Olvera Street’s missing mural, then and now
What’s missing from this picture? Until now, it was the picture.
The public has not laid eyes on this fresco since it was unveiled exactly 80 years ago -- and thereafter soon whitewashed -- that politically angry and anguished mural that David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of Mexico’s “big three” muralists, painted in Olvera Street in 1932.
It -- or rather, the salvageable ghost of it -- opens again for public viewing now, after a nearly $10-million restoration project. Over the years it has been a kind of Fata Morgana of public art in the city that has both become the mural capital of the world and surely also the mural-destruction capital, losing through political indifference and laxity some of its more recent open-air mural masterpieces.
This one, ‘’America Tropical,’’ was painted over deliberately, politically.
Siqueiros had come to LA on a six-month visitor’s visa in 1932, and this work had gotten as big a buildup as an MGM movie premiere. “Great Art Work to be Unveiled,” was The Times’ headline the morning of the unveiling, Oct. 9, 1932.
As it turned out, no one but the artist and his close assistant knew that at the center of its 82-foot length, among the images of Mexican jungles and Mayan antiquity, was what Siqueiros had painted in by night, at the last possible minute: a tormented figure of an indigenous Mexican lashed to a cross, with an eagle -- an American eagle, it was thought -- poised to strike.
Within weeks, the hosannas had been mostly hushed. And in time, part of the painting was covered up and the rest neglected. A work that L.A. had thought was going to be a decoration turned out to be a provocation.
For half of its life the fresco declined into obscurity. And for the other half, L.A. has been talking about restoring this mural. As long ago as 1971, The Times wrote about it, and about a KCET-TV documentary on the fresco as part of a Chicano revival movement.
What I’ve been wondering was how the fresco was painted -- metaphorically -- at the time, and how the perception of the fresco changed to bring us to “America Tropical” redux.
To understand that, you have to turn the calendar back to several years before the Siqueiros mural was painted. Christine Stirling is the woman who, in the 1920s, “saved” Olvera Street. One of L.A.’s earliest historic neighborhoods and its oldest buildings had crumbled into an unsightly mess, and city fathers were about to condemn the whole thing when the civic- and history-minded Stirling valiantly hectored and shamed the city into saving its heritage and preserving some of the original adobe buildings.
Stirling deserves credit for that, and for raising the city’s awareness of its past, although rescuing Olvera Street also meant that some of it was Disneyfied into a quaintly imagined “Old Mexico” tourist destination which has also been the object of some scorn.
A couple of years after this new Olvera Street opened, Siqueiros was commissioned to create a mural on the wall of the old Italian Hall. That year, he had already painted a fresco at the Chouinard Art Institute.
So here is how The Times covered the mural matter, in a decades-long arc that paralleled the Depression, the art revival in L.A., and The Times’ crusading anti-Communist fervor.
The city was officially excited about the mural. Los Angeles was beginning to feel its oats as a destination for artists and art lovers. The Times art critic wrote prolifically of both the accomplished and the more plebeian exhibitions popping up around Southern California.
Mexican painters’ work had been put on display in Olvera Street a year or so before the fresco’s unveiling, many of them by artists who came to the fore on the wave of revolt which swept away the old political despotism” in Mexico, wrote Times art critic Arthur Millier.
Then the buildup for the Siqueiros fresco whetted the city’s sense of anticipation: “The huge fresco depicting a Mexican jungle scene in first-class Siqueiros style,” Millier wrote. Readers learned details about the nighttime painting-by-electric-light by a class of local artists under the auspices and sponsorship of L.A. muralist Dean Cornwell, whose splendid murals at the L.A. Central Library can still be seen today. The Times even listed the names of the local companies that donated the painter’s air guns and Portland cement and the scaffolding, and the Fuller paint company, which donated the watercolors.
By the morning of the unveiling, The Times was agog at the expected big reveal of a Mayan temple in a tropical forest, an edifice destroyed by nature, “but man’s conquest remains.” The story noted, incidentally, that Siqueiros had just applied for an extension to his visitor’s visa, but it had not yet been granted.
