Pugh + Scarpa Architects. Watercolor. In this artist’s concept of the Mural and Interpretive Center, the Siqueiros mural is located on the rooftop pictured at left. This would be the view from Main Street, parallel to the foot traffic area of Olvera Street.

After Ms. Rainer’s presentation, Gwynne Pugh, the principal and co-founder of Pugh + Scarpa Architects, gave a Powerpoint presentation that was a project overview on architectural matters.

Pugh walked the audience through the floor plans and blueprints for the Interpretive Center, providing great insight into its engineering and structural designs. The center’s two thousand square feet of galleries will include a rooftop viewing platform, where people will be able to view the mural. Following Mr. Pugh’s talk was Thomas Hartman’s presentation. President of IQ Magic, a firm involved in interactive exhibits and displays for museums, Mr. Hartman lectured on a range of topics related to the mural. He described how the various rooms in the Mural Interpretive Center will look and function, using his Powerpoint display to provide digital graphics and artist’s concept drawings to illustrate his firm’s vision and goals for the center.

Perspective Looking Toward Entry – Pugh + Scarpa Architects. Digital illustration. In this artist’s concept, the entry room of Mural and Interpretive Center is pictured.

Perspective Looking Toward Entry – IQ Magic. Digital illustration. In this artist’s concept, the entry room of the Siqueiros Mural and Interpretive Center is pictured.

Hartman described the two-story center as spacious and well lit by natural sunlight, with hand worked materials like field stone and yellow cedar wood commonly used throughout the building. He disclosed that the entryway to the center will be ceremonial in nature, giving the public a good idea of what the center contains, even if the upper floors are closed. A large photograph of Siqueiros will welcome visitors, and when they step into the ground floor entry room they will be faced with multiple wall plaques of text, artworks, and photographs that explain the museum’s concept and purpose. Not a true museum that displays original art and artifacts, the Mural Interpretive Center will instead provide educational and interactive displays that will inform, educate, and engage a wide and varied audience.

Projected Siqueiros Mural – Pugh + Scarpa Architects. Digital illustration. In this artist’s concept, one of the many proposed multi-media rooms in the Mural and Interpretive Center is pictured. In this particular room, a 30 ft. wide digital projection of the América Tropical mural will be displayed, along with other audio and visual materials.

Projected Siqueiros Mural – IQ Magic. Digital illustration. In this artist’s concept, one of the many proposed multi-media rooms in the Mural and Interpretive Center is pictured. In this room, a 30 ft. wide digital projection of the América Tropical mural will be displayed, along with other audio and visual materials.

Mr. Hartman described the various multi-media displays that will be central to the Mural Interpretive Center experience; projectors that will throw a 30 foot long full-color reproduction of the mural on an internal gallery wall, where that digital projection will be supplemented by other, smaller projections; details of the mural, photographs of the artist at work, and other images. Some displays will incorporate digital audio systems and speakers that when touched, will transmit audio files of spoken histories and narratives pertaining to the mural’s history.

Likewise, 30 inch flat screen computer monitors placed throughout the center will offer all types of information to viewers. Hartman emphasized the flexible nature of these proposed displays, noting that as technologies change and expand, older displays will easily be rotated out and replaced with updated versions.

Immersive Muralism – Pugh + Scarpa Architects. Digital illustration. In this artist’s concept, another proposed multi-media room in the Mural and Interpretive Center is pictured. This display would present audio/visual materials on Siqueiros' ideas regarding "immersive muralism," that is, murals that envelope viewers in architectural space, but also change appearance when viewed from various angles.

Immersive Muralism – IQ Magic. Digital illustration. In this artist’s concept, another proposed multi-media room in the Mural and Interpretive Center is pictured. This display would present audio/visual materials on Siqueiros' ideas regarding "immersive muralism," that is, murals that envelope viewers in architectural space, but also change appearance when viewed from various angles.

Mr. Hartman’s description of the rooftop viewing platform was most engrossing. Ultimately, visitors to the center will find themselves led to the roof, where they will gather on a special 240 square foot viewing platform placed adjacent to, but some 125 feet from the actual mural.

That space will protect the mural from those who will want to touch it, but it will also afford a clear and unobstructed full view of the mural. A specially designed canopy will stretch out above the mural for some thirty feet, protecting it from the harsh L.A. sun, and large perforated copper side screens will also serve the same purpose. The platform is designed to accommodate a steady stream of hundreds of viewers, who will be able to reach the rooftop by stairs or elevator.

In closing, Mr. Hartman invited those gathered to imagine what the original October 9, 1932 unveiling ceremony must have been like. It was, as he noted, “the event of the season,” and much of the city’s intellectual elites were in attendance; writers, artists, photographers, political activists – city politicians and mainstream media as well. Also in attendance that evening were members of the “Bloc of Painters,” those American artists who had assisted Siqueiros in the painting of América Tropical and his first L.A. mural, Mitin Obrero (”Worker’s Meeting” – painted at L.A.’s Chouinard School of Art in 1932). The Bloc included some twenty painters, including the likes of Millard Owen Sheets, Philip Guston, Barse Miller, Phil Paradise, Fletcher Martin, Harold Lehman, Reuben Kadish, and Luis Arenal. Hartman indicated that the accounts of some of the Bloc painters would be included in the center’s interactive displays.

