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David Alfaro Siqueiros

(1896 - 1974)
David Alfaro Siqueiros (born José de Jesús Alfaro Siqueiros; December 29, 1896 – January 6, 1974) was a Mexican social realist painter, best known for his large public murals using the latest in equipment, materials and technique. Along with Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, he was one of the most famous of the "Mexican muralists". He was also the most radical of the three in his technique, composition and political ideology.

Investing his work with his Marxist ideology, even when it cost him commissions and jeopardized his work, Siqueiros epitomized the politically engaged artist. He refused any commission that conflicted with his ideology. His commitment to education and his belief that public art could inform and inspire the masses to demand revolution has served as a model of activism for subsequent artists with political or social agendas.

Over the course of five decades, he integrated avant-garde styles and techniques with traditional iconography and local histories to create his activist public art . He, like Rivera, firmly believed that technology was a means to a better world and he sought to combine traditions of painting with modern political activism. With this combination, he believed that he generated dynamic forms with popular appeal, capable of delivering educational content to a disenfranchised public.

In his experimentation with unconventional materials and industrial techniques, Siqueiros also expanded the range of avant-garde painting in his experimentation with unconventional materials and industrial techniques. His Siqueiros Experimental Workshop, led in New York, exposed students (including Jackson Pollock) to contemporary notions of automatism and accident, and encouraged them to adopt new approaches to how paint could be applied. His leadership was crucial in breaking away from traditional techniques of fine art to more gestural and individualistic means of painting.

Childhood and Education

It was long believed that he was born in Camargo in Chihuahua state, but in 2003 it was proven that he had actually been born in the city of Chihuahua, but grew up in Irapuato, Guanajuato, at least from the age of six. The discovery of his birth certificate in 2003 by a Mexican art curator was announced the following year by art critic Raquel Tibol, who was renowned as the leading authority on Mexican Muralism and who had been a close acquaintance of Siqueiros.

He was baptized José de Jesús Alfaro Siqueiros (later in life, he changed his given name to "David" after his first wife called him by it in allusion to Michelangelo's David). Siqueiros had two siblings: a sister, Luz, three years elder, and a brother "Chucho" (Jesús), a year younger. David's mother died when he was four and their father sent the children to live with their paternal grandparents.

His grandfather, Antonio 'Siete Filos' (“Seven Knife-Edges”), was a conservative man of harsh temperament and Siqueiros later remembered him as the very incarnation of Mexican machismo, taking it upon himself to toughen up the young Jose and his little brother by unexpectedly throwing rocks at them or waking them up in the middle of the night by tickling them. Such "games" were part of his "School of Men" and continued until Siqueiros was sent to a religious boarding school at age 11.

He studied art at the San Carlos Academy in Mexico City where he participated in the student strike of 1911, protesting against the antiquated teaching methods of the school and demanding the director's resignation. It was the first overtly political act in a life that would be heavily influenced by personal ideology. The strike eventually led to the creation of The Open Air Painting School of Santa Anita, where Siqueiros was one of the first students to enroll.

In 1914, Siqueiros enrolled with the rebel Constitutional army, fighting against the Victoriano Huerta government. During his extensive travels around Mexico with the military, he discovered pre-Hispanic art and witnessed the living conditions of Mexican labourers, two experiences that would deeply inform his art.

Early Training

Arriving in Europe in 1919 on a government grant, Siqueiros was profoundly impressed by Cubism, Futurism, and Italian Renaissance frescoes. He envisioned an art that would invest the traditions of painting with modern significance and politics. Yet, in his Barcelona Manifesto, he argued for a "new generation" of artists who could break free from the "decadent influences" of European art to embrace their own native traditions. While in Paris, he met Diego Rivera, another Mexican artist who shared his vision for the future of Mexican art, and the pair quickly became excellent friends. Siqueiros returned to Mexico in 1922, where he began working on commissions from a new, revolutionary government. His mission was to create public art that could educate the workers, inspired by his Marxist beliefs. During these years, he also worked together with Rivera to found the Union of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors, and editing the anti-government publication, El Machete.

