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A Wall on the Fly

The only Siqueiros mural left intact in L.A. completes a four-year trek to a Santa Barbara museum

October 06, 2002|SUSAN EMERLING

When Mexican muralist and Communist agitator David Alfaro Siqueiros came to Los Angeles in 1932, he was a man on a mission. His goal in L.A., he wrote in his notebook, was to create "the great uncovered mural painting in the free air, facing the sun, facing the rain, for the masses."

It is no small irony that of the three murals Siqueiros painted during his eight-month stay here, only "Delivery of the Mexican Bourgeoisie Born of the Revolution in the Hands of Imperialism" (a.k.a. "Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932") survives intact--precisely because it was the only one never to have faced the sun, the rain or the masses.

Now the masses are about to get their chance. After 70 years sequestered on private property, "Mexico Today" will meet the people at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, not as an open-air revolutionary salvo, but as a precious masterwork that has taken nearly four years and a million dollars to acquire, transport, restore and display.

"I think if Siqueiros were alive, he'd be amused at the irony of this work's survival and pleased that he has a public legacy," says Santa Barbara Museum of Art curator Diana du Pont, who oversaw the Siqueiros project.

However, Du Pont adds, "it is one thing to acquire a work like this, and another to move it. It was worth bringing the best talent in the world together to see if we could do it, rather than say it's too difficult, and just walk away."

The great mural move got its start in early 1998, shortly after the Santa Barbara Museum of Art's well-received exhibition "Portrait of a Decade: David Alfaro Siqueiros, 1930-1940." Du Pont, who had brought that exhibition to the museum, got a phone call inviting her to take a look at a Siqueiros mural in the courtyard of a private residence in the Pacific Palisades. The owners, she was told, might be interested in donating the mural, if the museum would take the responsibility for getting it off the property.

"It was like a dream," says Du Pont, who knew of the mural's existence but had never seen it. "You walk through the front gate, the main house is below, and to the right, connected to the front gate, is a garden portico where Siqueiros painted the mural."

Thirty-two feet long and 8 feet high, the brightly painted depiction of corrupt leaders and noble peasants wrapped around the interior walls of a semi-enclosed patio, topped by a weathered shake roof and complete with a brick floor dotted with splatterings from Siqueiros' brush.

"The folklore is, Siqueiros stood and framed the mural from the living room," Du Pont says. "It was part of the ambience of the home. You would see it coming out the front door."

With the blessing of the museum's director, Robert Frankel, Du Pont dispatched a team of conservators, contractors and scholars to the Pacific Palisades house. Could the mural be safely moved? How much would it cost? Where would they put it? Was it worth it? It took 2 1/2 years of brainstorming and discovery before they were ready to take action.

"The due diligence was phenomenal," she says.

To Du Pont's eye, the mural had made it to the end of the century in pristine condition. But under the microscopic scrutiny of the conservators, it suddenly seemed in imminent peril. The old roof was in danger of breaking loose and swinging into the face of the mural. Moisture from landscaping was seeping in from the outside wall. The front gate was sending vibrations through the approximately 260-square-foot structure. And if that weren't enough, in places, the painted surface was separating from the wall, and in some spots the paint was "dusting."

"The original paint was there," says Perry Huston, former chief conservator at the Amon Carter Museum and Santa Barbara's lead consultant on the mural project. "But the medium had gone, so it was just like chalk."

Moving so large a work of art presented even bigger problems. First, the team considered a common technique: stripping the paint layer off the wall and attaching it to another backing. "It would be the same paint that Siqueiros used," said Scott Haskins, an Italian-trained fresco specialist and principal of the Fine Arts Conservation Laboratory in Santa Barbara, "but it would destroy the mural."

The next choice was a method that went back to the 16th century, when writer-artist Giorgio Vasari used it to move a fresco out of the church of Santa Croce in Florence. Vasari cut through the wall surrounding the fresco, explains another team member, Andrea Rothe, senior conservator for special projects at the Getty, "put a wooden frame around it and pulled the whole thing out."

For the Palisades mural, the Vasari method meant cutting the patio enclosure into two or three pieces. "At the other end you put it back together," Huston explains.

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