In addition, Mr. Hartman mentioned that Dean Cornwell attended the public unveiling of América Tropical. Cornwell would be responsible for painting the 1933 monolithic mural series, California History, still located on the second floor interior rotunda of L.A.’s magnificent Central Library. Cornwell and Siqueiros both painted murals in L.A. that told the history of the Americas; with América Tropical Siqueiros told a story of imperialist expansion, colonialism, and resistance – Cornwell on the other hand painted a mural that extolled a benevolent and civilizing Western colonialism. The two visions could not have been further apart, needless to say Cornwell’s mural was enthusiastically supported by L.A.’s upstanding citizens and civic leaders, while Siqueiros’ work received a coat of whitewash. In truth the two artists had genial relations, in fact, Cornwell not only helped sponsor the Siqueiros mural, he assisted in its painting (In 1994 L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote about the two murals in his article, Two Murals, Two Histories. You can see a portion of Cornwell’s Central Library mural here).

The closing remarks of the program were given by Gregorio Luke, the former Director of the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach and currently the Executive Director of Amigos De Siqueiros. I have had my disagreements with Mr. Luke, and I made them public in June of 2007 when I wrote Chicano Artists Need Not Apply, a critique excoriating Luke for his “protracted refusal to exhibit or otherwise collaborate with Chicano/Mexican American artists” at MOLAA. Perhaps Luke has changed his ideas regarding Chicano artists, I am not certain, but his remarks at the L.A. Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium indicated an enlightened position – in fact, I found his lecture inspiring. Luke revealed an obvious passion for the works of Siqueiros, and he spoke with the animated gestures and energy of an old fashioned orator; he can really be quite engaging and persuasive, so Amigos De Siqueiros will no doubt benefit from his leadership.

Self-Portrait – David Alfaro Siqueiros. 1945. Pyroxylin on masonite. A reproduction of this painting will be one of the many reproductions of the artist’s works to be displayed at the Mural and Interpretive Center.

Self-Portrait – David Alfaro Siqueiros. 1945. Pyroxylin on masonite. A reproduction of this painting will be one of the many reproductions of the artist’s works to be displayed at the Mural and Interpretive Center.

Aside from his grand rhetoric in praise of maestro Siqueiros, Luke let loose a few salient remarks I found of great consequence. He divulged that he has been approached by Chicano artists who made it known that in part, they pursued art because of Siqueiros’ influence. I would place myself amongst this group. I discovered Siqueiros in 1968 when I was fifteen years old, and I do not hesitate to say that without his influence I would have been a very different artist. Luke also commended Siqueiros for his revolutionary activism on behalf of the downtrodden, noting that the artist made no distinction between painting and his political acts, to Siqueiros the two were seamlessly integrated. Observing that Siqueiros’ example provides today’s artists with a way forward, Luke chastised those who only want to “paint like the old masters of the past,” but he reserved his ire for today’s detached and indifferent crowd of postmodernists, “who are imprisoned by their own limitations” and “want to be so avant-garde that they become irrelevant to the people.”

Mr. Luke ended with a powerful assertion regarding the soon to be reborn América Tropical mural: “We will reverse an act of censorship, and provide inspiration for another, future revolution.” With that the event ended, but what transpired that evening will provide food for thought for months to come – at least until that promised end of summer groundbreaking for the David Alfaro Siqueiros América Tropical Mural And Interpretive Center.

I admit feeling an amused but wary skepticism regarding the whole affair. I can only imagine what Siqueiros, the implacable communist militant, would make of his legacy being blessed by a Catholic Father, warmly embraced by U.S. politicians, and enshrined by a major Yankee art museum. Oh, the contradictions! If Frida Kahlo had painted a mural in Los Angeles during the 1930s, the L.A. city government would have long ago wrapped it in an edifice designed by Frank Gehry. “Gringolandia” might wish to give Siqueiros the Frida Kahlo treatment, i.e., to turn him into a chic handbag or a trendy coffee table book, but the art of Siqueiros may prove difficult to commodify, since it directly speaks the urgent and uncompromising language of revolution. His works continue to be controversial, and goodness knows how we need a contentious and oppositional force in today’s art world – not to mention the rest of society.

I leave you with the inspired words of news reporter Don Ryan, who covered the original 1932 official unveiling of América Tropical in the October 11, 1932 edition of the L.A. Illustrated Daily News, Ryan wrote of that ceremony;

“This night that we are living seems to be fifty to one hundred years in the future. The artist Siqueiros, whom the federal authorities seem so anxious to deport, is without doubt a dangerous type; dangerous for all the snarling and pusillanimous spectators and retailers in art and life. The federal agents justly claim that his art is propaganda, for when the youth confront this gigantic dynamo that pounds in the night under the rain, or clamors boldly when the brilliant sun of midday shines in the plaza, they will possibly find it the inspiration to rise in rebellion in future revolution, in art and in life, exclaiming; ‘Off the road conservatives and old ones, here comes the future!’”

Day of the Dead: Bakersfield Museum of Art

"Dia de los Muertos" – Mark Vallen. 2003. Oil on wood panel.

"Dia de los Muertos" – Mark Vallen. 2003. Oil on wood panel.

I will be exhibiting two of my oil paintings at the Bakersfield Museum of Art from September 17, 2009 through November 22, 2009, as part of the museum’s Dia de Los Muertos – Day of the Dead exhibition. The exhibit presents artworks past and present that celebrate the traditional Mexican holiday, including a number of orginal prints by the renowned Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada.

"La Muerta" (The Dead Woman) – Mark Vallen. 2006. Oil on masonite.

"La Muerta" (The Dead Woman) – Mark Vallen. 2006. Oil on masonite panel.

In addition, the exhibit includes life-sized paper-mâché Calaveras (skeletons) by the famed Mexican artist Miguel Linares, whose family is world renown for their traditional Dia de Los Muertos sculptures, as well as paintings from Paul McMillan, Dirk Hagner, Gage Opdenbrouw, Gregg Stone, Frederick Chiriboga, and Joaquin Patino.

