The Imagery and Aesthetics of David Alfaro Siqueiros'
Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932

By Diana C. du Pont, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, SBMA

Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932 is one of three murals painted by David Alfaro Siqueiros while he was a political refugee in Los Angeles between April and November 1932. It is the only surviving intact mural in the United States by the world-renowned Mexican muralist. Street Meeting was destroyed due to the elements and Tropical America, due to its controversial subject matter, was whitewashed and left abandoned for decades until the J. Paul Getty Museum undertook to maintain it.*

Painted on the interior walls of a semi-enclosed garden structure in the private Pacific Palisades home of filmmaker Dudley Murphy, Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932, fortunately, escaped the ravages of protest and neglect. Cared for over the years by the Murphys and the successive owners of their home, this landmark artwork was generously donated to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 2001. Through the additional generosity of anonymous patrons, the Museum subsequently launched a major conservation effort with the express goals of preserving this historic work of art for future generations and making it available to the public for the first time ever. As a result, Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932 was moved intact, meaning the painting and the entire building in which it was housed, was moved from the Pacific Palisades.

Of the three murals painted by Siqueiros while he was in Los Angeles, Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932 is direct in its commentary on the social and political conditions in Mexico in the early 1930s. From a position of political exile in the United States, Siqueiros depicts his contemporary viewpoint of his native country and its relationship to the United States.

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Central Wall: The long central wall presents the work's main tableaux, two Mexican peasant women wearing traditional rebozos (shawls) and seated on or near a stepped pyramid with a child standing between them. Taking advantage of the garden portico's existing architecture, Siqueiros framed this pivotal image between two painted columns that echo the two wooden columns that help support the structure.

To the left of the anguished women and child is a portrait of Plutarco Elías Calles, one of a generation of military generals who presided over Mexico during the Revolutionary Period of 1910-1940. A dominant force both in front and behind the scenes from 1924-34, first as president (1924-28) and then as Supreme Chief of the Maximato (the six-year period, 1928-34, during which Calles ruled unofficially from back rooms), Calles is seen wearing revolutionary garb, epitomized by the sombrero he wears and the rifle he holds perched against his knee. Next to him are moneybags, which bear, specifically, on the meaning of the mask that Calles has removed from his face, but left hanging around his neck.

Reproduction of this image, including downloading, is prohibited without written authorization from VAGA, 350 Fifth Avenue, Suite 6305, New York, NY  10118.  Tel: 212-736-6666; Fax: 212-736-6767; e-mail: Left Front Wall: Again, using the building's physical configuration to advantage, Siqueiros painted a portrait of the United States financier, J.P. Morgan, on the small wing wall opposite of Calles's portrait. As a result, the two portraits are in dialogue, even if Morgan's is in profile. The images themselves and their proximity reveal Siqueiros' interest in addressing the relations between Mexico and the United States in the early 1930s. At the heart of this relationship between the two countries was oil. Mexico wished to retain its sovereignty over oil, while United States wanted the Mexican government to protect the ownership rights of its businesses operating in the oil industry in Mexico. J.P. Morgan, a symbol of US commerce, is significant, because in 1927 Dwight Morrow, a senior partner in Morgan's famous financial firm, was appointed ambassador to Mexico. Siqueiros, as well as the Mexican government, understood this appointment to be another example of the United States financial community exerting pressure on Mexico in order to benefit economically.

Reproduction of this image, including downloading, is prohibited without written authorization from VAGA, 350 Fifth Avenue, Suite 6305, New York, NY  10118.  Tel: 212-736-6666; Fax: 212-736-6767; e-mail: Left Side Wall: Between the portraits of Morgan and Calles, Siqueiros placed two murdered workers, blood streaming from their mouths. By locating these corpses in between Morgan, a symbol of U.S. economic power, and Calles, a symbol of Mexico corruption unmasked, he dramatically expresses his view of the high social cost of the dealings between Mexico and the United States in the late 1920s-early 1930s. Originally a liberal, even a radical, Calles became increasingly conservative over his ten-year reign. As the years passed, he became less tolerant and began using the force of the military to suppress his foes. As a result, an increasing number of political prisoners began filling Mexican jails. In the case of Siqueiros, he was under house arrest in Taxco before coming to Los Angeles for an extended stay in1932.

Reproduction of this image, including downloading, is prohibited without written authorization from VAGA, 350 Fifth Avenue, Suite 6305, New York, NY  10118.  Tel: 212-736-6666; Fax: 212-736-6767; e-mail: Right Side Wall:Adjacent to a window with a wooden shutter that is part of the existing architecture, Siqueiros painted an image of a Communist soldier, kneeling with his rifle perched on his knee. By using this image, Siqueiros identifies the Mexican Revolution with the Russian Revolution. More specifically, Siqueiros calls attention to how Calles handled Mexico's relations with the Soviet Union. Proactive in supporting a growing labor movement within Mexico, Calles claimed that he was addressing popular grievances and, thus, felt that there was no need for a strong Communist presence within Mexico. Eventually, Calles broke off diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union, satisfying groups within the United States concerned about Communist activity in Mexico. As a member of the Communist Party in Mexico, Siqueiros opposed Calles' anti-Communist actions--including political persecution to which he was personally subjected--and was critical of the Mexican leader's growing friendship with the United States, represented specifically through the special relationship that he built with U.S. Ambassador Dwight Morrow.

