Category: Mexican Muralism

Josep Renau: Commitment and Culture

The people of Spain have been celebrating the 100th birthday of the Spanish painter, poster designer, and muralist, Josep Renau, through a number of tributes, not the least of which has been a traveling exhibition; Josep Renau (1907-1982): Commitment and Culture. Organized by the Spanish Ministry of Culture and the University of Valencia, Spain, the exhibit is now running at the Universidad de Zaragoza until January 30th, 2009 (View the Spanish language or English translated website). Comprised of over 200 works including photomontage creations, drawings, paintings, and posters, the exhibit spans the artist’s entire influential career.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Celebridades Norte Americanas /North American Celebrities. Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1956-65. ]

In 1992 the Museum of Photographic Arts (MoPA) in San Diego, California, presented the very first exhibition in the U.S. of Renau’s magnum opus photomontage series - Fata Morgana USA: The American Way of Life. I attended that exhibit and found it full of acidly sardonic photomontage works that lived up to the title of the series. Unfortunately the MoPA website does not even list the slightest detail concerning its ‘92 exhibit. Luckily for all however, the museum website does sell the brilliant catalogue book, Fata Morgana USA: The American Way of Life, which is an indispensable resource regarding the life and art of Renau.

When reading about the early radical proponents of photomontage, rarely is the name of Renau mentioned, yet he played a significant role in the development of the art. His montage works should be regarded with the same sense of appreciation given to the creations of John Heartfield, George Grosz, Alexander Rodchenko, Raul Hausmann, or Hannah Hoch.

Art by Josep Renau

[ El Presidente Habla Sobre La Paz /The President Speaks About Peace. Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1952. ]

The MoPA exhibit of Fata Morgana USA gave us Renau’s view of America as it existed from the Cold War years of the late 1940s to the early ’60s. He depicted a country arrogantly projecting its military power across the globe; a land enthralled by the rise of mass media and hyper-consumerism, embroiled in anticommunist witch-hunts, and terribly divided along racial lines. In fact, some of Renau’s most engaging images had to do with America’s shameful history of racism.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Orgasmo Racial /Racial Orgasm - Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1951.]

At a time when African Americans could neither vote nor use facilities marked “For Whites Only”, Renau’s images called attention to the fact that democracy in the U.S. was a dream left unfulfilled for millions. Perhaps his most volatile artwork on the subject was the photomontage titled Orgasmo Racial (Racial Orgasm - 1951); which presented a close-up portrait of a skull-faced white man from whose mind sprang the most fearsome imaginings, tortured and murdered black men roasting in fires set by flag waving members of the Ku Klux Klan. No less blistering a condemnation of racism was the artist’s Sombras en la Plantación (Plantation Shadows - 1955); a depiction of a Southern Belle gently swaying to and fro in a tree swing on her estate - the tree casting shadows in which you can see the agonized faces of impoverished Blacks.

To say that Renau is not widely known in the United States would be an understatement. But what is the reason for this unfamiliarity? No doubt his ideology had much to do with it, since he joined the Communist Party of Spain in 1931 and remained a lifelong member until his death. He once said, “I’m not a Communist painter, just a Communist that paints”. A continued ignorance regarding his works, especially for artists at this juncture in history, is nothing short of inexcusable.

Born in Valencia, Spain, Renau graduated from art school in 1925, and then succeeded in making a living as a drawing professor - devoting himself to painting and advertising poster design. He created his first photomontage, The Arctic Man, in 1929. He would be hailed internationally in the years to come for his significant work in developing the art form. When the Spanish Civil War commenced in 1936, he designed posters in support of the Spanish Republic against the insurgent army of General Francisco Franco and his fascist allies Hitler and Mussolini. That same year the Republican government appointed Renau General Director of the Arts, giving him the responsibility of safeguarding Spain’s cultural heritage during the war, and he would transfer part of the Prado Museum’s collection in Madrid to save it from fascist bombardment. In 1937 Renau helped design the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Paris, France, where he commissioned Pablo Picasso to paint a mural for the Pavilion in support of the Spanish Republic. The result would be Picasso’s Guernica.

