David Siqueiros: Twentieth Century Odysseus

The upbringing and life of David Alfaro Siqueiros are a study in sharp contrasts.  Born in Chihuahua City, Chihuahua, on December 29, 1896, he was to become the youngest of the three great "Mexican Muralists", ten years younger than Diego Rivera and thirteen years younger than José Clemente Orozco. He was baptized José de Jesús Alfaro Siqueiros. He died January 6, 1974, in Cuernavaca, Morelos.

David Alfaro Siqueiros
Note: The bulk of this biography is adapted from Siqueiros, Biography of a Revolutionary Artist, by D. Anthony White
Life of the Well-to-Do until Mother's Death

His father, Cipriano Alfaro, originally from Irapuato, Guanajuato, in the center of the country, was a lawyer who had moved to the northern "frontier" of Chihuahua where he developed a successful practice. His mother, Teresa Siqueiros, was from a well-to-do Chihuahua family. They had two other children, a sister, Luz, three years older than José, and a brother "Chucho" (Jesús), three years younger. Their mother died from complications resulting from Jesús' birth when José was four.

Guerrilla Grandfather

Their father then moved back to Iraputo with his children to live with his parents, Antonio and Eusebia. David came under the influence of his grandfather, nicknamed "Siete Filos" ('seven knife-edges'), who had been a guerrilla fighter against the French Intervention (1862-67). Antonio held liberal views but also was macho and trained José in what he called "the school of men", teaching him through rough handling to be strong in the face of adversity. The grandmother was a devout, conservative Catholic who had influenced her son, Cipriano, to be the same. Before deciding to become a lawyer, he had started studies to become a priest.

Life of the Well-to-Do in Mexico City

At some point, Eusebia died and Cipriano moved his family to Mexico City. He continued his law practice, was highly successful and, on occasion, served as a diplomat in the government of Porfirio Díaz. José and his siblings were initially placed in Catholic schools. As an exceptionally devout Catholic, Cipriano took his children to several masses every Sunday. Subsequently, he placed the children in the French-English school because of his love, like that of Porfirio Díaz, for French culture. They were part of the wealthy and influential class of the capital.

Entering the Art World and the Mexican Revolution

When he was eleven, José  began to show interest in painting. Knowledgeable in Mexican Baroque painting, José's father recognized his talent and hired a noted artist as his private teacher. In 1911, at the age of fifteen, Siqueiros enrolled in evening classes at the Academy of San Carlos, the national art school; during the day he attended the nearby National Preparatory (High) SchoolJosé Clemente Orozco was also a student at the Academy.

It was a fateful period in Mexican history. The Mexican Revolution had started. Porfirio Díaz had resigned and gone into exile. Francisco Madero was President. During Siqueiros's first year at the Academy, the students went on strike demanding both an end to the classical European-style training and a new director open to fresh artistic views. They succeeded in getting a director just returned from France who introduced Impressionism and painting directly from nature. This progress was interrupted in February 1913 by Victoriano Huerta's successful coup d'etat against Madero. Huerta closed the Academy. During this time period, José broke away from his father, attacking him and his wealthy, conservative friends as "as band of thieves." He went to live with the family of a schoolmate. 

In the summer of 1914, the Academy reopened briefly after Victoriano Huerta fell and Venustiano Carranza regained control of Mexico City. Dr. Atl, a teacher who advocated for students trying their own methods and for the creation of public murals, was appointed director. However, in October, when the supporters of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata failed to agree with Carranza on a new government at the Convention of Aguascalientes, they directed their armies at Carranza and the capital. In November, Carranza retreated from Mexico City to the state of Veracruz. Dr. Atl convinced many of the students at the Academy to join him and Carranza. (See: The Academy of San Carlos and Dr. Atl)

So, at age eighteen, Siqueiros, along with Orozco, went with Atl to Veracruz. Orozco helped run a printing operation producing propaganda for Carranza. Siqueiros joined a group of adolescents who formed a batallion that went to the western part of Mexico to fight against Pancho Villa. When they arrived in Jalisco, Siqueiros—because he could read and write—was assigned to the staff of General Diéguez. He also took part in direct combat in the Battles of León and Guadalajara. He wrote later of all the dead and the summary executions of anyone captured alive.

