Rigoberta Menchú, Gilberto Sánchez, & Ana Gatica

A recent photograph of 30-year old artist, Gilberto Abundiz Sanchez. Photo courtesy of the Sanchez family.

A recent photograph of 30-year old artist, Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez, courtesy of the Sánchez family.

This article is about the barbarous assassination of a young Mexican artist, Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez. Why would unidentified armed men take an artist from his home and murder him? Considering the artist was just one of over 50 victims killed in one year in a single region, why are the authorities unable - or unwilling - to stop the killers? This is the reality of today’s Mexico, the subject of this piece. But this essay is also about much broader, international issues, human solidarity, and the democratic spirit.

Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez was a 30-year old artist attending the Popular Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo. Located in Michoacán, Mexico, the University is the oldest institution of higher education in the Americas.

Gilberto Sanchez and two other young death squad victims. May 21, 2015.

Gilberto Sanchez and two other young death squad victims. May 21, 2015. Photo/EFE

By all accounts Sánchez was dedicated to art, he was a printmaker and painter. He was last seen watering the plants at his mother’s home when he was kidnapped on March 30, 2015. The remains of Sánchez were found on May 21, 2015 in Chilapa, Guerrero. He and two other young victims had been killed, dismembered, wrapped in blankets, and dumped along a roadside. The corpse was identified as Sánchez because of its unique tattoo.

The staff, students, and authorities of the University released a statement to express their “grief, anger, and outrage at the brutal murder of the student of the Bachelor of Visual Arts.” The collective statement describes Sánchez as a “peaceful, enthusiastic, and creative young man who actively participated in outreach activities that the Graphic Arts Department organized.”

The University communique also posed some very serious questions; “What happens in a country that allows the murder of its young students?” “Why do they fear the intelligence and creativity of young people, who represent the future of Mexico?” “Why has the whole society become a hostage to terror?”

The statement closed with these defiant words. “We are not willing to continue to act as if nothing happened in this country, that the death of Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez was natural and not the result of an undeclared war which has been unleashed against students, workers, peasants, and thinking people not aligned to power.”

The University statement is significant for two important reasons. It comes from the University staff, which includes academic as well as administrative faculty; it was also a collective statement issued in the name of the student body. More importantly, the bulletin expresses what millions of Mexicans are currently thinking about the criminal clique that rules their country.

Which brings us to the self-made controversy swirling around Rigoberta Menchú Tum, the indigenous Quiché woman, Guatemalan Human Rights activist, and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner. If anyone in the U.S. remembers Rigoberta Menchú Tum, it is as a heroic and altruistic “native rights” activist. After surviving the depredations of death squads in her homeland and the state murder of her family, after suffering insults and verbal muggings from right-wing critics aplenty, Menchú has managed to besmirch and defile her own legacy by collaborating with the authoritarian government of Mexico.

I once respected Rigoberta Menchú… that is no longer the case. The reasons for my bitter disappointment with Menchú are headline news in Mexico, but the calamity she has set off in Mexico has not been covered in the U.S. press. As a result I feel obligated to break this cheerless story to my fellow North Americans.

Lorenzo Córdova, president of the National Electoral Institute, presents Rigoberta Menchú Tum with her accreditation as an official election observer for Mexico's elections. Photo/INE Mexico.

Lorenzo Córdova, president of the National Electoral Institute, presents Rigoberta Menchú Tum with her accreditation as an official election observer for Mexico's elections. Photo/INE Mexico.

On May 26, 2015 Rigoberta Menchú was accredited by Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE), as an official electoral observer for the country’s June 7, 2015 midterm federal and state elections.

The INE paid Menchú $10,000 U.S. dollars to “promote voting and democracy” during her five-day stay in Mexico. According to information published in the Mexican press, Menchú charged $40,000 dollars for her visit, the balance being paid by private foundations. Here I must add, if Menchú has been paid by the Mexican government to lecture the people on democracy, and to be an election observer, can she really be seen as impartial?

Specifically, the INE is sending Menchú to the conflict ridden state of Guerrero to drum up support for the sham elections, but why Guerrero? Because that region is home to the Ayotzinapa teachers’ training college that had 43 of its students kidnapped by police and their drug gang accomplices. Ayotzinapa has become the political lightning rod of the nation, a democratic prairie fire has sprung from the tragedy, and President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) hopes to stamp it out.

It should be remembered that when the police of Guerrero seized the 43 Ayotzinapa students on Sept. 26, 2014, they turned them over to the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) drug gang to be murdered. There is no clearer evidence of the seamless relationship that exists between vast sectors of the Mexican government and powerful drug syndicates.

Lorenzo Córdova, president of the National Electoral Institute, presented Menchú with her accreditation at a photo-op press conference held at the INE headquarters. Córdova said Menchú was “a woman recognized internationally for her relentless struggle for the defense of the rights of indigenous peoples and for her convictions concerning peace.” It was a stunning bit of propaganda since just days earlier the Indigenous Council of Guanajuato filed a complaint against Córdova with Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights. During a phone conversation between the president of the INE and the group’s executive secretary, Córdova made racist jokes that ridiculed the way indigenous people speak.

Does Menchú not see that publicly accepting accreditation and money from Lorenzo Córdova legitimizes his image? If she was unaware of the controversy surrounding Córdova, then maybe she is not cognizant of other Mexican government intrigues. I suppose calling her naive is the best defense that can be offered, but callowness is not an attribute an election observer should possess.

Córdova’s phone call was surreptitiously recorded and released on Spanish language social media, where it has circulated ever since. Because of this Córdova “apologized” for his “unfortunate and disrespectful” jokes, but the INE asked the Attorney General’s Office to mount an investigation into who secretly recorded the conversation and made it public.

The former Attorney General, Jesús Murillo Karam (affiliated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was widely criticized for attempting to cover-up the truth regarding the Ayotzinapa 43 kidnapping. He infuriated millions when at a press conference he was questioned regarding the 43 missing students, and responded with “that’s enough, I’m tired” before walking away from the press. The pro-Democracy movement then used Karam’s words #YaMeCanse (I am tired) in a social media campaign to show their contempt for government violence and impunity. Karam resigned in Feb. 2015, but the new Attorney General, Arely Gómez González (also affiliated to the PRI), will most likely lack the energy to tackle the Ayotzi 43 case, but I think she will show great zeal in exposing and prosecuting those who recorded Lorenzo Córdova’s racist phone conversation!