When the fascists succeeded in crushing the Spanish Republic in 1939, Renau, like millions of Spaniards, went into exile. He first traveled to France and then to Mexico, where a large number of Republican exiles settled. Upon his arrival in Mexico he began a collaboration with the artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, helping to paint Retrato de la Burguesia (Portrait of the Bourgeoisie), a revolutionary mural for the Electrician’s Union headquarters in Mexico City.

In 1940 Renau became a Mexican citizen, and being well versed in advertising art he made a living designing posters for the Mexican film industry. Eventually he turned his critical gaze toward American culture, and imagined the beginnings of his masterwork, Fata Morgana USA. Those familiar with medieval studies will recognize “Fata Morgana” as the Italian name for Morgan LaFée, King Arthur’s fairy half-sister who produced mirages in order to bewilder enemies. But Renau was interested in the name because it defined a “mirage” as an actual phenomenon, and he had it in mind to use his caustic photomontage art to expose American myths as the greatest of all illusions.

To accomplish his task Renau combined his mastery of photomontage with his expertise in the language of mass media and advertising design; not to conjure up a forerunner to pop art, which was accommodationist to corporate power, but to create a visual language that would subvert advertising and the system it sprang from. Renau began compiling thousands of photographs from the pages of American magazines and newspapers, inventing a catalog system for the collection of images to facilitate the construction of his montages. With precision Renau used the simple tools of razor blade and glue to combine photographic elements, putting the last touches on a montage by painting out unwanted areas or filling in details with pencil or brush. When a finalized work was photographed for publication, the constructed image appeared altogether seamless. Years later the artist would comment on the beginnings of his project, saying that it:

“(….) was to a considerable part drafted in Mexico, the only Latin American country which has a joint border with the United States and where, for this reason, the physical, psychological and political pressure of Yankee imperialism is expressed more directly and brutally than anywhere else.

(….) It is noteworthy how much society in USA is most effectively softened up by the powerful eroding action of the big monopolies and how it has become sensitive to the striking feed-back of the mass media (film, radio, television, newspapers, comics, magazines, etc.). This takes place to such a degree that the formula ‘American way of life’ - partially and tendentiously abstracted from social reality itself - is taking on the shape of a real ‘model’; this concerns a considerable part of the US population which has of necessity formed itself in accordance with the commandments of such an abstraction.”

In 1958 Renau moved to the German Democratic Republic where his work on Fata Morgana USA began in earnest. When Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, Renau visited Spain the next year for the first time since his exile, taking the opportunity to exhibit some of his Fata Morgana USA images in several cities. As part of the Venice Biennial of ‘76, Renau would show his completed Fata Morgana USA series consisting of 69 images. It was not until ‘77 that Renau published 40 select works in book form under the title of Fata Morgana USA. In 1982 Renau died in East Berlin at the age of 75.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Recién Casados /Just Married. Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1957.]

While influenced by dada and surrealism, Renau’s works never offered incoherent rage or dream-like escapism. His was a didactic art that peeled away layers of myth and obfuscation to reveal unpleasant realities. Sometimes his images accomplished this through whimsy, at other times with a frank bluntness, but he always made his point in a highly imaginative way. Take for example his photomontage Recién Casados (Just Married - 1957), depicting a blushing bride, who in actuality is a metaphorical stand-in for the U.S. public. Joined in matrimonial bliss to a robber baron who has an oil drill bit as a head, the bride carries what appears to be a heart shaped floral arrangement, but in reality it is nothing more than another oil drill bit. At the feet of the lovebirds, drooling paparazzi jockey for position, while in the background a gushing oil well symbolizes the couple’s consummated relationship. This rumination on the oligarchy and its relationship to the public was also a prescient comment on gender politics, a topic to which Renau would return time and again.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Miss Bistec de Chicago /Miss Beefsteak of Chicago - Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1960/66.]

