Category: Mexican Muralism

A New Look at Rivera’s “Gloriosa Victoria.”

I published an article on Oct. 5, 2007 titled Diego Rivera: Glorious Victory! It was about the Diego Rivera retrospective then on view at the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) in Mexico City, Mexico. The real treasure in that show was the artist’s 1954 mural, Gloriosa Victoria (Glorious Victory).

"Gloriosa Victoria" (Glorious Victory) - Diego Rivera. Oil on linen. 1954. Collection of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Russia.

"Gloriosa Victoria" (Glorious Victory) - Diego Rivera. Oil on linen. 1954. Collection of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Russia.

Gloriosa Victoria is a large oil on linen “mobile mural” that had been touring Eastern Europe in 1956 when it somehow became lost. It was discovered rolled up and sitting in a store room at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Russia in 2006; Rivera had apparently gifted the mural to the Soviet Union. By special arrangement it was loaned to Mexico by the Russian government for the 2007 Palace of Fine Arts exhibition (click here for a larger view of the mural). A number of developments regarding the mural have since led me to write a fresh perspective on its history.

Gloriosa Victoria depicts the 1954 U.S. government engineered coup d’état against the elected government of Guatemala. The mural’s narrative quality is as powerful as a renaissance altarpiece; its recounting of historic events augmented by a superlative handling of composition, color, and form. There are no subtleties or abstractions in Rivera’s telling of this bleak chapter in human events; he offers no tales of universal suffering or “the human condition.” He strips away the mythic to reveal the common truths found in the chronicles of Latin America.

Detail from Rivera's "Gloriosa Victoria." U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles clutches a bomb that bears the face of U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Detail from Rivera's "Gloriosa Victoria." U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles clutches a bomb that bears the face of U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In the above detail from the mural, the man at left dressed in khaki fatigues is the U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. He clutches a bomb that bears the face of U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The man in the dark suit seen whispering into the ear of John Foster Dulles is his brother Allen Dulles, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA chief wears a messenger bag stuffed with Yankee dollars, and he is passing that money to John Peurifoy, the man behind and to the right of the Secretary of State. Peurifoy is handing out the cash to the traitorous military officers and their goons who overthrew the elected government of Jacobo Árbenz by force of arms.

Standing front and center before this group of coup plotters is Air Force Colonel, Carlos Castillo Armas. The breast pocket of his “Eisenhower jacket” is full of American dollars; he carries a Colt Model 1911 .45ACP pistol in his waist band. Armas, the leader of the CIA backed “rebels,” successfully ousted the government of Árbenz and was named head of the military junta. Weeks later a faux election was held in which Armas won 99.9% of the vote. Along the bottom half of the painting are the bloody, mutilated, bullet-riddled bodies of Guatemalans killed in the coup.

The tall man in black blessing the scene deserves special mention, in Rivera’s overall composition the viewer’s eye naturally travels to him. He is Rivera’s depiction of Guatemala’s arch-conservative Catholic Archbishop, Mariano Rossell Arellano (1909-1983). In the opening days of the coup the CIA distributed leaflets across Guatemala that exhorted the population to support the putsch. One such flyer was a pastoral letter issued under the Archbishop’s name, it read in part:

“The people of Guatemala must rise as one man against this enemy. Our struggle against Communism must be… a crusade of prayer and sacrifice, as well as intensive spreading of the social doctrine of the church and a total rejection of Communist propaganda - for the love of God and Guatemala.”

The pastoral letter was not written by Archbishop Arellano. Though its content was approved by the Archbishop, the letter was actually composed by CIA officials in coordination with conservative Catholic clergy in the United States [1]. Rivera named his painting after a remark made by Secretary of State Dulles, who immediately after the U.S. successfully overthrew the government of Guatemala, proclaimed the act to be a “glorious victory for democracy.”

Detail from Rivera's "Gloriosa Victoria." A heavily armed soldier from the U.S. backed coup, watches indigenous Maya working for the neocolonial American corporation, the United Fruit Company.

Detail from Rivera's "Gloriosa Victoria." A heavily armed soldier from the U.S. backed coup, watches indigenous Maya working for the neocolonial American corporation, the United Fruit Company.

One final note about Rivera’s painting; when it was rediscovered at the Pushkin and examined, a second painting was discovered on the backside of Glorious Victory. It was an unfinished portrait that Rivera started but never finished; it was titled “Portrait of a leader of the Mexican Communist Party, Dionisio Encinas.”

Nearly two months after I published my Glorious Victory! article, the New York Times published a rather disparaging review of the Rivera retrospective that was written by Elisabeth Malkin. Titled Rivera, Fridamania’s Other Half, Gets His Due, it offered the following appraisal:

“The centerpiece of the show was ‘Glorious Victory,’ a mural Rivera painted at the end of his life, after the American-backed coup that brought down the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954. It is pure propaganda, almost caricature…”

As George Orwell once wrote, “all art is propaganda.” I could argue that the contemporary art the NYT tirelessly writes about also falls under that description, but that’s another essay. Malkin’s assertion that Rivera’s Glorious Victory is nothing but “pure propaganda,” precludes a discussion regarding the aesthetics of social realism, preferring instead mockery and contempt in lieu of serious criticism. She recounts the historic fact that an “American-backed coup” destroyed “the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954,” but then condemns Rivera’s artistic depiction of that same reality as “pure propaganda.” How would Malkin like an artist to depict the nettlesome subject in a work of art? My guess would be… not at all.

Detail: "The bloody, mutilated, bullet-riddled bodies of Guatemalans killed in the coup."

Detail: "The bloody, mutilated, bullet-riddled bodies of Guatemalans killed in the coup."

After Glorious Victory was seen by thousands at the Palacio de Bellas Artes retrospective, the mural was moved to the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City. It was displayed there from January through June 2008 before being returned to the Pushkin collection. The Russian government loaned Glorious Victory to Guatemala in 2010, where it was shown at the National Palace of Culture as part of that museum’s ambitious art exhibition, ¡Oh Revolución! 1944-2010: Múltiples visiones (Oh Revolution! 1944-2010: Multiple Visions). That exhibit was proclaimed by Guatemalan officials as the most important art show mounted in the country in six decades.

Museum staff from Guatemala's National Palace of Culture, and experts from Russia's Puskin Museum, uncrate Rivera's painting in preparation for the exhibit "Oh Revolution! 1944-2010 Multiple Visions," held in Guatemala's capital in 2010. Photo by Paulo Raquec for the Government of Guatemala.

Staff from Guatemala's National Palace of Culture, and experts from Russia's Puskin Museum, uncrate Rivera's painting in preparation for the exhibit "Oh Revolution! 1944-2010 Multiple Visions," held in Guatemala's capital in 2010. Photo by Paulo Raquec for the Government of Guatemala.

President Álvaro Colom provided remarks for the Oct 1, 2010 opening ceremonies of ¡Oh Revolución!, but before I comment further, allow me to guide you through some of Guatemala’s recent political history, which makes the showing of Rivera’s mural in Guatemala that much more profound.