But Siqueiros also wrote of the influence of the Revolution on the developement of his art and on what was to become the Mexican Mural Movement. His combat experience was, he said: 
"the beginning of our direct contact with the Mexican people,...contact with the idiosyncracies of the Mexican, the geography, the archeology, the whole of the artistic history of Mexico, with its popular art, the entire culture of our country. ... Without that participation, it would not have been possible to conceive of or inspire the modern Mexican pictorial movement." (Siqueiros, Biography of a Revolutionary Artist, D. Anthony White)
European Exposure: Explorations in Revolutionary Art and Politics

After Carranza’s forces won against Villa and Zapata in 1915, Siqueiros remained in Guadalajara. He met and, in 1918 married Graciela Amador, the sister of a comrade in arms. They returned that year to Mexico City. In 1919, he was sent to Paris by Carranza to be a military attaché at the Mexican Embassy. He had much free time on his hands, so he studied the Impressionists and Cubism. He was particularly intrigued with Paul Cézanne's use of large blocks of intense color.

While in Paris, he met Diego Rivera, and they engaged in frequent discussions over what Mexican art might be. Recalling Dr. Atl's manifesto on public, mural art, and of working in teams to create it, they agreed that was the future for art in Mexico. Siqueieros subsequently traveled to Italy to study the great fresco painters of the Renaissance.

When Carranza was overthrown by Obregón in 1920, Siqueiros' means of support in Europe came to an end. He got work in an iron factory designing decorative ironwork. Working and living with other laborers, he became aware of their problems with their employers and soon began writing articles for a Communist magazine. As a youth, he had had some exposure to Marxist thinking through a classmate. In Paris, he met Marxists and Russians. The Russian Revolution was a major focus of talk.

He and his wife then decided to go to Barcelona where he tried to start a magazine of art criticism. In its one edition, he published a manifesto for Mexican artists, calling on them to reject old, European aesthetics and methods, adopt ones responding to the modern, mechanical age. He advocated composition based on geometric forms to create volume and depth with the goal of creating "monumental, heroic, public art".

Back in Mexico City and Mexican Politics

In 1922, Siqueiros, with Rivera, returned to Mexico City to work as a muralist for Secretary of Public Education José Vasconcelos. He began a mural in a back staircase at the National Preparatory School, where Orozco and Rivera were also working, using the three-dimensional space to experiment with techniques and styles. He never finished the work.

The Elements - David Alfaro Siqueiros
The Elements,
unfinished mural in San Ildefonso
Photo: Wikiart
A very complete photo gallery of Siquerios´ paintings is available on

In 1923 Siqueiros, Rivera and other mural painters founded the Union of Revolutionary Mexican Painters, Sculptors and Engravers. Siqueiros was elected Secretary General. At Rivera's urging, they agreed to join the Communist International. They also started a union paper, El Machete, through which they sought to address the issue of widespread public access to art. Siqueiros authored a manifesto, published in the paper, "for the proletariat of the world" on the necessity for a "collective" art, which would serve as "ideological propaganda" to educate the masses and overcome bourgeois, individualist art.

In 1925, after the election of Plutarco Calles as President, Vasconcelos, who had wanted to be president, was replaced in his post as Secretary of Education. The new secretary was not sympathetic to the mural movement. The union became increasingly critical of the revolutionary government which had not instituted promised reforms.

As a result, union members faced threats of cuts in funding for their art and the paper. A feud broke out within the union over whether to cease publishing El Machete or lose financial support for the mural projects. Siqueiros advocated upholding their Marxist politics over artistic opportunity. Diego Rivera chose to continue to get government support for his murals and left in protest.

Communism, New Love and Prison

Siqueiros was let go from his post in the Secretariat of Education. A comrade from his time fighting in Jalisco, who was now governor, offered him work in Guadalajara painting murals in the state university. The governor was soon overthrown in the Cristero War and the work ended. Siqueiros then became deeply involved in labor activities, organizing miners unions in the state of Jalisco. He also continued to write articles for the Communist Party, which had continued publishing El Machete.

In 1928, he traveled to Moscow as head of the Mexican delegation to the Fourth Congress of the Red Unions. Diego Rivera was already there, having arrived in the fall of 1927 for the Tenth Anniversary celebrations of the Russian Revolution. It was a time of conflict and crisis within Soviet Communism that was to have later repercussions in Mexico involving Rivera and Siqueiros.

