‘Lost’ art tells of a love lost

Times Staff Writer

Buenos Aires

He was a celebrated painter and political agitator who put revolution before art.

She was a twentysomething poet, dazzled by her charismatic suitor, David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of the leading Mexican muralists who audaciously combined public art and social militancy.

“I don’t believe that other human beings, man and woman, have loved each other with so much force, so much pureness and magnitude,” Blanca Luz Brum, whose given name means “white light,” later wrote of her early days with Siqueiros.


After four tumultuous years of la vie bohème in Mexico, Los Angeles and South America against the backdrop of the political and artistic upheaval of the 1930s, jealousy and mistrust would devour their grand passion. But Siqueiros left behind a startling homage to Brum: a kaleidoscopic mural showcasing multiple voluptuous incarnations of her body with Betty Boop eyes.

This vibrant paean to passion has endured decades of assorted indignities -- defaced with acid, smeared with whitewash, sealed away from view and eventually divided up and deposited in metal containers. Now, almost three-quarters of a century later, Argentine authorities vow that the singular work will be brought out of storage, reassembled, restored and displayed publicly for the first time.

The prospective revival of a “lost” Siqueiros is being hailed as a major event in the Latin American art world.

Yet the mural remains an anomaly. It exhibits none of the stylized images of noble laborers, subjugated indigenous people or rapacious capitalists that were the coin of the muralist’s realm. Nor was it executed in a public space, the preferred venue of a movement keen to score blunt political points through socialist allegories.


Rather, Siqueiros painted the mural in the basement poker room of the mansion of a shady publishing tycoon who reigned in the political and cultural hothouse of 1930s Buenos Aires, as a kind of sinister amalgam of Citizen Kane and Jay Gatsby.

“Many have asked why Siqueiros painted this basement against all of his artistic and ideological principles,” the Argentine authors Hector Mendizabal and Daniel Schavelzon write in a volume tracing the work’s tangled history. “We believe this mural is nothing more than the monumental, outsized way that Siqueiros sang the final song of his obsessive and desperate love for Blanca Luz, the great passion of his youth, his impossible woman.”

The planned exhibition of Siqueiros’ carnal dreamscape may shed new light on one of the giants of 20th century Latin American art. But the work’s amorous origins also recall an extraordinary woman largely airbrushed from the master’s autobiography.

Blanca Luz Brum was already well on her way to femme fatale status by the time she met Siqueiros in 1929. She had left her convent school to run off with a vanguard Peruvian poet, Juan Parra del Riego. He succumbed to tuberculosis a few days after the couple’s son, Eduardo, was born, leaving her a widow at age 20.

After Parra’s death, Brum gravitated to Lima’s leftist political circles, writing poetry and contributing to avant-garde magazines. She fled Peru amid a political crackdown that resulted in the jailing of her then-compañero, Cesar Miro Quesada, a poet and activist who was also the scion of a Peruvian publishing empire.

“In the midst of this solitude, of this unjust solitude, your name evokes a tenderness that sweetens these horrible and pitiless hours,” Miro wrote to Brum from prison.

Brum returned to her native Uruguay, where she met Siqueiros at a dinner party in the sleepy capital, Montevideo.

The dashing Siqueiros, with probing green eyes and a mop of curly black hair, was a larger-than-life veteran of the Mexican Revolution, a Communist Party envoy, an artist-activist-raconteur who had lived in Paris and Spain and boasted of his friendships with Picasso and Braque. He was also known for his volcanic temperament and macho disposition.


“We repudiate so-called easel painting and all art of the ultra-intellectual, aristocratic clique,” he thundered in a manifesto. Art was for “the free air, facing the sun, facing the rain, for the masses.”

That first night, Siqueiros and Brum left the soiree for a post-midnight dip in the Atlantic. His loyal communist wife, back in Mexico, was fast becoming history.