In 2003 Colom ran for president as the candidate of the social-democratic National Unity of Hope party. He lost to the oligarch Óscar Berger, who ran as the candidate of the rightist Grand National Alliance party. In 2007 Colom again ran for president on the National Unity of Hope ticket, this time against Otto Pérez Molina and the rightist party he founded, the Patriotic Party. Molina was a retired Army General, trained at the U.S. School of the Americas, who had close ties to the military regimes that ran Guatemala in the early 1980s. He lost the election to Colom, who became the only “left” leaning politician to be elected president in 53 years; the first of course was the ill-fated Árbenz, who was overthrown in the U.S. organized coup d’état.

As previously noted, President Colom led the opening ceremonies of the ¡Oh Revolución! exhibit, which presented Guatemalan history through paintings, drawings, and prints, from the overthrow of Árbenz to the current period. The pièce de résistance in the show was of course Rivera’s Gloriosa Victoria, and President Colom thanked the Russian government for loaning it to his nation. At the time of the exhibit Guatemala was celebrating the anniversary of its Diez años de Primavera (Ten Years of Spring), the period between the people’s 1944 overthrow of dictator Jorge Ubico, and the end of the democracy movement brought about by the 1954 U.S. coup against Árbenz.

While President Colom implemented modest reforms during his term in office (2008- 2012), his most significant act was the Oct. 20, 2011 official apology he made for the government’s role in helping to organize the 1954 coup that crushed democracy. Directing his apology to the family of Jacobo Árbenz and to the people of Guatemala, Colom made the apology at the National Palace, saying of the coup; “That day changed Guatemala and we have not recuperated from it yet. It was a crime to Guatemalan society and it was an act of aggression to a government starting its democratic spring.”

In this 1965 photograph, Rina Lazo paints a replica of the famous Maya murals of Bonampak. Her replica is now housed in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Photographer unknown.

In this 1965 photograph, Rina Lazo paints a replica of the famous Maya murals of Bonampak. Her replica is now housed in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Photographer unknown.

President Colom introduced another special guest at the ¡Oh Revolución! opening, Rina Lazo, the Guatemalan-Mexican painter and muralist.

Lazo assisted Diego Rivera from 1947 to 1957, directly helping him paint a number of his most well known mural works. As a young student she won a scholarship to study art in Mexico, and three months after arriving in Mexico City she met Rivera and became his pupil.

Rivera made her a leading assistant, referring to her as his “right hand,” and asked her in 1947 to help him paint the mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central, then being created in the Hotel del Prado (now the Museo Mural Diego Rivera).

In 1954 Lazo assisted Rivera in painting Glorious Victory. One late afternoon while working on the mural, Rivera asked Lazo if she would like to be included in the painting as a background figure. She agreed to pose, and Rivera told her to bring a red blouse to the studio the next day.

Detail from Rivera's "Gloriosa Victoria." At left, Rina Lazo in her red blouse.

Detail from Rivera's "Gloriosa Victoria." At left, Rina Lazo in her red blouse.

The following morning Rivera provided Lazo with a 9mm carbine, set her in an appropriate pose, and began painting.

In the upper right corner of Glorious Victory a group of armed workers and compesinos take action to defend their elected government from the coup-makers; two agricultural workers brandish machetes while Rina Lazo in her red blouse wields a carbine.

While Rivera was painting Glorious Victory, Lazo was creating her own large canvas titled Venceremos (We Will Win). It linked the U.S. coup in Guatemala with the U.S. war in Korea, which had just concluded with an armistice in 1953. The canvas presented an apocalyptic landscape of Guatemalan jungle and Korean rice paddies, where marauding soldiers massacred Korean and Guatemalan peasants alike.

Venceremos (We Will Win) - Rina Lazo. Oil on canvas 1954.

'Venceremos" (We Will Win) - Rina Lazo. Oil on canvas 1954.

In the tableau one unfortunate man shot full of bullet holes is tied upside down to a tree, recalling the Apostle Peter crucified upside down by soldiers of the Roman Empire. Venceremos was also included in ¡Oh Revolución!, and today it is in the collection of the Museo de Bellas Artes de Toluca, México.

"Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera" - Photo by Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi.

"Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera" - Photo by Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi. 1933.

Through Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Lazo met Arturo García Bustos, her husband to be. Bustos was one of “Los Fridos,” a small circle of young artists who were not only fiercely loyal students of Kahlo, but lived and worked with Rivera and Kahlo for close to ten years.

Bustos was also a founding member of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - Popular Graphic Arts Workshop). Lazo and Bustos married in 1949. At the time of this writing Lazo is 93-years old and Bustos is 90; they continue to live together in Mexico City.

By reason of the malaise and torpor of today’s postmodern art, Lazo and Bustos insist that social realism - as exemplified by Rivera’s Glorious Victory - will one day make a comeback; as an artist infinitely inspired by Mexican Muralism, I share the assessment of Lazo and Bustos.

– // –

REFERENCES:

[1] Spiritual Weapons: The Cold War and the Forging of an American National Religion. T. Jeremy Gunn. Publisher: ABC-CLIO, 2008.

View the flickr page created by the Government of Guatemala, celebrating the 2010 exhibition of Gloriosa Victoria at Guatemala’s National Palace of Culture. The photos at the end of the page feature images of President Álvaro Colom, as well as Rina Lazo and her husband Arturo García Bustos.

ADDENDUM:

There is more to this Guatemalan tale. When President Colom’s term in office ended in 2012, his old rival, the former Army General Otto Pérez Molina became the next elected president; despite accusations of corruption and human rights abuses. Three years into his reign the rightist strongman was exposed for involvement in a major corruption scheme. The scam involved the country’s custom service taking bribes from importers in exchange for illegally reducing custom tarifs; the profits of course going to Molina and members of his administration.

Known as La Linea (The Line), the scam was named after the telephone line importers used to arrange bribes with corrupt officials. Hearing of this outrage the people held mass protests for months, filling the streets with demonstrations, conducting strikes, as well as seizing workplaces and schools. Of the 15 million people who live in Guatemala, over 50% of them live in dire poverty. The protests brought the country to a standstill. President Molina, his Vice President Roxana Baldetti, and dozens of officials from their administration, resigned in disgrace and were arrested. Molina and Baldetti are currently in prison and on trial for corruption.

As if things could not get any worse… or more surreal, in October 2015 a former TV comedian named Jimmy Morales was elected president of Guatemala; Morales was inaugurated on January 14, 2016. With no political experience whatsoever, Morales was elected in the wake of the anti-corruption protests that swept General Molina and his cronies from power. Morales ran as the candidate of the right-wing National Convergence Front, founded in 2008 by retired army officers who played a bloody role in the country’s 1960-1996 genocidal civil war. Already, fifteen colleagues of Morales, mostly members of the National Convergence Front, have been arrested for human rights violations related to the war. By the way, attending the inauguration of Jimmy was none other than U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden. Guatemala’s anguish and despair continues… Glorious Victory indeed.

Diego Rivera mural blocked from public view!

"The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City" - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

"The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City" - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011. The mural as it was meant to be seen.

This is an Open Letter to the Students and Faculty of the San Francisco Art Institute.

In September 2011, it was a real pleasure to travel to San Francisco for the express purpose of photographing the Great Depression era murals that exist in the city. I visited the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), where I made photographic studies of Diego Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, located in the campus gallery named after him.

