PRINT February 1977

David Alfara Siqueiros' “Portrait of the Bourgeoisie”

SIQUEIROS’ MURAL IN THE office headquarters of the Mexican Electricians Union (Mexico, D.F.) reflects the political turmoil surrounding the progressive administration of President Lázaro Cárdenas, 1934–40. As such, the work can be seen as a piece of contemporary Mexican history. To set the political situation briefly: by the time of Siqueiros’ mural, 1939–40, Cárdenas had expropriated foreign-owned oil properties, nationalized the railway system, seized large property holdings, appropriated land to small farmers, and implanted a system of “socialist” education. Regarding international matters, the Cárdenas administration adopted a pro-Republican Spain policy, as Mexico became the only Latin American nation to supply aid to the Republican government. Upon the defeat of Republican forces, Cárdenas admitted the immigration of several thousand Spanish refugees to Mexico, among them members of the Spanish Communist Party and other foreign communists. Yet this implicit official sanctioning of the Stalinist refugee contingent clearly contradicted the granting of political asylum to Leon Trotsky in 1937, as did the later swing to the right of the Cárdenas government in 1939–40, evidenced by Cárdenas’ denunciation of Soviet actions in Finland and Poland and the banning of public Mexican Communist Party gatherings.

These three broad areas of Cárdenas governmental policy—domestic anti-imperialism, anti-fascism in the support of Republican Spain, and the asylum for Trotsky—directly involved the Siqueiros mural. Cárdenas’ policies, paradoxical in the cases of joint admission of Stalinists and Trotsky, parallel the intrigue, complexity, and contradictions involving Siqueiros’ politico-esthetic activities of this period, most notably his role in the attempted assassination of Trotsky in May 1940.

Aside from the hard-hitting Marxist political content of the mural’s original version (entitled Portrait of Fascism), Siqueiros achieved a functional synthesis of his earlier technical experiments of the 1930s (primarily involving the spray gun, nitrocellulose pigments, and the camera)1 with a conceptual approach to the mural’s architectural space as a totally integrated painting-environment. Also, this “poster-mural,” as he termed it, was Siqueiros’ first to utilize contemporary photographs to depict a political theme, here the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. The work is a major departure in the artist’s attempt to create an easily comprehended, yet politically radical, popular art form.

Upon ascending the small cubical stairwell containing the mural, a total painted area of only 100 square meters, the spectator is confronted, or better challenged, by a barrage of images across the walls, in essence a stridently presented anticapitalist commentary in “newsreel” form. The painting virtually explodes in its depiction of the rampant chaos and destructive forces in society unleashed by the capitalistic system and what Siqueiros demands to be seen as its offspring—fascism and imperialism. To further enhance the work’s purposefully discordant tone, Siqueiros and the other members of the mural “team”2 employed jarring, garish color and painterly distortions: primarily the continuation of images through wall and ceiling intersections, creating not only a “cinematic” composition, but also a greatly enlarged sense of space. Opposing the confusion and cacophony of capitalism and its product, imperialist war, surges the largest single figure of the mural, an armed worker symbolizing revolutionary socialism, the only positive alternative to capitalism in contemporary society. The legend above the painting proclaimed Siqueiros’ orthodox Marxist position, so distinct from the political views of his colleagues Orozco, at this time anti all political ideology, and Rivera, a “Trotskyite” disowned by Trotsky:

These paintings, conceived and executed by D.A. Siqueiros, José Renau, Antonio Pujol, and Luis Arenal, were begun in July 1939 and finished in October 1940. They represent the actual process of capitalism toward its death. The demagogue, moved secretly by the force of money, propels the masses toward a great holocaust. A monstrous mechanism, crowned by the imperialist eagle, concludes the general function of capitalism—transforming the blood of the workers, who form the infrastructure of the real economic system—into the flood of gold that nourishes the benefitting incarnations of world imperialism, generator of war. The revolution surges impetuously, hastening to finish with the exploitation and the slaughter with which the classical regime of our days sustains itself. Crowning all, the sun of Liberty shines resplendently over a symbol of the elements of Work, Solidarity, Peace, and Justice.