Video screenshot of 27-year old Ana Gatica challenging Menchú at a May 29, 2015 government organized forum.

Video screenshot of 27-year old Ana Gatica challenging Menchú at a May 29, 2015 government organized forum.

But back to Menchú and her disingenuous but well paid “This is what democracy looks like” side show. On May 29, 2015, at a large public gathering organized by the INE at the International Center in Acapulco, Guerrero, Menchú delivered a lecture titled Democracy and the Culture of Peace, a talk that many across Mexico found offensive and insulting.

Broad sectors of the population in Mexico are frustrated by narco-politica (narco-politics); millions believe their votes have no power to effect change. They believe, for good reason, that oligarchs and drug lords have an absolute grip on power, nullifying the democratic process. They believe there is no official mechanism that can be used to implement the people’s political will.

Furthermore, the movement for democracy that sprang up around Ayotzinapa has called for a boycott of the elections; it is a strategy that presses for the abolishment of Narco-regime governance and an end to kidnapping and murder by the state. The demand is that the 43 be returned, and if that is not possible, all of the conspirators who kidnapped and murdered them be brought to justice. Who is Rigoberta Menchú to tell the Mexican people that their assessment of the situation is incorrect?

During her lecture Menchú told the parents of the missing 43 Ayotzinapa students; “I would urge the families to try to explain the reason” for their children’s “actions” prior to being kidnapped (as if the students shared blame for being taken hostage). Menchú told the parents to do so “without hiding the truth, because the truth dignifies us all,” a statement that implied the parents of the 43 missing students had lied in their campaign to pressure the government.

Menchú went on to say that “the vote is a personal decision,” and that an election “is an opportunity to renew authorities.” She asked the parents of the 43 Ayotzinapa students to never forget their children (as if they would!), and to go out and vote, because “Gentlemen vote, and that is my message.”

The tables are turned. Ana Gatica, an indigenous Nahua from Guerrero, lectures Menchú on the meaning of democracy. Photographer unknown.

The tables are turned. Ana Gatica, an indigenous Nahua from Guerrero, lectures Menchú on the meaning of democracy. Photographer unknown.

At the close of her address, Menchú asked for a moment of silence for the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students. After the awkward silence there was a question and answer period, and a 27-year old woman, Ana Gatica, took the stage to deliver what turned out to be a rather fiery public rebuke; Ms. Gatica is an indigenous Nahua from Guerrero.

Shaking with emotion and choking back her tears, Ms. Gatica addressed the honored guest as Hermana Menchú (Sister Menchú), “I do not know how you can ask us to make a vow to vote,” she said, when disappearances and murders of civilians go unpunished. Ms. Gatica pointed out that 50 young people living in the state of Guerrero have been killed between October 26, 2012 and May 30, 2015. The first to disappear “was the daughter of a cousin, Gabriela Itzel Ortiz Vazquez, 15, the last to be killed was Gilberto Abundiz Sánchez.” Gatica began to cry when she spoke of Sánchez, her friend and fellow graphic artist.

Ana Gatica pointedly stated: “Ms. Menchú, the indignation and anger cannot be finished, and I know you understand. One more thing, we cannot keep asking for a minute of silence for the missing, because asking for a minute of silence for each of the disappeared - and for everyone murdered in our country, in our state, means that we will remain silent forever.”

The comments of the brave and courageous Ana Gatica were captured in several Spanish language videos of the Democracia y cultura de la paz conference. Ms. Gatica received a stirring round of applause for confronting Menchú, it was no doubt more enthusiastic and heartfelt than the polite clapping given to Menchú at the close of her speech.

The day after Rigoberta Menchú’s speech, Felipe de la Cruz, a spokesman for the parents of the missing 43 Ayotzinapa students, deplored the conduct of Menchú. He said that she “fell into the INE game of promoting the elections,” and that she “does not know how they have governed us in Mexico for many years.” De la Cruz had some words of advice for Menchú, “If you want the truth, ask those who are paying you to making your comments.”

In 1982 Rigoberta Menchú rose to international fame with the release of her book I, Rigoberta Menchú. It told the story of the impoverished Quiché people living under the boot of Guatemala’s oligarchical landlords and their armed goons. Menchú’s family became involved in the land reform movement, and so became targets of the regime. Her father Vicente was arrested and tortured, her brother was executed by government soldiers, her mother was arrested, raped, and killed by government troops, and ultimately her father was burned to death in the 1980 Spanish Embassy Massacre. In 1981 Rigoberta Menchú fled Guatemala for Mexico and then France.

While in France Menchú met Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, who not only convinced Menchú to write her memoirs, but became the ghostwriter for the book. At the time I found the autobiography to be totally convincing, the tome fed the international solidarity movement that was determined to end the butchery in Central America. For the events detailed in her book, Menchú received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum - Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999). Oil on canvas. Detail.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum - Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999). Oil on canvas.

Doubts about Menchú finally began to rise in 1999 when anthropologist David Stoll published Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, a book that pointed out discrepancies and inaccuracies in Menchú’s autobiography. The left-wing - myself included - dismissed Stoll’s book, but Menchú’s recent skullduggery forces a reconsideration.

In 2009 I attended Guayasamín: Rage & Redemption, an exhibit at the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) in Long Beach, California. It was a retrospective of artworks by the Ecuadoran master painter, Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999). Prominently displayed was the artist’s oil on canvas portrait of Rigoberta Menchú. Guayasamín, a social realist artist and a man of the left, would no doubt be outraged over the shameful antics of Menchú.

It should go without saying that I no longer support Rigoberta Menchú, who has become but a faded image of her former self. No, I stand with Ana Gatica, the spirited and outspoken indigenous Nahua from Guerrero who knows how to stand for the people’s rights.

Robert Henri’s California

“Art cannot be separated from life. It is the expression of the greatest need of which life is capable, and we value art not because of the skilled product, but because of its revelation of a life’s experience.”  - Robert Henri

Portrait of Mrs. Robert Henri - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Portrait of Mrs. Robert Henri - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Robert Henri’s California: Realism, Race, and Region, 1914-1925, is a small but important exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum in the sunny coastal city of Laguna, California. Running from Feb. 22 to May 31, 2015, this exceptional show focuses on the paintings that Henri (pronounced ‘hen rye’) created while visiting the southern Californian cities of San Diego and Los Angeles from 1914 to 1925.