This mural detail shows a monumental worker representing the working class - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

This mural detail shows a monumental worker representing the working class - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

Rivera’s mural is a brilliant tromp-l’oeil, showing us a mural within a mural, with Rivera and assistants on a scaffold as they paint a monumental worker representing the working class; in the artist’s words, a “Gigantic worker, his gaze fixed firmly forward.”

A number of foreign visitors were among the U.S. tourists in the gallery that day; I was impressed by their silent contemplation of the mural. Indeed, the painting is a major destination for cultural tourism, and many travel guides for San Francisco suggest a visit to the SFAI for a look at Rivera’s mural.

Wanting to share my passion for Rivera’s work, I uploaded a few of my photos of his SFAI mural to my web log in 2011, along with some of the history behind the making of the fresco. I might add that I traveled to the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) in May of 2015, not just to see that museum’s Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit exhibit, but to study and photograph Rivera’s magnificent Detroit Industry mural cycle painted in an internal courtyard of the DIA. Throngs of people jammed the museum for the Rivera and Kahlo exhibit, which by the end of its run was seen by well over 153,000 people, making it one of the biggest shows in the DIA’s history.

As a working painter and printmaker in Los Angeles, I write this open letter on the subject of Change the World or Go Home, an installation of scaffolding and fluorescent lighting by Mexico City-based artist Alejandro Almanza Pereda, now on exhibit in the SFAI’s Diego Rivera Gallery. I write to express my dismay that Mr. Pereda’s installation unnecessarily blocks public viewing of Diego Rivera’s 1931 mural, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City. I also have misgivings about Pereda’s installation being placed so close to Rivera’s delicate fresco mural; I believe it poses a threat to the mural’s preservation. More to the point, I hope to explain why I believe that Pereda and the SFAI have denigrated the legacy of Rivera and his fresco mural.

Alejandro Almanza Pereda's scaffold shown during its construction. Screen grab from the SFIA short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

Alejandro Almanza Pereda's scaffold shown during its construction. Screen grab from the SFAI short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

Mr. Pereda is an artist in residence at the SFAI, and so was given a solo exhibit in the Diego Rivera Gallery. Pereda has constructed 24-foot-high scaffold, with a jumble of functioning fluorescent light tubes replacing the scaffold’s wood or steel planks. In the SFAI’s promotional material for Pereda’s scaffold, the school writes some typical postmodern gobbledygook that the fluorescent light tubes are meant to “contend with and complicate the legacy and monumentality of Diego Rivera’s fresco.” But what art institution does not know that light, even in limited amounts, can cause cumulative and irreversible damage to works of art?

Art conservators should be apprehensive that Rivera’s fresco is now exposed to light thrown from Pereda’s giant fluorescent light fixture. Fluorescent light contains high levels of UV radiation, and museums use strict guidelines to prevent artworks in their collections from being unnecessarily exposed to the dangers of UV light.

A short film made under the auspices of the SFAI, shows Pereda’s scaffold and fluorescent light fixture being built with the help of young assistants. Black construction netting was initially erected, supposedly to protect the mural while the scaffold was built. A heavy mechanical lift was used in the construction process, and upon completion the scaffold was improbably secured in place with wires anchored to the walls of the gallery. There appear to be no professional technicians involved in the work, nor art conservators to condition-check the mural. The finished scaffold looks flimsy. With San Francisco sitting on the San Andreas Fault and six other significant earthquake fault zones, there is good reason to be anxious.

I am appalled that the SFAI allowed Pereda’s scaffold to be placed so close to a priceless art treasure, not to mention exposing it to UV light. I can think of no other legitimate art institution that would so recklessly endanger an important internationally recognized work in their collection. I cannot imagine the Detroit Institute of the Arts allowing such a cheap stunt to be pulled off anywhere near their Detroit Industry murals.

Pereda apparently believes that the art and legacy of Diego Rivera is a “limiting screen,” a curtain that restrains Mexican art and confines Mexican artists. Pereda envisions his scaffold as a different sort of screen with which to see the world through. The luminous glow from the fluorescent bulbs makes it impossible to view or photograph Rivera’s fresco! The scaffold itself, even with its lights turned off, impairs a clear view of Rivera’s mural. Evidently the SFAI is titillated by Pereda’s art prank masquerading as profound artistic exploration. In the aforementioned film, Pereda attempted to explain the meaning of his scaffold installation:

“I always had kind of trouble with Mexican Muralism. The Mexican government supported Mexican Muralism, and so that more or less it became a type of propaganda. So when I see the murals, sometimes, you know, like the one here… it’s about progress, the scaffolding symbolizes progress. But a different progress, like destruction, you create something new, like a new condo over a really nice house. And that’s changing the face of the cities, so sometimes it’s terrifying to see scaffolding.”

In the quote above Mr. Pereda spouts utter nonsense. He implies that Diego Rivera and his fellow muralists, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, et al., were propagandists for the Mexican government, which could not be further from the truth. The majority of the muralistas were political radicals, and they often publicly clashed with the government over a variety of issues. In 1922 Rivera and other important artists founded the Union of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors, a group dedicated to creating revolutionary art. David Alfaro Siqueiros wrote the group’s manifesto.

That same year, Rivera, Siqueiros, and many other artists joined the Mexican Communist Party (Frida Kahlo would join in 1928). Rivera’s membership in the party put him in direct odds with the government, which banned the party and its activities in 1925; the outright ban continued until the left-leaning Lázaro Cárdenas was elected president of Mexico in 1934. Anyone with even a cursory familiarity with the history of the Mexican Muralist Movement should know these facts. Perhaps Mr Pereda should go back to art school, oh wait… he is an artist in residence at the SFAI.

It seems that Mr. Pereda’s logorrheic style of babbling was a bit thin as an artist’s statement, so the SFAI graciously assisted with some of its own postmodern prose. The school’s promotional material for Pereda describes Rivera’s mural in the following words:

“Meanwhile, in SFAI’s Diego Rivera Gallery, we have been looking at Diego Rivera’s ass for 84 years. Of course, this was the artist’s intention. Rivera’s iconic work The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City (1931) offers an epic image of the reconstruction of San Francisco, depicting laborers and fresco painters alongside the patron, on the scaffold, and closest to our eye: the artist’s high-waisted rear.”

Looking at Rivera’s ass for 84 years? It was Rivera’s intention to show his “high-waisted rear” to the public? Excuse the Pop culture reference, but the SFAI’s brassy remarks remind me of an aside from British comedian John Cleese; “It’s all about backsides with you Americans, isn’t it.”

It is interesting that the SFAI’s mocking reference to “Rivera’s ass,” is the same type of derisive scorn heaped upon Rivera and his mural by critics in 1931. In his book, Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics, and San Francisco’s Public Murals, author Anthony W. Lee mentioned how reactionaries bashed the mural by accusing Rivera of having painted a portrait of himself defecating on his patrons! A less vulgar “critique,” but one no less spiteful, was made at the time by Kenneth Callahan, the painter from the state of Washington. Castigating the mural, he mentioned Rivera’s “flat rear, hanging over the scaffolding in the center. Many San Franciscans chose to see in this gesture a direct insult, premeditated, as indeed it appears to be. If it is a joke, it is a rather amusing one, but in bad taste.”