In 1930 he went to the USA, having been forced out of the Communist party and his own country. His stay would last only a few years, as his political interests were at odds with his American patrons. Working in Los Angeles, his two major projects were both whitewashed over shortly after their completion. His difficult ways and moral absolutism also effectively ended his friendship with Rivera, whom he accused of selling out to the bourgeoisie.

In 1936, Siqueiros traveled to New York, where he led the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop, an influential laboratory for modern techniques in art. Jackson Pollock, who had already shown interest in Siqueiros' work, attended the program. Heavily influenced by Surrealism, free association, automatism, and psychoanalysis, the course included an exercise in which a canvas was placed on the ground and paint was thrown on it directly from the cans of paint, which had had a hole poked into them. This was, for Siqueiros, a first step of artistic creation, in which the artist had to engage with the work using his entire body, as if in a ritualistic dance. He would call this the "controlled accident" in painting. The impact of this exercise on Pollock's drip paintings is evident.

Two years later, Siqueiros went to Spain to fight with the Republican army against Francisco Franco's fascist regime. When he returned to Mexico in 1940, he led a failed assassination attempt on Leon Trotsky (who'd been granted asylum in Mexico by President Cárdenas), in which Trotsky's 14-year-old grandson was shot and American communist Robert Sheldon Harte was executed. After spending several months on the run from Mexican authorities disguised as a peasant, Siqueiros was eventually apprehended in Jalisco, although he would never be brought to trial and was freed shortly.

Mature Period

The 40s and 50s were intense decades of artistic productivity for Siqueiros, as he painted murals in Chile, Cuba, and Mexico. He also taught and gave conferences, spreading his Marxist ideals throughout Latin America. Along with José Clemente Orozco, Rufino Tamayo, and Diego Rivera, he showed work at the XXV Venice Biennale (the first time Mexico had ever participated) and received the second prize.

Late Period

In 1960 Siqueiros, ever the polemicist, was imprisoned for the last time for "social dissolution" - a crime that no longer exists. He was sentenced to eight years for his criticisms of Mexico's president and his role in labor agitation, but he was released after four years.

From 1965-71, interposed with other projects, he worked on his most ambitious piece: The March of Humanity on Earth and Toward and Cosmos, an immense work that would occupy over 4000 square meters. Although Siqueiros's politics would continue to threaten his artistic production and his freedom, he continued to pursue public mural art as a means of propaganda and activism through the early 1970s. When he won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967, he donated the money to the then war-ridden Vietnam.

Diagnosed with cancer in 1973, Siqueiros died the following year in Cuernavaca, his home for the last decade of his life. His extensive autobiography Me Llamaban el Coronelazo (“They Called Me the Great Colonel”), was published posthumously in 1977.

Legacy and Influence

The notion of the "controlled accident," as adopted by Siqueiros, influenced Jackson Pollock, who attended his Experimental Workshop in New York. The combination of Surrealist and psychoanalysis that defined this practice was also highly important to Pollock's painting.

Siqueiros was also a pioneer in championing the use of industrially-produced materials and techniques for his work; his personal axiom was that revolutionary art demands revolutionary techniques and materials. The use of industrial material, including airbrushes and commercial lacquers, would later be emblematic of Pop art, although those later artists used these materials to produce diametrically opposite content. Where Pop artists embraced these materials to replicate the look of mass-produced objects, Siqueiros considered the paintbrush to be "an implement of hair and wood in an age of steel" and encouraged artists to adopt modern tools as more representative of the modern experience.

His work also influenced Street art, specifically socially concerned artists of the 1960s, which were inspired by his short-lived, highly critical and politicized Los Angeles mural, Tropical America (1932). Although his inclusion of anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist imagery led to the destruction of this piece, his unrelenting dedication to his political ideology was memorable.

His works are included in the collections of the Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico City, Mexico;  National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), 1952–56, Mexico City, Mexico; Escuela Mexico, Chillán, Chile; Tate Gallery, London, UK; Fundación Proa, Buenos Aires, Argentina; Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Brazil; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City;   Museum of Modern Art, New York City;  Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Art Institute of Chicago;  Dallas Museum of Art;  Harvard University Art Museums, Massachusetts; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; Los Angeles County Museum of Art ; Palm Springs Desert Museum; Philadelphia Museum of Art; San Diego Museum of Art;  and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, among others.

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