Mexican Prints at University of Notre Dame

Caida de Tenochtitlan (Fall of Tenochtitlan) – Angel Bracho. Linoleum block print. 1950. Detail of inside front cover for the TGP portfolio, 450 Años De Lucha.

"Caida de Tenochtitlan" (Fall of Tenochtitlan) – Angel Bracho. Linoleum block print. 1960. Detail of inside front cover for the TGP portfolio, "450 Años De Lucha."

The prints of the Mexican Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - Popular Graphic Arts Workshop), are being presented at the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana from July 12, 2009 to September 13, 2009. Titled Para la Gente: Art, Politics, and Cultural Identity of the Taller de Gráfica, the exhibition presents forty prints created by artists who worked in the TGP print collective in Mexico City from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s. Internationally known for their highly-political prints, the TGP workshop generated woodblock, linoleum, and lithographic prints that remain unparalleled to this day.

I first discovered the TGP as a teenager in Los Angeles during the late 1960s. For Chicanos, TGP prints provided an exciting touchstone with Mexican art, culture, history, and politics, but in general the artworks also offered universal insights into the human condition – revealing the hidden class dimensions behind issues of poverty, repression, and war. Sometime in the early 1970s I acquired a copy of 450 Años De Lucha: Homenaje Al Pueblo Mexicano (450 Years of Struggle: Homage to the Mexican People), a significant portfolio of prints by twenty-five TGP artists that vividly recounts the history of the Mexican people.

Hacia La Nacionalizacion de la Mineria (Towards the Nationalization of Mining) - Jesús Escobedo. Linoleum block print. 1960. Detail.

"Hacia La Nacionalizacion de la Mineria" (Towards the Nationalization of Mining) - Jesús Escobedo. Linoleum block print. 1960. Detail. From the TGP portfolio, "450 Años De Lucha."

Published by the collective in 1960, 450 Años De Lucha is actually a soft-cover unbound “book” that contains 140 reproductions of prints by artists such as Leopoldo Méndez, Pablo O’Higgins, Alberto Beltrán, Mariana Yampolsky, Alfredo Zalce, Luis Arenal, and Elizabeth Catlett. The prints originally served as street flyers and posters for the political instruction and edification of an illiterate population, and tens of thousands of copies were widely distributed. The free prints were literally – Para la Gente (For the People). As a radical chronicle of Mexico’s entire history, the remarkable print portfolio covers everything from the 1519 heroic Aztec resistance against the Spanish Conquistadors (Cuauhtemoc - Leopoldo Méndez), to a woodblock print celebrating the nationalization of Mexico’s mineral wealth in 1960 (Hacia La Nacionalizacion de la Mineria - Jesus Escobedo).

A focal point of the Snite Museum exhibit is a linoleum block print by Leopoldo Méndez, Paremos la Agresion a la Clase Obrera. Ayude Usted. A los Huelguistas de Palau, Nueva Rosita y Cloete. (Let us Stop the Aggression toward the Working Class. Help the Strikers of Palau, Nueva Rosita, and Cloete). Méndez created the print in 1950 as a street poster calling for solidarity with mine workers in their strike against the U.S. owned company, Mexican Zinc Co. The print is a consummate example of the combative spirit that motivated the TGP collective.

Paremos la Agresion a la Clase Obrera. Ayude Usted. A los Huelguistas de Palau, Nueva Rosita y Cloete. (Let us Stop the Aggression toward the Working Class. Help the Strikers of Palau, Nueva Rosita, and Cloete) - Leopoldo Méndez. Linoleum block print. 1950. On view at the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. This street poster by Méndez called for solidarity with mine workers in their strike against the American owned company, Mexican Zinc Co.

"Paremos la Agresion a la Clase Obrera. Ayude Usted. A los Huelguistas de Palau, Nueva Rosita y Cloete." (Let us Stop the Aggression toward the Working Class. Help the Strikers of Palau, Nueva Rosita, and Cloete) - Leopoldo Méndez. Linoleum block print. 1950. On view at the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. This street poster by Méndez called for solidarity with mine workers in their strike against the American owned company, Mexican Zinc Co.

The workers at the Nueva Rosita, Palau, and Cloete mines in Coahuila, Mexico, organized for humane working conditions, decent pay, and union representation, and when they went on strike against Mexican Zinc, the company retaliated by firing the strikers and hiring strike breakers. The Mexican government declared the area under martial law and sent in the army. Union leaders were arrested, the union’s treasury was seized, and union activity banned. The mine company controlled the food supply stores and health care facilities in the strike area, and used that control to crush the worker’s strike by closing down vital services. Around 4,200 striking miners responded by staging a “Caravan of hunger” march, walking more than 400 miles to the capital behind a flag emblazoned with the image of the Virgin de Guadalupe. After walking for 50 days to present their case to Presidente Miguel Alemán, and rallying tens of thousands in the nation’s capital, Alemán declared the strike illegal. The defeated miners were sent back on trains to their hometowns and the strike remained unresolved.

Professor Ramón Orta del Río, assassinated in June of 1938. - Leopoldo Méndez. Lithograph. 1939. From the artist’s portpolio of seven lithographs titled: In The Name Of Christ: They Have Assassinated More Than 200 Teachers. Professor Orta del Río was murdered by religious zealots during Mexico’s so-called “Cristero War” of 1926-1929.

"Professor Ramón Orta del Río, assassinated in June of 1938." - Leopoldo Méndez. Lithograph. 1939. From the artist’s portpolio of seven lithographs titled, "In The Name Of Christ: They Have Assassinated More Than 200 Teachers." Professor Orta del Río was murdered by religious zealots during Mexico’s so-called “Cristero War” of 1926-1929.