The only “ass” to be found in this story is the one who seeks to poke Rivera’s legacy full of holes.

Rivera intended his murals to be accessible to the public; that was the central tenet of the Mexican Muralist Movement to which he belonged. Many San Francisco Bay Area artists met and worked with him when he visited San Francisco, and it is because of his influence that San Francisco became a city full of murals. The evidence is everywhere, from the 1934 Chapel Mural painted at the Presidio by Victor Arnautoff, to the magnificent 1934 Coit Tower frescos at Telegraph Hill. From the 1936 San Francisco Life frescos by Lucien Ladaudt at the Beach Chalet restaurant, to the 1941-1948 History of California murals by Anton Refregier at the Rincon Center. Rivera made enormous contributions to art, and his legacy is not a “screen” that oppresses anyone.

Pereda's installation of scaffolding and fluorescent lighting is inches away from Diego Rivera's mural, hidden on the left by black construction netting. In this Screen grab from the SFIA short film, Change the World or Go Home, an assistant of Pereda's adjusts the fluorescent lights.

Pereda's installation of scaffolding and fluorescent lighting is inches away from Diego Rivera's mural, hidden on the left by black construction netting. In this Screen grab from the SFAI short film, "Change the World or Go Home," an assistant of Pereda's adjusts the fluorescent lights.

While the San Francisco Art Institute does not publish Diego Rivera’s own words regarding the true intentions of his mural, I will happily do so. In his autobiography My Art, My Life, Rivera described the intent behind his 23-by-30-foot mural. Rivera wrote that he wanted:

“to present a dynamic concerto of construction - technicians, planners, and artists working together to create a modern building (….). I showed how a mural is actually painted: the tiered scaffold, the assistants plastering, sketching, and painting; myself resting at midpoint; and the actual mural subject, a worker whose hand is turning a valve so placed as to seem part of a mechanism of the building.

Since I was facing and leaning toward my work, the portrait of myself was a rear view with my buttocks protruding over the edge of the scaffold. Some persons took this as a deliberate expression of contempt for my American hosts and raised a clamor. However, I insisted that my painting meant nothing else than what it pictured. I would never think of insulting the people of a city I had come to love and in which I had been continuously happy.”

If you type in the title of Rivera’s mural on Google - The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City - you will find that the SFAI web page on the painting is the first item to come up, but my 2011 web log article on the mural is the second. Over the years thousands of people from around the world have read my article on Rivera’s mural. It would be an understatement to say that I would have been upset if I had journeyed to the SFAI to study and photograph Rivera’s fresco, only to find the school had blocked the mural from public view by installing a scaffold made of fluorescent light bulbs in front of it. The annoyance would have been made all the worse with the SFAI promoting the installation on an equal footing with Rivera’s mural.

One arts professional that balked at the way the SFAI has treated the Rivera mural was Sarah Lowndes, a writer, curator, and lecturer at the Glasgow School of Art in Glasgow, Scotland. Having traveled all the way from Scotland to view Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco, Ms. Lowndes was aghast at finding Pereda’s scaffolding blocking the mural. She also wrote an open letter to the SFAI to express her disappointment. Since Pereda’s scaffold will block the view of Rivera’s mural until December 3, 2015, there will be many people who are going to be angry over being denied the pleasure of contemplating one of San Francisco’s greatest mural works.

You may choose to call the deliberate blocking of someone’s view of an artwork a clever act of “art intervention” or a means to “contend with and complicate the legacy and monumentality” of the artwork… but an honest person would call it censorship.

There is a larger cautionary tale to be told here regarding Rivera’s mural, one that has it roots in the history of the SFAI, but also in the chronicles of U.S. art and politics.

In 1931 Diego Rivera painted his mural at the SFAI, then known as the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA). Douglas McAgy was the school’s director from 1945 to 1950, and he transformed the institution into a center for the non-objective school of abstract art. McAgy hired abstract artists like Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and Richard Diebenkorn as instructors, and tirelessly promoted abstract art through exhibitions and forums. To McAgy, figurative realism in art was passé and on its way out.

The “enlightened” McAgy was so offended by Rivera’s social realist mural that in 1945 he had a wall constructed over the fresco to prevent the public from ever seeing it [1]. While history has noted the total destruction of Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads mural at New York’s Rockefeller Center by the order of Nelson Rockefeller in 1934, the censorship of Rivera’s mural at the CSFA is barely known or acknowledged. In retrospect the suppression of the mural by McAgy has been forgiven by those who simply think the school director acted as an overzealous apostle of abstract art. As if that is an excuse for his blatant act of censorship.

But here is the delightful irony in this whole messy affair. Just as the director of the CSFA revamped the school into a citadel of abstract art on the West coast, putting the kibosh on figurative realism in the process, so too has the current leadership of the SFAI turned the school into a bulwark for today’s oh so fashionable postmodern art. As Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.” Douglas McAgy covered Rivera’s mural in an open act of censorship; the SFAI covers Rivera’s mural and justifies it in the name of “ambitious new works.”

"Pereda thinks his scaffold provides a different screen with which to see the world through. The luminous glow from the fluorescent bulbs makes it impossible to view or photograph Rivera's fresco!" Screen grab from the SFIA short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

"Pereda thinks his scaffold provides a different screen with which to see the world through. The luminous glow from the fluorescent bulbs makes it impossible to view or photograph Rivera's fresco!" Screen grab from the SFAI short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

But I do not believe for a moment that McAgy’s censorship of Rivera’s mural was an act solely based on an extreme bias against realism in art. McAgy acted in full accord with the “Red Scare” that had seized control of U.S. national politics.

In 1938 the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) attacked Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration (WPA). Specifically, HUAC went after the WPA’s Federal Theater Project, a government effort to provide work for unemployed theater professionals in the midst of the Great Depression. HUAC concluded the project was dominated by communists and demanded Roosevelt fire the project’s leadership because they had “associates who were Socialists, Communists, and crackpots.” Roosevelt refused to fire the leaders but HUAC convinced the U.S. Congress to cancel funding to the project on June 30, 1939.

In 1945 HUAC became a permanent Congressional committee that launched investigations into “subversive” activities in the U.S. It undertook an anti-Communist witch hunt in Hollywood in 1947 that placed over 320 actors, directors, and writers on a blacklist forbidding them work. In the same timeframe Joe McCarthy, Senator from the state of Wisconsin, led his own crusade against the hundreds of communists he alleged had infiltrated the U.S. government. The manic anti-Communism that gripped America in that period became known as “McCarthyism” due to the pathological anti-communism of Senator McCarthy and his political allies in official circles.

HUAC repression in Hollywood destroyed careers and purged the entertainment industry of those perceived to be “un-American.” Ten prominent screenwriters and directors who refused to cooperate with HUAC were found in contempt of Congress and each was sentenced to a year in prison; after their release they were blacklisted like all the rest. Government bullying not only purged Hollywood of the left, it ushered in an era of political submissiveness and conformity in U.S. cinema; The Red Menace from Republic Pictures is a perfect example [2].

