Portrait of Mexico Today

  • 16 Jun 2017
  • Santa Barbara Museum of Art - 1130 State Street Santa Barbara, CA 93101

Portrait of Mexico Today is one of three murals painted by David Alfaro Siqueiros as a political exile in Los Angeles in 1932. He first created Workers’ Meeting at the Chouinard Art Institute, where he briefly taught fresco painting, and then América Tropical at the Plaza Art Center on Olvera Street. These murals were subsequently whitewashed for what was perceived as their radical, anti-capitalist subject matter. However, since Portrait of Mexico Today was created for a private residence, it was spared from public criticism and destruction. The mural was originally painted on the interior walls of a covered garden patio at the Pacific Palisades home of filmmaker Dudley Murphy. Siqueiros offered to paint the mural as a gesture of gratitude to Murphy, who housed the artist while in Los Angeles and helped generate sales of his easel paintings. The mural remained there until 2001, when it was generously donated to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. To preserve the integrity of the work and ensure its future protection, the entire 25-ton structure that housed the mural was carefully transported intact to Santa Barbara. Portrait of Mexico Today is now located on the front terrace of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and has become an important work of public art in the city of Santa Barbara.

Illustrating the revolutionary political convictions that led to Siqueiros’s exile, Portrait of Mexico Today tells an impassioned, international story of social oppression and political corruption. The central wall features two indigenous women and a child on a stepped platform reminiscent of a pre-Columbian pyramid. To their left is a Mexican revolutionary soldier whose mask has slipped to reveal the face of Plutarco Elías Calles, a military hero and former President of Mexico (1924-1928). The bags of money at his feet and his unmasked face expose him as a traitor to the people’s cause, corrupted by greed. On the narrow wall opposite Calles is a portrait of financier J.P. Morgan—a symbol of U.S. economic power. The close proximity of the images of Morgan and Calles reveals Siqueiros’s interest in Mexico-U.S. relations, which at the time was centered largely on the oil industry. On the wall between them, the artist placed two martyred workers, implicating Morgan and Calles in their bloodshed. On the right wall, a soldier dressed in a Soviet uniform kneels with his rifle drawn, linking the Mexican Revolution with the Russian Revolution.

Organized by writer and independent curator, Michael Duncan, the exhibition is loosely divided into themes, including dreams, icons, notions of home and travel, history, and images of humans and wildlife. Duncan states, “Prints take us places. They lead us to exotic and familiar locales, offering mind-expanding fantasies as well as fresh takes on everyday objects. They present new considerations of well-known people and stories and revisit historical events. They confront desires and goals and sometimes lead to an expansion of our definitions of art.” His distinctive take on the Museum’s rich collection of lithographs, screenprints, woodblock prints, and other forms of printmaking offers novel ports of entry into a vast range of imagery.

Artists represented include Terry Allen, Lee Bontecou, John Randolph Carter, Vija Celmins, Bruce Conner, José Luis Cuevas, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Red Grooms, Nancy Grossman, Hagiwara Hideo, Paul Jacoulet, Allen Jones, Oskar Kokoschka, Jacob Lawrence, Rico Lebrun, Marisol, Kerry James Marshall, Malcolm Morley, Alice Neel, Sidney Nolan, Eduardo Paolozzi, Pablo Picasso, Ken Price, Larry Rivers, James Rosenquist, Munakata Shiko, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Raphael Soyer, Rufino Tamayo, Azechi Utemaro, Andy Warhol, June Wayne, Grant Wood, and many others.

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