Siqueiros' passport, 1928
From: El rostro de imperialismo: Linaje de una escultura desconocida de Siqueiros en Buenos Aires
The Face of Imperialism: Lineage of an Unknown Sculpture by Siqueiros in Buenos Aires,
by Daniel Schávelzon, in Revista Sauna, Sauna Magazine, Feb. 18, 2011

Following the death of Vladamir Lenin in January 1924, a leadership split had developed in the Communist Party between Josef Stalin and Leon Trotsky. It came to a head at the 15th Party Congress in October 1927. Rivera sided with Trotsky, who was expelled from the Party and, a year later, from the country. He went, first, to Turkey, then France and Norway. In 1936 he would be granted exile in Mexico and live, at first, with Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo, in the Delegación of Coyoacán, in Mexico City.

When Rivera and Siqueiros returned to Mexico City, Rivera was expelled from the Mexican Communist Party for his Trotskyite position. The Central Committee supported Stalin. Rivera was subsequently appointed director of the National Institute for the Plastic Arts, the new name for the Academy of San Carlos and continued to gain commissions from the Mexican government. Siquieros increasingly criticized Rivera for not being radical either in his art, which was "folkloric and superficial" or his politics, serving as "the official painter" of an increasingly repressive government.

Siqueiros returned to his union organizing work in Guadalajara. In May of 1929, he went to Montevideo, Uruguay, for a congress of Latin American Unions. There he met and fell in love with Blanca Lus Brum, a journalist and niece of the president of the county. They returned to Mexico City together, Siqueiros leaving his wife, Graciela. Meanwhile, the Mexican Communist Party was outlawed. In February 1930 an attempt on the life of interim President Otiz Rubio was used as an excuse to arrest many party members, Siqueiros among them.

He was imprisoned in the Palacio de Lecumberri, a federal penitentiary built by Porfirio Díaz in 1910 as one of his grand projects, a short distance east of the Historic Center. It is popularly known as the "Black Palace". It was where President Francisco Madero and Vice President Pino Suárez were assassinated on February 22, 1913, by agents of General Victoriano Huerta, ending the Ten Tragic Days of the Mexican Revolution

Palacio de Lecumberri
Built by President Porfirio Díaz
Revolutionary President Francisco Madero and Vice President Pino Suárez were assassinated there on February 22, 1913, by agents of General Victoriano Huerta, ending the Ten Tragic Days of the Mexican Revolution

Siqueiros was released in a couple of months, but then rearrested after a May 1st demonstration. This time he was kept in prison. During the time, he returned to painting, with Blanca selling the paintings to support herself. After nine months in prison, he was allowed to go to Taxo, Guerrero, under a kind of domestic exile. He was reunited with Blanca and devoted himelf to his painting.

Domestic Exile in an Interational Artists' Retreat

William Spratling, an American writer, had promoted the old silver mining town's development as an international retreat and it had become a favorite place for international artists. Siqueiros met many, including the Russian filmmaker, Serge Eisenstein, and the American, George Gershwin. Gershwin bought some of Siqueiros' paintings and Spratling arranged the sale of some of his prints in a gallery in New York.

Head and shoulders picture of a young man with slicked back dark hair and a signature on the bottom
George Gershwin, 1935
Photo: Wikipedia

In 1932, a friend, Anita Brenner, arranged the first showing of his works in Mexico City. Brenner was the Mexican-born daughter of Latvian Jewish immigrants who had a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University. She authored a major work on the history of Mexican art, Idols Behind Altars and had traveled in Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship. She was well connected. The show was a huge success. Americans Hart Crane and Arthur Miller, among others, wrote glowing reviews in the U.S. press. Siqueiros was instantly, internationally famous. However, as he was not supposed to leave Taxco, authorties told him to either leave the county or he would have to go back to Lecumberri prison.

Exile in the U.S., then South America

Understandably, he chose to go to California. Rivera and Orozco were already both in the U.S., painting murals on commission. Siqueiros went to Los Angeles where he created two outdoor murals. They were his first opportunity to apply his ideas of working as the head of a team of artists, using modern commercial paints and machines such as air brushes, photography and projectors and developing "dynamic perspectives" for a moving observer. However, the critical, even anti-American political content of both murals resulted in them being painted over and Siqueiros' visa not being renewed. He was, nevertheless, introduced to actors and directors in Hollywood. Charles Laughton bought many paintings and became a long-time patron of Siqueiros' work.

Charles Laughton-publicity2.JPG
Charles Laughton, 1934
Photo: MGM/Wikipedia

He and Blanca sailed to her home, Uruguay, where her uncle was president. Shortly after their arrival, he committed suicide rather than submit to a military coup. Siqueiros painted, had a show, and gave lectures on art and politics.