McCarthyism impacted all facets of cultural life in the U.S., it was not just the entertainment professionals in Hollywood who suffered; visual artists were also targeted. It is beyond the scope of this article to list all of the painters and printmakers who were persecuted by McCarthyism, but Irving Norman, the painter of social surrealist images comes to mind. U.S. artists would do well to remember the reactionary assault on art during the McCarthy years led by Michigan Republican Congressman, George A. Dondero. On August 16, 1949, Rep. Dondero gave a speech before the U.S. Congress titled, Modern Art Shackled to Communism [3]. He spoke of the “isms” that he said were promoted by communists:

“Cubism aims to destroy by designed disorder. Futurism aims to destroy by the machine myth. Dadaism aims to destroy by ridicule. Expressionism aims to destroy by aping the primitive and insane. Abstractionism aims to destroy by the creation of brainstorms. Surrealism aims to destroy by the denial of reason. All these isms are of foreign origin, and truly should have no place in American art. While not all are media of social or political protest, all are instruments and weapons of destruction.

We are now face to face with the intolerable situation, where public schools, colleges and universities, art and technical schools, invaded by a horde of foreign art manglers, are selling to our young men and women a subversive doctrine of “isms,” Communist-inspired and Communist-connected, which have one common, boasted goal - the destruction that awaits if this Marxist trail is not abandoned.”

Today Congressman Dondero’s words may sound utterly ridiculous, but between the years 1946 and 1956 this was a deadly serious matter. Congress never rebuffed Dondero’s claims; he had very powerful friends and allies. Together they condemned and suppressed modern art exhibits while leading campaigns to censor and destroy “communist” WPA murals located in government buildings. In 1953, acting as the chairman of the House Committee on Public Works during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Dondero was involved in a congressional push to destroy the murals of Anton Refregier that were painted in San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office.

While Congressman Dondero and his supporters were attacking abstract art for being “communist because it is distorted and ugly, because it does not glorify our beautiful country, our cheerful and smiling people, and our material progress,” a few powerful opponents of Dondero both in and out of government were defending abstract art as anti-communist.

The advisory director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Alfred Barr, wrote an essay titled Is Modern Art Communist? for the New York Times in 1952. Barr proclaimed abstract art to be anti-communist and an expression of American freedom and individualism! [4] Here I must remind the reader that Nelson Rockefeller, a major proponent of abstract art, was the president of MoMA in the 1940s and 1950s, and that he initially approved of, but then ordered the destruction of, Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads mural in 1934.

For twelve years Rivera’s mural would remain hidden behind McAgy’s wall until after Rivera’s untimely death in 1957. That same year McCarthyism and Abstract art began to ebb; the CSFA decided it was safe to take down the wall that hid the fresco mural and rededicate The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City.

As conservative anti-communists and liberal anti-communists fought over how to defeat communism in the arts, as well as how to combat it with the arts, there stood Diego Rivera in the midst of the clamor, painting his mural at the California School of Fine Arts. It is little wonder why Rivera’s fresco was targeted for censorship in 1945. Douglas McAgy’s decision to wall off Rivera’s mural was undoubtedly motivated by the “liberal” anti-communist view, coupled with his being an exponent of abstract art.

In this mural detail Diego Rivera depicted steel workers constructing a modern skyscraper. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

In this mural detail Diego Rivera depicted steel workers constructing a modern skyscraper. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

What may astonish the reader is that the CSFA, renamed the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in 1961, makes absolutely no acknowledgment online of CSFA director Douglas McAgy being responsible for building a wall over Rivera’s mural and keeping it covered for a dozen years. Mention of McAgy’s censorship is not even broached on the SFAI website page that supposedly presents the institution’s history.

I have a few rhetorical questions for the students and faculty of the San Francisco Art Institute, as well as for the larger arts community in the U.S. and beyond.

Mexico is in deep crisis, it is in a political, economic, and moral tailspin; since 2007 over 164,000 Mexicans have been killed in the so-called drug war; 10,000 Mexicans have been kidnapped and “disappeared” by death squads since 2012; over 41 Mexican journalists have been assassinated since 2010 for seeking the truth.

I write this on the one year anniversary of the kidnapping and forced disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Guerrero, Mexico, who were seized by corrupt police officers and their drug gang accomplices. Ayotzinapa has become a dagger in the heart of the Mexican people, and millions of them know who is responsible for conspiring against them.

My questions are - do you really prefer Alejandro Almanza Pereda and his fluorescent light scaffolding over Diego Rivera and his socially conscious mural? Do you actually think Pereda’s is the appropriate artistic response to a Mexico awash in blood and corruption? Do you genuinely believe that art and artists are above the fray, and need not dirty their hands with real world issues? And, faced with all of the inequality and barbarity of this world, do you regard it as apropos to “contend with and complicate the legacy” of these conditions by attacking Rivera?

If you answered “yes” to any of my questions, then I think it safe to say that the arts community is in its own moral tailspin.

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ADDENDUM:

[1] Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University. Howard Singerman. University of California Press. 1999.

[2] The Red Menace - Director, R.G. Springsteen. Republic Pictures 1949. The film offered an over the top fictional account of how the Communist Party USA supposedly operated in the city of Los Angeles, using deceit and thuggery to recruit the weak minded. The film is narrated by Lloyd G. Davies, a member of the Los Angeles City Council. One of the film’s villainous communists was played by actress Betty Lou Gerson, who would be the voice actress for Cruella De Vil in Disney’s 1961 animated feature, 101 Dalmatians.

[3] Law, Ethics, and the Visual Arts - John Henry Merryman, Albert Edward, Elsen, Stephen K. Urice. Published by Kluwer Law International, 2007.

[4] The Rise and Fall of American Art, 1940s-1980s: A Geopolitics of Western Art Worlds - Assoc Prof Catherine Dossin. Ashgate Publishing. 2015.

Ramos Martínez & The Flower Vendors


The "Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez Symposium" held in the Humanities Auditorium of Scripps College, March 23, 2014. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez" symposium held in the Humanities Auditorium of Scripps College, March 23, 2014. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

On March 23, 2014, I attended the symposium at Scripps College in Claremont, California titled Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez.

Held to deepen public knowledge about the Mexican artist, the event was held in conjunction with the not to be missed exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California.

The symposium offered three separate talks by experts in their fields, all pertaining to the art of Martínez. After their presentations the three lecturers reconvened as panelists for an informative panel discussion moderated by arts writer, Suzanne Muchnic. A lively question and answer period followed, after which the symposium concluded and attendees walked a short distance to view The Flower Vendors, the fresco murals Martínez painted in the college’s Margaret Fowler Garden.

A view of Martínez' unfinished fresco mural, "The Flower Vendors." The mural is over 100 feet long and consists of several panels. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

1) A view of Martínez' unfinished fresco mural, "The Flower Vendors." The mural is over 100 feet long and consists of several panels. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In 1946 Scripps College commissioned Martínez to paint The Flower Vendors mural. It is a tragedy that in the middle of working on the project, Martínez died on November 8, 1946 at the age of 73. His wonderful mural was left unfinished, but it continues to resonate in the present. I photographed The Flower Vendors while attending the symposium, and in this article offer my photos along with my impressions of the symposium.

Amy Galpin, the curator at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum of Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, presented her talk Making Religion Modern: Alfredo Ramos Martínez and his Contemporaries. A devout Catholic, Martínez created a number of works that were of a religious nature; Galpin focused on those works.

