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Olvera Street's missing mural, then and now

October 10, 2012|By Patt Morrison
  • Leslie Rainer of the Getty Conservation Institute stands before the central part of the restored 82-foot-long Siqueiros fresco in Olvera Street, whitewashed not long after its unveiling 80 years ago
Leslie Rainer of the Getty Conservation Institute stands before the central… (Reed Saxon / Associated…)

What's missing from this picture? Until now, it was the picture.

The public has not laid eyes on this fresco since it was unveiled exactly 80 years ago -- and thereafter soon whitewashed -- that politically angry and anguished mural that David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of Mexico’s "big three" muralists, painted in Olvera Street in 1932.

It -- or rather, the salvageable ghost of it -- opens again for public viewing now, after a nearly $10-million restoration project. Over the years it has been a kind of Fata Morgana of public art in the city that has both become the mural capital of the world and surely also the mural-destruction capital, losing through political indifference and laxity some of its more recent open-air mural masterpieces.

This one, ‘’America Tropical,’’ was painted over deliberately, politically.

Siqueiros had come to LA on a six-month visitor’s visa in 1932, and this work had gotten as big a buildup as an MGM movie premiere. "Great Art Work to be Unveiled," was The Times’ headline the morning of the unveiling, Oct. 9, 1932.

As it turned out, no one but the artist and his close assistant knew that at the center of its 82-foot length, among the images of Mexican jungles and Mayan antiquity, was what Siqueiros had painted in by night, at the last possible minute: a tormented figure of an indigenous Mexican lashed to a cross, with an eagle -- an American eagle, it was thought -- poised to strike.

Within weeks, the hosannas had been mostly hushed. And in time, part of the painting was covered up and the rest neglected. A work that L.A. had thought was going to be a decoration turned out to be a provocation.

For half of its life the fresco declined into obscurity. And for the other half, L.A. has been talking about restoring this mural. As long ago as 1971, The Times wrote about it, and about a KCET-TV documentary on the fresco as part of a Chicano revival movement.

What I’ve been wondering was how the fresco was painted -- metaphorically -- at the time, and how the perception of the fresco changed to bring us to ''America Tropical'' redux.

To understand that, you have to turn the calendar back to several years before the Siqueiros mural was painted. Christine Stirling is the woman who, in the 1920s, "saved" Olvera Street. One of L.A.’s earliest historic neighborhoods and its oldest buildings had crumbled into an unsightly mess, and city fathers were about to condemn the whole thing when the civic- and history-minded Stirling valiantly hectored and shamed the city into saving its heritage and preserving some of the original adobe buildings.

Stirling deserves credit for that, and for raising the city’s awareness of its past, although rescuing Olvera Street also meant that some of it was Disneyfied into a quaintly imagined "Old Mexico" tourist destination which has also been the object of some scorn.

A couple of years after this new Olvera Street opened, Siqueiros was commissioned to create a mural on the wall of the old Italian Hall. That year, he had already painted a fresco at the Chouinard Art Institute.

So here is how The Times covered the mural matter, in a decades-long arc that paralleled the Depression, the art revival in L.A., and The Times’ crusading anti-Communist fervor.

The city was officially excited about the mural. Los Angeles was beginning to feel its oats as a destination for artists and art lovers. The Times art critic wrote prolifically of both the accomplished and the more plebeian exhibitions popping up around Southern California.

Mexican painters’ work had been put on display in Olvera Street a year or so before the fresco’s unveiling, many of them by artists who came to the fore on the wave of revolt which swept away the old political despotism" in Mexico, wrote Times art critic Arthur Millier.

Then the buildup for the Siqueiros fresco whetted the city’s sense of anticipation: "The huge fresco depicting a Mexican jungle scene in first-class Siqueiros style," Millier wrote. Readers learned details about the nighttime painting-by-electric-light by a class of local artists under the auspices and sponsorship of L.A. muralist Dean Cornwell, whose splendid murals at the L.A. Central Library can still be seen today. The Times even listed the names of the local companies that donated the painter’s air guns and Portland cement and the scaffolding, and the Fuller paint company, which donated the watercolors.

By the morning of the unveiling, The Times was agog at the expected big reveal of a Mayan temple in a tropical forest, an edifice destroyed by nature, "but man’s conquest remains." The story noted, incidentally, that Siqueiros had just applied for an extension to his visitor’s visa, but it had not yet been granted.

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