“In his arms my youth became mature and strong,” Brum wrote years later of that first encounter, in characteristically breathless prose. “We adored each other with equal fervor.”

The besotted couple were soon en route to Mexico, much to the chagrin of Brum’s middle-class Roman Catholic family and Siqueiros’ fellow travelers, who considered Brum excessively “bourgeois.”

In Yucatan, the pair met Augusto Cesar Sandino, the exiled Nicaraguan guerrilla icon, who had a pistol on his belt and his trademark ten-gallon hat on his head, Brum recalled. Siqueiros and Brum palled around with another tempestuous leftist couple: Diego Rivera, whose politics and career paralleled Siqueiros'; and Frida Kahlo, who has since become an international emblem for indomitable womanhood.

In her memoirs, Brum recalls how she and Kahlo, at their men’s insistence, endeavored to hide their European features and become “Mexicanized,” wearing hair in long dark braids and donning indigenous-style embroidered garb.

Siqueiros, in and out of jail for militancy in a Mexico moving from revolutionary mayhem to authoritarian stability, was exiled to the city of Taxco, a former silver-mining capital turned expatriate haven. There, the couple lived in an old convent and entertained the likes of Hart Crane, the hard-drinking American poet who posed for Siqueiros chugging tequila and reciting Walt Whitman; and Sergei Eisenstein, the iconoclastic Russian filmmaker who found muralist inspiration for his unfinished opus, “Que Viva Mexico!”

In Taxco, Brum later wrote, she gave birth to a child who died after a few days and was buried in a humble cemetery. Siqueiros, freed from prison, insisted on visiting his son’s grave. The staunch Marxist became enraged when he saw it had a cross.


“He emptied his revolver on the cross and destroyed it,” Brum wrote. “Then he substituted a hammer and sickle in its place.”

Whether Brum actually had the child remains uncertain: She, like Siqueiros, was a creative and myth-conscious harvester of memory.

As political pressure mounted on Siqueiros, the couple fled in 1932 to Los Angeles, where they were married at City Hall. They hobnobbed with film luminaries such as Katharine Hepburn, Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich while Siqueiros painted three major murals. Only one survives -- first executed at the Pacific Palisades home of a Hollywood benefactor, director Dudley Murphy, and now on display at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Siqueiros’ most important Los Angeles work, “America Tropical” -- featuring an American eagle perched triumphant above a crucified indigenous figure -- sparked a predictable furor, was whitewashed and left abandoned. The J. Paul Getty Trust has undertaken restoration of the Olvera Street mural, but the damage is extensive.

Brum had published “A Human Document,” a well-received collection of her letters to Siqueiros, while he was imprisoned in Mexico. A Los Angeles Times article proclaimed the book “a little masterpiece” and appeared smitten with her physical attributes.

“A slender and agile little body that supports a small head crowned with a heavy braid of jet-black hair; a delicate nose that inclines to the mobile sensitive mouth; eyes profoundly dark with long, well-defined brows, prominent cheek bones sprinkled with tiny freckles that lend a strangely interesting touch to her olive skin.”

Brum’s charms were not lost on Natalio Botana, an Argentine publishing mogul who had bacchanalian fetes at his own Xanadu, Los Granados, a lavish estate in the Buenos Aires suburb of Don Torcuato.

At the time, cosmopolitan Buenos Aires was a roiling, tango-drenched crossroads of artistic currents and political treachery, home of fascists, anarchists, communists and others fighting Old World feuds in a New World metropolis. Botana ran a legendary mass-circulation daily, Critica, which backed a 1930 coup but then turned on Argentina’s military-backed oligarchy.

Siqueiros arrived here in 1933, invited to exhibit and lecture. By then, Brum wrote, “my great love was slowly cooling,” a casualty, she said, of her man’s “primitive temperament.”

The couple were soon drawn into Botana’s raucous circle. Siqueiros’ need for cash may explain why he agreed to paint the basement. Several leading young Argentine and Uruguayan artists were contracted as assistants.