The revolutionary Marxist content of the Electricians Union mural drew from the 1937–39 Spanish Civil War experiences of the artists and contemporary political conditions in Mexico. Upon his arrival in Spain in early 1937 with a group of Mexican volunteers, Siqueiros—evidently unaware of the critical military situation—proposed a collective of Mexican and Spanish artists to produce murals and graphics for the Republican cause. This, of course, proved unfeasible, and Siqueiros entered active military duty on the southern front (his military service would continue until early 1939).3

When he returned to Mexico in 1939, Siqueiros condemned “counterrevolutionary conspiracies” against the Cárdenas administration, the burgeoning development of reactionary forces and social repression, and appealed for a uniting of “all liberal forces of the country.” The volatile political conditions in Mexico reached the level of a small-scale guerrilla war between leftists and fascist supporters. Siqueiros threw himself into these violent confrontations, and was arrested as “ringleader” of the group responsible for the stoning of several pro-fascist newspaper plants. On the right occurred, at the headquarters of the Spanish colony (some 25,000) in Mexico D.F., the notorious public celebration by Falangist supporters of Franco’s victory at the Casino Espanol, in violation of governmental warning. The tumultuous reaction from the left, led by several hundred “shock troops” of the Mexican Workers Confederation (CTM), was finally broken up only by a sizeable police force.4

These two events, indicative of the tense political situation in Mexico on the brink of World War II, demonstrate the character of left opposition to the widespread fascist influence in Mexico. Siqueiros, in his public actions and the Electricians Union mural, viewed the contemporary Mexican political situation as the “second front” in the struggle against fascism.5

The political content of the original version of the mural, Portrait of Fascism—best summarized by the leftist slogan, “War Against the Imperialist War”—was intended as a “dialectically elaborated theme” of counterrevolutionary and revolutionary elements in contemporary society. The first image encountered by the spectator in ascending the Union stairway projected the notion of counterrevolution: a motorized strongbox (representing capitalist finance) directly controls the primary figure of the wall, the parrot-headed “Great Fascist Demagogue,” who harangues the masses and reveals himself as responsible for the repression of the working class and progressive forces. The next point of view (central wall) exposes the entire range of forces opposing the socialist transformation of society, dominated by the “Infernal Machine” of private ownership of the means of production, whose convex bands contain capitalist and fascist representatives (to the left Great Britain, France, and the United States, and the right Japan, Italy, and Germany). The “Infernal Machine,” “energized” by the sacrifice of workers’ lives, symbolized by child victims of the Spanish Civil War, worked in conjunction with the imperialist eagle to produce the surface manifestations of capitalism: financial and military manipulators of the masses, and a huge, regimented military machine—capitalism’s totalitarian agent of control—responsible for the various incidences of destruction wreaked upon the masses throughout the mural. Next, an armed revolutionary worker symbolizes, in the artists’ jargon, the “working class (socialism) in the midst of struggle against imperialist war, fascism and the exploitation of man by man.” From the final viewing point, the top of the stairway, the three lateral walls—in effect three interlocking cinematic “frames”—and the ceiling painting (depicting peace, the anticipated outcome of the struggle against fascism, emerging as the production of industrial energy for the people), jointly confront the spectator with their powerful message.

The team’s utilization of detailed and factually specific imagery derived from their intent to create a truly contemporary popular art form. In this attempt, as Siqueiros wrote, the artists looked toward modern technology, particularly photography:

This [the enormous influence of modern technology upon the masses] led us to understand that a popular form of art ought to be fundamentally an eloquent form . . . . We spoke of a realism coming to affirm that all new true realism should be documentary and dynamic. For this route I consider that photography in and by itself constitutes our most important ally. We said that among photographic documents we should choose precisely those that were the most known, for they would be the most eloquent and for this effect we would sacrifice all abstract, esthetic impulses . . . We considered that all the tradition of art belonged to us, but of this the most immediately useful was that which would become a part of the functional political character of our effort; this is: the commercial poster, photography, documentary photography, cinematography, photomontage, etc. Helped by these elements we would sacrifice, even throttle, all traditional esthetic impulses.6

Fortunately, Renau has retained many photographic sources, so that the specific origin of the mural’s imagery may in many cases be identified. For example, for the central wall a turbine mould, a photo from Life, served as the model for the “Infernal Machine” and one from Look inspired the hanged black. For the right wall the effects of Nazi aerial bombardment of Madrid were adapted (Life), along with Italian soldiers killed in the battle of Guadalajara.

Another aspect of the team’s attempt to create a new popular esthetic involved the depiction of contemporary political slogans, such as “War Against the Imperialist War,” popular leftist propaganda images—the imperialist eagle, the octopus (in the second version of the mural) and strongbox of capitalism, or the strictly Mexican images of the parrot and flower.7 These slogans and images, appearing at the time in the leftist press, the publications of the Marxist artists and writers group L.E.A.R., the Popular Graphics Workshop, and the Electricians Union’s staunchly leftist publication Lux (“the magazine for the workers”), would have been instantly comprehended by union workers as they passed the mural during their daily activities.