I had hoped to take some extreme close-up shots of the paintings, but the Laguna Art Museum does not allow photography of any kind in the Robert Henri’s California exhibition. Fortunately the museum agreed to provide me with some .jpg reproductions of art from the exhibit, which serve as illustrations to this article.

In 2007 I mentioned Henri at the end of my article, Bouguereau & His American Students, which told of Henri being a student of the academic painter William Bouguereau and his inevitable break with academic painting; In 2008 I published a second article, Apostles of Ugliness - 100 Years Later, in which I described the “Ashcan School,” the first art movement in the U.S. that Henri played a major part in founding. The Ashcan group were the original social realist painters of America, given to depicting the lives of the poor and everyday working people.

Portrait of Mrs. Robert Henri (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Portrait of Mrs. Robert Henri (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Robert Henri’s California dazzles on several fronts. It awes the viewer with Henri’s skill as a painter and brings to life craft as an essential part of painting. It produces a sense of admiration regarding Henri’s ability to capture the essence of people in formal portraiture, revealing the deep humanism Henri possessed. The exhibit also affirms something little known about the man usually thought of as a “New York” realist painter - his deep and abiding love for the lands and people of southern California.

Henri first came to San Diego in June of 1914, and lived in a cottage above the magnificent sun drenched La Jolla Cove. He helped Alice Klauber, a former art student of his living in San Diego, to plan a fine art program for the upcoming 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Henri arranged the Modern American Art exhibit, a display of paintings by Ashcan artists that was shown at the Exposition’s Fine Arts Building. His own works were exhibited along with canvasses by George Bellows, John Sloan, William Glackens, and other artists now considered to be masters from the period. Of the nearly 50 paintings displayed, not a single one sold. Nonetheless, the Exposition was an event that would have considerable impact on the life and work of Henri.

Tom Po Qui (Water of Antelope Lake) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. The sitter was a famed potter of the Taos Pueblo people. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Tom Po Qui (Water of Antelope Lake) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. The sitter was a famed potter of the Taos Pueblo people. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

While Henri lived in California he forsook painting portraits of high society, and instead painted lush and emotive portraits of the people ordinarily kept at arm’s length by the dominant white culture; Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Chinese immigrants, and African Americans. He also first painted indigenous people while in California, creating portraits of artisans from the New Mexico San Ildefonso Pueblo that he befriended at the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. I found these glorious canvasses of indigenous people to be breathtaking examples of the painter’s craft, and for me they were the core of the exhibition.

Po Tse (Water Eagle) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Portrait of a man from one of the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico. Henri left no information on the sitter's Pueblo that I can find, so I will assume the man was from the San Ildefonso Pueblo. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Po Tse (Water Eagle) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Portrait of a man from one of the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico. Henri left no information on the sitter's Pueblo that I can find, so I will assume the man was from the San Ildefonso Pueblo. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

The Native Americans recreated a Pueblo village at the Panama-California Exposition, what the exposition named “The Painted Desert.” It was an attraction where indigenous people could share their culture, as well as create and sell traditional arts and crafts. Henri was so impressed by the people of the San Ildefonso Pueblo, that in later years he would visit New Mexico and create a large body of extraordinary Native American portraits.

Po Tse (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Po Tse (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Henri’s paintings of Chinese immigrants on view at the Laguna Art Museum are dazzling in their own right, especially the exquisite canvas of a young girl named Tam Gan. Painted in 1914, the portrait is created with rapid, paint loaded brushes over an underpainting of burnt sienna and ochre. Technically it is like all of the other Henri oil paintings - a radiant masterwork, but there is an unseen political aspect to the painting that makes it out of the ordinary, and that fact is most likely missed by all except for those familiar with the grim side of American history.

Tam Gan - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Portrait of a young Chinese girl living in San Diego, California. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Tam Gan - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Portrait of a young Chinese girl living in San Diego, California. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Henri’s painting of the lovely Tam Gan was made when the thoroughly racist Chinese Exclusion Act was strictly enforced by the U.S. federal government. The xenophobic law was first enacted in 1882 for the express purpose of totally prohibiting all Chinese workers from entering the United States. The exclusionary law strictly curtailed immigration from China and prohibited Chinese from becoming U.S. citizens. The law did not apply to Chinese travelers, merchants, teachers, and students, but all those who were exempt had to present to U.S. authorities a certificate from the Chinese government stating they were not workers.

The Exclusion Act specifically targeted Chinese females. Eligibility to enter the U.S. was based upon marital status; if a woman was not married she was considered a worker (or a prostitute) and denied entry. If a woman was a laborer she was barred from entering the U.S., if she was not a worker but married to one, she was still banned. Only a wealthy merchant’s wife was able to gain entry to the U.S. The government strategy was simple, without women there would be no children, and the radical reduction of the Chinese population in America would be achieved.

The reasons for all of this were tied to economics. Chinese workers supplied cheap labor to those three giant companies behind the construction of the first Transcontinental Railroad. After the Civil War a wave of nativism swept the nation when white workers violently objected to non-whites “taking their jobs”; the result was the 1882 exclusion law. The act was made permanent in 1902. The Chinese had few friends in the U.S. at the time, as with today it was the nonconformists and political radicals that sided with the immigrants. The Industrial Workers of the World, otherwise known as the Wobblies, consistently opposed the treatment of Chinese workers in the U.S., and twelve years after the Exclusion Act was made permanent, Henri would defiantly paint portraits of the Chinese living in and around San Diego.

Tam Gan (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

Tam Gan (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1914. Image courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

The Chinese Exclusion Act would not be repealed until 1943, and even then the U.S. Congress allowed only 103 Chinese people to enter the U.S. per year, a law that was overturned in 1965.