Martínez returned to Christian themes in his paintings and drawings again and again, but the topic was usually bound to the artist’s ideas concerning social justice for the poor and downtrodden. This point was driven home when Galpin projected a slide of Martínez’ 1939 tempera and ink drawing, The Bondage of War.

In this panel one can clearly see the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, the "sinopia" sketch, as well as incomplete patches of fine plaster - the "intonaco," where Martínez had painted in some limited tempera washes. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

2) In this panel one can clearly see the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, the "sinopia" sketch, as well as incomplete patches of fine plaster - the "intonaco," where Martínez had painted in some limited tempera washes. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

The Bondage of War depicts a Mexican Indian man tied-up with heavy ropes that hold him immobile, a length of rope tightly twisting around his neck slowly strangles him. The tormented campesino stands in for humanity as a whole; it is 1939 and the winds of war have reached cyclone proportions. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan have already formed an alliance. In 1939 the Nazis seize Czechoslovakia, Spain falls to the fascist army of General Franco, and the Nazis invade Poland. Martínez made his antiwar drawing on a copy of the Los Angeles Times, the banal printed columns and ads from the paper bleeding through the drawing of the campesino. To this work Ms. Galpin juxtaposed a slide projection of an artwork Martínez created depicting the suffering Christ bound in ropes - the similarity between the two artworks was striking. Both were closely cropped minimalist portraits done in limited color schemes, but more importantly, both artworks spoke powerfully about agony and redemption.

One of the most completed panels in "The Flower Vendors" mural. Note how the artist employed trompe l'oeil to make the figure on the viewer's right appear to be stepping out of the picture plane. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

3) One of the most completed panels in "The Flower Vendors" mural. Note how the artist employed trompe l'oeil to make the figure on the viewer's right appear to be stepping out of the picture plane. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Ms. Galpin placed Martínez and his religious works in the broader context of modernist art. She projected slides of artworks made by other modernists who had created religious art in the Christian tradition; Jean Charlot (whose works appear in the PMCA Martínez exhibit), Edith Catlin Phelps (Wayside Madonna), Ivan Albright (his hallucinogenic The Temptation of St. Anthony), and Charles White (Spiritual). There are many other example of course that Galpin did not mention, the woodcuts of the German Expressionist Karl Schmidt Rottluff come to mind (Head of Christ 1918). It was a refreshing take on modernism; three weeks prior to attending the Martínez symposium I had attended TRAC 2014, where conservative keynote speaker Roger Scruton scorned modernism for destroying the sacred in art and replacing it with the profane.

Ms. Galpin concluded her remarks by saying that the more political artists like Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco, etc., ultimately saw Martínez as one of their own because of the deep humanism and love of the common people that he expressed in his paintings and drawings.

Detail of rightward most figure from the nearly completed panel. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

4) Detail of rightward most figure shown in illustration number 3. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In her presentation, Conserving Alfredo Ramos Martínez’ The Flower Vendors, art conservator Aneta Zebala talked about the meticulous process of restoring and conserving The Flower Vendors mural located in the Margaret Fowler Garden on the Scripps College campus. Trained in the restoration of wall and easel paintings at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland, Ms. Zebala was also part of a collaborative team that worked with the Getty Conservation Institute in preserving the Siqueiros América Tropical mural located on L.A.’s Olvera Street.

5) Detail of leftward most figure shown in illustration number 3. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

5) Detail of leftward most figure shown in illustration number 3. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In 1994 Zebala and her associates found The Flower Vendors in poor shape. The mural was suffering from water damage, which not only caused the paint to bleach out in certain areas of the painting, but gave rise to the build-up of salt deposits that further eroded paint pigments; paint was flaking off throughout the mural. Incredibly, ivy from the garden had crept over the mural’s surface, and the plants sank thousands of tiny roots into the outdoor mural. Zebala recounted how difficult it was to remove the roots and restore the damage they caused. Vandals had also painted graffiti on a certain area of the mural, increasing the headaches of restoration and preservation that Ms. Zebala and her team faced.

 7) Detail of rightward most figures from a nearly completed panel. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

6) Detail of panel showing flower vendors with baskets full of flowers. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Zebala revealed some important facts about how The Flower Vendors mural was produced. The painting was created using the traditional Italian fresco method.

On the wall to be painted, skilled plasterers first applied a rough layer of lime plaster mixed with large granules of sand. Called the “arriccio,” this layer was allowed to dry.

Next, the artist drew a very rough sketch or guide on the arriccio called the “sinopia,” named after the dark red earth pigment used to paint it. The sinopia helped in guiding the layering on of the last coat of fine plaster, the “intonaco.” The intonaco was laid on in small patches, just the amount that an artist could finish painting on in one work session. The artist would paint onto the wet intonaco layer with water-based pigment, remembering the outlines of the sinopia hidden beneath the fresh intonaco. When the plaster and pigment set and dried, the painting became permanent.

Over the years fresco painting developed a slightly more sophisticated technique that abandoned the sinopia as a guide for the artist. In this method, once the fine intonaco layer was layered over the rough arriccio, a life-sized drawing on paper - the “cartoon” - that had its outlines perforated with a needle, was placed over the wet intonaco and pounced with a small sack filled with charcoal dust. When the cartoon was removed, the outlines of the drawing were left on the wet plaster and the artist could begin painting. This method allowed for complex drawings to be transferred to the wet plaster; the artist no longer had to memorize what was beneath the intonaco in order to proceed, instead the cartoon tracing left a completely worked out line drawing to be painted over and refined.

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7) Detail of flower vendors from illustration number 6. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

What Aneta Zebala revealed was that Alfredo Ramos Martínez used the earlier method of fresco painting, that is, he used a sinopia as his rough guide in painting his mural. Once the last layer of fine plaster was placed over the sinopia, the artist had to remember what the drawing looked like; he was in essence flying blind. In all of her restoration and preservation work on the mural, Ms. Zebala found no evidence that a pounced cartoon was used to provide Martínez with a guide. He simply painted freehand onto the wet plaster. Since Martínez’ mural was left unfinished, one can see the rough layers of arriccio and sinopia sketches in one section of the mural, while in other sections it is easy to see the intonaco with semi or near finished paintings. It is sad that The Flower Vendors mural was unfinished, but it has left us with an amazing example of how a traditional fresco mural is painted.

The high-quality restoration and preservation work carried out on The Flower Vendors brought the mural to life. When contemplating the fresco, one tends to forget that it is unfinished.

9) One of the central panels of the mural was left incomplete after the hand drawn "sinopia" sketch was made on the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

8) One of the central panels of the mural was left incomplete after the hand drawn "sinopia" sketch was made on the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Mary Goodwin, an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, gave a talk titled, Printmaking in Los Angeles and the Role of Maria Sodi de Ramos Martínez. Ms. Goodwin revealed some hitherto unknown historical facts, even to those stalwart veterans of the Los Angeles arts community.

