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David Alfaro Siqueiros catches a buzz

17 April 2013

Proof, if it is needed, that even great artists are sometimes … uh… dopes. From D. Anthony White, Siqueros: Biography of a Revolutionary Artist (2008):

One day Diego [Rivera] entertained the other artists with a lengthy discourse on the merits of marijuana, in which he proclaimed that the great art of the past was done under the influence of drugs. Diego Rivera-8x6When some of the artists endorsed the idea of using marijuana to enhance their creative talents, they requested an expert to instruct them in the use of the magical drug prescribed by Rivera. Two days later Diego introduced “Chema,” who proceeded to tell them that “Doña Juanita” was Mexico’s most important contribution to the world and that the decadence of the colonial period was the result of the Spaniards’ prohibition of the drug.

Although Orozco scoffed at the notion, others responded enthusiastically and agreed to launch a movement to change Mexico’s laws against the use of marijuana and to adopt the practice of smoking marijuana before painting. When Siqueiros and an assistant took a few puffs before painting one day, however, the lights failed and, when they reached for a cord, they received a shock and fell off the scaffold. Fortunately, they landed on a pile of sand, but it took them several weeks to recover. After that, both Siqueiros and Rivera agreed that, since they were already “marijuanos,” thy had consumed more than enough to stimulated their creativity.

portrait-of-the-bourgeoisie-1939

Portrait of the Bourgeoisie, 1939

Of course Rivera was full of it… marijuana being native to the central Asia, and only introduced to the Americas after the Conquest.   And, whether the incident actually occurred, given that both Rivera and Siqueiros had a known propensity for being constitutionally incapable of not embellishing  a good story (White accepts, apparently as truth, Rivera’s claims to have supplemented his diet while living in Paris with trips to the morgue), it is still very funny, and the book is a joy to read:  even in writing about the now pointless manifestos (and sometimes bullets) that the Mexican intellectuals of the post-Revolutionary period flung at each other, White weaves an interesting, engaging narrative.

Siqueiros’ life story is fascinating.  Despite his upbringing by a father more Catholic than the Pope, he was a committed Communist, and more than likely a soviet agent.  Somehow, he managed to simultaneously be an ardent Mexican nationalist and enough a critic of his country to regularly be sent into exile… or prison.  In and out of the country and in and out of jail (sometimes “in jail” but “out” — with the warden’s permission, the Chilean consul in  Mexico City, Pablo Neruda, used to spirit Siqueiros out for a night of cantina hopping), he managed to maintain the loyalty and affection of three wives and a mistress.

All the more amazing is that the active, committed political career was in the service of… art.  And what art!  If he was high on anything, it was perhaps on paint fumes…  Siqueiros, broke through the false dichotomy of art and technology… being the first to realize that industrial paints and sprayers were applicable to more than mere commercial products.  As an artist, a revolutionary, a Mexican nationalist (and, yes, as a Communist theorist), a seminal figure of the 20th century, and one whose biography must be read.

Rita Pomade said just about everything I would in her own review posted 9 December 2008 on MexConnect.  Alas, including this:

My one disappointment in the book is that it’s poorly edited. Various points are repeated and should have been edited out to sustain the flow. Spelling is not always correct. At times Siqueiros is referred to as David and at times as Siqueiros but with no reason for the switch. His brother is referred to as Jose and later as Chucho, but if you don’t have a Mexican background you wouldn’t know they were the same person. It’s too bad. This is a great read, rich in history and insights, and it deserved better.

As a erratic speller with a sometimes wandering sentence structure (and sometimes wandering off into the unknown),  I’m well aware of the need for editors.

Dr. White did himself a disservice in allowing the release of outstanding piece of scholarship and excellent writing through a “print on demand” publisher.  Perhaps “publisher” should be the word in quotes… the book appearing as if (and probably in reality was) produced directly from word processing test.  The excellent cover design invites us to enjoy a book on visual art… and then assaults us with a nearly unreadable typeface (a narrow san serif  — Century Gothic, I think) that might be suitable for on-line publication, or a blog post, but is off-putting in a  480 page book.  A book about an artist  should, if nothing else, not be an ugly read.

Women of Chilpancingo. 1960

Women of Chilpancingo. 1960

Considering the subject was one open to using technology for aesthetic ends and of collaborating with others,  Siqueros: Biography of a Revolutionary Artist, like several of the artist’s intriguing (and now lost, or never completed) works is imperfect, but still worthy of our consideration.  Publishing through Amazon’s “booksurge.com”, the book suffers by being only available through a single corporate outlet (Amazon.com).  There is something ironic about having to go to a U.S. corporation to buy a book on a Mexican nationalist and Communist who struggled mightily (and successfully) to bring art to the masses.  But, Siquieros himself often failed in the execution of his works, and some of his best work meant for public display has ended up in private hands, so consider yourself lucky if you happen to stumble across a reference to D. Anthony White’s Siqueros: Biography of a Revolutionary Artist — and you don’t outright recoil from an unfortunate brush with the capitalist Yaquí imperialist bourgeoisie  — I would go ahead and order D. Anthony White’s Siqueros: Biography of a Revolutionary Artist.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 17 April 2013 7:33 am

    Richard,

    Did you send this review to Tony as well? Maybe you should re-publish his book…?? That’s what I think.

    Saludos!

    Sterling

    On Wed, Apr 17, 2013 at 2:10 AM, The Mex Files

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