In Mexico, early in the 20th century, a few wellknown artists became convinced that art should no longer be for the wealthy only. They began to create art meant for the poor, who were struggling under the oppression of dictator Porfirio Diaz. Instead of painting to sell their works in galleries, these artists painted larger-than-life murals-on the walls of schools, churches, and other buildings and public areas where all could see.
One of the most prominent of these muralists was the political activist David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896?-1974). Siqueiros created murals to raise the hopes and spirits of the poor and to instill nationalism in those he considered to be the "real people of Mexico." His murals portrayed the oppressed Mexican people and inspired social reform. In recognition of his courage and personal sacrifices for the common good, Siguieros has been acknowledged as a spiritual exemplar.
Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, to a bourgeois family, Siqueiros went as a teenager in 1910 to Mexico City to study art and architecture. This time also marked the beginning of the Mexican revolution. Siqueiros quickly became involved in student strikes and, at age 18, joined the Mexican Revolutionary Army. He later joined the Communist Party and was jailed and exiled several times for his radical views and harsh criticisms of the Mexican government.
Even so, the government commissioned large-scale murals by Siqueiros and his fellow muralists, Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, who shared his revolutionary outlook. These commissions gave him the opportunity to make his living educating the public about social injustice.
Siquieros's communist political views focused on distributing power and wealth among all of the people of Mexico. He spoke out against those artists who paid little attention to Mexico's working class. In his "Declaration of Social, Political, and Aesthetic Principles," written in 1922, Siqueiros said, "We repudiate so-called easel painting and every kind of art favored by the ultra-intellectual circles, because it is aristocratic, and we praise monumental art in all its forms, because it is public property. . . . Art must no longer be the expression of individual satisfaction, but should aim to become a fighting, educative art for all." In creating his art, Siqueiros stood out from his contemporaries by using techniques that gave his murals vividness and three-dimensionality. With the centuries-old technique known as fresco, the paint is applied to a freshly plastered wall. He also used the modern technique of airbrushing, which helped him cover large areas more quickly, along with stencils to create sharp edges.
In order to communicate his message about injustice, Siqueiros incorporated powerful emotion in his work, with the intent of moving viewers to become more deeply connected to the subject matter. For example, the painting "Peasant Mother" portrays an indigenous Mexican mother cradling her baby surrounded by a vast, empty desert landscape. By eliminating all life except the woman, her baby, and three cacti from the landscape, Siqueiros intensifies the bond between the woman and her baby-and raises the question of whether her surroundings are supportive of both. In another mural, titled "Echo of a Scream," viewers witness the pain of a young, malnourished child left alone to scream in silence amidst the ruins of war. The image of the child's screaming face is enlarged and superimposed in the center of the painting in such a way that viewers cannot avoid witnessing the child's torment.
By playing on human emotions in such a way, Siqueiros forces viewers to form a connection to the painting's subject and in doing so, to feel and fully realize something intensely spiritual. He used this technique to gain support for the revolution that he became so much a part of.
"La Nueva Democracia" is another example of the powerful way Siqueiros connected art and social reform and, at the same time, expressed something deeply spiritual. In this mural, a nude woman thrusts her shackled arms out towards the viewer in an attempt to break free from the ominous forces that keep her a prisoner. With the use of the fresco technique, the figure seems to reach out of the wall in such a way that no passerby can ignore her and her desperate cry for freedom.
In 1933, Siqueiros wrote, "The painters and sculptors of today cannot remain indifferent in the struggle to free humanity and art from oppression." Throughout his life Siqueiros held true to his ideals and fought tirelessly to free his country from oppression by exploring the spiritual connection between art and sociopolitical freedom.