He was invited to Buenos Aires, Argentina to lecture and write on art. While in Buenos Aires, the editor of a culture magazine gave Siqueiros the opportunity to create a three dimensional mural in a lounge in the basement of his home. Working with a team of Uruguayan and Argentine artist, he had photos taken of different angles of his wife, Blanca, posing nude inside a plastic box. He and the team then produced abstract drawings of these photos on the walls and ceiling. He also created two sculpted heads to sit at the end of the room. He described the three-dimensional work, Plastic Exercise, as a dynamic painting for a dynamic spectator, who moved through it.

El rostro de imperialismo, The Face of Imperialism
From: "El rostro de imperialismo: Linaje de una escultura desconocida de Siqueiros en Buenos Aires
The Face of Imperialism: Lineage of an Unknown Sculpture by Siqueiros in Buenos Aires,
by Daniel Schávelzon, in Revista Sauna, Sauna Magazine, Feb. 18, 2011

Siqueiros in Buenos Aires, 1933
From: "El rostro de imperialismo: Linaje de una escultura desconocida de Siqueiros en Buenos Aires
The Face of Imperialism: Lineage of an Unknown Sculpture by Siqueiros in Buenos Aires,
by Daniel Schávelzon, in Revista Sauna, Sauna Magazine, Feb. 18, 2011

However, he again became involved in Communist political activity and was arrested. At this point, Blanca left him and he was deported.

New York Sojourn: Creation of an Artists' Workshop

He was able to gain another visa to the U.S. and, in March 1934, went to New York, where his brother, Jesús, lived. He had a successful show of his works, selling many. Later that year, with the election of Lázaro Cárdenas as President, he returned briefly to Mexico. In 1935, he went back to New York as part of the Mexican delegation to the American Artists Congress.

He decided to stay to create an artists' group workshop, in part funded by George Gershwin and the U.S. Communist Party. The workshop designed complex floats for the 1936 May Day Parade and other worker demonstrations. This gave Siqueiros more opportunities to experiment with materials, forms and issues of perspective. He also painted several major works, including one of Gershwin playing at Carnegie Hall.

Another member of the Mexican delegation was the artist Luis Arenal, who was accompanied by his sister, Angélica. While Luis stayed in New York to be part of the workshop, Angélica returned to Mexico. In letters, Siqueiros professed his love for her and convinced her to return to New York, with her three year old daughter from a former marriage. She came for a time, but then returned to Mexico City.

The Spanish Civil War: Battles, Love and Communist Politics

In 1936, the Popula Front, an alliance of socialist, communist, anarchist and other leftist groups won the parlimentary elections in Spain. Rightest generals rose up to overthrow them, triggering the Spanish Civil War. The rightest Nationalists had the support of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Republicans called for international help. No Western governments came to their support, but International Brigades of volunteers streamed to Spain. Siqueiros was among the Mexicans who went, arriving in Spain in January 1937. With his war experience in the Mexican Revolution, he was appointed a major in the Republican Army and then a Lieutenant Colonel. He won a reputation as a fearless fighter and leader of his troops.

The two countries most supporting the Republican forces were the Soviet Union and Mexico, under Lázaro Cárdenas. However, at the urging of Diego Rivera, in 1936, Cárdenas granted asylum to Leon Trotsky, who was an anathema to members of the Third Communist International. Arriving in Mexico, Trotsky and his wife were taken by Rivera to live with him and Frida Kahlo in Mexico City. Subsequently, Trotsky moved to another house nearby which was turned into a fortress, establishing it as the world headquarters of the Fourth International, in opposition to the Soviet-led Third International. Although the terms of his asylum included not interfering in Mexican politics, Trostsky publically commented on many issues.

In Spain, the conflict bewteen Trotskyites and Stalinists erupted violently in May of 1937, with armed battles in Barcelona between supporters of the two sides. This diverted forces from the war with the Fascists, so the Trotskyites were seen as undermining the Republican cause.

Mexicans fighting for the Republic were caught in the middle, as they were de facto allied with Russians while their country was evidently supporting both sides in the internecine Communist conflict, supplying aid to Republic forces while harboring a perceived enemy of one component of them. Siqueiros and other Mexican officers became convinced that the Trotskyite uprising in Barcelona could not have occurred without the approval of Trotsky in Mexico City. They decided they would have to do something about this when they returned to Mexico.

