Endgame in Iraq?
For the President and many members of Congress to insist that it is to support our troops that the war in Iraq must be re-funded, is to compound the deceptions that began this illegal futile bloodleeting without any end in sight. It is a shameless effort to hide behind the backs of the soldiers who risk their lives for lies. The troops are being made the human shields of the politicians.
We must not permit the Great Deceiver to frame the issue or we deceive ourselves. The truth is that the $100 billion that Bush wants from Congress is not for the troops but for his policies, which the American people voted against last November.
Part of that money is to pacify Afghanistan, which also is burdened by civil strife in addition to a bumper opium harvest, and where the US seems no longer to be pursuing its original target--Osama bin Laden.
The commander-in-chief says that he listens only to the generals in the field, but he cashiers them when they don't tell him what he wants to hear. This began with Gen. Shinseki, who told him before the war that twice as many troops would be needed as then Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld insisted were sufficient for his cut-rate invasion.
More recently Generals Casey and Abizaid were brought home when they told Bush that more troops were not needed and the war couldn't be won because the Iraqi troops wouldn't do what we wanted, like show up.
Gen. Petraeus, the new commander, was appointed because he agreed to lead a "surge" that would require half as many troops as he said would be needed for counter-insurgency in the new field manual he authored. Now we are witnessing surge-creep: requests for more troops and more time.
How long will soldiers and many more civilians be killed for Bush's illusion of empire and the careerism and partisanship of members of Congress who fear they may be blamed by voters in 2008 for "losing" Iraq or for increased violence there should our troops leave before they have "won"?
Although the violence can hardly get worse that it is now, Washington keeps insisting that our troops are necessary to restrain the brutality while Iraqis blame the US for provoking it.
Our leaders don't get it or don't care: thousands of human beings--each one a universe who has only one life to lose--are being forced to die for Washington's deceit.
In fact, we are witnessing what could well be the endgame of the US Iraq adventure. It could result from the refusal of Congress to give Bush the money he wants without strings attached.
This could occur during the next few weeks when Bush vetoes the bill that Congress sends him, as he has promised, and no new combination of money and conditions under which it is to be spent can be cobbled together which he would approve. Both sides are diging in deeper.
Bush says he must have the money by April 15 or the military "will face significant disruptions." The non-partisan Congressional Research Service says the Pentagon could pay for operations until July. The stalemate between Congress and Bush means no money to continue the war and occupation: End of Bush's plans for permanent US bases in the Middle East to control the world's chief oil-bearing region: End of empire.
There would be bitter recrimination all around, much of it deserved. But American politics would finally be forced to get real. Terrorism, by both sides, low-tech and high tech, might begin to subside. And thousands of lives would be spared.
Welcome to Politics & Art
This is the website of Alan Barnett dealing with politics and art from the perspective of social justice, participatory democracy and peace.
Since high school I have been a political activist, engaged in doing art and teaching its history along with political science, philosophy and literature as part of humanities programs at San José and San Francisco State Universities. I am a veteran of the civil rights, peace and prisoners movements, as well as being a rank-and-file trade union activist, since the early 1960s. The connection I pursue between politics and art has drawn me to murals, posters and other works on paper, all of these being forms of public and social art that are widely available to people. I have written extensively, my largest piece being Community Murals: the People ’s Art
, 516 pages, published by Associated University Presses, 1984. I am currently a member of the Marin Peace and Justice Coalition in Marin County, California.
My thinking and activity have been driven by the conviction of the need to reintegrate work, art and community. It takes as its premise that their union is necessary to a fulfilling and deeply satisfying life. Their divorce seems to me unnatural and crushes the human spirit. I believe that if people controlled their labor, they would work with insight, skill and style for those they care about and build community around that. At present we tolerate the separation of work, art and community not because we do not want to be creative in our daily life but because our livelihood seems to require it.
It appears to me that the greatest violence that human beings throughout history have inflicted on each other is not the intermittent warfare that takes so many lives but the continuous suppression of the talents and aptitudes of most working people by oppressive economic and political systems that control their labor. Indeed, if people could express their creativity in their work, it is likely that they would be less prone to violence.
Politics is about the control of work; it should be about people liberating their talents through the collective self-management of their occupations. Most art throughout history has been produced under the domination of state, religious and now market power. The liberation of the gifts of people requires their controlling their labor and the community nurturing and providing opportunities for what is best in its members. This is why politics and art are necessarily connected.
This website will contain shorter and longer pieces. Some of these will be commentary on current events, some longer analytical pieces on both politics and art.
The graphics on this page come from the work of the Mexican muralist José Hernández Delgadillo (1927-2000). The header is a detail of a mural done in the School of Design and Crafts in Mexico City in 1973.
In Solidarity with the People of Iraq: January-April, 2003
Begin the Impeachment Process Now
If Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice are not investigated by the House of Representatives to determine whether they should be impeached, the impartial structure of laws on which this nation is built will be discredited. Our system of justice will be undermined if the highest crimes that can be committed are not pursued with the full force of the law.
