Aside from Andre Malraux, David Alfaro Siqueiros may have been the second most popular political activist of the early 20th century who used art as a vehicle for expression. He was a painter, an art movement leader, and a soldier who had been very vocal about his political views being a communist together with Diego Rivera. When it comes to art, he was also a great leader as he co-founded the Mexican Muralist movement which put Mexico in the map of countries with innovative and contagious artistic influences.
For Siqueiros, he believed that art should be political by nature in order to affect substantial response from people. He aimed at making art mass-friendly detesting the very capitalist nature of European art and North America, where only the rich can afford to appreciate art. Despite being overshadowed by Diego Rivera, he was a great artist in his own right after attempting to infuse the aesthetic and politics with his modern technical skill to create what experts term as public art, inspired by the principles of social realism.
David Alfaro Siqueiros lived a very controversial life having been a would-be assassin, after plotting to kill Leon Trotsky in 1940. Apparently, he supported Stalin’s political views and an active member of the Mexican Communist Party. Often times the political events in his country and Russia used to be his inspiration for his art. He executed Mexican murals that were bright colored yet one should not take it as something lighthearted. His paintings are supposed to evoke an intense emotion fueled by his sense of nationalism and patriotism.
As an artist, he was innovative and creative. He often experimented with new techniques using unusual materials like gun-cotton and pyroxylin, which helped him worked efficiently. In his advanced years he produced Polyforum Siqueiros (1971) in his attempt to combine architecture with sculpture and painting. He also tried other art media such as engraving, lithography, and printmaking. Lastly, despite his political affiliations with the likes of Stalin he was still awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967 and assumed the President position at the Mexican Academy of Fine Arts one year later.
Here are some examples of Siqueiros’ major paintings and murals:
David Alfaro Siqueiros was born in 29th of December 1896 in Camargo, Chihuahua, Mexico. He adopted his mother’s surname, Siqueiros, instead of his paternal surname Alfaro. And even though he was born in Camargo he actually grew up in Irapuato, Guanajuato after his family moved there when he was six.
Little is known about his early life but it is believed that came from a well-to-do family and came second of three children. At the age of four his mother died which forced his father to send them all siblings to reside with the paternal grandparents albeit temporarily. Therefore, it was David’s grandfather who became a dominant father-figure in his boyhood. In 1902 he attend a primary school in Guanajuato where he might have been introduced to the arts.
According to many art historians, David’s rebellious nature was not fully realized until his sister resistance against their father’s devotion to an orthodox religion. He had seen this happen and might have a huge impact on him and at the time, he was becoming aware of the political situation of his country. His political view is said to revolve around anarcho-syndicalism. Dr. Atl, a popular political scientist and theorist, wrote a manifesto (1906) raising awareness of Mexican artists to use art as an avenue for immortalizing their true heritage and indigenous cultures so as to promote nationalism.
No wonder when David turned 15, he became passionate about politics that in 1911 he participated in a student protest at the Academy of San Carlos. The student-protestors went against the academy’s teaching methodologies which subsequently resulted to the impeachment of the director. This particular event had inspired Santa Anita to lay the foundations for an open-air academy.
After attending San Carlos Academy, David Alfaro Siqueiros was set to receive his college degree supposedly, but chose to join the Constitutional Army. One of the main reasons behind this decision was to dethrone Huerta’s administration which they eventually did in 1914. He then became too invested in the military actions that inspired his early works. He was in fights between the Emiliano Zapanta and Pancho Villa confrontations and the parties involved struggled to regulate control.
Nevertheless, his military activities allowed him to travel around Mexico through which he got to know the country better. In 1919 he went to Europe, in which Paris was the first destination. There he was easily swayed by Cubism and its ideals; to deconstruct art away from its traditional practices and aesthetics. He particularly admired the works of Paul Cezanne. While in Paris, he met Diego Rivera who would become one of the members of the Mexican triumvirate together with Jose Clemente Orozco.
Rivera and Siqueiros traveled throughout Italy together. The main purpose was to study the paintings of the Renaissance masters like Michelangelo. During this period he began experimenting with history painting and used Marxist ideals as themes and subjects for his works. He infused this Western ideology with indigenous Mexican subjects in an attempt to reach out to the masses. He despised anything that is deemed bourgeois, even in painting, such as the use of easel. He preferred enamel paint and gun-cotton over easel painting so as to stick by his industrialist views.
