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Two Murals, Two Histories : Sixty years ago, David Alfaro Siqueiros created a scathing image of California colonization, while Dean Cornwell took a more Establishment view; one can be seen now, the other will be restored to view within a year

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This is a story of two murals. Although it unfolds in Los Angeles, self-styled capital of modern mural painting in the United States, it is a pivotal story that has remained mostly hidden for more than half a century.

One part of the tale was dramatically revealed last October, when the newly refurbished Central Library opened its doors to the public after more than six years of renovation and expansion, including the cleaning of a major mural cycle in the main rotunda. The second, even more important chapter should be unveiled within the next year or so, when art conservators for the Getty Conservation Institute complete some demanding labors on Olvera Street.

The two murals couldn’t be more different from one another, even though they date from the same moment and were painted a scant 10 blocks apart. Indeed, one could be described as the artful declaration of an official fantasy, the second as the dramatic assertion of an unofficial reality. Together, they speak to one another across space and time, giving shape and depth to history in a way that only art can.

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Near the plaza of El Pueblo, where the village of Los Angeles had been established late in the 18th Century, a painter was hard at work in the late summer and early fall of 1932. On a south-facing exterior wall on the second floor of Italian Hall, once a thriving community benevolent association, the great Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros (1898-1974) had been commissioned by F. K. Ferencz, director of the Plaza Art Gallery, to paint a mural that would be called “America Tropical.”

Siqueiros’ vision of tropical America was painted in segments across an 18-by-80-foot brick wall facing a rooftop beer garden that overlooked Olvera Street. Working with a changing team of assistants for 47 days between August and October, he sketched out a luxurious jungle scene filled with huge, tangled vegetation, both vaguely erotic and threatening.

In the center of the shallow, flattened space loomed a richly decorated pyramid, its twin entrances cleverly merged with a pair of actual shuttered windows in the building’s brick wall. Totemic sculptures flanked the temple, while a tall, carved stone arose in the jungle at the left.

Compositionally balancing the monolith, a small building was painted around a door at the right end of the wall. Again the mural’s illusion merged with the building’s physical design.

Neither the decorated pyramid nor any of the carved sculptures can be stylistically pinpointed to one ancient civilization or another. A sculpture by the temple’s base, for example, loosely recalls an 800-year-old Chacmool figure from the Yucatan, but not with specificity. Siqueiros’ designs aren’t Mayan, Toltec, Aztec or Olmec.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say his style is all of those and more. His fresco fuses a variety of pre-Columbian styles.

Still, Siqueiros’ aesthetic is even more complex. The artist had worked with Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco in the government-sponsored mural campaign in Mexico City, between 1922 and 1924. A veteran of his country’s civil wars, he had also traveled to study art in France, Italy and Spain. In Barcelona in 1921, he had issued a formal Manifesto to the Artists of America.

With youthful exuberance, Siqueiros had exclaimed, “Let us live our marvelous, dynamic age!” Recalling the fiery rhetoric of the Italian Futurist painters, he sought to inject his art with a vigor commensurate to the technological and political upheavals that marked the tumultuous new century.

While painting in Mexico City, Siqueiros was also drawn into trade-union organizing. First he joined the Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. Later, in Jalisco, he became president of the National Federation of Mineworkers. Finally he served as secretary of Mexico’s Communist Party. He came to Los Angeles in 1932, to teach at the old Chouinard School of Art, after a year spent in prison for participating in a banned May Day celebration in Mexico City.

In addition to its sources in ancient Mexico, “America Tropical” was inflected with the grave simplicity and muted color of the early Renaissance murals of Masaccio, which the artist had so greatly admired in Italy, as well as with a flattened, distilled form and space that is thoroughly modern. Overall, this complicated merger complied with the pointed directive Siqueiros had set out a decade before, in his flamboyant manifesto.

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By turning to ancient sources for his hybrid style, and by experimenting with such untried modern techniques as the use of an airbrush, he sought a “synthetic energy” that would manage to avoid “those lamentable archeological reconstructions (Indianism, Primitivism, Americanism) which are so in vogue here today but which are only short-lived fashions.” It’s as if the Olvera Street mural declared that Siqueiros’ artistic identity must be taken as the sum of his own social, cultural and personal histories.

When the mural was nearly complete, Siqueiros dismissed his assistants and set to work on a final, dramatic flourish. Directly in front of the ancient temple, smack in the visual center of the mural, he painted an Indian lashed with ropes to a wooden cross. Above the crucified figure an American eagle spreads its wings, its razor-sharp talons clutching the cross.

Over at the right, he added two figures crouching atop the building he had painted around the door in the wall. A peasant revolutionary clutches a rifle across his chest, while a second figure garbed in generic Indian dress points his rifle directly at the eagle.

