Siqueiros and Surrealism?

Irene Herner


In 1937, the Catalogue of the Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition in the New York Museum of
Modern Art (MOMA), edited by Alfred H. Barr Jr, with an essay by Georges Hugnet, appears the image of a painting by David Alfaro Siqueiros: Collective Suicide,1936, under  subject 13 of the exhibition Guide, as part of a group of works selected under the title "Creation of Evocative Chaos," together with other works by  Klee,  Dominguez, Tanguy, Cheval and Schwitters. The
photo of the painting is inscribed in a chapter called "Artists independent of the Dada-Surrealist movements." Arranged alphabetically it includes works by Blume, Calder, Castellón, Disney, Dove, Evans, Merrild, Feitelson, Gonzales, Lewis, O'Keeffe, Roy, Putnam, Smith, Goldberg, Thurber, Tonny and Beall.* *A group of paintings and sculptures by American artists as varied
and different as can be. Today at the Tate Modern Museum in London, the permanent exhibition of Surrealism includes another work by Siqueiros under the title "Cosmos and Disaster." Both paintings by Siqueiros are apocalyptic visions of the approaching Civil War in Spain and of the Second World War. Although Siqueiros is better known as one of the three greatest realist Mexican muralists of the 20th  Century, it is strange, although indicative, that two works of his are recognized in both different moments of the history of modern art, as surrealist expressions, in the 1930s and in the first decade
of the new Century. Indicative, as one can not forget the fundamental
involvement of historical Surrealism with Communism during that period, as well as with the concept of art as a revolutionary endeavor in itself. To be a militant of the Communist Party during the thirties was quite a different thing than before or after. Siqueiros´ militancy at the time, had to do with the idea that the world can be changed, but also, that art is a testimony of horrors and a therapy of self esteem in the midst of it. Siqueiros  founded the "Siqueiros Experimental Workshop" at # 5 of Fourteenth Street, New York, at the beginning of 1936, after the International Conference of Artists, organized by artists members of the USA Communist Party, as part of the International policy of the Communist Party’s "Open Popular Front" against fascism and war. And before Siqueiros became himself a soldier in Spain.  In this workshop Siqueiros directed a group of young American and Latin American artists that came together in order to participate with the party
in its antifascist, antiwar propaganda.  The International Communist Front allowed non communists to participate with them united by their antifascist positions. The center of their creative work became Siqueiros´ concept of art seen  not only as a revolutionary weapon against Franco, Hitler, Mussolini and others like Hearst and other European, Mexican and American tycoons, but as a revolutionary activity in itself. It is well known that among the young members of this workshop was young Jackson Pollock. The style of the two paintings I am referring to can be defined with the same
type of language then used by Surrealism, and specifically by the curators of this exhibit.  Both works are almost abstract, they were made with experimental materials, generated strange forms, and developed new techniques. Collective Suicide is integrated with pieces of wood, like in a collage and the many tiny, not more than one inch sized figures that are depicted in it were added with stencils. Both works are Siqueiros own version of automatism, which he named “Controlled Accidents.” He started painting them on the floor, throwing into the canvas new industrial color –explosive pyroxiline- directly from the cans, on to which he also added different kinds of foreign materials like nails, fragments of wood and sand, creating a thick texture and a mysterious space.   They both give the impression of an explosive Cosmos, a sensation of chaos. Collective Suicide is almost abstract, yet an absolutely representative testimony of the Spanish Civil War, in which many citizens were ready to die fighting for
their democratic rights. Like in many other occasions’ of World history one or all four Horses of Apocalypse mark the Time of individuals.  It is the same nightmare, which inspired one year later Picasso's Guernica. In Siqueiros picture many men and women, as well as their children and grandchildren, take the horrible decision to commit massive suicide because their life becomes an impossible existence.  To take their own lives for the cause of Liberty, Fraternity and equal Rights. The decision to fight against authoritarianism, misery, sickness, and lack of freedom. Always a fight for
life in a world lead by diverse utopical visions and ideals of humankind. The sacred engagement with life, understood as dedication, path and sense. Siqueiros is at that moment a militant and partisan, but also –while he prepares for warfare- he is dedicated to express this spirit
artistically,  with an open mind, appropriating all what Western art traditions offer, and assuming as well, all what the universe of science and technology was discovering, especially in America. In 1936 Siqueiros continued the explorations of his first stay in the United States in Los Angeles 1932, through an experimental research of new significants and devises to express this ideals, not only convincing the audience by arguments, but by moving their sensitive and emotional side, competing with very powerful new mass media, as cinema. The painting at the Tate Collection is practically abstract, only a little flame in the middle of the dark canvas remains after the great explosion. A few lines of force center the flame in the composition. The darkness of the painted full space, reminds the blackness surrounding the ones in Van Dyke portraits. But it is constructed over the
floor, juxtaposing layers of paint that combine over the canvas, making
strange, unexpected forms. Maybe with the same spirit of Ernst’s frottage (Maybe that is why the painting hangs at the side of Max Ernst’s Dadaville, 1924). Cosmos and Disaster is the subject of the picture, painted at the same year of another of his impressive apocalyptic paintings: The End of the World, in which there is only one human survival left among the buildings on fire.  Siqueiros paintings of 1936 are a reminder of the mystery of human horror.
In my text I plan to work more on Siqueiros' concept of the accidental, or the unconscious, in his art and on his Siqueiros Experimental Workshop, with the information taken from diverse
recorded and written materials researched at the Smithsonian archive in New York,  at the Pollock/Krasner house and Study Center, other documents recommended by Ellen Landau and the Siqueiros Archives in Mexico, and at the Getty Research Institute in LA, which I published as part of my book Siqueiros. Del Paraíso a la Utopía , 2004.

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