This week it seems worth paying homage to a conservation project that was unveiled last month in Los Angeles. For, whilst most headlines were fixated by the news of a restoration to come (in the shape of Rothko’s defaced Seagram Mural), Los Angeles saw the completion of a conservation effort several decades in the making, as David Alfaro Siqueiros’ 1932 Tropical America mural once more saw the light of day. The conservation project marks one of the most significant of its sort in recent years. Undoing a physical and historical whitewash which stretches back 70 years it reveals a breakthrough within Siqueiros’ career, a bridge between the Mexican mural renaissance and the emergent mural movements of the United States and Europe and one of the most forceful political works of a decade which was also to produce – most famously – Picasso’s Guernica and Rivera’s Rockefeller mural.
Tropical America was one of three murals Siqueiros produced in the United States. Already one of the towering figures of the Mexican mural renaissance and arguably its greatest propagandist Siqueiros had, by the 1930s, fallen out of favour with the shifting political allegiances of the Mexican Government. Following a brief spell in prison and the forced closure of one of his exhibitions in Mexico City he accepted a commission to paint a mural for the Chouinard Institute of Art in Los Angeles. The commission was linked to a mural workshop in which Siqueiros trained a large group of assistants who assisted him on the mural and his two succeeding LA commissions. Many of these assistants went on to become muralists in their own right, thus cementing Siqueiros’ influence in the United States over the years to come.
For both the Chouinard and Tropical America murals, Siqueiros was given the task of working on outside walls in full exposure to the street and the elements. Given the uncompromisingly political intent of the Mexican mural movement it is surprising that these should have become Siqueiros’ first fully public murals (in the sense of their being outside, and thus visible to the street). Since the outset of the Mexican mural renaissance in the early 1920s murals had been employed and celebrated for their relation to the public. As the 1923 Manifesto of the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors (drafted by Siqueiros but signed by all major muralists including José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera), set out:
‘Our aesthetic goal must be to socialise artistic expression and wipe out bourgeois individualism. We repudiate so-called easel painting of every kind of art favoured by ultra-intellectual circles, because it is aristocratic, and we praise monumental art in all its forms, because it is public property’
Despite such intentions the Mexican murals of the 1920s, which heralded the most significant return to wall painting since the frescoes of the Renaissance, tended to remain on interior walls of (often Governmental) institutions. In crossing the divide, and addressing for the first time the open streets of the city the Chouinard and Tropical America murals offered a means of relating much more directly with the public. It is a relation that has proved central for succeeding generations, in Mexico, the United States and, since the late 1960s, the UK.
Since the outset of his career Siqueiros had been adamant about the need for art to actively engage with the modern world both stylistically and technologically. In Mexico, however, most murals had been completed by a resurrection of an essentially Renaissance fresco technique (despite Rivera’s experimentation with encaustic paints). In LA, however, spurred on by the availability of new technology and the necessity of filling a large outside space to withstand the elements Siqueiros made two breakthroughs – employing projectors to map out the image and spray guns to paint out large areas into a fast drying concrete. These innovations were instrumental in his succeeding work, underpinning both the scale and multiple perspective schemes visible in works like 1939’s Portrait of the Bourgeoisie at the Mexican Electricians’ Syndicate. Here in London Siqueiros’ multiple perspective schemes (see late example) can be seen to have held influence on the Cable Street mural, whereas his adoption of the spray gun prefigures its use across the late 20th century and well into our own.
For all this innovation, it is the uncompromising political attitude of Tropical America that gives it its meaning and longevity. It is also, undoubtedly, what contributed to its initial erasure. As Siqueiros saw it he had been commissioned to eulogise Tropical America – to present “a continent of happy men, surrounded by palms and parrots where the fruit voluntarily detached itself to fall into the mouths of the happy mortals”. A work, in short, in fitting with the Disneyland style Mexicana presented on Olvera Street. Instead, as he later remarked, “I painted a man . . . crucified on a double cross, which had, proudly perched on the top, the eagle of North American coins”. The monumentality of the forms and the simplicity of the composition combine to make it a vociferous and eloquent attack on American Imperialism.