Painting portraits of the underclass is what one would expect from the leader of the Ashcan School. But Henri’s interest in the poor and the dispossessed was not a mere bourgeois affectation. In 1915 Henri wrote an essay titled My People that was published in The Craftsman, a journal that promoted arts philosophy and the Arts and Crafts movement. The think piece reveals a large minded and internationalist take on the world. Henri was a forward thinking man, hard to pin down politically, but one could say he was a free thinking revolutionary. He met and admired the revolutionary anarchist activist Emma Goldman, and even painted her portrait in 1915. In My People Henri stated:

“The people I like to paint are ‘my people,’ whoever they may be, wherever they may exist, the people through whom dignity of life is manifest, that is, who are in some way expressing themselves naturally along the lines Nature intended for them. My people may be old or young, rich or poor, I may speak their language or I may communicate with them only be gestures.” In that same essay Henri went on to say:

“I find as I go out, from one land to another seeking ‘my people,’ that I have none of that cruel, fearful possession known as patriotism; no blind intense devotion for an institution that has stiffened in chains of its own making. My love of mankind is individual, not national, and always I find the race expressed in the individual. And so I am ‘patriotic’ only about what I admire, and my devotion to humanity burns up as brightly for Europe as for America; it flares up as swiftly for Mexico if I am painting the peon there; it warms toward the bull-fighter in Spain, if, in spite of its cruelty, there is that element in his art which I find beautiful, it intensifies before the Irish peasant whose love, poetry, simplicity and humor have enriched my existence, just as completely as though each of these people were of my own country and my own hearthstone.”

Since Henri could so eloquently put forth his philosophy on art and life, I will close this review with an excerpt from his 1923 The Art Spirit. It was a book that summed up his views regarding art, combining transcribed lectures given to his students, with critical commentary and musings on life and aesthetics. I have long held his words to heart, and feel they should be read and understood by any aspiring artist. The following is perhaps more relevant today than it was in 1923:

“We are living in a strange civilization. Our minds and souls are so overlaid with fear, with artificiality, that often we do not recognize beauty. It is this fear, this lack of direct vision of truth that brings about all the disaster the world holds, and how little opportunity we give any people for casting off fear, for living simply and naturally. When they do, first of all we fear them, then we condemn them. It is only if they are great enough to outlive our condemnation that we accept them.

Always we would try to tie down the great to our little nationalism; whereas every great artist is a man who has freed himself from his family, his nation, his race. Every man who has shown the world the way to beauty, to true culture, has been a rebel, a ‘universal’ without patriotism, without home, who has found his people everywhere, a man whom all the world recognizes, accepts, whether he speaks through music, painting, words, or form.”

– // –

The Young Girl - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1915. Collection of the DIA.

The Young Girl - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1915. Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Addendum:

While visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts in May, I noticed a painting by Henri in the museum’s extensive collection.

Painted in 1915 and titled The Young Girl, it is a superlative example of how Henri painted with bold, energetic brush strokes laden with explosive color.

In 2005 David Gordon, the Director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, said the following about the painting:

“Henri encouraged the painting of life as it really was and this three-quarter body nude of 1907 was so striking in its realism that Mrs. Henri took an advertisement in the newspapers to tell the world that it was not her that posed for her husband. The model, Edna Smith, is simply gorgeous and we have used her face as one of the emblems of the Museum. To have used the rest of her would still have shocked 97 years later.”

Because the oil on canvas painting was created in the same time frame as those exhibited at the Laguna Art Museum, I am including details of The Young Girl as an added example of Henri’s prodigious talents.

The Young Girl (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1915. Collection of the DIA.

The Young Girl (Detail) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1915. Collection of the DIA. Photo/Mark Vallen.

The Young Girl (Detail of clothing) - Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. 1915. Collection of the DIA.

The Young Girl (Detail of clothing) - Robert Henri. 1915. Collection of the DIA. Photo/Mark vallen.

May Day with Diego & Frida

Night time in Motor City. I am standing before a backlight banner at the Detroit Institute of Arts, May 1st 2015. Photo by Jeaninne Thorpe ©.

The Motor City, May 1st 2015. I am standing before a backlit banner at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

When I first got the news that the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) in Detroit, Michigan would be presenting a special exhibition of works by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, I knew I would be making a trip to the Motor City. My wife and I flew from Los Angeles to arrive at the DIA on May Day, the most appropriate day to visit with my old mentors Rivera and Kahlo.

I had never been to Detroit, let alone the DIA, and found the entire experience eye-opening and inspiring. The DIA is an amazing world class museum with a truly impressive collection. My only regret was that I did not have more time to peruse through every wing of the institution.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit opened at the DIA on March 15th and will run until July 12, 2015. The exhibit features some 70 works from the couple, most of which were done while visiting Detroit from 1932 to 1933 during the Great Depression. The show features 23 paintings, prints, and drawings by Kahlo, with the remaining works having been created by Rivera.

As of this writing I am still working on a review of the exhibit; as a working artist profoundly influenced by the Mexican school of social realism that Rivera and Kahlo were part of, there is so much to cover.

Partial view of Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals located in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The photo also shows the laminated glass skylight that illuminates the court.

Partial view of Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals located in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The photo also shows the laminated glass skylight that illuminates the court.

Art critics and reviewers have written positive appraisals of the DIA exhibit, but they have done so with little understanding of Mexican history, and absolutely no sympathy for the politics embraced by Rivera and Kahlo. As an artist that has been involved with Chicano art and politics in Los Angeles since the late 1960s, I have a different take on Rivera and Kahlo.

I view them, not as superstars or interesting figures frozen in a not-so-distant past, but as standard bearers for the type of art so desperately needed today. That is especially so for Diego Rivera.

My overall impressions of the exhibit are overwhelmingly positive, and I suggest that everyone who can should make an attempt to see it. However, my praise for the show does not preclude criticism… but you will read all of that in my forthcoming appraisal of the show.

This essay will be the first installment of multiple observations I will make regarding my visit to the DIA; surprisingly enough, this opening assessment does not focus on the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit exhibition, but with my photographs of Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco murals found in the DIA’s gorgeous Rivera Court.

In 1932 Rivera was commissioned to create the murals by then president of the Ford Motor Company, Edsel Ford. The mural project was encouraged by the DIA’s director at the time, William Valentiner, with the museum providing the wall space for the monumental murals in an interior garden courtyard. Obviously, it was the creation of the murals that brought the couple to Detroit by train in ‘32. Seeing as how Rivera’s monumental sketches for his murals were on display in the special exhibit Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, the murals and the special exhibit can be seen as one organic whole.

My objective in presenting photos of Rivera’s paintings, is to spotlight the craft of his works and to show the artist’s hand in making them. Rather than present a typical photograph that crams as many figures into the shot as possible, I have chosen instead to zero in on extreme, detailed close-ups. My photos give insight into the physicality of Rivera’s frescos, revealing layered washes and underlying charcoal drawings, as well as showing textures and the absorbent nature of the walls Rivera painted upon.