It all began with a Martínez “painting” that hung in the Goodwin household when Mary was a young girl. She became perplexed when she saw the exact same work in the home of relatives. She eventually discovered that the work was not a painting at all, but a serigraph - a silkscreen print; still, it was assumed that the print had been created by Alfredo Ramos Martínez. Fast forward to Ms. Goodwin as an adult with a B.A. in aesthetic studies from UC Santa Cruz and an M.A. and Ph.D. in art history from Boston University. In her research she made some startling discoveries regarding the Martínez silkscreen.

A group of five women prepare to sell succulent agave cactus and corn, in this nearly complete mural panel. The central area of the composition had received the most washes of color before the artist stopped working. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

9) A group of five women prepare to sell succulent agave cactus and corn, in this nearly complete mural panel. The central area of the composition had received the most washes of color before the artist stopped working. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

It is well known, at least to those who have studied the works of Alfredo Ramos Martínez, that his wife, Maria Sodi de Ramos Martínez, was a fierce champion of her husband’s works. After Alfredo died in 1946, Maria continued to organize exhibits of his works. To help continue and expand the legacy of Alfredo, Maria printed 7 separate silkscreen print editions that were reproductions of selected works by her husband. Printed by Maria in the garage of her Los Angeles home between the years 1947 and 1951, the most complex prints utilized 62 different colors - meaning 62 different screen stencils had to be hand-painted. Maria signed the works with her own name; some of the prints had a price as low as $35.00.

Detail of woman from illustration number 9. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

10) Detail of woman from illustration number 9. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

But the story did not end there. Maria learned how to produce silkscreen prints from the artist credited with originating silkscreen as a fine art medium, Guy Maccoy (1904-1981). In 1933 while working in New York with the Work Progress Administration (WPA), Maccoy began developing the screen printing process, earning him the moniker “Father of the Serigraph.” In 1938 Maccoy had the nation’s first one-person show of silkscreen prints. In 1945 Maccoy moved to Los Angeles, California. He taught Maria Martínez his technique of painting directly upon a stretched screen with lithographers tusche and water based glue in order to create a stencil.

Years later Maria Martínez would teach Corita Kent, a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, how to produce serigraphs. Running the art department at L.A.’s Immaculate Heart College until 1968, Corita became a dynamic force in the activist arts, and her anti-Vietnam war and social justice posters became ubiquitous in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. In turn, Corita taught her student Sister Karen Boccalero the skills taught to her by Maria Martínez. In 1970, Boccalero became a co-founder of L.A.’s Self Help Graphics, which continues to be a cornerstone institution for the national Chicano art movement.

12) In this detail of an incomplete panel, one can plainly see the various steps taken to create the mural. The bottom half shows the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, with a sketchy "sinopia" painted in dark earth red as a guide. Just below the shoulders of the two women, one can see the break between the arriccio layer and the finer "intonaco" layer, upon which the artist painted the women's faces, flowers, and background. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

11) In this detail of an incomplete panel, one can plainly see the various steps taken to create the mural. The bottom half shows the rough "arriccio" layer of plaster, with a sketchy "sinopia" painted in dark earth red as a guide. Just below the shoulders of the two women, one can see the break between the arriccio layer and the finer "intonaco" layer, upon which the artist painted the women's faces, flowers, and background. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Mary Goodwin closed her talk by commenting on how we need to continue “teasing out” these multifaceted stories in order to build a complete understanding of history. The synchronicity  between Guy Maccoy, Maria Martínez, Corita Kent, and Karen Boccalero was based on a common vision of art being made accessible to large numbers of working people. Muralism has always been a vital component to that aspiration, with The Flower Vendors by Alfredo Ramos Martínez remaining a superlative model of the art.

As a long time follower of Chicano art history, especially in my hometown city of Los Angeles, it was absolutely revelatory to find a direct link between Ramos Martínez, and the Chicano art movement, through the serigraphy of his wife Maria Martínez. Furthermore, it makes it even more historically important that the PMCA’s current exhibit of Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California is in conjunction with the exhibit Serigrafía, an overview of Chicano/Latino silkscreen art from the 1970s to the present that also includes one of my prints.  A more fitting combination could not be had, as we now have learned from Ms. Goodwin’s research.

The two exhibits run until April 20, 2014. Museum admission is $7, free for PMCA members. The museum is located at: 490 East Union Street, Pasadena, CA 91101. Web: pmcaonline.org

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Read more about Martínez at, Alfredo Ramos Martínez: Picturing Mexico.

Alfredo Ramos Martínez: Picturing Mexico

I have long admired the works of the Mexican artist Alfredo Ramos Martínez (1871-1946), and over the decades I was fortunate to see a handful of original works by him. I was always puzzled that so few in the U.S. remembered him, especially those of us living in Southern California where Martínez came to live and exercise considerable influence. Once a renowned and much sought after artist, the sands of time have buried Martínez, but an amazing exhibit of his works at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA), Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California, should stimulate a new appreciation for his art.

Historians and artists alike have often referred to Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, three eminent 20th century artists of Mexico, as Los Tres Grandes (the big three). It is of course a reductionist view of history, as there were many great Mexican artists from the period, and Alfredo Ramos Martínez was certainly one of them. Those familiar with his life and works have variously described him as the “Father of Modern Mexican Art,” or the “Father of Mexican Modernism,” titles that are not exaggerations.

Some have said the paintings of Martínez “do not sustain the interpretation” of his being a revolutionary artist, an opinion that ignores the historic role Martínez played in transforming Mexican art and literally founding a national aesthetic for his country. He was not a “rabble-rouser” like his contemporaries Rivera and Siqueiros, they placed their art at the service of revolution, but the oeuvre of Martínez plainly shows that he painted the indigenous poor and working class of his native land. From our perspective that may not seem like much, but one must consider Mexico as it was in the early 20th century; an underdeveloped and impoverished country whose major resources were owned by North Americans and where the dark-skinned majority was ruled over by a light-skinned minority of corrupt oligarchs -  and that ruling class preferred classical European art to anything produced in Mexico.

It is a mistake to say the art of Martínez was not political in nature; his paintings were generally not militant or confrontational like those of his colleagues, as if only paintings and prints of insurrectionary Mexican peasants armed with rifles and machetes constitutes “political art.”

Mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery (detail). Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. "Over the portico of the chapel Martínez painted the resurrected Christ surrounded by angels bearing lilies." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery (detail). Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. "Over the portico of the chapel Martínez painted the resurrected Christ surrounded by angels bearing lilies." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The 57-year old Martínez left Mexico in October 1929 to settle in Los Angeles, a city tottering on the brink of the Great Depression. He was embraced by those captivated with Mexican aesthetics, and quickly gained a following. In 1930 José Clemente Orozco painted the very first modern fresco in the U.S., his Prometheus mural at Pomona College. In 1931 Diego Rivera painted four murals in the San Francisco Bay Area, and during his 1932 political exile in Los Angeles, Siqueiros painted three murals, the best known being his América Tropical mural on Olvera Street. In 1934 Martínez painted murals for the chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery in Santa Barbara, California. My photographs presenting details of Martínez’ mural illustrate this article.

Detail of the mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. One of four Angels painted in the dome above the chapel's Altar. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail of the mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. One of four Angels painted in the dome above the chapel's Altar. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery was designed by the American architect and painter, George Washington Smith, who led the Spanish Colonial Revival style of architecture in the U.S. during the early 20th century.