Yet, the hard-hitting, vociferous antifascist content of Portrait of Fascism raises the first of many problems concerning the mural, for its antifascist theme definitely ran counter to official Soviet policy of mid-1939–41, as established by the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact. The Soviet-Nazi friendship agreement, a flip-flop from the antifascism of the Popular Front years, surely stunned Mexican Communists as it did North Americans, and both immediately cranked out the new line.8 Why did Siqueiros, whose high-ranking party position dated from the mid-1920s, dissent—as an artist—from official Soviet policy? Unfortunately, no clear answer emerges here. According to an artist close to Siqueiros at this time, Roberto Berdecio, Siqueiros returned from Spain as a “changed man, a fully dedicated Stalinist,”9 and his role in the Trotsky assassination attempt justifies this assessment. But why, then, was the theme of the mural, in effect, counter to Stalin’s official policy? Reasonable speculation might indicate that Siqueiros opted as an artist for an independent interpretation of Marxist subject matter, surely the arch heresy for communists during this period. It is possible, too, that Siqueiros saw the pair as strictly expedient from the Soviet point of view, and therefore discountable. The irony concerning Siqueiros’ unmistakable deviation from Stalinist policy was that it remained apparently unrecognized, curiously enough, both by the artist, who was uncharacteristically silent in this entire matter, and his critics.

To project the mural’s revolutionary political content, Siqueiros called for the utilization of paralleling “revolutionary” compositional devices and technical means. He proposed to the team a continuous mural composition across the four walls to be painted, or better, as he put it, “activated.” Siqueiros maintained that this approach diametrically opposed traditional mural compositional concepts:

First, we can opt for a discontinuous spatial conception, dividing the general theme into independent matters for each wall—following in this the traditional static idea that has prevailed since the Renaissance. Second, or better, we can decide to develop the general theme on a continuous pictorial surface, singular and dynamic, thus creating a new space that breaks visually with the architectonic structure of the cube of the stairwell, which will test a spatial conception without precedent, completely new and revolutionary. . . .10

With the adoption of Siqueiros’ compositional program, it became necessary to construct a “continuous pictorial surface.” To accomplish this, the team studied more than 100 people in the act of climbing the stairway to determine the movements of the “average” spectator. The results of the team’s empirical study of the “automatic rhythm of the habitual movement” of a person in ascending the stairway are illustrated in Renau’s “reconstitutions” of the spatial scheme of the mural environment. According to Renau, there existed six successive points of view, or “principal focal angles forming the polyangular vision.” The analysis of the spectator’s visual route completed, the next task involved the superimposition of a compositional scheme based on the movements of the ascending spectator upon the static geometry of the four walls. The curvilinear superimpositions based upon the spectator’s ascending visual route reveal various “baroque” compositional devices which act optically to break down the stairwell’s cubical structure and thus create a unified “painting-environment.” For example, in the upper left, the window is continued in trompe-l’oeil fashion into the central wall; in the lower section a curve continues through the three lateral walls, demarcating the subterranean factory level; above, a curve breaks the planar angle between the ceiling and lateral walls, defining the electrical energy zone.11

That the team succeeded in “activizing” the stairwell cube of space by consulting the movements of spectators and the creation of a “baroque” composition which acted to dissolve the reality of the mural environment’s physical space, is clear. That these formal devices allowed a more functional presentation of the mural’s political theme, in effect a single painting across the four walls rather than four individual paintings, is also evident. However, Siqueiros’ claim to the invention of “a spatial conception without precedent, completely new and revolutionary” is simply art historically inaccurate.

Basically, the Electricians Union mural composition is an elaborate and systematized program fulfilling a fundamental mural requirement: that it be comprehensible to the spectator from various points of view. In Mexican art history alone several examples—all of which Siqueiros surely knew—may be cited: the Mayan mural cycle at Bonampak, the painterly dissolution of architectural space in the 18th-century “Ultra-Baroque” or churrigueresque manner, and Orozco’s Guadalajara Governmental Palace mural (1937). Further, there exist many 20th-century precedents for the mural, similarly unacknowledged by Siqueiros (the result of a towering ego in operation?). From Sergei Eisenstein (whose influence Siqueiros did concede), in Mexico during 1930–31 for the filming of his subsequently mangled epic, Qué Viva Mexico!, he certainly heard much of the socially oriented art of the immediate post-revolutionary Soviet period. Siqueiros also utilized various aspects of Futurist theory in the mural: a strident “Dynamism,” machine esthetic, “cinematic” illusionism, and the painting of 20th-century warfare: A more specific example is the Marxist photomontage art of John Heartfield, whose work not only technically influenced Siqueiros (that is, through Renau’s photomontages), but also his depiction of Communist subject matter during the early and mid-1930s which anticipated in detail much of the actual imagery of the Electricians Union mural.