If Siqueiros believed in a modern, revolutionary art, he was equally committed to the modernist ethic of formal and technical experimentation. His period of political exile in Los Angeles marked the beginning of a relentless search for new mediums and methods intended to serve the social purposes of his art.

Siqueiros' restless experimentation included his use of new and/or unconventional materials.  Conversations with the Los Angeles-based architects Richard Neutra and Sumner Spaulding convinced Siquerios that his mural painting should relate to the modern buildings being constructed in Southern California.  Accordingly, Siqueiros' Los Angeles murals inaugurate his innovative use of cement rather than the traditional fresco materials of lime and sand.  In preparing to paint Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932, Siqueiros, as in Street Meeting and Tropical America, applied a top layer of cement to the original plaster walls.  He then painted the wet cement with oil-based pigments, which is counter to traditional fresco technique that uses water-based paints so that when applied to the wet plaster the paint dries within the plaster to become part of the wall.  While Siqueiros applied the cement in conventional fresco fashion, adhering "giornato," or in other words an amount that he could paint in a given session before it dried, he ended up producing images that rest on the surface of rather than embedded in the cement due to the inability of oil to mix with water.

In creating his Los Angeles murals, Siqueiros also began exploring how the newer, modern mediums of film and photography might enrich his mural painting.  Critical to this development in Siqueiros' work were the artist's lively conversations with the world-renowned Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, whom he first met while he was under house arrest in Taxco during 1930-32.  Eisenstein's belief in the emotional and visual power of film and photography and the creative use of montage was central in the formation of Siqueiros' new approach to mural painting. 

Aiming to emulate in mural painting the dramatic impact and scale of film, Siqueiros began using filmic and photographic devices in the making of his Los Angeles murals.  In writing about Street Meeting at the time of its making, Siqueiros reveals how projecting the photographic image assisted in the process of underdrawing for the mural: "After making our first sketch we used the camera and motion picture to aid us in elaboration of our first drawing, particularly of the models." (Goldman article, 12)  In a later statement, Siqueiros remarked "The still camera and the motion picture camera for the first time in history offer us...the subtlest and amplest elements of space, of volume in space, of movement in all its complexity." (Micheli book, 9)  Siqueiros continued his use of photographic projection in his succeeding mural Tropical America.  In her research of Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932, Shifra M. Goldman has shown that Siqueiros also used photography as actual source material, not only as a means for projection. She discovered that the artist based his painted portrayal of J.P. Morgan directly on a photographic portrait of the financier by Edward Steichen.

Among the other factors that make Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932, significant is that in this third and final Los Angeles mural Siqueiros attempts his earliest formulations of what he eventually called "polyangular perspective."  Like other modernists of his generation, Siqueiros was responsive to modern physics, especially to the discoveries about the fourth dimension, and thus sought new artistic conceptions of space and time. Here, the example of Eisenstein and his use of the novel technique of montage proved instrumental.  Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932, is a fascinating study in how Siqueiros begins these new spatial explorations. While the mural's forms are grandly simplified and made monumentally arresting, the composition they comprise can only be read and understood by viewing all of the painted walls, which requires moving around the architectural space and then synthesizing the distinct but interrelated sections to arrive at meaning.  Like montage Siqueiros calls upon the viewer to synthesize disparate elements across time and space. Additionally, his treatment of the top edges and corners is an early effort at unifying mural painting with architecture by incorporating it into the building rather than merely applying it to a wall.  In rendering architectonic forms and varying their angles along the uppermost reaches of the mural, Siqueiros aims to connect the ceiling with the walls.  Similarly, he presents the central pyramid from multiple perspectives so that its base appears to join the actual floor.  These deliberate connections between the painted walls and the ceiling and floor attempt to activate the physical environment; they are compositional inventions that Siqueiros fully develops in his next mural as a way of mirroring the dynamism of the modern age. 

Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932, remains the legacy of an intense period of theoretical and practical experimentation for Siqueiros.  It sets the stage for the artist's completely articulated use of "polyangular perspective" in his tour de force Ejercicio plástico (Plastic Exercise) painted in 1933, once again in political exile, at the Buenos Aires home of newspaper editor Natalio Botana.

*Los Angeles-based art historian and Siqueiros expert, Dr. Shifra M. Goldman, and Jean Bruce Poole, Curator of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, spent years trying to interest the community in saving Tropical America. Their pioneering efforts were eventually recognized by the J. Paul Getty Museum.