Sunday, 10 December 2017

A Portrait of the Artist as a Political Activist

by Fenella Johnson

Student protester, soldier, leader of an assassination squad, one of the artistic masters of the twentieth century: it almost seems like something out of a novella or a spin-off from the Netflix show Narcos, but the Mexican painter, David Alfaro Siqueiros, was all of those things. The environment of the Mexican Revolution, a multi-sided civil war in which power shifted frequently and brutally to different revolutionary forces, seemed to breed political activism and radicalism. 

As the country violently changed socially and politically, a cultural response was demanded and it was in this environment that one of the most interesting and yet culturally least known (at least in the West) artists of the twentieth century combined art with modern political activism. Siqueiros was a painter who fought in the constitutionalist revolutionary army, founded a mineworkers’ union in the 1920s, joined republicans to fight against fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War and (as an ardent Stalinist) helped orchestrate the unsuccessful assassination of Leon Trotsky in 1940. 

He also happened to be the youngest and -it goes without saying, really- the most radical of the  "los tres grandes" (three greats) of Mexican muralism. His career was dedicated to fostering change through public art, an attitude that was informed by revolutionary Marxist ideology and furthered by his firm belief that technology was a means to a better world. Siqueiros was the most innovative of the three. Although he started working in traditional fresco technique (watercolour washed onto damp plaster), he soon abandoned it to experiment with pyroxene, a commercial enamel, and Duco, a transparent automobile paint. His ability to integrate traditional Mexican art with innovative techniques was masterful and the result is original, powerful, and dramatic.

Siqueros’s  'Collective Suicide', my favourite of his works, depicts the vast army of invading seventeenth-century Spanish conquistadors on horseback (lower right) and Chichimec Indians leaping to their deaths to avoid defeat (left).

It’s not really his creative period I’m interested in though: in the great Stalin-Trotsky power struggle of the 1930s, Siqueiros was decisively on the side of Stalin. In a what seems like a too-good-to-be- true plot development, Siqueiros had planned the attack because he had been censured for mishandling Communist Party Funds by spending them on booze and women and was hoping that by killing Trotsky he could worm his way back into the party’s good graces. Gathering together men who had served under him in the Spanish Civil War and miners from his union, he led an attack on Trotsky's (who had conveniently been granted asylum) house in Mexico City's Coyoacán suburb early one May morning. After thoroughly bombarding the house with machine gun fire and explosives, the attackers withdrew in the (erroneous) belief that nobody could have survived the assault. In fact, Trotsky was unhurt and lived till August, when he was killed with a pickaxe wielded by an assassin who had wormed his way into the ex-Soviet leader's entourage by romancing one of his secretaries. In the words of Isaac Deutscher,Trotsky’s official biographer, Siqeuerios was a"Latin American buccaneer." When he came to New York in the 1940s, the FBI- whose file on him was more than 50,000 pages long - made him a Person of Special Interest and attempted to interview him.

There was, following Donald Trump’s election earlier this year, a conversation about the necessity and purpose of popular culture – literature, films, television, art - and how it could oppose Trump's values. It was argued that culture could - and should - oppose rhetoric that was against progressive values and that was anti-immigration. Adaptations such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for TV were remarked upon as timely: recently, 17 children’s book illustrators created ‘Drawings for Europe’,  a pro-EU collection of art.The actor Shia La Beouf set upa ‘He Will Not Divide Us’ livestream which quickly (and predictably) became an easy way for the more, uh, ideologically committed to fight one another. It is true that art, perhaps by its very nature and the nature of those who make it, has always been politically radical. Siqueiros took this thesis and ran with it. Art and the values of the individual who created are intertwined: it is no surprise that Siqueiros – a man for whom Deutscher saw that ‘art, revolution and gangsterism were inseparable’ - created such vivid, interesting and personal pieces.

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