The mural culminated Siqueiros’ efforts of the 1930s to employ the implements of 20th-century industry as the technical base for his politico-esthetic mural theories. Actual work on the mural began with the construction of a maquette (an unfolding box) of the architecture of the stairway on the scale of 1 to 10. Renau then inscribed on the maquette the compositional lines obtained from the spectator study, the newly constructed walls were cleansed with a specially prepared solution of water and hydrochloric acid to accelerate the necessary deacidification process, and primers applied. Next the compositional lines were transferred from the maquette to the walls by means of an electric projector, this being in Siqueiros’ view the only possible manner to establish the correct proportions for the “active” spectator. The last stage involved painting with spray gun and nitrocellulose pigments (the Dupont “Duco” brand).

From Renau’s photographs of his preparatory photomontage studies and the work-in-progress, it becomes possible to detail the actual painting process. An example is the “Fascist Demagogue” of the left wall, clearly derived from a photograph of Mussolini. Renau’s photomontage study reveals that subsequent alterations in the “Demagogue” figure produced a parrot-headed monster who simultaneously presents the masses with a flower and flaming torch. A comparison of the photomontage and completed painting discloses further modifications—the “Demagogue” is activated by the strongbox, and a lower subterranean factory extends across the lateral walls—which provided a greater sense of compositional unity and clarity. Renau’s documents also permit a recapitulation of the individual painting roles of the team members. Siqueiros, absent on numerous occasions for unspecified (political?) activities, often appeared at the mural site only for general criticism or the completion of certain areas (such as the “Fascist Demagogue,” begun by Arenal). His other major contributions were the capitalist and fascist figures of the central wall and the revolutionary worker of the right wall. Renau’s work included the entire preliminary photographic documentation and photomontage studies, as well as the painting of the ceiling section and most of the mechanical and architectural elements. Pujol collaborated with Siqueiros on the major figural work and Arenal on the background masses, and painted the subterranean factory level, while Arenal painted minor background elements.

Siqueiros’ part in the abortive Trotsky assassination raid of May 194012 lies at the very heart of an assessment of Siqueiros’ dual (and basically contradictory) role as political activist and artist during this period. The Trotsky incident—which should be seen not as an isolated event, but more accurately as part of the general political turbulence of the years of the Cárdenas administration—was responsible for thematic modifications in the mural, grave personal consequences for Siqueiros (political exile, government refusal to allow him to paint a public mural in Mexico until 1945), and has resulted in the critical rejection of his art, particularly in the United States.13 Yet, to dismiss Siqueiros as a “Stalinist” artist as grossly distorts the reality of the situation as does uncritical “fist-waving” celebration of his art, and obscures the paradoxical fact that Siqueiros operated simultaneously in the extremely unlikely combination of “Stalinist” political activist and “Trotskyite” artist.

In the first place, why did Siqueiros participate in the Trotsky attack and what was its significance? Although factual particulars are lacking for the first part of the question, it would definitely seem that Siqueiros’ Spanish experience was at the root of the answer. As I have previously noted, those close to Siqueiros found him changed after two years in Spain, politically a “dedicated Stalinist.” Further the presence of foreign Stalinists, veterans of the Spanish war, in Mexico (“Contreras,” the Argentinian Vittorio Codovila, the German Margarita Nelkin), would naturally have done much to reinforce Siqueiros’ “conversion.”14 Trotsky’s biographer, Isaac Deutscher, while portraying Siqueiros as the dupe of international Stalinism, supplies what may be the specific reason for his participation (and even planning) of the assassination attempt:

The man in charge of this attack was to be David Alfaro Siqueiros, Rivera’s former friend, the celebrated painter, communist, and leader of Mexican miners. The year before he had returned from Spain, where he commanded several brigades during the Civil War—he withdrew from the fighting at the head of only two or three score survivors. That so eminent and even heroic an artist should have agreed or volunteered to become Trotsky’s murderer speaks volumes about the morals of Stalinism in these years; but it was, of course, a national habit in Mexico to settle political accounts gun in hand. In Siqueiros’ art, revolution and gangsterism were inseparable—he had in himself much of the Latin American buccaneer. In Spain he had entered into a close connection with the G.P.U. and, some say, with the Mercader family. Yet, despite the zealous service he had rendered, the Communist party had censured him for a misdemeanor in his handling of party funds. He was hurt and eager to regain favor by a conspicuous and hazardous act of devotion. He worked out the plan of an armed raid on Trotsky’s house and for its execution he called on men who had fought under him in Spain, and on Mexican miners.15

Thus, one can reasonably maintain that Siqueiros was hospitable to Stalinist brain-washing tactics (from his Spanish years and the influence of foreign Stalinists who dictated policy to the Mexican Communist Party), and that there perhaps even existed a particular reason (Deutscher) for his leadership of the Trotsky raid.