Not surprisingly, when Siqueiros’ mural was finished and publicly unveiled, pandemonium ensued. A crucified Indian peon and revolutionary soldiers attacking the symbol of the United States were not seen by the city’s political leadership as flattering images. Nearly a third of the mural, the portion visible from Olvera Street below, was quickly covered over with white paint. A few months later, Siqueiros was deported.

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Meanwhile, several blocks south, at the corner of Fifth and Grand, another painter was putting the finishing touches on an expansive mural cycle. Painted between 1927 and 1932 in the magnificent rotunda of the city’s new Central Library by the highly regarded American illustrator Dean Cornwell (1892-1960), they depict the colonization of California by Spanish conquistadors, missionaries and their descendants.

Employing a pastel palette of pinks, yellows, greens and blues, which are fashionably reminiscent of those used by the celebrated Philadelphia illustrator, Maxfield Parrish, Cornwell told a peaceful fairy tale of California’s founding by Christian Spanish settlers.

Through sweetly crystalline forms, the paintings in the rotunda’s four monumental lunettes create a luxurious pageant. Powerful and beneficent representatives of the King of Spain and the Catholic Church bring the gifts of civilization, order and progress to a primitive, subservient yet noble population of indigenous people.

One lunette shows the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in great ships. Another depicts the Catholic Church’s investiture in the New World; a third portrays its construction of the California missions. The last shows the coming of the railroad and the arrival of transcontinental commerce, spanning the United States “from sea to shining sea.”

Eight smaller panels flank the four lunettes. They portray a variety of other episodes in California history, large and small, including depictions of weaving and pottery making, of the gold rush, of harnessing scarce water, of harvesting the bounty of the fields.

Throughout Cornwell’s murals, peace and prosperity flourish under the guiding authority of church, state and commerce. Everywhere, the Europeans and their descendants are portrayed as stoical leaders, while the “noble savages” work.

Needless to say, Cornwell’s vision was warmly embraced by the civic Establishment, which had commissioned it. In fact, its very spirit was inescapably linked to the milieu in which Siqueiros’ combative mural had taken shape.

The Mexican painter’s ode to the seductive pleasures of tropical America had been expected to complement a newly revitalized area. El Pueblo, which had long since fallen into decay and disarray, had been the focus of a vigorous municipal campaign to transform the city’s historic but neglected birthplace into a charming tourist attraction.

Christine Sterling, a civic leader who led the effort along Olvera Street, envisioned the short, narrow avenue as a colorful Mexican marketplace filled with artisans’ shops, strolling mariachis and eateries. “Olvera Street holds for me all the charm and beauty which I dreamed for it,” she had happily declared when the marketplace opened to the public in 1930, “because out of the hearts of the Mexican people is spun the gold of romance and contentment. No sweeter, finer people live on this Earth than the men and women of Mexico.”

As a tourist venue imagined by an Anglo member of the local oligarchy, the lighthearted fantasy on newly refurbished Olvera Street bore about as much likeness to the actual historic pueblo or to an authentic Mexican marketplace as Cornwell’s murals did to the brutal facts of California’s conquest and settlement. Olvera Street was, in its ersatz way, a sort of 1930s prelude to today’s eclectic Universal Studios CityWalk, with its glittery imitation of an actual urban street.

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As L.A. sagged under the darkening cloud of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, both the library murals and the touristy marketplace were suffused with Southern California optimism. They told official histories, one in paint and one in real estate, spruced up and prettified for ease of civic consumption.

Siqueiros, however, wasn’t swallowing any of it. Conflicts over immigration were raging then as they are today, likewise exacerbated by pitiless economic stresses of the period.

That the painter might hold a rather different view of the region and its history was certainly to be expected. It probably goes without saying that, offered a wall to paint above the quaintly idealized marketplace on Olvera Street, he might vigorously embrace the chance to make a corrective work of art declaring an independent vision.

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Siqueiros unveiled his mural in October, Cornwell finished his five-year project in November. (The signature panel on Cornwell’s mural is accompanied by the date 1933 , which might refer to its dedication.) Given the timing, did Siqueiros mean “America Tropical” to be a direct reply to Cornwell’s “official history” of Southern California?

There is no record as to whether the Mexican artist had seen the nearby library murals, with their gauzy motifs of sunshiny bliss, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Siqueiros had. After all, a prominent visiting muralist might be expected to stop in to see a colleague’s nearly finished work-in-progress in a public building a few blocks away, especially as the library murals were surely the most important civic commission of the day.

The differences between Siqueiros’ dramatic mural and Cornwell’s elaborate painted pageant are pretty blunt. However, among the more subtly revealing points of comparison is the prominent religious imagery both employ.