While fresco was practiced in ancient Crete, Greece, and Rome, it is mostly associated with European art of the late Medieval and Renaissance periods. The technique entails painting upon freshly-laid wet plaster with water-based pigments. The plaster absorbs the pigment, and as the two dry they bind, becoming inseparable. It is an unforgiving medium, and with fresco murals as large as the ones painted at the DIA, only so much wet plaster could be trowelled on the walls and painted before the plaster dried, which means that the entire mural cycle had to be painted in small sections.

In 1920 Rivera learned how to create frescos when traveling and studying in Italy, but as an amateur archaeologist well familiar with the ancient fresco paintings of the indigenous Toltec artisans at Tula and the frescos from craftsmen at ancient Teotihuacan, Rivera was inspired to create a new muralism that sprang from Mexico’s own history.

I am standing at the south wall of "Detroit Industry." One of the monochromatic predella panels is shown directly behind me. Photo by Jeaninne Thorpe ©.

I am standing at the south wall of "Detroit Industry." One of the monochromatic predella panels is shown directly behind me.

In this, my first illustrated essay on Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals, I am going to set my sights on a certain design aspect of the artist’s frescos, his use of the “predella panel” in buttressing his mural’s overall message.

In European religious altarpiece paintings from the late medieval and Renaissance period, a central figure or depiction would be augmented by a series of small panel paintings, the predella, images that added to or reinforced the overall narrative.

Rivera’s predella panels were painted like traditional grisaille paintings. As a technique, grisaille (pronounced greeze-eye) goes back as far as the late Middle Ages, but it continues to be used today; I use the technique on some of my own oil paintings. Basically it means to paint monochromatically in shades of grey (sometimes in burnt umber), the name for the method coming from “gris,” the French word for grey.

Grisaille can be a monochromatic painting completed in one color, or treated as an underpainting painted over with glazes of color, the technique I choose. Rivera’s grisaille predella panels give the illusion of sculptural friezes.

In painting his grisaille predella panels, Rivera was no doubt also thinking of the Mexican folk art art known as “retablos,” small devotional paintings of Saints or other religious figures that are created on tin, copper, or wood. Many people in the Southwest of the U.S., especially those of Mexican heritage, are familiar with retablos… I have a few in my own house.

But Rivera was not thinking of Catholic saints when he painted Detroit Industry, we was extolling the working class. Rivera’s predella panels were painted monochromatically in tones of blue and grey, each surrounded by a fresco tromp l’oeil frame of bolted green steel. Each predella depicted the workers daily life at an auto plant and the labor associated with automobile manufacturing.

To wrap up this intro, the DIA allows photography of the Detroit Industry murals in Rivera Court, provided you do not use a tripod. I used my Canon Rebel T2i camera with a 17-55mm zoom lens for paintings at eye-level, and a 70-300mm telephoto lens for extreme close-ups and shots of figures placed high up in the mural. Considering the ceiling at the Rivera Court consists of a magnificent laminated glass skylight, I used nothing but natural light for my photos. All quotes by Rivera that appear in my essay come from his personal history, Diego Rivera - My Art, My Life: An Autobiography.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, Rivera showed tired auto workers taking a quick lunch break.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, Rivera showed tired auto workers taking a quick lunch break.

In 1932 the workers at Ford labored under deplorable conditions. They had no union to protect their rights, and Ford liked it that way. What makes this painting so poignant is that at the time workers were forced to work one long grueling shift with only a brief respite for lunch. They would not win the right to two fifteen-minute rest periods per shift, amongst other basic rights, until 1941.

Rivera’s works were actually based upon his observations of workers at Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant. As the artist noted:

“I studied industrial scenes by night as well as by day, making literally thousands of sketches of towering blast furnaces, serpentine conveyor belts, impressive scientific laboratories, busy assembling rooms; also of precision instruments, some of them massive yet delicate; and of the men who worked them all. I walked for miles through the immense workshops of the Ford, Chrysler, Edison, Michigan Alkali, and Parke-Davis plants. I was afire with enthusiasm.”

Rivera said that Edsel Ford placed only one condition on the creation of the murals, “that in representing the industry of Detroit, I should not limit myself to steel and automobiles but take in chemicals and pharmaceuticals, which were also important in the economy of the city. He wanted to have a full tableau of the industrial life of Detroit.” Close examination of the Detroit Industry mural cycle reveals that Rivera also depicted workers involved with the pharmaceutical, chemical, transport, weapons, steel, and medical industries, all of which were dynamic in Detroit at the time.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown cutting and stacking steal bars.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown cutting and stacking steal bars.

When Rivera and Kahlo arrived in Detroit the Great Depression was strangling the city as well as the rest of the country. Thousand of workers at Detroit’s great auto plants had been laid-off and those that remained had their wages severely cut. Auto workers labored long hours for an annual salary of $757. The workers had no union and enjoyed no company benefits. There was no such thing as unemployment insurance or social security. The banks had collapsed and workers became impoverished. The Detroit working class was suffering joblessness, poverty, homelessness, and utter despair.

Eventually the workers decided to march on the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant on March 7, 1932 in what they called The Ford Hunger March. The workers rallied behind a set of demands; jobs for all laid off Ford workers, the right to organized a union, a seven-hour work day without a reduction in pay, free health care for all Ford workers whether employed and unemployed, no discrimination against blacks and an end to racist hiring practices, no speed-ups, two fifteen-minute rest periods per shift, no foreclosures on the homes of Ford workers, and the abolishment of company spies and armed thugs.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown lining up to punch a time clock.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown lining up to punch a time clock.

All of the demands from The Ford Hunger March were equally important, but I have to elaborate on the demand regarding the use of armed thugs at the Ford River Rouge Plant. Henry Ford was fiercely anti-union, he hired the notorious Pinkerton Detective Agency, known for its brutality, to physically keep the workforce in line and free of union organizers.

Ford also organized an internal “Service Department,” a private security army of armed thugs that was used to defeat the workers’ union movement. Ford appointed a pugnacious ex-navy boxer named Harry Bennett to lead the force of over 8,000 men that used blackjacks, brass knuckles, clubs, whips, and guns to intimidate the workers in every Ford plant; Bennett quickly became Ford’s most trusted underling. Quoting the Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-class History, Volume 1 by Eric Arnesen, in the 1930s the Ford Service Department was “the world’s largest private army, whose purpose was to disrupt union organizing efforts using espionage, physical intimidation, and violence.”

detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown lining up to punch a time clock

Extreme detail from the fresco showing workers punching a time clock.