On the project, Siqueiros used the innovative techniques -- applying industrial paints on concrete, taking photographs, using a projector and airbrush -- he had experimented with in Los Angeles. The artist said he sought a “dynamic,” cinematic effect in the swirling, medusa-like nudes floating about on the walls, the floor, the ceiling. The work was completed by December 1933. At least one critic dismissed it as “pornographic.”

Siqueiros called the creation “Plastic Exercise,” perhaps seeking to distract attention from the mural’s focus on his drifting spouse.

“He was saying: ‘I am painting you, I am glorifying you, I am possessing you. You are mine forever,’ ” said Hugo Achugar, author of “False Memories,” a novelized biography of Brum. “It’s as though he were putting her in a cube, putting her in a box, confining her, even as he knew he was losing her.”

Lost she was. At a bash to celebrate the mural’s completion, legend has it, Brum and Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, enjoyed a romantic assignation in the pool-house tower while another visiting author, Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, kept a lookout.

“In Buenos Aires,” she later wrote of Siqueiros, “I untangled myself from his terrible knot.”

After Botana’s death in 1941, the mural languished. A subsequent owner tried to remove it with acid, unsuccessfully; it was then whitewashed and locked away. The estate was subdivided and the grand house was left semi-abandoned.

In the late 1980s, with the house set for demolition, a group of concerned Argentines mounted an extraordinary, if desperate, salvage mission. A Mexican restoration expert, Manuel Serrano, who had known Siqueiros, was contracted to oversee a team of 35 artisans to remove the mural.

“There had never been a rescue effort like this before,” Serrano recalled by telephone from Mexico. “I think maestro Siqueiros would have enjoyed the project of extracting the mural, for its novelty and complexity.”

The mural, covering more than 2,000 square feet, was sliced into half a dozen sections, encased in metal and wood frames and yanked out by cranes in 1991. It was placed in metal shipping containers, loaded onto trucks and exiled unceremoniously to an outdoor industrial lot. There it has sat for 16 years, and still sits today, amid labyrinthine lawsuits and disputes about ownership.

This year, Argentine First Lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the runaway favorite to succeed her husband as president, visited Mexico and pledged to save the mural “at any cost.” With the participation of the Mexican government, experts are devising a scheme to remove the work from storage, mount it in downtown Buenos Aires and restore it. The formidable legal barriers have been cleared, officials say.

Despite the work’s water damage, cracks and discolorations, those who have seen it recently say its condition is relatively good, a testament to Siqueiros’ use of industrial-strength materials.

“The mural is absolutely salvageable,” said Magdalena Faillace, of the Argentine Foreign Ministry.

With the mural completed and his Uruguayan siren lost, Siqueiros left Buenos Aires for New York and Mexico. He subsequently fought in the Spanish Civil War, headed a Stalinist hit squad that attempted to assassinate Leon Trotsky in Mexico City (the Russian revolutionary was in fact slain there soon after), and was jailed again in Mexico in 1959 for “social dissolution.” Brum doesn’t figure much in his memoirs. Siqueiros died in 1974 in Mexico.

Brum relocated to Chile, married into money, wrote articles and poetry and moved to the right politically. Rumors still swirl of an affair with Juan Domingo Peron, the Argentine strongman. Brum returned to Catholicism and finally became an apologist for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

She retreated to a life of semi-seclusion on Robinson Crusoe Island, off the coast of Chile, so named for Defoe’s literary classic reputedly inspired by a shipwreck victim who spent four years there. She painted and jotted her memoirs, recalling a charmed evening long ago beneath the white light of the Southern Cross.

“Siqueiros left with me that night and forever,” Brum wrote before dying in 1985, 11 years after her former husband. “Yes, it was an everlasting pact beneath the sky of Montevideo.”



Andrés D’Alessandro of The Times’ Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.