Cornwell repeatedly evokes the Christian symbol of the Madonna and Child, which underscores an identification between the golden land of California and an untrammeled New Eden. By contrast, Siqueiros’ bold crucifixion is of a wholly different order.

At the Central Library, the lunette describing the investiture of the Catholic Church shows, just to the left of center, a radiant young Indian woman holding her baby at her side. These sweetly painted surrogates for the Virgin and Child are surrounded by what appears to be a heavenly aureole. (In fact, the halo is a large pottery vase standing behind them.)

This secular allusion to the Mother of God is placed at the feet of a lavishly robed Catholic bishop. On the cleric’s richly decorated garment, directly in line with the woman’s head, is an embroidered image of an enthroned Madonna and Child. California is subtly identified with miraculous birth.

Echoes of this “New World Madonna” appear elsewhere in Cornwell’s mural cycle, but nowhere is the image more telling than in the climactic railroad lunette. There, in the center of the picture atop a crowded pyramid of people, another woman holds her baby at her side; this time, the encompassing halo is the arching white cover to a Conestoga wagon in which they ride.

The culmination of this ceremonial California narrative thus represents a notable transformation. For its personification of sacred birth has quietly shifted, from an indigenous woman and her child to American pioneers arriving from the East.

Over at Olvera Street, Siqueiros’ crucified peasant is a Christian symbol that does not tell of miraculous birth. Instead, rebirth is on Siqueiros’ mind.

A crucifixion is a tragic icon whose substance is mortal suffering and death. Here, an exemplar of the indigenous population has been lashed to the conqueror’s Christian cross, erected before a sacred ancient temple. The European conquest is likened to Christ’s crucifixion, as the brutal death of one civilization makes way for the new life of another.

Siqueiros’ crucifixion, however, is also aligned with two revolutionary figures--one modern, one ancestral--who take aim at the victor’s modern symbol. “America Tropical” is a poetic evocation of a continuing struggle for social transformation, and for the promise of a resurrection of the Americas.

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In her comprehensive 1993 survey book, “Street Gallery: A Guide to 1,000 Los Angeles Murals,” Robin J. Dunitz chronicles almost 20 extant murals that predate Siqueiros’, which is the only surviving public mural by the artist in the United States. Yet, the L.A. tradition of artists speaking with an independent voice through paintings on neighborhood walls begins with “America Tropical.”

The painting ranks as the fountainhead for the modern mural movement in the city. Not surprisingly, since the late 1960s its aggressive street poetry has been of special interest to the Chicano movement and its artists.

What’s remarkable about its influence is that, for decades, the mural has been as much legend as fact, for although it was known through photographs, its deterioration has been severe. Efforts to restore it to its rightful place of prominence began in earnest almost a quarter-century ago. The road back has been long and difficult, and countless individuals--artists, historians, civic activists--have contributed to the endeavor.

The significance of the mural places the current conservation effort among the most important the Getty has yet undertaken. Since 1988, the conservation institute has worked with the Friends of the Arts of Mexico Foundation, El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Monument and project consultant Luis C. Garza to rescue the mural. Portions of the plaster had been loosened by years of rain and earthquakes. Paint eroded. Siqueiros had used an unstable binding medium called nitro cellulose for his pigments, which has hastened the disappearance of his colors in direct sunlight.

The portion of the mural censored with white paint by outraged civic leaders in 1932 ironically gained an added measure of security. The Getty’s conservation team, headed by Augustin and Cecelia Espinoza, have removed the remaining white paint, cleaned and consolidated the surface, and reattached loose plaster to the wall. A new temporary shelter was built to protect the mural from the elements.

Seismic stabilization and structural reinforcement of Italian Hall is slated to begin soon. (The Northridge temblor seems not to have damaged the building or the mural.) Architectural plans are under way for a permanent shelter to be built, along with a shaded, public-viewing platform and a contextual display of related historical information, both on the adjacent rooftop.

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If all goes as planned, the site could at last be opened to the public as early as next year. More than 1.5 million people annually visit El Pueblo, and the Siqueiros mural will surely rank among its most important attractions.

Of course, the painting is only a shadow of its original self. Conservators can work wonders, but they cannot magically restore what has been so tragically lost. The library murals, preserved indoors and narrowly escaping total destruction in the 1986 arson fire, retain almost all their original pageantry; the worn and faded Siqueiros mural is a ghostly shade.

Still, like all ghosts of time past, “America Tropical” exerts its own haunting spell. Project consultant Luis Garza is surely correct when he speculates that, once open, the mural will become a shrinelike site for Latinos in Los Angeles. For the tale of these two murals is indeed a tale of two cities, one whose resonant dynamic is still being felt.*


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