Art review: ‘Siqueiros: Landscape Painter’ at Museum of Latin American Art and ‘Siqueiros in L.A.: Censorship Defied’ at Autry National Center
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In all of 20th-century art there may be no more tangled a tale, however well-known the individual artists are, than the Mexican mural movement. Partly that’s because the painters hitched their aesthetic wagons to a revolutionary era, which is by definition chaotic.
In 1910, Mexico reignited the political powder keg that first exploded a century before with the war of independence from Spanish colonial authority. Now revolution against the Mexican establishment meant the struggles were internalized. Fighting was in-fighting, as in any civil war.
Two current museum exhibitions shed welcome -- and sometimes unexpected -- light onto the work of David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), perhaps the most volatile of Los Tres Grandes, muralism’s ‘three great ones.’ At times Siqueiros fought with fellow muralist Jose Clemente Orozco, and they both fought with Diego Rivera. In 1940, Siqueiros famously participated in a plot to assassinate Leon Trotsky, the anti-Stalinist Communist leader exiled in Mexico City.
In and out of prison and sometimes under house arrest for political agitation, Siqueiros too had experienced exile -- including in Los Angeles in 1932, where he produced three important murals. The third one got him effectively deported, his visa unrenewed.
Given all that -- and much, much more -- it might be some surprise to come upon the exhibition ‘Siqueiros Paisajista/Siqueiros: Landscape Painter,’ at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach. The pastoral, bucolic associations of landscape painting hardly seem to fit, especially with an artist whose first claim to fame was a fierce 1922 manifesto denouncing easel-painting as a bourgeois distraction from the revolutionary aims embodied by the mural movement. This show is almost entirely composed of easel paintings, plus drawings and prints.
But, fittingly, such simplistic thinking is undone by this engrossing exhibition. The landscape as an independent subject in Western art only came into its own in the 19th century, and for reasons intimately tied to the programs Siqueiros later fostered.
Traditional artistic themes such as divine authority and aristocratic power were progressively swept away by Enlightenment-era independence movements, including U.S. events of 1776 and 1810 in Mexico. Replacing church or monarchy as a prominent cultural icon, the land was the glue binding together sovereign nation-states.
Landscape painting put the ‘geo’ in geopolitics -- whether the Barbizon and Impressionist painters in the Old World or the Hudson River School in the New. In Mexico, José María Velasco (1840-1912) first made geography synonymous with national identity, in clear-eyed landscape paintings of the vast countryside that spoke with an almost scientific naturalism.
He was succeeded as a force by Gerardo Murillo (1875-1964), a lawyer, philosopher and amateur volcanologist. His obsession with drawing and painting Mexico’s volcano-studded landscape reflected the roiling turbulence within a new civilization reconnecting to an ancient history. Murillo painted as Dr. Atl, a pseudonym that merged advanced science with Aztec mythology.
He was Siqueiros’ first teacher. Volcanoes turn up in the MOLAA exhibition, organized in conjunction with Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil. Tellingly, though, Siqueiros did not paint from nature. The work’s two-dimensional surface was instead a cultural field for the expression of inner consciousness.
The show’s 70 paintings, prints and drawings are installed thematically rather than chronologically -- subjects such as mountains, aerial vistas, urbanism and allegory. In general, a Siqueiros landscape merges natural history with the national future.
Siqueiros draws with such forceful pressure that you imagine hearing the graphite grind and the pencil snap. His painted line is agitated but not fragile, blunt and layered like sedimentary rock. Paint is less about recording the brush stroke’s trail than about emphatic, even epic flow -- molten matter, if you will, pushing up from within.
Color is typically dark and sometimes even muddy. Light is a potentially explosive inner flicker, as if Delacroix were remade as a modern Industrial Age artist.
The 1934 ‘Abstraction’ is a hurricane of cosmic color, a darkly human force-field of indigo, russet, black, earthen-ocher and deep green, swirling around a white orb -- a kind of modern creation myth in paint. Deep space is held in tension with an aggressive surface, which seems to be pushing off the painting’s plane.
The traditional Catholic theme of a tree of life repeatedly melds with the pre-Columbian cosmology of the world-tree, an axis mundi linking the heavens and the underworld. A layered black-and-white grid, shot through with flecks of crimson and gold, is at once the soaring skeleton of a skyscraper, a surface map of Mexico City’s growing urban sprawl, volcanoes on the horizon and an aerial vista of the Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacan.
Indeed, the most common Siqueiros landscape seems to be an aerial view down toward Earth. It’s as if we have risen to great heights untethered from the downward pull of gravity. Communications towers rising from the peaks of volcanoes in the urbanizing valley of Mexico give a science-fiction aura to ‘Stratospheric Antennas’ (1949).
The same tone characterizes ‘Atomic Aircraft’ (1956), where an ancient mountain cave, the womb of Mother Earth, is crossed with a spiraling spaceship. Both paintings are executed on bowed Masonite panels that curve inward at the bottom, conflating real and illusionistic space. The pictorial margins project outward at a viewer.
Siqueiros often painted with pigmented Pyroxylin, mostly used in making plastics and lacquers. That the substance is highly flammable adds an obvious edge to Siqueiros’ art, especially in two pocket cigarette lighters he painted with depictions of volatile landscapes. Masonite, Bakelite, particle board and even asbestos sheeting are the paintings’ supports, rather than canvas; partly it carries the Pyroxylin’s weight and partly it emphasizes art as a modern construction method.
What has been called ‘mestizo Modernism’ for its fusion of mechanized urban life within indigenous cultural contexts can apply to Siqueiros’ work. That sensibility also thrums in the second incisive show, ‘Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied’ at the Autry National Center of the American West in Griffith Park. The show does an excellent job evoking the complex circumstances in which the artist painted ‘América Tropical,’ his controversial mural in downtown L.A.
The painting, 18 feet high and 82 feet wide, crossed ideas of Renaissance murals with pre-Columbian monumentality. Executed with innovative ‘industrial fresco’ techniques essential to working outdoors, it inscribed an Indian peasant lashed to a double cross within an egg-shaped compositional orb set before a pyramid. A Mexican and a Peruvian fighter, one from each of Europe’s viceregal outposts, take aim with rifles from nearby.
Although not anti-American, Siqueiros was staunchly anti-imperialist. When he crowned the tragic scene with an imperial eagle, the civic powers that be, offended by the inclusion of an American symbol, ordered the mural to be whitewashed. With the Great Depression peaking, animosity toward Mexicans running high and the civic-boosting Summer Olympics just concluded, censorship prevailed.
Nearly 80 years later, the badly faded mural is finally on its way to being restored to public view. The long-delayed project will create a viewing platform and protective shelter and provide educational information, some of it developed with the Autry show.
Not much actual Siqueiros art is at the Autry -- just six paintings, two-dozen prints and five drawings, most notably the only two remaining sketches for the mural. (Incidentally, an extensive show of Siqueiros lithographs is also at Jose Vera Fine Art in Eagle Rock.) But it ably augments the mural story with other relevant art and much fascinating documentary material, plus a final section on the remarkable work’s influence on evolving Chicano consciousness since the 1960s.
-- Christopher Knight
Siqueiros: Landscape Painter, Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, (562) 437-1689, through Jan. 30. www.molaa.org Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied, Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, (323) 667-2000, through Jan. 9. www.theautry.org