Through Ford’s connections, Harry Bennett was appointed to the Michigan Parole Board. Arnesen wrote that Bennett used that position to have “men who had been convicted of violent crimes released so they could enter his service.”

Service Department thugs regularly attacked union organizers attempting to distribute flyers to the workforce.

Arnesen wrote that the United Auto Workers, then struggling to be recognized by the Ford Motor Company, “compared Ford’s repressive methods to those of European fascism, and branded the Service Department, ‘Ford’s Gestapo.’”

Some of the men recruited into the Ford Service Department were no doubt fanatics from the extreme right-wing terror organization, The Black Legion, a group I wrote about extensively in my January 2013 article, Maurice Merlin & the Black Legion. Based in Michigan, the Black Legion was a white supremacist gang that targeted African Americans, Jews, union organizers, and leftists.

Auto worker union activists were convinced that members of the shadowy Black Legion terror group were employed by the Ford Service Department, the goons of which were to play a loathsome role in attempts to squelch the labor movement.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, workers line up to receive their pay.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, workers line up to receive their pay.

Braving bitter cold and snow some 5,000 workers and their families participated in The Ford Hunger March. They carried banners that read, “Give Us Work,” “We Want Bread Not Crumbs!” “Don’t starve to death in the richest land on earth,” “Negro, White, Unite!” “Fight Evictions!” and “Tax the Rich and Feed the Poor.” When the workers finally made it to the Rouge Plant, they were attacked by the Police and the Ford Service Department, who together fired volleys of live ammo at the unarmed protesters, even using machine guns.

Four workers were killed and fifty more were injured. What had been organized as The Ford Hunger March, turned out to be The Ford Massacre.

In the massacre’s aftermath the repression continued; hundreds of workers were fired at Ford plants for having leftwing literature, those who were hospitalized from police violence at the Hunger March were arrested in their hospital beds, some were even handcuffed to their beds! Labor organizations and offices of the Communist Party were raided and their members arrested. The press churned out lies, for instance, the Detroit Free Press reported that “professional Communists” were responsible for “the assaults and killings which took place before the Ford plant.” Despite the propaganda the workers and the burgeoning labor movement held strong. On March 12, 1932, over 80,000 workers held a funeral procession for the four slain workers, who were buried at the Woodmere Cemetery.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, workers produce parts that will be used to repair factory machinery.

Detail from the south wall fresco, workers produce parts that will be used to repair factory machinery.

A month after the March 12th procession for the martyred workers, Curtis Williams, a committed African American auto worker activist who suffered a vicious police clubbing and inhalation of tear gas at the Ford Massacre, died of his wounds at Ypsilanti State Hospital. The Woodmere Cemetery refused to bury him because he was black. The Communist Party U.S.A. released a statement that in part read:

“At the direct orders of Ford, with the understanding and consent of Mayor Murphy and his police department, the board of directors of the Woodmere Cemetery uncovered their hidden policy of segregation, Jim Crowism, and race discrimination and white chauvinism, by bluntly refusing to permit us to bury the body of Curtis Williams beside that of the rest of our dead. Comrades Joe York, Joe Bussell, Joe DiBlassio, and Coleman Leny, the first victims of the bloody Ford Massacre. This is another attempt by the boss class to split the growing unity of Negro and white workers.”

Mass protests and complaints eventually forced the Woodmere Cemetery to compromise. Williams was admitted to the the cemetery for cremation, but the facility would still not allow a burial. The workers’ movement responded by hiring a plane and scattering the remains of Williams over the cemetery and the Ford River Rouge Plant.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, by-products from coke ovens are made into fertilizer. Iron ore was smelted with limestone and coke in giant blast furnaces to produce steel at the Ford plant.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, by-products from coke ovens are made into fertilizer. Iron ore was smelted with limestone and coke in giant blast furnaces to produce steel at the Ford plant.

This rare silent footage titled Ford Massacre, is the only known film of The Ford Hunger March, the company/state violence that stopped it, and the resulting militant workers funeral march for the slain. It was produced by the Detroit and New York branches of the Film and Photo League, a national collective of filmmakers, photographers, projectionists, writers, and artists dedicated to using film and the photographic arts to bring about radical social change. While a good number of the members were oriented towards Marxism, the league operated independently from the Communist Party U.S.A.

The despair of the Great Depression and the terror of the Ford Massacre describes the political atmosphere of Detroit when Rivera and Kahlo arrived. One cannot truly understand or appreciate the Detroit Industry murals without knowing this history.

This fresco predella depicts Henry Ford giving a lecture on the V8 engine to workers.

This fresco predella depicts Henry Ford giving a lecture on the V8 engine to workers.

I think the predella panel that shows Henry Ford giving a lecture to the workers is the most interesting panel in the series; it certainly illustrates Rivera’s sense of humor. Knowing that Rivera reviled capitalism, the panel is also a swipe at Henry Ford. To me the painting has religious overtones and contains a veiled critique of capitalism as a theology.

The tableau of the godlike Henry Ford, his finger pointed to the heavens as he lectures the workers, is somewhat evocative of The Creation of Adam, the most well-known panel from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel mural series - which was also done as a fresco. But instead of being surrounded by angels as in Michelangelo’s depiction of the Lord, Henry Ford stands before a backdrop of slavish laborers too hard-pressed to look up from their drudgery for even a moment.

A close-up view of Henry Ford reveals how quickly Rivera worked on these panels. Beneath the deftly applied washes of water-based pigments one can see the charcoal outlines of the original sketch on wet plaster.

Close-up view of Ford reveals how quickly Rivera worked on these panels. Beneath the deftly applied washes of water-based pigments one can see the charcoal outlines of the original sketch on wet plaster.

The reference to religion in this image continues to strike me. In Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, the apostle Thomas was painted with his finger pointing to heaven, likewise, Leonardo painted St. John the baptist in the same manner.

In 1921 German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote an unfinished essay titled, Capitalism as Religion. If Rivera had not read Benjamin’s tract, he certainly understood the concept as presented by a fellow Marxist. Benjamin wrote:

“One can behold in capitalism a religion, that is to say, capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion.” Benjamin went on to write, “First, capitalism is a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was. Within it everything only has meaning in relation to the cult: it has no special dogma, no theology. From this standpoint, utilitarianism gains its religious coloring.”