A particularly moving and provocative series of prints by Leopoldo Méndez not displayed at the Snite Museum is the artist’s, In The Name Of Christ: They Have Assassinated More Than 200 Teachers (En Nombre De Cristo: Han Asesinado Más De 200 Maestros). The prints have to do with the counter-revolutionary “Cristero War” of 1926-1929, when fundamentalist Cristeros (“fighters for Christ”) launched an armed rebellion against the Mexican government because of the anti-clerical Mexican Constitution of 1917.

Reformists had worked for a secular democracy that would reduce the Catholic Church’s enormous land holdings as well as end their stranglehold over education; but fundamentalists took up arms in 1926 when Presidente Plutarco Calles began to strictly enforce anti-clerical provisions of the constitution. Religious zealots were vexed by enforcement of provisos like Article 3, which states - “education shall be maintained entirely apart from any religious doctrine and, based on the results of scientific progress, shall strive against ignorance and its effects, servitudes, fanaticism, and prejudices.” However, fundamentalists were most irritated by Article 130, which “States that church(es) and state are to remain separate.” By the time the conflict ended in 1929, some 90,000 people had perished in the violence.

In 1939 the administration of Presidente Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940), commissioned Méndez to create a portfolio of seven lithographic prints on the subject of educators who had been murdered by Catholic fundamentalists during the Cristero uprising. The resulting lithographs commemorated seven different teachers who had been brutally slain by religious zealots, depicting the teachers under threat, in the throes of death, or after they had been assassinated. In the lithograph shown above, Méndez portrayed the gruesome killing of Professor Ramón Orta del Río in Nayarit, one of Mexico’s 31 states. The killers doused the body of their victim in gas and set him on fire.

The strike of 50,000 Honduran workers exploited for more than 50 years by the monopoly of the United Fruit Co., is a just cause. - Alberto Beltrán. Linoleum block print. 1955.

"The strike of 50,000 Honduran workers exploited for more than 50 years by the monopoly of the United Fruit Co., is a just cause." - Alberto Beltrán. Linoleum block print. 1955.

Created in 1955, Alberto Beltrán’s original linoleum-block print (above) was reproduced as a poster expressing solidarity with striking workers in Honduras. Since the early 1900s U.S. companies totally controlled Honduran agricultural production and exports, largely based upon the cultivation of bananas, making Honduras the original “Banana Republic.” The Standard Fruit Company and the United Fruit Company – both U.S. businesses – virtually ran the country. It was the president of United Fruit, Sam Zemurray, who infamously said of Honduran officials; “A mule costs more than a deputy.” From 1903 to 1925, the U.S. Marines intervened in Honduras no less than seven times. After decades of ferocious exploitation by U.S. commercial interests, Honduran banana workers staged a historic strike for better working conditions and higher pay that began on May 1, 1954.

Beginning in the north coast town of El Progreso, the strike lasted around two months and involved over 14,000 banana company workers. The work stoppage quickly paralyzed other port towns dominated by U.S. companies, eventually spreading to the capital Tegucigalpa. Workers from other industries went on strike in solidarity with the banana workers, with some 40,000 workers eventually joining the labor action. Activists throughout the hemisphere supported the Honduran workers, and it was at the highpoint of the great strike that Alberto Beltrán created his print, which he titled: La huelga de 50,000 trabajadores hondureños explotados por más de 50 años por el monopolio de la United Fruit Co., es una causa justa (The strike of 50,000 Honduran workers exploited for more than 50 years by the monopoly of the United Fruit Co., is a just cause). Despite harsh repression from the U.S. companies and their paid-off government lackies, the striking workers were victorious and won their major demands.

Beltrán’s Honduran solidarity poster could not be timelier considering the military coup in Honduras at present. If the TGP collective were still in existence it would surely react to the current putsch with fierce condemnation. While President Obama expressed “great concerns” regarding President Zelaya being toppled by the military, the Los Angeles Times noted that:

“U.S. officials did not demand the reinstatement of Zelaya. The administration left its ambassador to Honduras in place, while several governments in the region recalled theirs. And despite control over millions of dollars in aid and massive economic clout, the administration did not threaten sanctions or penalties against Honduras for the formation of a new government the day after Zelaya was dragged from his bed and removed from the country Sunday. Before Sunday, Obama administration officials were aware of the deepening crisis and said they spoke to Honduran officials in the hope of resolving the dispute and averting a forced transfer of power.”

Morelos – Celia Calderón. Linoleum block print. 1960. Detail. In this rare multi-color print the artist portrayed José María Morelos, one the illustrious revolutionary military commanders of the 1810 independence war against Spain. Morelos was eventually captured by the Spanish and executed by firing squad in 1815.

"Morelos" – Celia Calderón. Linoleum block print. 1960. Detail. In this rare multi-color print from the TGP portfolio "450 Años De Lucha," the artist portrayed José María Morelos, one of the illustrious revolutionary military commanders of the 1810 independence war against Spain. Morelos was eventually captured by the Spanish and executed by firing squad in 1815.

TGP artists focused their considerable artistic skills upon real world outrages like wars and military coups, and there is hardly an offence they did not address through their art, but they also busied themselves with creating sympathetic, dignified, and evocative portrayals of the broad masses of the Mexican people; their labors, aspirations, discontents, and advancements.

In the “Declaration of Principles” published in their 450 Años De Lucha portfolio, the Taller de Gráfica Popular artists proclaimed that their works were part of the “constant struggle to help the Mexican people defend and enrich their national culture, independence, freedom, and peace.” Those principals will undoubtedly be shining through the prints exhibited at the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame.

