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'Lost' art tells of a love lost

Argentina has pledged to restore a mural by famed artist Siqueiros, one in which his political zeal gives way to an 'obsessive and desperate' passion.

September 29, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

Buenos Aires

He was a celebrated painter and political agitator who put revolution before art.

She was a twentysomething poet, dazzled by her charismatic suitor, David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of the leading Mexican muralists who audaciously combined public art and social militancy.

"I don't believe that other human beings, man and woman, have loved each other with so much force, so much pureness and magnitude," Blanca Luz Brum, whose given name means "white light," later wrote of her early days with Siqueiros.

After four tumultuous years of la vie bohème in Mexico, Los Angeles and South America against the backdrop of the political and artistic upheaval of the 1930s, jealousy and mistrust would devour their grand passion. But Siqueiros left behind a startling homage to Brum: a kaleidoscopic mural showcasing multiple voluptuous incarnations of her body with Betty Boop eyes.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, October 04, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 85 words Type of Material: Correction
Argentine mural: The photo of a mural painted by David Alfaro Siqueiros in Saturday's Section A with an article about Siqueiros and Blanca Luz Brum was credited to Aldo Sessa, for The Times. Sessa took the photo for the Mural of Siqueiros in Argentina Project before the mural was taken apart and moved in 1991. That photo and the accompanying photo of Siqueiros and Brum after their marriage in 1932 in Los Angeles are from the archive of the Mural of Siqueiros in Argentina Project.

This vibrant paean to passion has endured decades of assorted indignities -- defaced with acid, smeared with whitewash, sealed away from view and eventually divided up and deposited in metal containers. Now, almost three-quarters of a century later, Argentine authorities vow that the singular work will be brought out of storage, reassembled, restored and displayed publicly for the first time.

The prospective revival of a "lost" Siqueiros is being hailed as a major event in the Latin American art world.

Yet the mural remains an anomaly. It exhibits none of the stylized images of noble laborers, subjugated indigenous people or rapacious capitalists that were the coin of the muralist's realm. Nor was it executed in a public space, the preferred venue of a movement keen to score blunt political points through socialist allegories.

Rather, Siqueiros painted the mural in the basement poker room of the mansion of a shady publishing tycoon who reigned in the political and cultural hothouse of 1930s Buenos Aires, as a kind of sinister amalgam of Citizen Kane and Jay Gatsby.

"Many have asked why Siqueiros painted this basement against all of his artistic and ideological principles," the Argentine authors Hector Mendizabal and Daniel Schavelzon write in a volume tracing the work's tangled history. "We believe this mural is nothing more than the monumental, outsized way that Siqueiros sang the final song of his obsessive and desperate love for Blanca Luz, the great passion of his youth, his impossible woman."

The planned exhibition of Siqueiros' carnal dreamscape may shed new light on one of the giants of 20th century Latin American art. But the work's amorous origins also recall an extraordinary woman largely airbrushed from the master's autobiography.

Blanca Luz Brum was already well on her way to femme fatale status by the time she met Siqueiros in 1929. She had left her convent school to run off with a vanguard Peruvian poet, Juan Parra del Riego. He succumbed to tuberculosis a few days after the couple's son, Eduardo, was born, leaving her a widow at age 20.

After Parra's death, Brum gravitated to Lima's leftist political circles, writing poetry and contributing to avant-garde magazines. She fled Peru amid a political crackdown that resulted in the jailing of her then-compañero, Cesar Miro Quesada, a poet and activist who was also the scion of a Peruvian publishing empire.

"In the midst of this solitude, of this unjust solitude, your name evokes a tenderness that sweetens these horrible and pitiless hours," Miro wrote to Brum from prison.

Brum returned to her native Uruguay, where she met Siqueiros at a dinner party in the sleepy capital, Montevideo.

The dashing Siqueiros, with probing green eyes and a mop of curly black hair, was a larger-than-life veteran of the Mexican Revolution, a Communist Party envoy, an artist-activist-raconteur who had lived in Paris and Spain and boasted of his friendships with Picasso and Braque. He was also known for his volcanic temperament and macho disposition.

"We repudiate so-called easel painting and all art of the ultra-intellectual, aristocratic clique," he thundered in a manifesto. Art was for "the free air, facing the sun, facing the rain, for the masses."

That first night, Siqueiros and Brum left the soiree for a post-midnight dip in the Atlantic. His loyal communist wife, back in Mexico, was fast becoming history.

"In his arms my youth became mature and strong," Brum wrote years later of that first encounter, in characteristically breathless prose. "We adored each other with equal fervor."

The besotted couple were soon en route to Mexico, much to the chagrin of Brum's middle-class Roman Catholic family and Siqueiros' fellow travelers, who considered Brum excessively "bourgeois."

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