Meanwhile, Siqueiros had remained in communication with Angélica Arenal and urged her to become a correspondent covering the war. She did so, and arrived in Spain in the spring of 1937. Once there, Siqueiros convinced her to marry him, which she did. Although Angélica returned to Mexico City to care for her ill mother, she and Siqueiros were to remain partners in love and work until the end of his life.

Return to Mexico and Mexican Politics

In late 1937, Spanish Republican leaders decided to relieve all foreign officers of their posts in an effort to eliminate the impression of foreign intervention and, thereby, pressure Germany and Italy to withdraw their support of the Fascists. Siqueiros went to Paris for a while and returned to Mexico City in 1938. As part of Mexico's support for the Republicans of Spain, when the Fascists forces won in the spring of 1939, Mexico accepted up to 40,000 refugees from the war. They added to the volatile political mix of the country.

At that point in time, Lázaro Cárdenas was nearing the end of his term as President. Although he had expropriated foreign companies' control of oil, he was seen by the left, including the Mexican Communist Party, which he had allowed to become legal again in 1935, as "bourgeios idealist". The right portrayed him as a "Bolshevick". In late 1938, an armed uprising against Cárdenás was begun by Saturnino Cedillo, a former revolutionary general whose power base was in the state of San Luis Potosí. Federal forces quickly put it down.

In 1939, Cárdenas chose Manuel Ávila Camacho to succeed him in office. Although Camacho was a long-time aide to Cáranza, he was more centrist in his politics and publicly unknown. His selection was seen as an effort by Cáranza to establish a middle ground that could maintain his progressive policies while not provoking another conservative rebellion. In the fall of 1939, World War II broke out in Europe.

Siqueiros immediately inserted himself into this potentially explosive political mix. He founded a magazine and an organization to combat what he perceived to be fascists penetration of Mexican government institutions. When the fascists Nationalists won in Spain, supporters in Mexico City celebrated. Clashes broke out with the Communists. Siqueiros participated.

Return to Mural Painting

As always, maintaining his dual passions, Siqueiros prepared for another show of his works in New York and organized another painters cooperative to paint a mural in the union hall of the Mexican Electricians Union. The space was a stairwell, challenging the artists to create a cohesive work comprehensible by people walking up and down the stairs, just the type of challenge that Siqueiros loved.

The theme was, not surprisingly, the war between capitalism and fascism, which, itself, was seen as simply the final, blatantly militarized, imperialist stage of capitalism. Thus, the World War was seen as the culmination of the "bougeios democratic revolution" preceding the ultimate victory of communism. Union officials required that some of its more explicit portrayals of Mussolini and Hitler be removed. Titled Protrait of the Bourgeoisie, it was Siqueiros first complete mural in his homeland, Mexico.

Protrait of the Bourgeoisie
The War Machine, which consumes the People in a furnace, below,
 makes money for the capitalists, in gas masks, on both sides
At left, the parliament of democracy burns.
The parrot, far left, is Mussolini
Union of Mexican Electricians
Photo: Wikiart

Attack on Trotsky

Leon Trotsky's house on Vienna St., Coyoacán, Mexico City

Early in the morning of May 24, 1940, some twenty men, dressed in Mexican police uniforms, led by a man in an Army major's uniform, overcame the guards outside Leon Trotsky's home in Coyoacán, in southern Mexico City. After tying up the guards and cutting the telephone and power lines, and evidently with aid from inside, they entered the fortified compound. With machine guns, they fired 73 bullets into Trotsky's bedroom and over 200 into adjoining rooms. He and his wife hid under the bed and survived the shooting. The attackers fled in cars. Robert Sheldon Harte, a young American poet and Trotsky supporter who had recently arrived in Mexico City and joined Trotsky's secruity force, was missing.

Siqueiros was immediately suspected by Trotsky and the police. He and Anglélica fled to Cuernavaca and then to the mountains of Jalisco where the former union organizer had friends. He sent letters to the press in Mexico City acknowledging his involvment and justifying the attack. A month later, the police found the body of Harte on a ranch that had been rented by Angélica's brothers. He had been shot.

On August 20, Trotsky was attacked again, this time mortally, by Ramón Mercader, apparently a Stalinist agent, who clubbed Trotsky in the head with a pick used for mountain climbing. Trotsky died the next day. Shortly afterwards, Siqueiros was captured by an Army patrol, taken back to Mexico City and placed in Lecumberri prison once again.