Being a Jewish leftist, Benjamin fled Germany for Paris in 1933 when the Nazis took power - the same year Rivera finished his Detroit Industry murals. Benjamin beat a hasty retreat from Paris when the Nazis seized it in 1940, he eventually wound up on the French-Spanish border that same year where he committed suicide at the age of 48 to avoid capture by the fascists.

A close-up view of workers in the Henry Ford panel.

A close-up view of workers in the Henry Ford panel.

Unlike Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam Sistine Chapel painting, Ford is not face to face with Adam, a creation made of dust into which the Lord blew “the breath of life.” Ford stands before a group of workers, who by the looks on their faces have sized up their boss and concluded that they can run the factory just as well without him.

Some have noticed that the V8 engine near Ford resembles a pre-Conquest sculpture of a small, hairless Mexican dog. It is commonly known that the indigenous people of Mexico used the diminutive dogs as a food source, but the spiritual and ritualistic symbology of the dog is not so well known outside of Mexico. As an amateur archaeologist and avid collector of pre-Conquest indigenous art, Rivera knew a thing or two about these dogs.

A close-up view of the zoomorphic V8 engine from the Henry Ford panel.

A close-up view of the zoomorphic V8 engine from the Henry Ford panel.

In ancient Mexico it was thought that a dog accompanied a person’s soul to the underworld. On the famous Mexica-Aztec calendar stone there is a glyph of a dog named Itzcuintli (Eeetz-kween-tlee). He was one of 20 day-sign glyphs that surrounded the depiction of the sun god appearing at the center of the stone. Itzcuintli represented a period of 13 days ruled by Xipe Totec (Our Lord of the Flayed Skin), deity of spring and agricultural renewal.

The Mexica-Aztec people used the hairless dogs in prayer rituals to Tlaloc, Lord of rain and water. The dogs were sacrificed to Tlaloc, one of the most important Aztec deities, and their bodies were then eaten in ritual feasts. Rivera gave a zoomorphic treatment to the V8 by turning the engine into a dog, but he also gave that dog the iconic face of Tlaloc!

Partial view of Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals located in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Partial view of Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals located in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

In late 1933, as Rivera was finishing up work on his murals, a group of some 200 workers marched into the center of the courtyard, the leader shouting “We want Diego Rivera to come here!” The artist descended from his scaffold and walked up to the burly worker who had called for him. One of Rivera’s painting assistants, Cliff Wight, served as a translator, delivering the extraordinary message from the American auto workers to the Mexican artist. Rivera described what the lead worker told him:

“Waiving all ordinary social preliminaries, he acknowledged my presence with a nod of his head. ‘We are Detroit workers from different factories and belonging to different political parties. Some of us are Communists, some are Trotskyites, others are plain Democrats and Republicans, and still others belong to no party at all.

You’re said to be a man of the left opposition, though not a Trotskyite. In any case, you’re reported to have said that, as long as the working class does not hold power, a proletarian art is impossible. You have further qualified this by saying that a proletarian art is feasible only so long as the class in power imposes such an art upon the general population. So you have implied that only in a revolutionary society can a true revolutionary art exist. All right! But can you show me, in all these paintings of yours, a square inch of surface which does not contain a proletarian character, subject, or feeling?

If you can do this, I will immediately join the left opposition myself. If you cannot, you must admit before all these men, that here stands a classic example of proletarian art created exclusively by you for the pleasure of the workers of this city.’”

Rivera was overwhelmed, and agreed with the workers assessment of his mural. He would write later that he “was deeply touched by this tribute from a representative of the working class of the industrial city I wanted so much to impress.” The group of workers also informed the artist that they were well aware of “much talk against your frescoes, and there have been rumors that hoodlums may come here to destroy them. We have therefore organized a guard to protect your work. Eight thousand men have already volunteered.”

The following Sunday Rivera had completed his fresco murals, and they were put on view for the general public to see for the very first time. As promised, the auto worker’s volunteer guardians were there in force. They checked each person that entered the DIA, having each sign their name and address in a registration book. In order to accommodate the massive crowds on that premiere day, the DIA stayed open until half past one on Monday morning. When the museum finally closed its doors on the first day of the exhibit… there were eighty-six thousand signatures in the registration book.

In 1941 the workers movement finally won union recognition and forced the Ford Motor Company to enter a collective bargaining agreement with the United Automobile Workers (UAW).

The Left Front: Defying Established Order

"Unemployed" - Alexander Stavenitz. Mezzotint with Aquatint. 1930

"Unemployed" - Alexander Stavenitz. Mezzotint with Aquatint. 1930.

The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929–1940, is a significant exhibit of American art created during the Great Depression years in the United States. Presented by the Grey Art Gallery at New York University in New York, the exhibit displays 100 artworks by forty notable artists of the period; including works by John Sloan, Raphael Soyer, Reginald Marsh, Mabel Dwight, and Louis Lozowick. Lynn Gumpert, the director of the Grey Art Gallery, said the following about the exhibit and its relevance to the present:

“In the wake of our recent ‘Great Recession,’ many artists today find themselves grappling with the same questions of art and activism raised by this exhibition. Indeed, The Left Front both opens a window onto a fascinating period in the history of American art and politics and brings to mind artistic responses to many of the very issues being confronted today, including alarming inequality in income and opportunity. In so doing, it asks what revolutionary art was during the turbulent 1930s, and what it can be in our own era.”

Ms. Gumpert’s concern for what revolutionary art “can be in our own era,” a period where art has become, not subversive, but subservient to wealth and power, is an urgent question for the arts community. Faced with deepening inequality, resurgent racism, ecological catastrophe, and the ever increasing drumbeat of war, artists should strive to offer critical visions of these systemic problems. By necessity this means turning from a self-absorbed, exclusively inward looking art, to one that is engaged with everyday people and the global community.

Workers of the World Unite - Rockwell Kent. Wood engraving. 1937.

"Workers of the World Unite" - Rockwell Kent. Wood engraving. 1937.

Herein lies the value of The Left Front exhibit. It provides an in-depth look at one aspect of Social Realism, a type of art that has almost been erased from historic memory in the U.S., a great irony given that the genre began in America with the painters of the so-called 1908 “Ashcan School.” After a slew of art movements since the close of the 2nd World War; abstraction, pop, conceptual, etc., it has became difficult to imagine that the Social Realist school was once a leading art form in the U.S. and around the world.

