Americans have customarily both underestimated and undervalued the presence of Mexican culture in the United States. The origins of this phenomenon run deep in American history, traceable to the fusion of hispanophobia, anti-Catholicism and contempt for New World aboriginal life and culture in the late 18th Century. Not long thereafter, when yanquis began to trade and settle in what is now the Southwestern United States, they established a pattern of ignoring, suppressing and, frequently, obliterating Mexican culture. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz noted the inevitable consequence of this process when he visited Los Angeles in the late 1940s. "Mexicanism," he wrote, "floats in the air . . . blown here and there by the wind. . . . It creeps, it wrinkles, it expands and contracts: It sleeps or dreams; it is ragged but beautiful. It floats, never quite existing, never quite vanishing."
All this by way of establishing the broad context for the events treated in Laurance P. Hurlburt's "The Mexican Muralists in the United States." Between 1927 and 1936, Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros-- los tres grandes (the three greats) of Mexican muralism--undertook major projects in this country, armed with vehement socialist and Marxist ideologies and eager to present their views of art and history to an American audience.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 3, 1989 Home Edition Book Review Page 13 Book Review Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Mexican Muralists in the United State" (University of new Mexico Press) is available only in a hardback edition, contrary to an erroneous report in the Book Review last week that it was also available in paperback. The correct price of the hardback edition is $45, not $39.95, as reported.
There was, for the moment, reason to hope that Americans would treat these Mexicans more generously than was their custom. Leading intellectuals such as Edmund Wilson were calling for a national commitment to socially involved art. Something of a "Mexican craze" had become fashionable among painters, writers and scholars. There was much condescension and some foolishness in the romanticization of Mexico, but no matter: Here, it seemed, was the best chance for Mexico, through the creative powers of three artists, to establish a mutually respectful relationship with the "Colossus of the North."
Unfortunately, the American response to the mural projects of 1927-1936 was much less favorable than the artists and their supporters had wished. To be sure, their murals attracted large crowds and elicited much discussion. Throughout the 1930s, the works of the Mexicans served as models for American painters interested in creating art that would evoke the experiences and values of ordinary people. But among the power elite--including members of the Rockefeller family who had sponsored several organizations ostensibly intended to promote Mexican culture in this country--the muralists were regarded as politically dangerous.
Unlike his two compatriots, Diego Rivera was a mature artist of great reputation when he came north--and one whose Communist sympathies were well known. His first commission in the United States came from the San Francisco Stock Exchange Luncheon Club, a predictably conservative organization nevertheless eager to engage the services of someone described to one prominent member as "the world's greatest muralist." The Stock Exchange established strict political limits for Rivera; he responded with "Allegory of California," a work that celebrates workers toiling under, on and above Earth to raise the human condition beyond mere subsistence, all the while under the heroic gaze of Mother California.
On other American projects, Rivera would not offer his political views with such effective understatement. At the Rockefeller Center in New York, Rivera, doubtless with a full appreciation of the significance of the site, composed a mural that predicted the triumph of socialism and featured an image of Lenin prominently. Hurlburt explains the special circumstances in which the Rockefellers were willing to sponsor a Marxist painter: It turns out that the family was worried about its oil interests in Mexico at a time when many Latin American countries were nationalizing foreign oil businesses. Rivera's boldness, however, exceeded their tolerance. The family quietly withdrew its support; the mural was pulled down and destroyed.
Siqueiros, an orthodox Marxist fully committed to political activism, endured a similar experience. During his brief stay in Los Angeles in 1932, he managed to execute three murals, developing innovative application techniques along the way. On a wall above Olvera Street, Siqueiros completed "Tropical America," a work that depicted United States imperialism in Latin America. Denounced as communist propaganda, "Tropical America" was eventually covered with whitewash. Late last month, however, plans for the restoration of the mural were announced. The Olvera Street Merchants Assn., El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park, Friends of Mexico and the Getty Conservation Institute are all supporting the restoration effort, which may lead to an unveiling as early as next year.
The experience of los tres grandes is an extraordinary piece of American cultural history and the reader of "The Mexican Muralists in the United States" may wish that the author had captured more fully the wonderful irony of the various events. But Hurlburt is on to a good story--a terrifically representative episode in the history of United States-Mexico relations--and he tells it well enough.