The chapel was completed and dedicated in 1926, and Martínez received a commission to paint the murals in 1934; his murals were controversial for not including the traditional religious iconography that was popular at the time.

In his history of the Santa Barbara Cemetery, The Best Last Place, author David Petry wrote that the cemetery’s manager and board member, William Bryant Jr., complained that the murals “impaired his ability to sell niches in the chapel, or to sell the use of the chapel for services.”

Over the portico of the chapel Martínez painted the resurrected Christ surrounded by angels bearing lilies, the Christian symbol of purity. The walls above the aisles were painted with scenes of the clergy, laity, and angels in a devout procession towards the Messiah.

Angel painting in close-up detail. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Angel painting in close-up detail. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Head of a Nun, the tempera on newsprint drawing by Martínez exhibited by the PMCA in Picturing Mexico, is a study for one of the figures in this section of the chapel mural.

The mural’s aesthetics are informed by an austere and rough modernism, the composition dictated by the artist’s attention to architectural details, and the figures having an almost geometric quality to them.

With the exception of a group of Mexican Indian women penitents, all of the figures in this portion of the painting are blonde Caucasians.

However, Martínez painted an extraordinary scene in the dome above the chapel’s Altar. From the Nave of the chapel one can see the monumental representation of the Lord God, his hands raised to bless humanity.

Again, the figure is painted in severe Modernist style, but it is the Mexican Modernism that found inspiration in the “primitive” style of the ancient Maya and Aztecs. Painted on the dome directly across the representation of God, but hidden from view from those in the chapel Nave, is a group portrait of Mexican Indian mourners.

Detail of the mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. "From the Nave of the chapel one can see the monumental representation of the Lord God." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail of the mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. "From the Nave of the chapel one can see the monumental representation of the Lord God." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

They are the dark-skinned wretched of the earth, the invisible ones that silently suffer the indignities heaped upon them by a cruel and indifferent world. They cover their eyes with trembling hands, and huddle together in their misery. But by placing them opposite his portrait of the Lord, Martínez was saying that it is the poor and vulnerable who are closest to God.

Religious themes were always a current in the works of the artist, who was obviously a pious man.

Millard Sheets, a leading member of the Southern California arts community, befriended Martínez and promoted his works.

As the chair of the new art department at Scripps College in Claremont, California, Sheets organized a 1937 on-campus exhibit of Martínez’ art, and in 1945, under the sponsorship of Sheets, Scripps commissioned Martínez to create a 100-foot long mural for its Margaret Fowler Memorial Garden. It was to be his last work. The artist began the mural but did not complete it due to his death in 1946 at the age of 73. Today the unfinished mural titled The Flower Vendors remains a popular destination on the Scripps campus.

Detail of the mural from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. "The invisible ones that silently suffer the indignities heaped upon them by a cruel and indifferent world." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Mural detail from the Chapel of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Alfredo Ramos Martínez. 1934. "The invisible ones that silently suffer the indignities heaped upon them by a cruel and indifferent world." Photo by Vallen ©.

Here it is necessary to examine the role Martínez played in Mexican society prior to coming to the United States. After the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, art students at the San Carlos School of the National Academy of Fine Arts called for a strike against the conservative institution.

The strike began in 1911, and took aim at the school’s academic training methods, which disallowed students to draw from live models.

The outlook of the students was shaped by the country’s ongoing revolution, and they expanded their demands to include, not just an end to the hegemony of Academic art, but the establishment of a Free Academy where meals, rooms, and art supplies would be free.

Concurrently, the radical democrat Francisco Madero and the peasant armies of fellow revolutionaries like Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa successfully drove the longtime dictator Porfirio Díaz from power, and Madero became president in 1911.

In the continuing strike art students demanded the nationalization of the country’s railroads in solidarity with the revolution. José Clemente Orozco was a leader of the Student Strike Committee, and Siqueiros participated in the strike as a young student. Eventually the strike was won, the academic art curriculum was dropped, students were allowed live models, and by 1913 Alfredo Ramos Martínez became the Director of the National Academy. Martínez broke from the Greco-Roman traditions of European academic art, instead insisting that Mexico’s land, history, and indigenous people were the only subject matter needed for the creation of great art. He opened the first Open Air School of painting in Mexico, which emphasized direct observation in the creation of landscapes and depictions of peasant life; Siqueiros was one of his students. Martínez not only revolutionized the Academy, he helped to change the face of Mexican art.

But in 1913 Mexico, more than just the directorship of the Academy would change hands. The revolution was betrayed when General Victoriano Huerta entered into a conspiracy with the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson. The two plotted to carry out a coup d’etat against the reformist Madero, and on Feb. 18, 1913, Huerta seized power militarily and arrested Madero. Days later Huerta had President Madero and Vice-President José María Pino Suárez assassinated by a military firing squad. One could say that after the treacherous murder of the popular Madero by right-wing forces, the Mexican revolution intensified and deepened - but that is another story.

Walking through the Martínez exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of California Art is akin to walking through the pages of a gorgeously illustrated history book that tells the intertwined tales of Mexico and the United States. Few artists have made that tangled relationship as clear as Alfredo Ramos Martínez. The works on exhibit were all created during the artist’s stay in the U.S., and include landscapes and portraits, as well as political and religious statements. The overwhelming number of works in the show express the artist’s love of Mexico and its people, and he no doubt appreciated their many historic links to California and its population.

Some of the most startling pieces in the exhibition are the graphic works Martínez created on printed newspaper pages. He drew and painted directly on actual U.S. newspaper pages he mounted on canvas or board; the artworks are intensely political if only for their extreme juxtaposition of cultures. One such work is El Defensor (The Protector), a drawing in tempera and conte-crayon drawn on a June 5, 1932 edition of the Los Angeles Times. The drawing is a portrait of a furious young compesino, his hand clenched into a fist as if ready to deliver a blow. Text from the paper’s mundane classified ads bleed through the drawing.

The irony Martínez presented to us in El Defensor reaches across time, as he knew it would. When he made the drawing the U.S. government was involved in a massive forced “repatriation” campaign of Mexican workers in the U.S., up to two million were arrested, placed on trains, and deported. In the xenophobic frenzy, an estimated 60 percent of those deported were U.S. citizens of Mexican heritage that were born in the United States. California alone rounded-up and deported over 400,000 U.S. citizens; the City of Los Angeles was also involved in deporting tens of thousands. The policy of deporting “foreigners” was approved of by the Los Angeles Times.

I refuse to believe that Alfredo Ramos Martínez was unaware of these facts when he created El Defensor, one of the strongest artistic statements made in California during that period.

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Read more about the artist at, Ramos Martínez & The Flower Vendors.

Addendum:

On Sunday March 23, 2014, Scripps College will hold a symposium titled, Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez. A number of interesting panel discussions are scheduled, culminating in the viewing of the artist’s celebrated fresco mural, The Flower Vendors.

The PMCA is also presenting Serigrafía, an exhibit of thirty silkscreen prints created by Chicano/Latino artists from the 1970s to the present; I am pleased to have one of my prints in the exhibit. A correlation between the prints and the works by Martínez can be seen, especially by those who are aware of the march of history.

Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California will travel to the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Nevada, where it will run from May 10, 2014 to Aug. 17, 2014.