Yet, in this instance, if Siqueiros’ political action mirrored the Stalinist line, the Electricians Union mural—both thematically and formally—reflects a distinct anti-Stalinist position. For unlike other artists and intellectuals who succumbed, as Ernst Fischer has said,16 to the “Stalin myth” and the “terror” it spawned, Siqueiros totally separated his political activity from his art. Was this a carefully considered decision, representing a “fundamentalist” brand of Marxism, or what? Again, the answer is unclear.

The trial of Siqueiros (after his capture in late September 1940 in Jalisco state where he had been hidden by his miner comrades) further continued the confusion, even mystery, surrounding the Trotsky incident. It raises the possibility of governmental intervention in the court decision to dismiss all charges against Siqueiros. This verdict was reached despite a virtual non-defense by Siqueiros, who refused to admit anything beyond the obvious—that there had been a raid upon Trotsky’s residence and that he had been involved. When pressed for motives and explanations for the attack, Siqueiros replied in such “doublespeak” as “hypotheses,” the “independent act,” the “autonomous action.”17 Given the swing to the right of the Cárdenas administration in 1939–40, sympathy (and possibly a behind-the-scenes pardon) for an open Stalinist was curious indeed. But there existed significant counterbalancing pressures: Siqueiros was first and foremost a Mexican, and moreover a well-known artist, an eminent leader of the far left, and an officially acclaimed hero of the Spanish Civil War. A minor incident here illustrates the contradictory aspects of the entire matter: upon his return to Mexico, President Cárdenas publicly presented Siqueiros with a pistol in a ceremony honoring Mexican participants of the Spanish Civil War. With his customary flair for the sensational, Siqueiros, shortly thereafter, when his government-ordered arrest for the stoning of newspaper plants took place, threatened to shoot the police with the honorary presidential gift! In view of Siqueiros’ fame and position (and the fact that by this time Trotsky had been killed and his murderer was in prison), a decision to imprison him would have been highly unpopular; the end result, at any rate, was Siqueiros’ exile to Chile, arranged primarily by Pablo Neruda, then Chilean consul to Mexico.

Modifications in the strident antifascist theme of the mural resulted from Siqueiros’ (and other team members) role in l’affaire Trotsky. In fact, the police raided the mural site immediately after the attack and seized all portable materials. Siqueiros, in hiding from government forces during the repainting, placed the blame upon the Union directorship:

The work stopped practically finished during the first fortnight of May 1940.

Later, José Renau, one of the components of the executing team, because of condemnable political pressure by members of the Directorship of the Mexican Electricians Union, made independently of any criticism of our group some modifications in his own specific style of commercial poster-maker (cartelista). However, this did not obstruct the autocritical base of the work as we had previously expressed it.18

The alterations, painted by José Renau from May to October 1940, involved a repainting of the “Infernal Machine” of the central wall, and the removal of the specific references to the Spanish Civil War, the dead children. Their replacement, an octopuslike creature, spews forth a flood of golden coins and entraps in its tentacles workers of the lower level. Other painted-out areas included the identifying insignia of the capitalist and fascist representatives to either side of the “Infernal Machine,” and the smaller figures of the persecuted workers.

In enforcing the removal of the original version’s specific and current political references—especially to the Spanish Civil War—the Union directorship seemingly acted to disassociate itself from the political views of the artists (and, by extension, the Mexican Communist Party). The elimination of key images, though not substantial in terms of the painted surface of the mural, which also eradicated the notion that fascism was the last stage of capitalism, nonetheless served effectively to destroy the team’s vociferous antifascist theme (at the same time ironically conforming with the contemporary Stalinist line!).

If, however, the resulting work, Portrait of the Bourgeoisie, represents a dilution of the team’s original thematic intent, what remains is a more general, though perhaps a more effective, criticism of 20th-century capitalism. One would not find a similarly powerful denunciation of the capitalist class as inherently vicious, repressive, and destructive in, say, the many socially oriented New Deal murals executed by left-wing artists. More particularly, Siqueiros’ mural stands in marked contrast to the universally acknowledged “political” masterwork of the period, Picasso’s Guernica. As Hershel Chipp has demonstrated, Guernica represents “multilevels of meaning and emotion in human as well as artistic terms,” involving Picasso’s Spanish heritage and current domestic difficulties as expressed through the thematic medium of the bullfight and its antagonists, the horse and bull.19 That is, Picasso reacted to the Spanish Civil War primarily on an esthetic level, apparently incapable or undesirous of addressing his art politically to the Spanish holocaust, the precursor of World War II. Siqueiros, however, approached the Spanish Civil War from the standpoint of a military participant and militant communist, and systematically analyzed the role of imperialist war (through the depiction of the violence and exploding action of modern warfare) in the context of the 20th-century capitalist system. The irony of the situation here is that Siqueiros’ mural, a specific political commentary, has remained all but unknown, while Picasso’s “wall-sized” easel painting—which expresses no overt political subject matter—has received universal critical acclaim as the most important “political” Western painting of the 20th century.

