Some thoughts on “Paint the Revolution!”

John Dos Passos via Wikipedia

In 1927 American author John Dos Passos published “Paint the Revolution!” in the left wing magazine New Masses.  The essay reflects on the completed murals of Diego Rivera and other artists in Mexico City, and is also a scathing critique of modern art in America.

In the piece Dos Passos articulates the major “benefits” of murals over traditional fine art paintings.  On paintings in museums he writes

“look at all the little pictures … after Cezanne, Renior, Courbet, Picasso … little modern designs of a stove-pipe and a bisected violin … a horrible picking of crumbs from rich men’s tables. Occasionally a work of real talent, but what’s the good of it? Who sees it? A lot of male and female old women chattering round an exhibition; and then, if the snobmarket has been properly manipulated, some damn fool buys it and puts it away in the attic, and it makes a brief reappearance when he dies at a sale at the Anderson Galleries.”

Museums, despite the cost of entry, impose barriers. Not everyone can visit a museum, and works of art hung only in these institutions will never have the capacity to truly be seen by the public at large. Paintings in private collections serve even less of a function.  At a basic level, Dos Passos is arguing for an active art, that art must have a use.

Dos Passos sees the mural movement of Mexico as an example of art with a function. Of the program he writes:

New Masses cover, November 1928. via Wikipedia

“It wasn’t a case of ideas, of a lot of propaganda-fed people deciding that a little revolutionary art would be a good thing, it was a case of organic necessity. The revolution no more imported from Russia than the petate hates the soldiers wore, had to be explained to the people. The people couldn’t read. So the only thing to do was to paint it up on the wall.”

Murals are educational. Much like medieval church decoration, the murals in Mexico helped to teach the population about its history. Murals are not just decoration, but also tools that can be used to enrich society.

By 1927 Vasconcelos’ program had all but fallen apart, and Mexican artist were starting to seek mural commissions out side of the country. But the effort to create a national mural program was well worth it to Dos Passos:

“But, even is nothing more is done, an enormous amount of real work has been accomplished. Even if the paintings were rotten it would have been worthwhile to prove that in our day a popular graphic art was possible. “

The quality of art doesn’t matter as much as access. Even if the art is terrible, it’s still worth more to society than masterpieces locked in an attic.  In his essay, Dos Passos praises the muralists and Vasconcelos for their efforts in spreading Communist propaganda. While Dos Passos is on the far left of the spectrum, his general thoughts on the ability of murals to better the general public was shared by artists and politicians across the board in America.  In 1934 artist George Biddle published an article espousing similar sentiments, calling for artists to take an active role in society.1

What I like about Dos Passos essay (other than his awesome take down of museums and the “snobmarket”) is that he very clearly outlines many of the essentials of muralism that a lot of other critics dance around. Murals must have a function, idealy it should be to educate. Murals are not just decoration. Museums limit access, and subsequently limit the work of arts ability to have a function. Murals should be public.

These ideas become very interesting when MoMA attempts to capitalize on muralism with its 1932 exhibition Murals by American Painters and Photographers. The exhibition was a critical failure, I suspect because so much of the work violated what had become the public conception of a “mural”, an idea that is a whole other blog post.

1. George Biddle “An Art Renascence Under Federal Patronage.” Scribner’s Magazine, 1934

Advertisements

The Mexican Model, Iconography

In a previous post, I started to outline my definition of a “Mexican Model” of muralism. To quote myself

“As of now what we can infer of the “Mexican Model”, is a government program of propaganda aimed at visually codifying the “identity” of its people through art.”

So lets explore the visuals. The murals produced in Mexico during the 1920s were the product of a very deliberate attempt by Mexican artists to return to a more authentic, less European influenced art. David Alfaro Siqueiros wrote extensively on the path art in Mexico and the Americas should take, and it is his theory of a proletariat art form rooted in indigenous tradition that I consider to be the foundation of the Mexican Model. Though many artists across Mexico completed murals during this period, Siqueiros stands out as the driving force behind a politically engaged modern art that American artists admired.