The next day’s coverage, after the unveiling, was muted. “The start of a new period in Southern California art” blandly proclaimed the five-paragraph story, which ran above an account of a “pants burglar.” The story made no mention of the crucified Indian figure at the center of the fresco.
At the unveiling, Cornwell had proclaimed with foresight the future of the mural in L.A.: “Whether this form of art shows in the decoration of the walls of theaters, libraries, the sides of buildings or even on billboards, it will be a good thing when we have something beautiful in place of something blank.”
But that was not the takeaway from the Olvera Street fresco.
Six days after the unveiling, critic Millier opened up his guns on Siqueiros’ critics. He wrote of Siqueiros overcoming “great technical difficulties,” working “night after night until dawn” to produce “a design imbued with his conception of the strength and tragedy of his native land.”
As for Siqueiros, an unflinching Communist, and his quest for a visa extension, Millier wrote, “the country should welcome a man who works with such sincerity and talent.”
And, Millier adjudged, “powerful is a tame word” for the fresco, with its formidable jungle and ruined temple, and, in the center, “a peon roped to a double cross … it is a Mexican’s picture of his own troubled land. Siqueiros’ picture of the tragedy of history and of man’s fate … interpret it any way you like, it is a work that first arrests and then holds the mind through the strength and simplicity of its forms.”
Onlookers “gasped” at the unveiling. “No one but the author had been able to visualize the close-knit, powerful design so long shaded and concealed by those scaffolds. In the middle of our popular conception of Mexico as a land of eternal dancing, gayety and light-headedness” -- probably a reference to the quaint artifice of Olvera Street -- “this stern, strong, tragic work unrolls its painted cement surface.”
It packed one helluva wallop. Enough so that, the following May, Millier was writing about art as propaganda, a critique of what the public wants and what the artists deliver. “More often than not,” he wrote, “the propaganda in an art work is soon forgotten …. The Siqueiros fresco on Olvera Street was probably intended as propaganda against the artist’s conception of American imperialism, but time pays little attention to such intentions.”
Millier was wrong about that. Over time, it was the art, not the politics, that was forgotten.
By August 1935, the offensive part of the mural had been whitewashed “so that the figures of grim Mexican revolutionists are no longer visible from the street.” [A Diego Rivera mural in Rockefeller Center had likewise been chipped out of the wall because Lenin was depicted as a leader of workers.]
And Millier soon wrote another piece taking artists to task for not understanding the public’s stake in public murals. “The moment [the artist] paints a public mural his freedom vanishes -- and it’s time he realized this. Otherwise we shall see a continuation of the ‘mural murders’ which are a feature of our time.”
And still a feature of our time, too.
“Why is it that serious work that takes months, even years, to create, is damned and destroyed?” Millier wrote passionately. “In my judgment it takes both artist and public to make a satisfactory mural, and, like husband and wife, they ought to bear and forbear when it’s up. But they ought to do their battling before it goes up!”
About five years later, a Times art critique that appeared less than a year before Pearl Harbor surveyed 20 years of L.A. art. It noted that in 1932, Siqueiros “arrived in town and proceeded to turn all upside down by his charm. With a group of the town’s best younger painters, he painted with air guns a fresco at Chouinard Art Institute” which showed “a red-shirted agitator haranguing starving workers. It later dribbled off the wall.” As for the Olvera Street fresco, it was “Mexican revolutionary symbols,” and as for the artist himself, “At last hearing, Siqueiros was jailed in Mexico on suspicion of complicity in the unsuccessful gun raid on Leon Trotsky.”
The war must have put the largely obliterated mural out of people’s minds, until the Cold War year of 1956, when Millier’s byline appeared again. This time, it noted that for both of Siqueiros’ L.A. murals “he left the central figure to the last, painting it alone at night. In each case, it turned the fresco into Communist propaganda. Because he used a paint gun on the Chouinard fresco, rain washed it out. His Olvera Street item was whitewashed.”
I wish I could know what the fresco will mean to Angelenos 80 years from now -- but my more pressing question would have to be, will it even exist 80 years from now? And what will become of the murals Cornwell envisioned on the city’s blank walls? Will L.A.’s leaders condemn them by neglect the way their predecessors rid themselves of the Siqueiros mural by choice?
Either way, the city and the art world are the losers.
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