In addition to the enforced modifications in the Electricians Union mural, Siqueiros has been censured by his critics since this time as a “Stalinist” artist. The fact is that his art of the 1930s was marked by ever-increasing graphic opposition to the tenets of Stalin’s “socialistic realism,” and it is highly improbable on formal and thematic grounds that the mural could have been painted in the Soviet Union. In contrast, the type of art so heavy-handedly dictated by Stalin—“national in form and socialist in content” (and stylistically derived from the Western Salon tradition)—was designed to fulfill a particular political function. This was the case with the contemporary glorification of the peasant and industrial worker so prevalent, for example, in the sculptural group Worker and Woman Collective Farmer (by Vera Mukhine, for the Soviet pavilion of the 1937 Paris World’s Fair), described by Donald Drew Egbert:

Here . . . an industrial worker and a peasant are depicted advancing side by side, respectively bearing aloft the hammer of industry and the sickle of agriculture to form the Soviet Russian symbol. In this way the artist has sought to symbolize the Stalinist belief that, with the successful mechanization of agriculture, the interests of industrial worker and peasant are now merging as the two march forward together—though with the worker as leader—toward the classless society of complete communism. Only a few months earlier Stalin had stated in promulgating the new constitution for the U.S.S.R. that the first phase of communism had now been achieved, that the working class was no longer a proletariat, and that the peasantry had been integrated into the socialist economy.20

Siqueiros’ mural, in the emphasis given innovative processes, materials, and the independent critical interpretation of capitalism, reflected rather the experimentation of Soviet artists in the late teens and early ’20s (the “agit-prop” banner, billboard, poster, or the technical experiments of the Institute of Culture’s “painting labs”).

Besides the visual evidence—Siqueiros’ art of the 1930s—of his opposition to Stalinist artistic policy, Siqueiros’ much later “Open Letter to Soviet Painters” (1955) bluntly criticized aspects of Soviet art during the Stalinist period. His criticism centered on three points: an “academic formalism,” comparable in its Soviet manifestation, in its tendencies toward denationalization and impersonality, to the formalism of the School of Paris. He charged that Soviet art persisted in representing “obsolete realistic styles such as the styles of Yankee commercial realism of the early years of the century.” Siqueiros contrasted his insistence on the necessity of change in realistic art (“Neither the forms of realism nor its tools and materials are static”) with Soviet “mechanical realism,” and criticized a lack of concern with innovative implementation of new artistic techniques and materials: “. . . there have not yet appeared among you any advocates of changing technical materials.”21

In his insistence that the artist operate freely in his own realm, though in full support of the aims of communist society, Siqueiros clearly had more in common with Trotsky’s more sophisticated approach to art22 than with Stalin’s limited esthetic conceptions. Basic to Trotsky’s esthetic ideas was that “Art must make its own way and by its own means”; that is, he recognized the complex process involved in the creation of a meaningful art form for the new Marxist society. Consequently, and distinct from Stalin’s authoritarian imposition of “socialistic realism,” Trotsky emphasized the need for a “broad and flexible policy in the field of art.”23 Trotsky, as did Siqueiros, called for the use of modern technology in art, and in summarizing the “new art” of the post-revolutionary epoch, his description mirrored the expressed intentions of Siqueiros’ mural art: “It is realistic, active, vitally collectivistic, and filled with a limitless creative faith in the Future.”

Siqueiros, seemingly unaware of the widely divergent direction his art took from the officially sanctioned Stalinist style and the similarity of his esthetic position to Trotsky’s, emerges as a most paradoxical creature: a “Stalinist” social activist and “Trotskyite” artist. Yet, the undeniable contradictions in Siqueiros’ work and personality from this time ultimately serve to validate Renau’s contention that the conception and painting of the mural was indeed a “living process,” not a piece of cranked-out Stalinist “socialistic realism.” The final irony surrounding these contradictions and the complicated politico-artistic matters related to the Electricians Union mural was, of course, Siqueiros’ attempt to assassinate Trotsky, with whom he shared fundamental agreement on the necessity of an independent approach to Marxist art.

Laurance Hurlburt is currently working on a translation of Siqueiros’ How to Paint a Mural.

I am indebted to Max Kozloff for his involved and insightful editorial assistance during the preparation of this article.