Under interrogation, Siqueiros acknowledged his participation in the attack on Trotsky, but defended it by charging that the laws of Mexico were those of bourgeios capitalism and that his act was a political one to call attention to Trotsky's violation of the terms of his exile with his public statements on Mexican politics, and his sabotaging of the Republican forces in Spain by supporting Trotskyite attacks on the Stalinists. He claimed the attack was intended to scare Trotsky, not kill him, and demonstrate to the Mexican government that it could not protect the Russian, so that it would require him to leave the country.

A public campaign was launched to release Siqueiros. Five months after his arrest, a judge dropped the homicide charge and he was freed on bail, as charges of auto theft and damage to property remained pending. At the time of his release, Siqueiros was taken to meet President Camacho, who told him he was to leave the country and that arrangements had been made with the government of Chile to allow him exile there. He could paint a mural in a school in a rural town, Chillan, that had been devastated by an earthquake in 1939. Donations from Mexicans had financed the rebuilding of the school.

Another South American Sojourn

Reluctantly, in early 1941, Siqueiros and Angélica agreed to be flown to South America. Arriving in Chile, they were told the government had withdrawn its offer of residence, but the Mexican ambassador intervened and they were allowd to stay. Siqueiros painted a mural in the school library on the theme of the struggles of the Chilean and Mexican people for liberty and entitled it Death to the Invader. The room's windows, doors and bookcases presented many challenges, again to the artist's liking, and he created a three dimensional work in the space.

The President of Chile, other government officials and Chilean intellectuals came to the opening. Lincoln Kirsten, the director of the Latin American Section of the Museum of Modern Art (later the founder of American Ballet Theater), came and wrote a positive review, saying that
"the spectator, instead of quietly observing, finds himself physically involved in a violent combat. It is not pleasant, but without question, one is affected forever." 
He went on to say that Siqueiros had established the beginning of
"a tremendous plastic and spatial revolution, the most important sythesis of plastic elements since the cubist revolution of 1911."
He considered that Siqueiros had surpassed not only his Mexican contemporaries, Rivera and Orozco, but also Picasso.

In 1943, Siqueiros wrote another manifesto, "In War, the Art of War", in which he called on the visual artists, musicians, writers and actors of the Americas to create art on the War. He said,
"You must understand that art can be converted into a weapon which enters the eyes and ears through the most profound and subtle of the human senses."
He and Angélica then left Chile for a tour of South American and Caribbean countries to recruit artists to this cause.

He hoped to be allowed back into the U.S., where, he proposed in a letter to Lincoln Kirsten, he be given the opportunity and financial support to paint a large outdoor mural on a building in mid-town Manhattan. When he got to Cuba, he learned that the U.S. State Department was denying him a visa. He was never to be allowed again into the country.

He then got permission to paint a mural in the private home of a wealthy Cuban sugar grower. Although this was contrary to his politics and the site, a narrow hallway, was a challenge, he accepted. "Allegory of Racial Equality and Fraternity Between  the White and Black Races of Cuba" was the result. The lady of the house died under suspicious circumstances and Siqueiros was locked out.

He then received a commisson, curiously, from Nelson Rockefeller, then Coordinator of Inter-American Affiars at the very State Department that had denied him a visa, to paint a mural in the Institute for Cuban-American Cultural Relations in Havana.

Unable to go to the U.S., he made inquiries in Mexico as to whether he would be allowed back and not be arrested. He received reassurances that would be so. He and Angélica returned without fanfare to Mexico City in early 1944 and moved into her mother's home.

Back in Mexico: Unofficial Forgivness, Official Recognition

When some newspapers discovered Siqueiros' presence, they called for his arrest, but nothing happened. The Trotsky case had evidently been given the "carpetazo", shelved, by the government. Siquerios dedicated himself to painting small works.

He did paint one mural in the home of the Arenal family, on a new theme, Cuauhtémoc, the last ruler of the Aztecs during the Spanish seige of Tenochtitlán. A public showing was held and Siqueiros issued another manifesto announcing his creation of the Center for Modern Realism, in which artists would produce public murals with social themes, using modern materials. The Center would be a grand project, with a research division and school, a workshop and a publication.

