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Unveiling October 20, 2002 at Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara

by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.

[The October 20th unveiling of the permanent installation of David Alfaro Siqueiros’ 1932 mural, Portrait of Mexico Today, is an unusual and significant event. In anticipation we therefore asked Orville Clarke, Jr. to discuss the mural and its background. --Ed.]

David Alfaro Siqueiros' Portrait of Present-Day Mexico is one of the most beautiful of all the murals created by the Mexican masters in California, and it is happily also in superb condition. Until now this priceless masterpiece was rarely seen, being hidden from the public view in a private residence in Pacific Palisades. Now thousands will be able to visit the breathtaking beauty of Siqueiros' fresco.

Siqueiros was exiled from Mexico in 1932 and ended up in Los Angeles. Here he would execute three murals before being forced to leave the United States. The first, Workers' Meeting, was painted at the former Chouinard School of Art (now CalArts and relocated to Valencia), and was long since destroyed. This work led to his next commission located on Olvera Street, Tropical America, which immediately infuriated many local officials. The mural was soon whitewashed and lost. Today, after a great deal of restoration under the auspices of the Getty Conservation Institute, a ghostly image rises from the wall that gives a tantalizing hint of the beauty that must have been.

The artist's papers had expired, and needing a place to hide from immigration officials Siqueiros was offered sanctuary by film director Dudley Murphy, who wanted a fresco on the wall overlooking his garden. Working with Fletcher Martin, Luis Arenal, and Rubin Kadish, he took almost three months to complete the seldom seen masterpiece. The painting is a bitter condemnation of the political realities of Mexico. Then President of Mexico, Plutarco Elias Calles, is depicted on the left as a bandit with a mask sitting on a pile of money. Also included is a representation of J. P. Morgan, representing U. S. Imperialism and American support for a corrupt government. The emotion of the work no doubt reflects his own bitter experiences with the Calles administration along with his ideological condemnation of the evils of Capitalism.

In the center of the mural is a monumental grouping of two women and a child, which represents the oppressed. On the right, adding further fire to this mural, is the portrait of a Red Guard armed with a rifle, looking menacingly out from the wall and offering protection to the people from tyrants. This soldier, with his red star on his hat, offers hope for a new day and contrasts sharply with the tired and broken image of the old regime helplessly guarding its bags of money. It was an optimistic image of a world to be set right by revolution. However, this was to be the last work he completed in Los Angeles. Siqueiros' attacks on U.S. policy in his public murals together with his leftist political pedigree led to his deportation in November, 1932.

The mural is a stunning mix of the colors of Mexico, blended with monumental and heroic figures. Emerging dramatically out of a lush garden, Portrait of Present-Day Mexico produces an overwhelming impression. Now you will be able to view one of this region’s masterpieces, in a new permanent architectural alcove housing the original garden structure on which the mural was painted, prominently located by the Museum’s front entrance.

“Portrait of Mexico Today,” 1932, casein
oil pigment on cement, 8 x 32’, at its
original Pacific Palisades location.

“Portrait of Mexico Today,”

“Portrait of Mexico Today,”

“Portrait of Mexico Today,”