Siqueiros began to develop his theory of “pure art” (as he would later come to call it), while studying in Europe. After a short amount of time among the European avant-garde, Siqueiros became disillusioned and found the formal experimentation lacking in substance.1 He criticized the artists for being too concerned with “aesthetic trivialities,” and could not find a “common philosophical or political ground with the French avant-garde.”2 A trip to Italy with Diego Rivera, and some time spent in France with a Communist labor union began to reshape how the artist viewed art and its purpose.

Mayan relief sculpture from Palenque, Mexico

In 1921 Siqueiros published Three Appeals for the Current Guidance of the New Generation of American Painters and Sculptors. In the manifesto, he calls for art to “restore the lost values of painting and sculpture as well as endowing art with new values.”3 A return to lost values was a direct critique of modernist abstraction which had become overly occupied with formal experimentation. He theorized that an art deeply rooted in the political consciousness (an idea borrowed heavily from Lenin and his writings on the role of art) of the people should evoke their national heritage. For Siqueiros, Pre-Colombian art represented a visual culture uncorrupted by European influence. “Mayas, Aztecs, Incas, etc., … [show] a genuine knowledge of nature that can serve as our point of departure.”4

Siqueiros was not the first artist in Mexico to promote the idea that contemporary artists should look to their ancestors for inspiration. Best Maugard, Dr. Atl, and José Guadalupe Posada, all created and promoted art which took inspiration from Mexican history and culture. Posada’s calavera, a figure with its roots in the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl, were extremely influential for the muralists, and they appear in a number of their later works. Dr. Atl painted numerous works celebrating the Mexican landscape, while Best Maugard developed a theory of drawing based heavily on pre-columbian motifs. Maugard’s theories were embraced by the Obregón regime and he served as the director of the department for art education between 1921 and 1924 At the Secretariat of Public Education. Both Delpar and Reiman speak extensively on Maugard and see his theories and involvement in the Secretariat of Public Education as central to the creation of the American perception of Mexican art.

Why then do I single out Siqueiros? Siqueiros put himself forward as the voice of The Syndicate of Mexican Workers, Technicians, Painters and Sculptors, formed in 1923 to provide Mexican artists with a clear aesthetic and ideological focus and authored the majority of the syndicates essays on art theory. While Siqueiros was not the first artist to call for a return to the past, he was, however, quick to warn against letting an appreciation of Pre-Colombian art turn into generic Primitivism (a point which seems incredibly self aware at this early stage of the game.)  According to Three Appeals… artists should take from ancient art is a purity of form and nature rather than iconography. The ultimate goal is to create a universal art which connects with our present “dynamic age”, embracing the machine and construction, the things that make up “the contemporary aspects of our daily lives.”5

Rivera’s peasants and revolutionaries.

Expanding on his earlier essay, The Manifesto of the Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors Union of Mexico authored by Siqueiros clearly laid out the guidelines for the iconography of a contemporary Mexican art. The manifesto names the worker, the farmer/peasant, and the Indian as those who comprise the proletariat of Mexico. We’ve already established the murals were in part meant to codify the identity of the people, creating Obregón’s ideal constituency. In clearly defining their audience via the manifesto the muralists were able to tailor their art to the masses. The worker, the peasant/farmer, and the Indian (sometimes additionally the soldier) would become the “holy trinity” of revolutionary imagery. These very modern figures were to compromise the main subject matter of murals, while aesthetically the murals would take their formal qualities from pre-columbian art. After the formation of of the syndicate, Siqueiros’ aesthetic program came to fruition. Figures are monumental and thick like ancient sculptures. Aztec and Mayan civilization is celebrated, while the peasant, indian and worker are depicted as heros.

So what can we add to our definition of a “Mexican Model”? The Mexican Model is a government program of propaganda aimed at visually codifying the “identity” of its people through art. The Mexican Model looks towards the artistic tradition of its indigenous peoples rather than Europe for inspiration, juxtaposing traditional forms and motifs with modern day subject matter depicting its intended viewer, the proletariat, in the role of hero in a realistic aesthetic.