A continually running narrative throughout Fata Morgana USA is the subjugation and objectification of women, which Renau not only attributed to the workings of capitalism, but insisted was necessary for the system to work at all. In Dia de la Victoria (Day of Victory - 1953), Renau constructed his photomontage around a full page photo of an alluring lingerie model posing in Life magazine. At first glance the montage seems festive with its marching band, confetti, streamers and fluttering flags, until one notices the barely concealed caption to the original photo; “Victory Lingerie: A top U.S. designer creates models to welcome home service husbands”. A second glance reveals the scantily clad model is surrounded by U.S. veterans of the Korean War - and they are all amputees.

Art by Josep Renau

[ Sociedad de Consumidor /Consumer Society. Josep Renau. Photomontage. 1972.]

Taken as a whole, Fata Morgana USA can be seen as a comprehensive denunciation of capitalist culture, but of the dozens of images in the series that strike at commercialism, perhaps none cut so deeply as the 1972 photomontage, Sociedad de Consumidor (Consumer Society). Here Renau visualized the citizen being reduced to nothing more than a mindless consumer, ingesting without hesitation an endless stream of manufactured goods and desires that includes the ideology of capitalism itself. But while the word “consumption” denotes the act or process of consuming things, it is also an archaic medical term that refers to the wasting away of the body; and the physical presence of Renau’s consumer has withered into an undemanding and simple receptacle. We are left to wonder how the artist would have commented on the “Black Friday” 2008 Christmas season in the U.S., when hundreds of holiday shoppers in a mad rush to buy cheap consumer goods at a New York Wal-Mart trampled an employee to death.

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.

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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.

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.

Siqueiros Online Video Stream

An online streaming video is now available for Siqueiros: The Art of Censorship, a recent speakers forum about David Alfaro Siqueiros, his murals, Los Angeles history, and public art. Held last November 9th, 2006, at the Los Angeles Times Harry Chandler Auditorium, the forum was attended by some 300 persons and recorded by L.A. public television station, Channel 36 - who makes the video stream available from their website.

Speakers included Luis Garza - the instigator behind the future exhibition Legacy & Legend: Siqueiros & America Tropical-Censorship Defied, Judith F. Baca - muralist and founder of SPARC (the Social and Public Art Resource Center in Venice, California), William F. Deverell - director of the Huntington/USC Institute on California and the West, Suzanne Muchnic - Los Angeles Times art writer, and Patt Morrison - writer and columnist. To view the video, go to:

L.A.’s Siqueiros Mural To Live Again

On August 2nd, 2006, after spending my entire adult life reading about América Tropical, the internationally famous mural painted in Los Angeles by Mexican Muralist master, David Alfaro Siqueiros, there I was, for the very first time - barely inches from the huge masterwork. Just the day before I had received a telephone call from friend and associate, Luis Garza, who sits on the city’s Siqueiros Mural, Events, and Marketing Committee overseeing the restoration of the mural. Garza had called to invite me to the important press conference where L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa would have exciting news regarding the mural.

A detail of the famous Olvera Street Siqueiros mural, América Tropical

[ A detail of the famous Olvera Street Siqueiros mural, América Tropical. The image is not the actual mural, but a scale size digital blow-up. Photo/Mark Vallen ©. ]

Mayor Villaraigosa’s press conference took place early in the morning on Olvera Street, the city’s founding avenue and location of the Siqueiros mural. That morning the historic area of the city, known officially as the El Pueblo Historic Monument, was bristling with television, newspaper and radio reporters eager to cover the story. Before a large crowd of city officials, local business people, artists and reporters, the Mayor publicly announced the city’s collaboration with the Getty Foundation on finalizing conservation efforts and providing public access to the mural. At last, the day many of us had dreamed of for years had finally arrived. It was official, a budget for the project had been approved - the renowned mural would live again.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

[ Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at the Siqueiros mural press conference. Photo/Mark Vallen ©. ]

At the press conference Mayor Villaraigosa remarked: “The people of the city of Los Angeles will finally be able to view this cultural treasure long obscured from sight. The mural, while controversial in its time, will allow adults and children of all ages to learn about and appreciate the diverse history of this city, the importance of freedom of artistic expression and the origins of the muralist movement in this city.” The Mayor added, “While people can agree or disagree with the message, what’s important is that it was art, and art, while sometimes controversial, is important - because what it does is to lift the soul.” The Mayor’s comment that the mural was “controversial in its time” treats the work as if it were safely and firmly rooted in the past and without relevance to our present political situation. In fact, the work may be more provocative today than when it was first painted - especially during this time of world crisis. Rather than shying away from the artist’s political message to concentrate on his mural as purely an artistic triumph, we should celebrate and defend the anti-Imperialist politics of América Tropical. That being said, I must applaud the Mayor’s bold leadership in campaigning for the conservation of this priceless and influential artwork.