His travels to Europe influenced him to depict ordinary people in an extraordinary form. For example, he used Cubist techniques to paint farmers with very muscular physique, heroic tendencies of the laborers being a victim of capitalist oppression, and with courage as they struggle against their colonial masters. However, his rebelliousness would not do him any good as he was exiled from Mexico through the 1930’s and 1940’s. His exile was followed by his attempt to assassinate Trotsky in May 1940, who was at Mexico at the time to seek refuge as Stalin gained full control over Russia.
During the exile, David Alfaro Siqueiros had managed to travel around the United States. He received one commission after the other which consisted mainly of public buildings. But being away in Mexico did not make him stop from being an activist as in 1960 he was involved in a riot once more, which led him to render a three-year imprisonment in the US.
David Alfaro Siqueiros arrived in Mexico by 1922 after his European travels. He was immediately hired by Alvaro Obregon to paint murals for the government. The devout art patron, Jose Vasconcelos of the Ministry of Public Education, employed him to paint several murals with a goal to educate the public through art. More importantly, the goal was to introduce Mexican culture to the public and hopefully use the innovative tools and techniques to infuse indigenous art with modernity.
Under the tutelage of Vasconcelos, the triumvirate of Mexican art have worked together; united with one goal. However, some of the artists that the minister hired realized that they have not achieved the perceived public art yet, which Siqueiros felt obliged to establish a movement called Syndicate of Revolutionary Mexican Painters, Sculptors and Engravers. The group was aimed at helping other artists address the problem in educating people about totalitarian regime that oppresses the proletariat people. To address this problem, the group established El Machete, a union journal.
This particular event inspired David Alfaro Siqueiros to paint Burial of a Worker in 1923. The mural painting was executed at the Colegio Chico which displays an indigenous woman grieving over a coffin. However, at one point, the union became more critical towards the government for failing to implement the promised reforms. The members were afraid of receiving funds no more for sustaining El Machete and their artistic activities. This eventually led to a couple of internal conflicts which stopped the operations of El Machete and Rivera leaving the union.
Meanwhile, David Alfaro Siqueiros remained focused on his labor-oriented activities and on the Mexican Communist Party. He was then exiled from his country and was sent to the US where he stayed over several years. In 1932, he found solace in La Placita Olvera where he would paint. However, the work did not receive as many good feedback as he had back home. He was criticized by his political intent, seeing his work as something that would spark a social revolution.
In 1936 his career became quite significant again after attending the Contemporary Arts exhibition organized by St. Regis Gallery in New York. He was the guest of honor of the event and then he opened a workshop for artists who wanted to prepare for the General Strike for Peace and May Day parade of 1936. In the US, Siqueiros became an art teacher more than an activist, teaching American art students and by being the source of inspiration for them. During this period he produced Echo of the Scream in 1937 and The Sob in 1939.
In 1950, David Alfaro Siqueiros participated in the XXV Venice Biennale show together with Tamayo, Rivera and Orozco. Fortunately he was able to bag the second prize home which cemented his international fame and reputation. It was also during this period when he accepted public commissions yet again, preferring it over private patrons.
In 1952, he executed The People to the University, the University to the People for the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Five years later he was to work on a humongous mural for the Chapultepec Castle in the capital. The painting is entitled The Dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz to the Revolution. The Hospital de la Raza is another public building that made use of the artist’s talent and skill, for which he painted the For the Social Welfare of All Mexicans at the lobby.
During the late 1950’s, David Alfaro Siqueiros became too aggressive in his political protests that distanced him from the public and the government. This even led to the suspension of The History of Theater in Mexico and a breach of contract charge by the National Actors’ Association ensued in 1958. Things couldn’t be worse when he assaulted the Mexican President in 1960 which had him arrested. This sparked a wide social unrest leading to numerous protests thereafter.
While in prison, he made sure to make the time worthwhile by painting and selling those out to the market. He primarily created sketches, one of which was for the interior décor of the Hotel Casino de la Selva. In 1964, the artist came out of prison and resumed his career as usual.
In the last ten years of his life, he established a studio in Cuernavaca and painted The March of Humanity there. This would be his last major art work, and on January 6, 1974 he died in his studio in Cuernavaca at the age of 77.