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Proletarian Culture: David Alfaro Siqueiros, Mexican Muralist and Fierce Revolutionary

By Elena Perez

Mexican artist and dedicated revolutionary, David Alfaro Siqueiros, was born in late December, 1896 (the exact date is disputed), and died on January 6, 1974. His artistic works include many brilliant, large-scale murals that show the world in motion through revolution. Born on the horizon of the new century, Siqueiros took up Marxism, and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with indigenous and peasants’ struggles and the rebellions of the Mexican proletariat.

Siqueiros, as an artist and militant, committed his life’s work to the World Proletarian Revolution. Understanding that all art must take a class position, he held that art must serve the people and proletariat, and sought to use his art to educate and inspire the people.

From a well-off family, Siqueiros lived with his grandparents following his mother’s death. At the age of 15, Siqueiros began to attend the Academy of San Carlos in 1910, coinciding with the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. Siqueiros immediately began revolutionary work among students and workers, notably being involved in a strike at the Academy of San Carlos where students overthrew the school’s director to demand changes to the school’s antiquated teaching methods.

Following the assassination of President Francisco Madero, Siqueiros joined the Constitutionalist movement against military Dictator Victoriano Huerta. Siqueiros served for four years as a military combatant, rising to the rank of captain, and publishing in the anti-Huerta newspaper, “La Vanguardia.”

The Revolution, 1966

Siqueiros began to travel–writing, painting, and organizing across Latin America, Europe, and the US. By 1921, Siqueiros became the secretary general of Mexico’s Revolutionary Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers Union. That same year, Siqueiros, with other artists, began a weekly publication known as “El Machete” which later became an official organ of the Communist Party of Mexico.

Siqueiros was a committed member of the Communist Party of Mexico, and carried out his post through his art and through armed struggle. After being exiled from Mexico for his labor agitation, he fought on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.

In 1937, the revisionist (false Marxist) Leon Trotsky took up residence in Mexico City, aided by the opportunist, Diego Rivera, another figure of the Mexican muralism movement. Siqueiros was a militant defender of the great leadership of Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union, and was part of the first failed assassination attempt on Trotsky’s life in May of 1940. Siqueiros spent time in prison, but he was released and never faced charges. Trotsky would be assassinated later that August by the Catalan Communist, Ramon Mercader.

Siqueiros was unyielding and upfront about his political beliefs, and made many enemies in his work. Despite being paid by well-off clients and the state to create murals for public places, a number of his works would be deemed “controversial” and “too political” and many were whitewashed shortly after completion.

Siqueiros, as a leading proponent of muralism, created large public murals that were oriented towards the Mexican masses. As the Mexican journal, Periodico Mural says, “the truly revolutionary part of Mexican muralismo was the new relation with the public, taking art out into the streets, liberating it from the kidnapping of artworks by the bourgeoisie, who enclose them in their snobbish galleries.”

One of Siqueiros’ murals, titled New Democracy, painted in the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, depicts the defeat of Nazi fascism and possibly refers to the conception of New Democracy as established by Chairman Mao Zedong through the Chinese Revolution. The main subject, modeled after Siqueiros’ wife, depicts a female figure rising from the earth, breaking away from chains.

In his 1950 artwork, The Torment of Cuauhtémoc, Siqueiros depicted the history of indigenous resistance to colonization. The work shows the torture of the last Aztec Emperor, Cuauhtémoc, by Hernán Cortés during the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Cuauhtemoc, whose feet were burned over fire, refused to give Cortez the location of Aztec wealth.

The Torment of Cuauhtemoc, 1950

As he progressed, Siqueiros developed new artistic techniques, drawing from industrial materials and processes, to accomplish innovative murals that included three-dimensional aspects which were intertwined with their architectural setting.

In 1960, Siqueiros was imprisoned on false charges after publicly criticizing Mexican President Adolfo Mateos’ repression of striking railroad workers. Siqueiros painted murals on his cell walls and drew hundreds of self-portraits, unfazed by the state’s repression. He was released in 1964 through Presidential pardon after international public outrage put pressure on the Mexican government.

Despite the ruling class’s attempts to misrepresent Siqueiros, the revolutionary content of his art and life carried out in struggle can never be suppressed. His art depicts the pain, sorrow, and blood of the workers while celebrating the masses’ rebellion and the breaking of their chains. Siqueiros’ not only reflected these struggles through his artwork, but showed he was willing to make revolution, with gun in hand, to fight for humanity’s shining future.

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