David Alfaro Siqueiros: History of the Muralist and Revolutionary

On a day like today, but 125 years ago, David Alfaro Siqueiros was born, the Mexican muralist who exchanged the rifle for the paintbrush.

David Alfaro Siqueiros: History of the Muralist and Revolutionary
David Alfaro Siqueiros is considered one of the most important Mexican visual artists of the 20th century. Photo: INBA

Not even the greatest experts in the history of Mexican art dare to define in a single word the muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who would have turned 125 years old this Wednesday. A revolutionary military man, trade unionist, political prisoner, muralist, and avant-gardist, Siqueiros (1896-1974) was born in Ciudad Camargo, in the northern state of Chihuahua. His first muse was the Mexican Revolution, in which he enlisted as a soldier in the Constitutionalist Army when he was only 16 years old.

By then he had already begun his studies as an artist at the San Carlos Academy where, along with José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), he was a student of Dr. Atl (1875-1964), one of the most important landscape painters of the first half of the 20th century. The young Siqueiros was seduced by the social causes of an armed struggle led by peasants, indigenous people, and workers to overthrow an aging oligarchy represented by the dictator Porfirio Díaz.

"From a young age he entered the war, and he did not do badly, he was decorated. Then he was sent to Europe, where he continued learning new artistic techniques," Irene Herner, renowned art expert, and director of the documentary series "Who was David Alfaro Siqueiros?" told Efe. In Paris, he met Diego Rivera (1886-1957), and both absorbed with interest the cubist movement and were influenced by the international communism of the time.

The muralist movement

During the 1920s, the Secretary of Education José Vasconcelos (1882-1959) had the idea of educating the masses about post-revolutionary nationalism through art in public places. He delegated Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros the task of teaching the values of the new regime through muralism. For Siqueiros, the assignment meant, in a few words, the application of a concept he always defended during his career: the "citizen artist".

"Unlike Orozco and Rivera, Siqueiros sees in muralism an avant-garde project, for the future of art but, above all, a political project," said Silverio Orduña Cruz, art historian, and curator of La Tallera, a public center that belonged to Siqueiros as a studio house. His works are a reflection of how he understood the world after the revolution.

"He lived in a reality of profound social change and created a public art for a changing society," said Willy Kautz, director of the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros. The best representation of his memories of the war was crystallized in 1966 with "From Porfirism to the Revolution" at Chapultepec Castle.

Communist affiliation

Siqueiros was critical of the authoritarian drift of the National Revolutionary Party, which years later would become the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The muralist, who was affiliated with the Communist Party, did not miss the opportunity to rant against a regime that outwardly sold itself as progressive but inwardly persecuted "the reds".

In his exile in Los Angeles (USA), during the 1930s, he painted works such as "Un mitin obrero" (1932), a fresco on reinforced concrete, and "La América tropical" (1932), where he drew a Mexican Indian crucified on a double cross with an American eagle. "For him, as for the rest of the muralists, mestizaje was a central part. Not only that, Siqueiros wanted to make it verb with his art, to 'mesticize' the population with his frescoes," Herner said.

New Techniques

According to historians, Siqueiros distinguished himself from the other two fathers of Mexican muralism by his constant experimentation with modern techniques. "He did not stop at decorating the walls of public buildings or walls, but observed that painting and architecture are connected to produce an effect that will have a direct impact on the body or the transit of the spectators," said Silverio Orduña.

Siqueiros sought to give his work a kinetic characteristic so that it would give the sensation of a film and its meaning would change according to the point from which it is observed. At the end of his career, he finished the Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros (1971), a dodecagon building in the shape of a multicolored diamond. Inside is "The March of Humanity", the largest mural in the world (4,600 square meters), which represents the human being's path towards a just society.

Before his death, on January 6, 1974, he decided to donate to the public his home studio, today the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros, his production workshop La Tallera, a personal archive dating from 1917 and his library. "In the end, Siqueiros continues to be relevant, not only for his works but for all that he bequeathed to the people of Mexico through his archive," concluded Kautz.