[Another excellent resource for the study of the TGP in general and the works of artist Leopoldo Méndez in particular, is the book Revolutionary Art and the Mexican Print by Deborah Caplow.]

The Chicana/Chicano Biennial of 2009

Amanecer (Dawn) - Mark Vallen. 2006. 9" x 12". Oil on masonite panel. The painting depicts a group of striking workers huddled in the early morning light as they prepare for the day's rallies and picket lines. The title alludes to better days for organized labor.

Amanecer (Dawn) - Mark Vallen. 2006. 9" x 12". Oil on masonite panel. The painting depicts a group of striking workers huddled in the early morning light as they prepare for the day's rallies and picket lines.

Two of my oil paintings are on display at the National Chicana/Chicano Biennial of 2009, organized by MACLA, or the Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (Movement of Latin American Art and Culture). This will be the third biennial mounted by MACLA, which serves the community of San Jose, California, as well as the larger San Francisco Bay area of northern California.

My paintings portray striking Chicano/Latino/Immigrant workers, and the images were specifically inspired by a real world event, the massive Los Angeles Janitors strike of 2000. While based on that historic work stoppage, the paintings clearly allude to labor unrest in other cities, states, and countries - and they are timely expressions given the current international economic meltdown.

The L.A. Janitor’s strike was organized by Justice for Janitors/SEIU Local 1877, and at the time the labor action heralded a new militancy and organizational capacity for the union movement in the U.S.

With these particular paintings I wanted to praise the boldness of Latino workers, but also intended to instill an awareness of class, which in my opinion is as important as any exploration of cultural identity - especially in these times. In a press release for its 2009 National Chicana/o Biennial, MACLA stated;

“over the last thirty-five years, the field of Chicana/o art and scholarship has developed and expanded exponentially. As an arts movement that developed alongside the Chicana/o civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, Chicana/o art emerged in direct correlation to social change.”

I am in full agreement with that assessment, and so aspire to help reconnect contemporary Chicano art with its deep and profound history of social awareness. That is the basis for my participation in the MACLA Biennial. The MACLA Chicana/o Biennial opened on June 5, 2009, and runs until August 8, 2009. Visit the MACLA website at: www.maclaarte.org.

“Bombs Not Bread” - Dia de los Muertos

My silkscreen poster “Bombs Not Bread“, was directly influenced by the works of the great Mexican satirical printmaker, José Guadalupe Posada, as well as the Chicano arts movement of the late 60s/early 70s. Created in 1983 as a Day of the Dead poster, my artwork depicts a military “calaca” - Mexican/Chicano slang for skeleton - along with text that serves as a mocking inversion of the peace movement’s slogan, “Bread Not Bombs”.

Poster by Mark Vallen, 1983.

[ Bombs Not Bread - Mark Vallen. 1983. Silkscreen street poster. 14" x 20". ]

My poster was printed on cheap paper and utilized as street art when it was first published. “Bombs Not Bread” was also included in the 1984 traveling antiwar exhibit, End of the Rainbow, organized by the Los Angeles based performance art group, Sisters of Survival (S.O.S.). The End of the Rainbow exhibit traveled from California to New York, Massachusetts, Nova Scotia, and finally to Canada. Some of the artists in the show included Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Jerry Kearns, and Judy Baca.

To celebrate Dia de los Muertos 2008 and the 25th anniversary of issuing my artwork, I am offering a limited number of these original 1983 edition hand-signed prints for $25 apiece. Being printed on inexpensive paper they are slightly yellowed with age, but the humorous take on Generalissimo Death still rings true. You can purchase the prints here.

Diego Rivera: Glorious Victory!

Fifty years after the death of Diego Rivera, the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) in Mexico City has launched a major exhibition to celebrate the famed Mexican Muralist. Having opened on September 28th, 2007, the important exhibit titled, Diego Rivera: Epopeya Mural (Diego Rivera: Epic Mural), presents 170 works of art by the radical Mexican artist, including 23 monumental wall paintings, as well as dozens of drawings and studies associated with the painter’s internationally renowned murals.

It was of course Rivera, along with his compatriots David Alfaro Siquieros and José Clemente Orozco, who broke the dependent links to European culture, helping to create authentic visual aesthetics for Mexico and establishing the profoundly influential, socially conscious Mexican Mural School in the process. I traveled to Mexico City in 1994 and marveled at the works of Rivera, Siquieros, and Orozco that are housed at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. No other group of artists has had such a profound effect upon me, and I’d give my eye teeth to see this tribute to Diego Rivera.

Ending December 16th, 2007, the two-month long show is mounted in eight halls of the museum, and comes on the heels of that institution having presented the largest body of Frida Kahlo’s artworks to ever be put on display - a just completed exhibition that commemorated Kahlo’s 100th birthday. The focus of Epopeya Mural is Rivera’s large transportable mural, Glorious Victory, a long missing work thought lost, but recently returned to Mexico by Russia’s Puskin Museum of Moscow, where it had been in storage for nearly half a century.

Painted in 1954, the mockingly titled Glorious Victory has as its subject the infamous CIA coup of the same year that overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected government. At the center of the mural, CIA Director John Foster Dulles can be seen shaking hands with the leader of the coup d’état, Colonel Castillo Armas. Sitting at their feet is an anthropomorphized bomb bearing the smiling face of U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower - who gave orders to launch the military coup. In the background, a priest can be seen officiating over the massacre of workers, many of which can be seen lying slaughtered in the painting’s foreground.