After his comments the Mayor introduced the three representatives from the Getty who were on hand to talk about the museum’s role in the conservation project. Deborah Marrow, Interim President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, Timothy Whalen, Director of the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), and Joan Weinstein, Interim Director of the Getty Foundation. The three spoke of the Getty Foundation’s commitment to the project, from the construction of a protective shelter and viewing platform for the mural, to the installation of an interpretive center that would place the artwork in historical and artistic context. The overall cost of the project is $7.8 million, with the Getty and the City of Los Angeles basically splitting the expense. The Mayor next introduced Judy Baca, famed L.A. muralist and the Founder/Artistic Director of the Social and Public Art Resource Center of Venice, California. She gave an impassioned speech on the importance of the Siqueiros mural and of muralism in general, noting L.A.’s reputation as the mural capital of the world, and imploring those present to support a revitalization and expansion of the L.A. muralist movement.

Viewing platform to be constructed by the Getty

[ Artist’s rendition of the viewing platform to be constructed by the Getty. ]

As the press conference concluded, officials announced that everyone was invited to the Italian Hall, the historic building on Olvera Street where Siqueiros painted his 80-by-18 foot rooftop mural on an outside second-story wall. We were given a rare opportunity to stand on the roof where we could examine the mural. In actuality, the artwork is now sheltered by a metal covering, over which is stretched a digital reproduction of the mural as it looked before it was censored by a coat of whitewash in 1932. The Getty’s plan is to preserve the mural just as it is - a ghost image - and not to repaint or fully restore it. There are several reasons for this approach, the chief cause being that the artist painted his work in a way that had not yet been proven. Abandoning the traditional method of fresco painting whereupon tempera pigments are painted onto fresh limestone plaster, the experimentally minded Siqueiros painted his mural on concrete using Pyroxylin, a newly developed material that was primarily used to paint automobiles. Conservators have found that the paint’s adhesion to the wall was flawed, adding to the problems of restoration.

Artist Mark Vallen

[ Artist Mark Vallen - Photo by Gary Leonard, ]

From atop Italian Hall there is a dazzling view of downtown L.A., and one can just imagine the splendor of the site once the Getty builds the mural’s protective shelter and viewing platform. A representative of the Mayor’s office requested that all of the artists present stand before the mural so as to be photographed - a tribute to Siqueiros and the impact the Mexican Muralist had upon the artistic community of Los Angeles. I noticed that one of the photographers taking pictures of the proceedings was an old acquaintance - L.A.’s own Gary Leonard. He deftly took a quick shot of me, and naturally we ended up talking about the significance of the day. Interestingly enough, Leonard is related by marriage to Philip Stein (aka Estaño), the American social realist artist who for ten years worked in Mexico with Siqueiros on creating some of the master’s finest works.

Fleeing repression and persecution in Mexico, Siqueiros came to Los Angeles in 1932. During his six month stay here he painted three important murals before being brusquely deported by the U.S. government. His first mural was Mitin Obrero (Worker’s Meeting), a two story creation painted on the side of a building at Chouinard School of Art - where he had been teaching mural painting techniques. It was the very first time anyone in the world had used an industrial spray gun to paint a mural directly on cement. Finished in July 1932, the mural was almost immediately painted over by right-wing authorities. Siqueiros’ second mural was América Tropical, and his third, Retrato del Mexico de Hoy (Portrait of Mexico Today), only survived because it had been painted on the wall of an outdoor patio at the private residence of film director, Dudley Murphy.