  1. Philip Stein, Siqueiros: His Life and Works (New York: International Publishers, 1994), 32.
  2. Ibid
  3. David Alfaro Siqueiros, “Three Appeals for the Current Guidance of the New Generation of American Painters and Sculptors,” in Inverted Utopias trans, Mari Carmen Ramierz and Hector Olea (New Haven: Yale Univeristy Press, 2004), 458-459.
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid

The Vogue for all Things Mexican

I’m in the middle of reading two books for my thesis and wanted to jot some notes down before I get distracted by something else. South of the Border: Mexico in the American Imagination 1914-1947 by James Oles, and The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican: Cultural Relations between the United States and Mexico 1920-1935 by Helen Delpar, both address America’s “obsession” (my word) with Mexico in the early part of the 20th century. This is something I’ve thought a lot about but never explored in depth. So come on, let’s world build!

South of the Border is actually an catalog for the 1993 Yale University Art Gallery exhibition of the same name. The exhibition explores the relationship between American and Mexican artists and what drove Americans to view Mexico in a brand new light as the art center to emulate. Delpar’s book, published 1992, takes a wider look at American/Mexican relations but does devote a full chapter to the fine arts. Delpar’s book in particular has already proved to be an invaluable resource for me, filling in the gaps of political and cultural relations between the two countries sometimes taken for granted in other writings on American/Mexican art during this time period. South of the Border caught my attention right away. Constructing a Modern Mexican Art the opening essay by Karen Cordero Reiman, really hit at the heart of what I’ve trying to elaborate on for some time.

Reiman opens her essay stating

“To understand why Americans, and particularly American artists, were interested in Mexican art and in Mexico as an artistic subject between 1925 and 1950 is not necessarily to understand Mexican art of the time. Foreigners attracted to Mexican art have generally been drawn to the “exotic,” to what they consider “typically Mexican” and different from their own culture…”

In the first opening sentences Reiman introduces us to the notion that we’re not trying to understand Mexican art, but rather the conception of Mexican art that Americans had created. We’re thinking about how American artists interpreted and subsequently appropriated Mexican art. This is central  to my theory of a “Mexican Model”. The model is American made, which makes it all the more interesting when Mexican artists painting in America are criticized for being too timid in subject matter, or unoriginal in composition, and American artists are praised for being “a dyed-in-the-wool Mexican, in feeling as well as point of view and expression.” (Delpar 158).

What I’ve been able to take away from these two books (full disclosure, I have not finished reading either) is just how deep(?) America’s fascination with Mexican visual culture went and how quickly it was forgotten. The end of the Mexican Revolution and the relative safety and political stability which followed, allowed Americans to start traveling to the country again. That the Revolution was fought for “democratic ideals” struck a chord with Americans fearful of the rise of fascism in Europe. (Delpar 136) Travel begat souvenir shopping, and decorative arts and and goods flooded into America. The expanding art market in America enticed Mexican artists to begin exhibiting and seeking patronage in the states. Mexican motifs began to show up in American furnishings, interior design, and architecture.  All of this laying the groundwork for the arrival of the Mexican Muralists as the great modern alternative to European abstraction, something Americans could identify with and embrace as their own.

The Mayan Theater, Los Angeles, California. Opened 1927, the theater embraces Pre-Columbian motifs, a hallmark of the Mayan Revival Style.

It’s interesting to think about the popularity of the Mexican Muralists during this period of strange fascination with all things Mexican and that Mexican Muralists began to show in America during a period where most Americans were predisposed to like anything Mexican. That’s not to say that the muralists popularity was undeserved, just that their acceptance in America was possibly helped by wave of interest in Mexico which had started almost a decade prior.

I hope to expand on the arguments that these two books put forth. There’s a lot to think about here. I’m really interested in the ways the Mexican government promoted “Mexicanness” (Reiman’s word) to Americans as a way to foster good relations and an interest in supporting Mexican art and trade. And subsequently, how this false concept of “Mexicanness” shaped Americans expectations of what Mexican art and by extension Mexican murals should be. In regards to murals, there’s a lot of rhetoric about the Mexican muralists that is sometimes sharply at odds with the critical reception, and I’d like to explore how this created ideal of Mexican art plays into that discrepancy.

*My citations have really been a mess on these posts. I still haven’t found a way to deal with them in WordPress that I’m satisfied with and since these posts are extremely informal I may just stick with the MLA-lazy version I’ve used here. Sorry!