The head of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time of the coup, Allen Dulles, and the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala during the coup, John Peurifoy, are depicted handing out money to various Guatemalan military commanders and fascist junta officials, as indigenous Mayan workers slave away at loading bananas onto a United Fruit Company ship. I might add that Allen Dulles was on the board of directors of the United Fruit Company when the U.S. overthrew the government of Guatemala.

Detail of mural by Diego Rivera

Detail: Glorious Victory - Diego Rivera 1954. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower is portrayed as a bomb, and a Guatemalan stooge shakes hands with his CIA puppet master as U.S. dollars are spread all around.

Epopeya Mural will be the first time Glorious Victory has been exhibited in Mexico. Rivera painted the mural on linen, and donated it to the workers of the then Soviet Union. The mural was shipped to Warsaw, Poland, in 1956 for an exhibition that was to travel Eastern European countries. At the end of the traveling exhibit the painting was missing. As it turned out, the mural ended up in a storeroom at the Puskin Museum, where it has been sitting since 1958. Because the painting had been sequestered away in a darkened room for safekeeping, its bright, lustrous colors are in perfect condition. Glorious Victory is apparently a two-sided painting, as museum conservators say an unfinished section on the mural’s backside depicts the exploitation of workers in U.S. factories.

The U.S. overthrew the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán through a covert CIA operation dubbed Operation PBSUCCESS. Guzmán had implemented an agrarian reform program to alleviate the suffering of Guatemala’s poor Indian peasants, who comprised (and still do), the overwhelming majority of the country’s population. To Guatemala’s privileged elites and their military allies, as well as dominant U.S. corporations like the United Fruit Company (Guatemala’s biggest landowner at the time), Guzmán’s reforms smacked of communism. CIA records referred to Guatemala’s socio-economic improvements as; “an intensely nationalistic program of progress colored by the touchy, anti-foreign inferiority complex of the ‘Banana Republic.’”

In May of 1997, The CIA released several hundred declassified documents relating to Operation PBSUCCESS, some of which detailed the spy agency having compiled lists of Guatemalans in the Guzmán government, “to eliminate immediately in event of a successful anti-Communist coup.” Declassified documents also contained a 19-page manual titled, “Study of Assassination”, a how-to guide book that instructed, “The simplest local tools are often much the most efficient means of assassination. A hammer, axe, wrench, screw driver, fire poker, kitchen knife, lamp stand, or anything hard, heavy and handy will suffice.” If you are interested in reading some of these revealing documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, they are available at the website of the National Security Archive at The George Washington University.

Included in the exhibit at the Palacio de Bellas Artes are sketches, notes and preparatory works Rivera made for the murals he created at Mexico’s National Palace, Secretariat of Public Education, the Theater of the Insurgents, and other notable public buildings. Also on display are Rivera’s drawings and preliminary sketches for murals painted in the United States, like the monumental frescos at the Detroit Institute of the Arts that portray American workers laboring in an automobile factory. The sketches for Rivera’s huge 1934 mural at Rockefeller Center in New York City, Man at the Crossroads, will be on exhibit as well. After John D. Rockefeller, Jr., had the masterpiece destroyed because it contained a portrait of Soviet leader, Vladimir Lenin, Rivera recreated the massive fresco at the Palacio de Ballas Artes, but included in it a portrait of Rockefeller with syphilis bacteria floating above his head. Of course, the recreated Man at the Crossroads is part of the Epopeya Mural exhibit.

It is important to recall that in 1954 Frida Kahlo’s last public act was to participate in a demonstration opposed to the U.S. intervention in Guatemala as it was occurring. Kahlo did so from a wheelchair and against her doctor’s orders - and she passed away two weeks later. Rivera painted his Glorious Victory in the same timeframe, passing away in 1957.

– // –

UPDATE:

A New Look at Rivera’s “Gloriosa Victoria is a major update that I published Feb. 2016. The article contains new information, as well as beautiful details from Rivera’s mural.

The Royal Chicano Air Force Still Flies

Ricardo Favela, a founding member of the groundbreaking Chicano Arts collective, the Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF, aka: The Rebel Chicano Art Front), died of a heart attack this past July 15th, 2007. He was 62. The RCAF colectivo was founded in Sacramento, California, in 1969, and through its inspired and tireless output was intrumental in helping to establish the Chicano Arts Movement. Favela and other members of the RCAF painted more than a dozen public murals in Sacramento, as well as establishing community arts programs like the Barrio Art Program for impoverished Chicano children, and the Anciano Art Project for elders.

Silkscreen print by Ricardo Favela

[ Centro de artistas-Chicanos - Ricardo Favela, Silkscreen poster 1975. The Center for Chicano Artists was a school where the RCAF taught silkscreen printing techniques and mural making. Favela’s humorous poster depicts two skeletal vatos examining a silkscreen frame and the drawing they’ve made on it. ]

But it was the silkscreen poster works of Favela and the RCAF that had the most profound impact. Those posters were highly political, and expressed community concerns from the Vietnam war and gang violence, to supporting the United Farm Workers. In the extensive Los Angeles Times obituary for Favela, the following single paragraph summed things up nicely:

“‘Social commentary was the point of Ricardo’s art,’ said Catherine Turrill, chairwoman of the Sacramento State art department, in an interview this week. For the Royal Chicano Air Force, she said, ‘art was an instrument of social change.’”