1. For Siqueiros’ previous artistic experiences during the 1930s, see Share Goldman’s “Siqueiros and Three Early Murals in Los Angeles.” Art Journal, Summer 1974. and the author’s “The Siqueiros Experimental Workshop: New York. 1936.”Art Journal, Spring 1976.

2. The painting collective, “The International Team of Graphic Arts,” consisted of the Mexicans Siqueiros. Antonio Pujol, Luis Arenal (the latter two had been members of the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop) and the Spanish refugee artists José Renau. Miguel Prieto and Antonio Rodriguez Luna (Prieto and Rodriguez Luna. trained as easel painters, left early in the work on the mural because of what Siqueiros called the “problem of integral unity”). The team functioned. according to Renau, as a democratically conceived collective, with “free initiative and free discussion of all questions. decisions decided collectively and democratically regarding all problems of form and content.” Siqueiros obtained the commission through his contacts with union officials and the building’s architects. The artists’ wages were fixed at 17.50 pesos for each team member (the same as union officials received) for eight hours of daily work, the mural was to be completed in six months, and the union would pay for all painting expenses. Siqueiros, the oldest artist as well as the most experienced muralist (and the most forceful personality), assumed leadership of the painting team, and had responsibility for selecting artists for the collective and the mural site, and for maintaining a working arrangement with the architects (the preceding information taken from José Renau’s text. “History of the Mural Painting Portrait of the Bourgeoisie,” published as part of “Mi Experiencia con Siqueiros” in Revista de Bellas Artes, Mexico D.F., January–February 1976).

3. Siqueiros rose to the rank of lieutenant under the command of “Carlos Contreras” (pseudonym of the Italian Stalinist, Vittorio Vidali), leader of the Communist Party V Regiment. His duties comprised staff assistant to “Contreras.” secondary command posts, and liaison-reconnaissance missions,

4. See The New York Times (April 5–9. 1939) and Betty Kirk, Covering the Mexican Front (1942) for contemporary Mexican politics. At this time Siqueiros received the derogatory nickname, el colonelazo (“the big colonel”) from his political opponents.

5. For the depth of fascist penetration in Latin America. an outgrowth of German imperialism in this area. and widespread support of Franco under the slogans of “Hi spanidad” and “One race. one language. one culture, one religion,” see Kirk (chapter 12) and Virginia Prewitt, Reportage in Mexico (1939, chapters 9–12). Ironically, United States’ efforts to combat fascism in Latin America. directed by Nelson Rockefeller in his post as Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs from 1940–45. would directly result in the dominant position of North American interests in Latin America following the war.

6. From Siqueiros’ unpublished MS. from 1939. “Auto-critical Thesis on the Work Executed by the International Team of Plastic Arts in the Social Building of the Mexican Electricians Union,” p. 4. The decision to employ contemporary documentary photographs to illustrate the mural’s political theme was also a logical choice, since both Siqueiros and Renau had previously worked in this medium. While Siqueiros had only experimented with photoprocesses (in Los Angeles, Argentina. and New York during 1932–36). however. Renau arrived in Mexico thoroughly accomplished in the area of photomontage, and therefore assumed primary responsibility in this area.

7. The image of the parrot-headed “Fascist Demagogue” derived from the popular Mexican expression “se habla como périco” (“one talks like a parrot,” i.e. nonsense). His gesture of simultaneously presenting a flaming torch and pensamientos, a Mexican flower customarily given as a gift, is analogous to our expression “the carrot and the stick.”

8. It should be understood that Earl Browder, president of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), also had responsibility for Latin American communist parties. making the Mexican Communist Party, for all practical purposes, the satellite of a puppet. Total Soviet control of non-Soviet communism during the 1930s was ridiculed in the contemporary joke: “Why is the CPUSA like the Brooklyn Bridge? Both are held up by strings.”

9. Interview with Roberto Berdecio, 8-15-1975. Berdecio had previously been a member of the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop.

10. From Renau’s summary of Siqueiros in “Mi Experiencia con Siqueiros.” p.10

11. The original compositional plan, Renau has emphasized (letter to author, 8-30-1974) was nowhere “as logical, systematic and clear- as his photo-drawings indicate; since it was based primarily on empirical observation there occurred many revisions during the course of work. Further, Renau’s basic architectural error in his ”reconstitutions“—the addition of three nonexistent bannister sections between the stairs—destroys the rationale of his six-point viewing scheme. Rather, first-hand viewing, most closely approximated by a wide-angle (24mm) lens, involves visual comprehension of the entire lateral walls at a glance. and indicates that the mural team’s intent was the creation of three interlocking ”viewing screens."