Shortly afterwards, he was invited by the government-funded Institute of Fine Arts to create a mural in Bellas Artes, the Palace of Fine Arts, where both Rivera and Orozco had painted murals a decade earlier. Evidently, the Mexican government had forgiven him and was recognizing him as a leading national artist. He painted "New Democracy", using his wife, Angélica, as a model for the nude figure emerging from a volcano and breaking her chains. A year later, with the Allied victory in the War, he painted "Victims of Fascism" and "Victims of War" on either side of "Democracy".

The New Democracy
"New Democracy" possibly refers to Mao Zedong's concept
that Chinese Communism would emerge directly 
from the working, peasant, small business and large capitalists,
skipping the Marxist stage of imperial capitalism and colonialism

Note: The Bellas Artes murals and the ones referred to below at University City and the National Museum of History (Chapúltepec Castle) are presented in the post: Mexican Revolution and Mexican Muralists - Part IX: David Siqueiros, Painter and Revolutionary 
In 1950, Siqueiros was invited back to Bellas Artes to compose another mural on the opposite side of the central balcony to his first works. This time he chose Cuauhtémoc, whom he had painted in the Arenal home, as his theme. 

That same year he was invited, along with Rivera and Rufino Tamayo, to present the first exhibition of Mexican art at the International Biennial of Venice. Works by Orozco, who had died the year before, were also included. Siqueiros submitted fourteen of his smaller paintings. The Mexican pavilion was the surprise hit of the show, receiving rave reviews from European critics.

Siqueiros won the Second International Prize, first prize going to Henri Matissse for his entire life's work. The Mexican was the star of the show and acknowledged as a creative genius by the very European art world that he had so long and vehemently criticized. He was also recognized in Mexico, the National Institute of Fine Arts producing a large volume of reproductions of his work with commentary in Spanish, English and French the following year.

During the 1950s, he created an outdoor mural on the Rectory (administration) building of the new University City campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico and indoor murals at the National Techonological Institute, Social Security Institute and Cancer Hospital. Their overall theme was humanity's progrss from prinitive suffering via science and technology, combined with a social revolution. In 1956, he was commissioned by the National Museum of History to paint murals of the Revolution in the Museum, located in Chapúltepec Castle. He lectured and wrote on art, continuing his criticism of others' art, and traveled to Europe, India and South America.

Return to Political Activism and Prison

In 1958, at the time of new presidential elections, railroad workers went on strike. Teachers later joined them. The new government of President López Mateos (1958-64) cracked down on them, violently suppressing the strikes and arresting the leaders. Siqueiros joined a committee in support of arrested workers but did not participate in the demonstrations. During a trip to Cuba in the spring of 1960, he gave a speech harshly condeming the Mexican government. Returning to Mexico, the government supported press severely criticized him, calling him a "traitor". He held a press conference to repeat his criticisms and made many more public statements on the issue. 

In August, 1960, after another violently suppressed demonstraton in the Zócalo, Siqueiros was arrested, charged with the vague crime of "social dissolution." Held again in Lecumberri, he was not convicted until March 1962, and sentenced to eight years in prison, including the two years served. While in prison, he painted constantly, creating a number of significant works. López Mateos granted him a pardon in July 1964, shortly before the end of his term.

Siqueiros went back to work on his unfinished mural of the Revolution in Chapúltepec Castle. The mural was completed in late 1966. A few days afterwards, he was awarded the National Prize for Art, bestowed by President Díaz Ordaz (1964-70) in a ceremony at the National Palace. Such are the ironies and paradoxes of Mexico. And, in Siqueiros' story, they would increase.

The People in Arms

Last and grandest work

While in prison, or shortly after his release, Siqueiros was offered the opportunity to create a series of murals for a hotel, the Casino de la Selva (Casino of the Jungle) in Cuernava. Soon the project was expanded to include a convention center. The owner was Manuel Suárez y Suárez, who had attended the Academy of San Carlos with Siqueiros and fought with him in the Revolution. Since then, he had become a wealthy businessman of conservative bent. He had even supported Mussolini and Hitler during the 1930s and 40s. He had also purchased some of Siqueiros' paintings, including some bought on behalf of President López Mateos. There were rumors that he had induced López Mateos to pardon the artist.

In any case, for Siqueiros it was an opportunity of a lifetime, the fulfillment of his desire to realize what he called the "fourth stage of Mexican Muralism", the creation of a three dimensional work totally integrated with the design of the building in which it was executed. As in Argentina and Cuba, when the government did not offer him the opportunity and financial support to create public works, he was willing to accept the private sponsorhip of wealthy individuals, now even one with fascist propensities.