The posters of Favela and the RCAF brought unity and pride to the Mexican American community, and those prints flew across the U.S. and around the world - indeed, some of them flew right into the mind of yours truly, where they found fertile ground. I’m indebted to Favela and his RCAF compeñeros, a great many of us are. As fate would have it, Favela passed away just days before the opening of Dos Generaciones, an exhibition of his artworks at Sacramento’s Toyroom Gallery organized by Favela and his former students, Manuel Rios and Xico Gonzalez. The exhibit runs until August 11th, 2007, if you’re in the vicinity, drop by and pay your last respects to a beloved artista.

Silkscreen print by Ricardo Favela

[ Rivera Orozco Siqueiros - Ricardo Favela, Silkscreen poster 1973. Favela’s poster served as an announcement for an exhibit of "Original Drawings and Prints by Mexican Revolutionary Muralists" that took place at the Main Art Gallery, California State University Sacramento, Nov. 1, 1973. ]

There is much about today’s art world that I find tedious and unpalatable. The mediocrity, elitism and pretentiousness, the bloated egos and the ceaseless pursuit of fame and riches. But even in death, Favela touches me with his implacable spirit - reminding me that there is another way. A humble man has passed from this world, a man who in every respect was dedicated to his art and his people… he left an example for all of us to follow.

The Royal Chicano Air Force Still Flies.

Call For Art: Day of the Dead

The 2nd City Council Art Gallery and Performance Space in Long Beach, California, has asked me to act as juror for their upcoming exhibit, Dia de los Muertos. For those artists interested in submitting works, I’m publishing the gallery’s Call for Art on this web log. A complete and detailed prospectus for the exhibit is available here.

Call for Artists living in California
Dia de los Muertos.
Entry Deadline is Sunday, September 16, 2007

Eligibility
All artists living in California.
All media except film and video.
All work submitted for consideration must be available for exhibition October 27 – November 22, 2007.

Cash awards $500, $300, $200, $100 plus the infamous Eye Opener Statue.

Entry Submissions. Images can be presented four ways:
Slides - standard 2″x 2″ mounted, labeled slides (no glass)
Photographs - at least 5″x7″, no bigger than 8.5″x 11″
Digital Prints - at least 5″x7″, no bigger than 8.5″x 11″
Emailed images - to: 2ndcitycouncil@earthlink.net - JPEG or TIFF files only; cannot exceed 500 KB.

Entry Fees are $10 per entry for members and $20 per entry for nonmembers. Become a member of the 2nd City Council and get your first entry free. Volunteer Hours (in the gallery or at home on your computer) are welcome in lieu of entry fees.

Mail submissions to: 2nd City Council Art Gallery + Performance Space. 435 Alamitos Avenue, Long Beach, CA 90802. Phone: (562) 901-0997. E-mail: 2ndcitycouncil@earthlink.net. Web: www.2ndcitycouncil.org

For years, Long Beach has celebrated Dia de los Muertos in a huge apartment complex and courtyard. The 2nd City Council Art Gallery + Performance Space (2cc) is now a neighbor and has been invited to participate. This year the gates on both sides of the alley will open wide to encourage an exchange of culture, art, fun and flow of community from the apartment courtyard to 2cc’s gallery and garden. The courtyard is a magical place where altars, candlelight, marigolds, Aztec dancing and live music will fill the air. In addition to the exhibition and the community ofrenda, 2cc’s garden will likewise be transformed with altars, calaveras, music, movies, delicious food & desserts and craft vendors. Please join us.

It’s an honor for me to be selected as the juror for the 2nd City Council’s Dia de los Muertos exhibition. In the past the gallery’s distinguished jurors have included, amongst others: Carol S. Eliel, Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at LACMA; Barbara Drucker, Chair of the Art Department, UCLA; Betti-Sue Hertz, Curator of Contemporary Art at San Diego Museum of Art; Ruth Weisberg, Dean of the School of Fine Arts, USC; Wesley Jessup, Executive Director of the Pasadena Museum of California Art; Patt Morrison, L.A. Times writer and columnist and founding commentator of “Life & Times” and Sara Cochran, Ph.D. Associate Curator LACMA. I’m sure that with the participation of the working artists who read this web log, Dia de los Muertos will be a lively and vibrant exhibition.

Oil painting by Mark Vallen

[ La Muerta - Mark Vallen 2006. Oil on masonite panel. Portrait of a young Chicana celebrating the ancient Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos. ]

Frida Kahlo’s 100th birthday

To celebrate the 100th birthday of artist Frida Kahlo, which falls on July 6th, 2007, Mexico’s Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) is exhibiting the largest body of Kahlo’s artworks ever to be put on public display anywhere in the world. Opening June 13th, 2007 and running until August 19th, 2007, the show is the first comprehensive exhibit of the artist’s works to be held in Mexico, and it’s comprised of some 354 original drawings and paintings - as well as a portion of Kahlo’s manuscripts and letters. In addition, talks on Kahlo’s political views and influence on the arts will be held in conjunction with the exhibit. The Associate Press quoted Bellas Artes Director Roxana Gonzalez as saying, “It is important for our visitors to know that Frida wrote, thought - challenged the Americans - here they will see the complete Frida.”

Painting by Frida Kahlo

[ Self-portrait with Necklace - Frida Kahlo. Oil on panel. 1933. ]


And that complete view of Frida is long overdue, especially here in the United States, where “Fridamania” has refashioned the radical artist into a series of harmless and exotic clichés. In Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, author Hayden Herrera wrote that the artist became, “first a legend, then a myth and now a cult figure.” The end of that statement is most certainly true, and Herrera played no small role in the transformation of Kahlo into a pop icon - her 1983 biography served as the basis for director Julie Taymor’s 2002 Frida, starring Salma Hayek as Kahlo. Unfortunately that film has become the prevailing English-language history of the left-wing painter.

Will the real Frida please stand up!