The school was varied and nuanced, and included American scene painters like John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton, as well as politicized African American artists like Aaron Douglas and Charles White. The Social Realist movement had three great centers, the U.S., Germany, and Mexico, each making their own unique contributions. Mexico gave the world Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco (Mexican creations are included in The Left Front exhibit). Germany gave us Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix, and George Grosz. Unfortunately Americans on the whole have largely forgotten about their homegrown Social Realist artists; you can attribute that in part to the Witch-hunts of McCarthyism.

Strike Breakers (Company Violence) - Morris Topchevsky. Oil on canvas. 1937.

"Strike Breakers, Company Violence" - Morris Topchevsky. Oil on canvas. 1937.

The Left Front exhibit presents works from the highly politicized branch of Social Realism, where artists used their work in an agitational manner to confront mass unemployment, class oppression, racism, lynchings, and the drive towards war that characterized the Great Depression years. The exhibit is comprised mostly of prints, although drawings, watercolors, paintings, and photos are also included. Inexpensive prints played a meaningful role for dissident artists during the Depression, they allowed low income people to bring art into their homes, and brought new aesthetics and politics to a wide audience.

Subway No. 2 - Alex R. Stavenitz. Mezzotint with Aquatint. 1935

"Subway No. 2" - Alex Stavenitz. Mezzotint with Aquatint. 1935. Unemployed and homeless in the U.S.A.

Much of the art in The Left Front exhibit came from artists working with the John Reed Club, a U.S. national federation of left-leaning cultural workers and intellectuals named after American journalist and socialist activist John Reed.

Founded in 1929, the John Reed Club was eventually disbanded in 1935. While associated with the Communist Party U.S.A., members of the John Reed club were not necessarily Marxists or even CP members. I detail some of this in I wanted to tell stories, an Oct. 2006 article I wrote about the American painter Philip Guston.

The young Guston started his art career in Los Angeles as a realist painter before becoming an iconic figure in the New York School of severe abstract painting; thankfully Guston returned to realism, albeit a cartoonish version, in the late 1960s. But as a young man in L.A. Guston attended meetings of the John Reed Club held at the Italian Hall on L.A.’s famous Olvera Street.

The Strike Is Won - Harry Gottlieb. Color silk-screen print. 1940.

"The Strike Is Won" - Harry Gottlieb. Color silk-screen print. 1940.

Guston was one of those artists who worked with Siqueiros when the Mexican muralist came to L.A. in 1932. Guston joined Siqueiros’ Bloc of Mural Painters, artists who assisted Siqueiros in the painting of his famous América Tropical mural on Olvera Street. When the U.S. government unceremoniously deported Siqueiros in 1932, Guston continued working with the Bloc of Mural Painters. That same year the John Reed Club sponsored an exhibit of artworks created by Guston and the Bloc in opposition to racism and police brutality. Before the show’s opening the L.A.P.D. raided the John Reed Club gallery in Hollywood and destroyed the artworks, including Guston’s first public mural… the police shot the portable mural full of bullet holes.

"Workman" - David Alfaro Siqueiros. Lithograph. 1936.

"Workman" - David Alfaro Siqueiros. Lithograph. 1936.

The above is a perfect example of the political climate and repression that confronted oppositional artists during the 1930s, one should keep this in mind when thinking about The Left Front exhibition. Those who created prints depicting the terroristic lynching of Blacks won no favor from the art establishment; yet those artists defied the established order and pressed on with their wave-making art.

“Art as a social weapon” was the catchphrase of the John Reed Club. Before you laugh that off as a quaint and antiquated notion, I would suggest that art selected, curated, presented, and sold by elite art institutions has always broadly functioned as a social weapon. This was as true under the Ancien Régime of France’s Sun King as much as it is in the modern era.

It is my philosophy that a Jeff Koons is every bit as political an artist as those included in The Left Front exhibit. This matter is unequivocally nailed in the 1931 song, Which Side Are You On?, written during a miner’s strike by Florence Reese, the illustrious American folksong composer from Tennessee. Reese sang “Don’t scab for the bosses, don’t listen to their lies, poor folks ain’t got a chance unless they organize.” The song was tremendously popular with millions of down-and-out Americans in the 30s. The net worth of Jeff Koons is over $100 million, his kitsch baubles are popular with billionaires who prefer non-threatening art. Given the choice of standing with Koons or Reese, I will choose the poor folksinger every time.

The Mission - Raphael Soyer. Lithograph. 1933.

"The Mission" - Raphael Soyer. Lithograph. 1933.

One last word regarding Florence Reese and her famous workers’ rights song. On Oct. 4, 2014, during a St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performance of Johannes Brahms’ Requiem, paying members of the audience who also happened to be part of the Black Lives Matter movement, peacefully delayed the concert when they stood beside their seats while singing an altered version of Which Side Are You On?

In the ten year period covered by The Left Front exhibit, artists created works against racism, poverty, and the drive towards war, that is… the very same problems we have today. But what of the present? Who wins favor with the art establishment? Why are artists failing so miserably in addressing the world’s problems? Those in The Left Front show entrusted to us a people’s history and a record of resistance. They bequeathed to us images of transcendent beauty, unbreakable spirit, and deep humanism in the face of bottomless cruelty and inhumanity. Now it is our turn.

"Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934 "Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934 "Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934 "Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934

"Danse Macabre" - Mabel Dwight. Lithograph. 1934. The artist portrayed the Grim Reaper sitting in an expensive theater balcony, wearing an army helmet and gas mask while clutching a bayoneted rifle. The deathly phantom watches a parade of national leaders strutting across the stage. Which one will win Mr. D's respect and patronage? Why all of them of course!

"Christ in Alabama" - Prentiss Taylor. Lithograph. 1932. Taylor depicted the crucified Christ and Mary Magdalene as African Americans; the rocky fields of Golgotha replaced by the cotton fields of Alabama. The lithograph was created for the Langston Hughes book, "Scottsboro Limited, Four Poems and a Play in Verse." The print specifically illustrated Hughes' controversial and fiercely antiracist poem, Christ in Alabama.

"Christ in Alabama" - Prentiss Taylor. Lithograph. 1932. Taylor depicted the crucified Christ and Mary Magdalene as African Americans, the rocky ground of Golgotha replaced by cotton fields. The lithograph was created for the Langston Hughes book, "Scottsboro Limited, Four Poems and a Play in Verse." The print specifically illustrated Hughes' controversial and fiercely antiracist poem, Christ in Alabama.

"Lynching" - Lynd Ward. Wood engraving. 1932.

"Lynching" - Lynd Ward. Wood engraving. 1932.