12. The Siqueiros-led assassination attempt of early May 24, 1940. a small scale military operation. consisted of an attack force of some 25-30 men (primarily miners from Jalisco state, where Siqueiros had been active as a union organizer in the late 1920s) under the command of Spanish refugees and Mexican participants of the Spanish war. Siqueiros—in the flamboyant disguise of a Mexican Army major’s uniform. a false-Villa like mustache, and dark glasses—and the raiding party, mysteriously encountering no resistance in gaining entrance into Trotsky’s fortified residence, proceeded to fire several hundred rounds of automatic fire into Trotsky’s bedroom and his grandson’s room, inflicting only an alleged surface wound on the grandson’s toe. The raiders left behind two fire bombs and a three-pound dynamite bomb (intended at the least to destroy Trotsky’s archives, the only bomb to detonate damaged part of the garden) and absconded with Sheldon Harte, Trotsky’s secretary, as unresisting hostage. The complete story surrounding the total failure of the May 1940 assassination attempt and Trotsky’s “miraculous escape” (Deutscher) has yet to be told.

13. For examples of the campaign against Siqueiros by North American “Trotskyite” and/or anticommunist intellectuals see Meyer Schapiro’s “David Siqueiros: A Dilemma for Artists” (Dissent, 10 1962) and “The Siqueiros Altair” (New Politics, 11:2, 1963).

14. This was obviously the case since these foreign communists, including the North American James Ford. had much to do with the “hard-line” policy adopted by the Mexican Communist Party in Mexico in March 1940. At this time the Party Convention was held. and in secret session the topic “The Struggle Against Trotskyism and Other Enemies of the People” was discussed. This session was, in fact, a pretext for a purge of the Mexican Party, conducted by a commission dominated by the foreign communists. Purged were Secretary Hernán Laborde and his secretary Valentin Campa and their followers for complete support of the Popular Front ideology. The “crime” involved their espousal of the Popular Front policy, which meant explicit support of the Cardenas administration, and by extension—albeit by somewhat strained logic—carried with it a “conciliatory” policy toward Trotsky.

15. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929–40 (volume III of the definitive biography). pp. 485-6.

16. That so perceptive and independent a critic as Ernst Fischer capitulated to the “terrible doctrine of (Stalinist) infallibility” (see his autobiographical An Opposing Man, 1974, especially chapters 17 and 18) while living in Moscow during the late 1930s—and actually believed. for example, the ludicrously manufactured charges against Trotsky—exemplifies the effectiveness of Stalin’s propaganda in implementing his policies.

17. An example (quoted in Nicholas Mosley, The Assassination of Trotsky, 1972, p. 57) concerns the specific matter of the death of Sheldon Harte, the abducted secretary of Trotsky:

Without knowledge of the circumstances in which this happened I cannot venture a judgment on the matter. in as much as repressions of a political type are linked to specific attitudes of the victim and these specific attitudes are unknown to me at the moment.

18. From Siqueiros’ unpublished MS, Arte Civil, written during his exile in Chillán, Chile (1940–41).

19. See Hershel Chipp, “Guernica: Love, War, and the Bullfight,” Art Journal, Winter 1973–74.

20. Donald Drew Egbert, “Socialism and American Art,” in Socialism and American Life, eds. D.D. Egbert and Stow Persons. vol. I, 1952. p. 696.

21. Reprinted in Masses and Mainstream, 9:3, April 1956. Evidently his criticism hit home. as according to a later article (Ralph Parker, “Siqueiros on New Forms in Art,” New World Review (February 1958), Siqueiros’ letter, subsequently “mislaid.” was not circulated until Siqueiros’ next trip to the USSR in 1958. In this article Siqueiros is quoted:

If in the past I met with resistance (one might even say sabotage) to my ideas on the part of certain elements in Soviet academic life. the results of this latest visit enables me to say with confidence that the Party is now taking a keen and active interest in the Mexican contribution to realism.

22. Trotsky’s fundamental work on art is Literature and Revolution (first published in 1923; Russell and Russell. 1957). See also his later anti-Stalinist letter. “Art and Politics,” Partisan Review (August-September, 1938). and in a similar vein, “Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art,” Partisan Review (June 1939), which though attributed to Andre Breton and Diego Rivera, was, according to Deutscher (p. 432), co-authored by Trotsky.

23. Illustrating this matter is that. while he comprehended the original nature of Tatlin’s proposed “Monument to the Third International” (1919), Trotsky was evidently disturbed by the imagery of “his own personal invention. a rotating cube. a pyramid and cylinder all of glass.” However. Trotsky proposed to grant Tatlin the opportunity “to prove that he is right,” by allowing him to complete the project (Literature and Revolution, the essay “Revolutionary and Socialist Art.” p. 246).