[ After the success of director Julie Taymor’s Frida, Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkey, which originally graced the first edition of Hayden Herrera’s book, was replaced with a photograph of Salma Hayek - completing the erasure of Kahlo the woman and the triumph of Frida the Hollywood representation. ]


In an interview conducted for PBS by filmmaker Amy Stechler (The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo), Herrera was asked when people started to recognize Frida as a painter, and she responded by saying:

“(….) in the second half of the seventies, she was not really very well known. In Mexico, she was known as Diego Rivera’s sort of peculiar wife with the strange little paintings that most people really didn’t like very much. They were too peculiar. And too weird. They are weird. I mean, we’ve gotten used to them now, but they still are kind of weird. And in the United States, I don’t think many people had heard of her. At least, I’d never heard of her until somebody…Max Kozlov and Joyce Kozlov presented me with a catalog and said, ‘Go write about it for Art Forum.’ And that was about, I think around 1974 - ‘74, ‘75 - somewhere in there. Anyway, I think Frida Kahlo’s fame began in the late ’70s and had a lot to do with feminism, had a lot to do with the Chicana people in the United States loving having this sort of emblem of Mexicanidad and loving her whole story, because it’s a painful one.”

As a devotee of Kahlo, Herrera’s observations as quoted above are on target, but what exactly is she telling us? That the reasons for Kahlo’s fame have less to do with her abilities as an artist and more to do with the sensibilities of a contemporary audience? That’s quite a revealing statement regarding the cult of personality that has developed around Kahlo, which seems to have more to do with her tragic personal life than with her actual artistic output. When Herrera admits that Kahlo is understood as “myth” and “cult figure,” we’ve already slipped into territory where anything about the artist will be believed, which is undeniably why the Taymor/Hayek version of Kahlo’s life was so popular in the United States. The superficial film provided its audience with an easy to digest soap opera that focused on the sex lives and marital problems of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo - it was a movie that for all intents and purposes effectively stripped Kahlo of her political beliefs.

Painting by Frida Kahlo

[ Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick - Frida Kahlo. Oil on panel. 1954. Arranged like a votive religious painting, Kahlo depicted the earth, a dove of peace, and Karl Marx, as holistic forces ready to vanquish all afflictions. Kahlo portrayed herself freed from pain by the hands of Marx, which simultaneously strangle a vulture-like Uncle Sam. At the time of this painting Kahlo was in such severe pain that she could no longer work without taking strong pain medication - a factor that lead to the less precise nature of her late works. ]


I’ve been singing the praises of Frida Kahlo ever since the early 1970’s, but I find it astonishing that she’s now perceived - at least outside of Mexico - as that country’s leading artist, while her compatriots in the Mexican Muralist Movement have largely been excised from history. To gauge the depth and breadth of “Fridamania” and how quickly the phenomenon took over, one need only examine the 1988 PBS American Masters documentary about her husband, Rivera in America, which detailed the art and career of the eminent painter. Though you do catch glimpses of Kahlo in the documentary, the hour-long film barely mentioned her, and instead focused on the achievements of Rivera - who played an enormous role in changing the face of his nation’s art and culture. Today that portrayal has been entirely reversed, with Kahlo the super-star in the limelight and Diego left forgotten.

I don’t mean to imply that Kahlo doesn’t deserve acknowledgment or that she should be thrown back into obscurity - personally I love her art and recognize her as a fantastic, inspiring painter. But the passing of time should bring about a deeper appreciation of artists and art movements once misunderstood, and while time has no doubt been good to Frida Kahlo - why have the extraordinary artists surrounding her been retired to the shadows? It has been relatively easy to commodify Kahlo’s works over the likes of those by fellow radical painters Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, Jean Charlot, Pablo O’ Higgins, Juan O’ Gorman and others. But it’s a mistake to view these didactic artists as “political” while maintaining Kahlo’s paintings were simply “personal.” Kahlo’s works are the perfect example of “the personal being the political.” No less than the founder of Surrealism, André Breton, recognized this fact. He famously said that “The art of Frida Kahlo is a ribbon around a bomb.”

Photo of Kahlo at a solidarity demonstration for Guatemala

[ This photo shows Kahlo in her last public act, July 2nd, 1954 - demonstrating against the CIA organized military coup that overthrew the elected government of Guatemala. A year prior Kahlo’s right leg had been amputated below the knee for health reasons. Against her doctor’s advice, Frida went to the protest in a wheel chair while convalescing from pneumonia. She held a placard depicting a dove carrying the message, Por la Paz (For the Peace.) Diego Rivera can be seen behind her with his hand on her shoulder. Less than two weeks after the protest, Frida Kahlo passed away. ]


A militant if unorthodox communist, Kahlo was connected to the major political events of her day. Whatever one makes of her politics, ideology was undeniably a major force that consistently ran through her life, so I find it annoying that her persona has been recast to fit the current intellectual atmosphere. While big money and fan worship have airbrushed Kahlo into an easily digestible, exotic commodity - the truth can be found elsewhere. As fate would have it, an exciting new discovery has been made that re-emphasizes the undying loyalty and comradeship between Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. The Mexican paper, La Jornada, reports that scientists in Mexico City have found over 100 hitherto unknown drawings created by the couple. The artworks, along with photos and letters, were secreted away in a hidden room of the Casa Azul (Blue House), the house where the two artists once lived together and which now functions as The Frida Kahlo Museum. A special press conference has been arranged for June 27th, where a list of the exact items found will be revealed.

Frida Kahlo sought to sweep away the cobwebs of the old world, and perhaps the major exhibit at Mexico’s Palacio de Bellas Artes will shed some much needed light on that reality.