A full view of the rooftop mural

[ A full view of the rooftop mural. Again, this is not the actual mural, but a scale size photographic blow-up. Photo/Mark Vallen ©. ]

Back in 2002, I wrote about the experience of attending the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s unveiling of Portrait of Mexico Today, a work acquired and placed on permanent display by the museum. Thousands attended the unveiling ceremony, and countless others have since visited to see the mural. Unquestionably that painting has enriched us all and contributed to the general prosperity of Santa Barbara. The fact that América Tropical is a more well known and significant work, indicates that its reinvigorated presence will no doubt render tremendous positive effects for the people and city of Los Angeles.

[ UPDATE: On August 8, 2006, I received the following e-mail from Peter Lincroft, the son of famed American muralist, Eva Cockcroft. Peter’s letter seemed an appropriate update to my original article:

"Excellent blog entry on the exciting news about America Tropical. In addition to its historical importance, the mural has a personal meaning for me, because it was the subject of the last mural ever painted by my mother, Eva Cockcroft, before she passed away on April 1, 1999. My mother's mural, which she painted in collaboration with Alessandra Moctezuma, is in East LA and is a reproduction of (and tribute to) the original. You can get more info, as well as see pictures of the mural at this website." ]

Mexican School of Painting in NYC

My friend Estaño, an 86 year old veteran of the celebrated Mexican Muralist Movement, is having a one man exhibition at the Adriaan Van Der Plas Gallery in New York City. The show, titled Mexican School of Painting, has apparently been a success for our esteemed veterano - who has so far sold three paintings at the exhibit - and it’s not hard to imagine why. His figurative paintings are works in the tradition of Mexico’s great revolutionary artists of bygone years. In fact, Estaño, assistant painter with the legendary David Alfaro Siqueiros, wrote the best book I’ve ever read on the subject of the Mexican Muralist painters, Siqueiros: His Life and Works. But Estaño’s art is not a relic of times past. His visual denunciations of war, fascism and greed are as timely today as ever, and his unconquerable belief in humanity is an antidote to today’s bleak postmodernist misanthropy. I highly recommend people in the vicinity make the trek to view Estaño’s paintings. The Adriaan Van Der Plas Gallery is located at 89 South Street, Pier 17, 2nd Floor, New York, NY. 10038. Phone: 212-227-8983. Web: For those unable to visit the gallery, a trip to Estaño’s official website, located at:, will reveal a treasure trove of wonders.

Siqueiros: Spirit of a Revolutionary

The works of David Alfaro Siqueiros are being exhibited at The Museo de las Américas in Denver Colorado through April 23rd, 2005. Siqueiros: Spirit of a Revolutionary, will feature 22 paintings and drawings by the revolutionary artist that bridge his entire career. A highlight of the exhibit is the 12-foot long study for the 108-foot-long mosaic mural Siqueiros created on the exterior of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City.

The works on display demonstrate Siqueiros’ fondness for experimentation and improvising. He was one of the first to paint with the newly developed acrylic medium, and he also used a spray gun and lustrous enamel automobile paint called pyroxylin for his murals and small paintings. Many of the works in the Denver Colorado exhibit come from the Museo Soumaya in Mexico City, where they were shown in 2004 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Siqueiros’ death.

There has been much renewed interest in the art of Siqueiros, and for good reason… his works offer profound and meaningful content delivered with masterful figurative realist style. Philip Stein (aka Estaño), an artist who painted alongside Siqueiros for ten years, put it this way, “When an artist is having a problem in seriously seeking a meaningful basis for their artistic endeavors, they could consider it a stroke of good luck if they should stumble on to the Mexican Mural Movement.”