Siqueiros built a custom workshop next to his home in Cuernavaca to handle the task of constructing panels of concrete and asbestos that would become both the murals and the walls of the building. With all of its machinery, it resembled a small factory. Realizing another of his dreams, he recruited a team of some fifty artists from around the world to come to Cuernavaca to work on the project. Artists came from South America, Europe, Asia and the U.S.

The theme was equally grand, derived from those of his 1950s murals in Mexico City: the March of Humanity across history, struggling against evil and suffering, but moving towards a future triumph.

In 1966, the proposed location from the work was suddently changed. President Díaz Ordaz persuaded Suárez to move his hotel and the murals to Mexico City, offering a site on Insurgentes Avenue. The 1968 Olympics were to be held in Mexico City, the first time in a Latin American country. Mexico would be on display to the entire world. 

The hotel would provide much needed guest rooms and the mural would convey the cultural grandeza of the nation. The mural would be housed in its own customed designed building, with additional murals on the outside. The interior space woud be used for concerts, dance and theater performances, a multi-cultural center. It would be called the Siqueiros Cultural Polyforum. It was Siqueiros' dream come true.

The time-table was tight, to say the least, two years to complete a huge and architecturally unprecedented project. Siqueiros and the architects designed an octagonal building with walls that curved both around and inward, so that the murals could be one continuous surface. On the outside, twelve large murals would form a dodecagon. The total mural surface would be 4,331 square meters (46,600 square feet), more than twice the size of the original hotel project. 

Suárez referred to it as "the Siqueiros Chapel", likening it to the Sistine, and called the artist "Michelangelo" and himself "Pope Julius II". It was grand in every possible way. 

Political Imbroglios

In the meantime, just before the Olympics were to open, in the summer of 1968, a series of students demonstrations broke out in Mexico City. The government of Díaz Ordaz cracked down on them. They reached a climax on October 2 in Tlatelolco Plaza, the site of a major Mesoamerican archeological site, about a mile north of the Zócalo. The Army surrounded demonstrating students. Shots rang out from surrouding roof tops. The Army responded by open-firing. At least 300 students were killed and many wounded. Many were arrested and jailed. While the Army accused the students of firing first, it is likey that the shooters were government-hired provacateurs. 

While Siqueiros spoke out, with many others, in protest, he did not think that Luis Echeverrria, then Secretary of Government and in charge of federal security, was responsible. A friend of Echeverria, in 1970, Siqueiros backed him for the presidency, while the Mexican Communist Party boycotted the election. Siquerios felt that the new president was another Lázaro Cárdenas with his nationalization of mining and electrial industries, redistribution of land to peasant farmers and expansiton of health, housing and education services. 

Also in 1968, Siqueiros supported the Soviet invasion of Czechosolvakia as an act of defense against "North American imperialism". The Mexican Communist Party condemned it. After Echeverria's election in 1970, he publically criticized the Communist Party for its position on Czechosolvakia and the Mexican election, an act which violated party discipline of no public criticism by members. He was expelled from its Central Committee, but not from the Party. 

During this time period, the artist was invited to paint a portrait of Christ for the Vatican Museum. Although a Communist atheist, he agreed, saying that Christ
"was the first revolutionary of history, who rebelled against oppression for the benefit of all humanity,...a combatant in the struggle for the transformation of human life." 
He compared Christ to Lenin, both being revolutionaries of their time, fighting "imperialist oppression" like that which now existed "north of the Río Bravo (Rio Grande)." He used himself as the model for the painting. 

It Is Finished

The Siqueiros Cultural Polyforum:
The murals are about 30' high
Photo: Alejandro Linares Garcia (Wiki Commons)

Needless to say, the Polyforum was not completed in time for the Olympics. It was inaugurated on December 15, 1971. President Echeverria and former President Miguel Alemán (1946-52) attended. 

The grand murlist undertook some other projects and traveled to Japan in 1972 for a show of his works. Upon return, he complained of pain in his lower spine, but refused medical tests. In the spring of 1973 he and Angélica traveled to Europe, including Moscow. After returning to Mexico, in the fall of 1973, he was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer and hospitalized. He died on January 5, 1974. 

His life had spanned three-quarters of the 20th century, and encompassed much, if not all, of its social, political and artistic turmoil. His was the life of a modern Odysseus, of one who searched emotionally, politically, geographically and, above all, artistically to realize his vision of a revolution in human existence.

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