Siqueiros’ position as a radical communist and active participant in the Mexican Revolution no doubt weighed against his executing a purely decorative response to theme – and he later commented that his response was indebted to his experience of the Mexican Revolution. But his design was by no means purely a Mexican imposition. Instead, standing there above the busy Olvera Street, it drove, as it continues to today, at a hypocrisy at the heart of the American dream (and many a ‘European democracy’) and a tragedy at the heart of the community in which it lay. For in 1932, beyond the veneer of the Olvera street Mexicana, Mexican immigrants were facing what has become an all too familiar fate – resented by a country in the throes of an economic depression and yet highly desired by employers for their cheap and unregulated labour they suffered mass deportations, public resentment and appalling conditions of labour.
Unsurprisingly the society which had commissioned a celebratory mural of Tropical America whilst at the same time subjecting Mexican workers to such privation was not capable of having its hypocrisy beamed down at it for long. Greeted from the outset with hostility by large sections of the media, within six months the two revolutionary gunmen on the right of the image had been whitewashed to obscure the mural’s content from the street below and by the close of the decade the work had been completely buried under a layer of white paint. With the whitewash the mural succumbed to a fate which befell much of the leftist movement of the USA, as their strength waned by the close of the decade and the resurgent right wing did their best to nullify and eradicate the history of organised labour and resistance.
Whitewashing is also a fate which has befallen many succeeding murals that probe too far in the realm of political critique. Here in London Brian Barnes’ 1979 Battersea: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was destroyed by wrecking balls eighteen months after its completion , Greenwich Mural Workshops anti racism mural was sporadically attacked by the neo-Nazis and the Cable Street Mural consistently attacked by similar groups. Whilst muralists seem accustomed to such attacks – often accepting them as part and parcel of their engagement with wider society – it is worth considering the deep-seated reactionary forces that they reveal. Unlike Vlad the Yellowist’s adolescent scrawls on the Rothko, these are not the lone iconoclasm of individualist promotion seekers. They are active and organised attempts to suppress the ideas embodied in the work.
Yet Siqueiros’ mural – along with those of colleagues Orozco and Rivera- had survived long enough to make a significant impact. Through the 1930s the Roosevelt administration had been unveiling an unprecedented public works programme, which from 1935 included the Federal Arts Programme. Taking a lead from the successes of the Mexican mural movement the FAP placed murals at the heart of their project, putting 5,000 unemployed artists back to work on public murals, and in so doing instigating the first large scale mural movement in the US. The rising stars of the next generation of US painters, including Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Barnett Newmann, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning all found work in these projects and it seems a reasonable suggestion that the unprecedented scale of Abstract Expressionist painting owes something to the artists’ experience of murals.
Whilst muralism tended to fade out (though by no means die) in the increasingly narrow political field of the post-war US, the 1960s saw the birth of a Community mural movement across the United States, with the UK and the rest of Europe soon following the lead. Appropriately enough it was at this point (when the marriage of art and social commitment was once more coming to the fore) that the Siqueiros mural came back into public view – revealed behind layers of white peeling paint. The whitewash had, in fact, helped to preserve it – the white paint having saved it from the ravages of time. Since then the concerted efforts of campaigners have kept the mural from further decomposition and eventually led to the lengthy conservation project which ended last week.
The conserved Tropical America mural serves as a potent symbol of the power, ambition and endurance of public murals. Some 80 years after the first unveiling its message remains as relevant as ever, its power if anything strengthened by the historical continuity to which it now bears witness. Above all, however, I think it worth considering its part in Siqueiros’ struggle – its continuing assertion that : ‘the creators of beauty must use their best efforts to produce ideological works of art for the people; art must no longer be the expression of individual satisfaction which it is today, but should aim to become a fighting, educative art for all’. Long may it continue.