Jean Charlot and the Aztecs

One of the books I’m currently reading is artist Jean Charlot’s, The Mexican Mural Renaissance. Written in 1963, the book is a recollection of the French painter’s active participation in the Mexican Mural movement circa 1920-1925. Charlot befriended artists Siqueiros, Rivera, Orozco and others, at a time when their very first murals were being produced. Charlot himself created fresco murals in Mexico City’s National Preparatory School and the Ministry of Public Education. As he put it, having “assisted at the birth of a national style is a rare event, as well worth recording as the birth of a volcano.” In a remarkable passage from his book, Charlot compares Aztec art to Europe’s early 20th century avant-garde, and finds the latter somewhat lacking:

“Early in this century, when the Parisian vanguard, having hacked its way through uncharted stylistic jungles, proudly returned with its strange trophies, the displayed grotesquerie looked familiar and somewhat tame from an Amerindian vantage point. Just having known calli, the Aztec hieroglyph that signifies “house” - a cube of space contained in a cube of adobe - watered down the angular landscapes of Braque and Derain into little more than a mild departure from impressionism. The flat colors of the codices, with raw chromas paired in refined discord, could pass as the goal toward which Matisse of Music and Dance took his first hesitant steps.

The anatomies that Leger put together with ruler and compass were doubtless veering away from Bouguereau, but still had far to go on their semi mechanical legs to equal the frightfully abstract countenance of a Tlaloc or Tzontemoc. Idols combined the moroseness of a 1916 Derain with the mathematical innuendos of Juan Gris. A few were spared in the comparison: Picasso’s evisceration of objects, for example, matched the fierceness of an Aztec ritual knifing.”

What Charlot saw so clearly in the early 1920’s, that Mexico’s ancient indigenous art can be a starting point for a thoroughly modern aesthetic, is still a valid perspective. I addressed this in an earlier post of mine, Aztec Art: Roots of Modernism.

The Art Of Estaño

Painting by Philip Stein

I’ve created a brand new website that reveals the history of the Mexican Muralist Movement and one American artist’s personal connection to it. Philip Stein, also known as Estaño, worked alongside the famed Mexican Muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros from 1948 to 1958. He assisted the Mexican master in painting some of his most famous murals. I began corresponding with Estaño in August of 2003.

Based on our mutual involvement in socially conscious art, we agreed to collaborate on creating a website that would present his art to the world, as well as pay tribute to the school of Mexican muralism. A master artist in his own right, he was indelibly influenced by Mexican muralism in both style and content, and has continued to create artworks based on contemporary realities. His paintings are collected and exhibited around the world, and the new website will serve as the premiere online gallery for his work, in addition to being an international educational resource for researchers and art lovers.

In keeping with the theme of progressive humanistic causes and the march towards justice, was officially launched on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Monday January 17, 2005.

The early twentieth century was marked by the conflict of ideas… on the battlefield, in the classroom, on the street corner. Revolutions on all corners of the globe, economic crises, and technological advancements made everyone question where the world was headed. As Europe hurtled towards its eventual conflict of ideologies, the US was emerging as a major world player both economically and militarily. With its revolution, Mexico sought to free itself from the mantle of European colonial values, and create a new and unique national identity.

The artists who emerged out of revolutionary Mexico in the 1930s would launch the most successful attempt in world history at unifying art and politics. They created a national art form that sent shockwaves throughout the world which are still reverberating today. Using techniques learned in Europe, master artists such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco took art directly to the people, evoking revolutionary ideology on the walls of major public buildings in the form of murals. In addition to the artist’s sheer technical mastery, their efforts were unparalleled as they taught their audience who they were, where they had come from, and where they were going.

The Mexican Muralists showed the country as it looked before colonial conquest by Europeans… they revealed the agony of centuries of oppression of the indigenous population, and ultimately, brought all of this history together as they plunged their viewers into the ideological conflicts of the day.

The influence of the muralists was not limited to Mexico; all three artists would also create murals in the United States. Mexico City for a time become the pinnacle of artistic fervor, attracting some of the world’s most noted intellectuals. Furthermore, avante-garde American artists of the Great Depression Era would be influenced both in content and technique, by what was going on in Mexico. In the 1960s and 70s, young Mexican-Americans would rediscover the art of the 1930s masters, giving rise to the Chicano mural movement.

As we enter the 21st century and see images by Diego Rivera gracing personal bank checks, and handbags painted with the portrait of Frida Kahlo, we must ask ourselves - “what was the Mexican Mural movement” and “what can we learn from it?” It is for this reason, that has come into being.