The White House cabal is finally being exposed by the press, which is beginning to recover its integrity after having failed citizens in the run-up to the war. The New York Times
and other major papers have publicly confessed their negligence.
Already on June 1, 2002, the President at West Point signaled his intention of removing Saddam Hussein by a pre-emptive attack. During that summer there was little eagerness to go to war expressed by the public or Congress and least of all the press. At the end of August the Vice President before the Veterans for Foreign Wars began his hard sell, insisting that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and would use them against us as he had on 9/11. Both charges have of course by now been exposed although Cheney still refuses to take personal responsibility for them, passing them off to bad intelligence.
Through September of that year Congress seemed skeptical, and early in October the administration came up with its instant National Intelligence Estimate, extracted from the CIA with unaccustomed haste. The administration, we now know, deleted views that dissented from the case for war from the version of the NIE that it presented to most members of Congress and the public. This alone should make clear Bush’s intention to deceive us.
Panicked by impending mid-term elections in November, Congress fell into line and voted the President unconstitutional authority to go to war at his own discretion.
Then there was Bush’s allegation in his 2003 State-of-the Union address that Hussein posed an imminent threat due to his effort to purchase of weapons’ grade uranium from Niger. When it was later revealed that the evidence was known by the CIA in advance to be bogus, a Bush aide and CIA director Tenet had to take the rap.
Sixteen days before the invasion of Iraq Newsweek reported that it had learned that Hussein’s son-in-law, who was in charge of weapons production, revealed to the CIA in 1995 when he defected that all WMD had been destroyed in 1991. This should have raised serious doubts about the justification for the impending attack. But never mind, the drumbeat for war silenced dissent, except for the hundreds of thousands of protestors who took to the streets.
If the present Congress does not recognize its responsibility now to investigate and prosecute the deliberate deceptions of the Bush cabal, then it becomes complicit in the wrongs that have been committed.
Even though it may seem to be asking too much for a Republican majority to impeach a Republican president, the party will go down in history as compounding its earlier caving in to the law-breakers for partisan reasons. The only way that the party can restore its integrity is by acting in the interest of justice now.
As for the congressional Democrats, a majority of their minority in the House of Representatives and a smaller proportion in the Senate, refused in October, 2002, to be stampeded into granting the President war-making power. It should therefore be easier for them to urge impeachment even though they are still in the minority.
At very least Democrats standing for next year’s elections for the House should pledge now that if their party wins a majority, they will pursue impeachment. Given the fact that more than a majority of citizens recently polled believe that Bush lied the nation into this war and that therefore he should be impeached, the candidates’ promise to impeach should help the Democrats recover a majority in the House.
If citizens do not insist that Congress acts, they, too, must share the guilt. Many of us have lived through the impunity with which the Vietnam War was deceptively sold. Can our history tolerate another such stain? How is a future war by deceit to be prevented if we do not set this wrong right? How many more soldiers and civilians must needlessly die?
Bernhard Heisig: The Sound and Fury of Painting
(Click on the images for enlargement.)
Never has paint been so ear–splitting. His canvases rage. Banks of loud speakers turn up the decibels. Glaring brass tubas and coronets blare. Multiple red–lipped toothy mouths shout from table–top radios. Rifles gripped by steel–helmeted Wehrmacht
aim at you. Flame bursts from the darkness. Terrified and terrorizing faces scream. Slogans shout from banners. The prostheses of veterans flail incoherently. A prone naked soldier with a toy tank on his chest grimaces and waves an Iron Cross. Marionettes and puppets shriek. Brueghel’s broken and hollowed–out Tower of Babel is there, its blank windows like the multitude of languages that prevent communication. Icarus screams as he plunges. Bosch’s phantasmagorias are updated in sound as well as haunting light. Cacophony assaults you, along with masks and naked flesh that are dumped in your face.
The paint is troweled on to the canvas; crusts of pigment make it more articulate. Helmets, gun muzzles, hooks and limbs seem to extrude from the surface. The acid pink, scarlet, bright citron and bitter absinthe–green screech. Nazi schwarz, weiss und rot
insignia lurk under corpses. Both artist and his subjects cry out, he at them and us, they in their hysteria inflamed by leaders, entertainers, sports idols and hot metal flying unseen through the air. The effort to push sensation to its limits and synesthetically confound sight and sound are driven by an urgency to break through to viewers’ attention, to force us to come to grips with the reality we desperately try to evade by distractions.
In fact, the artist is trying both to draw our attention by all this noise and to undercut it by its excess. The cacophony, he hopes, will be self–canceling and help us hear the truth he has wrung from the clamor and violence. The multiplication of Babel’s languages will prevent work on the tower intended to assault heaven. The recklessness of Icarus flying too close to the sun will dash him to the ground.Die Wut der Bilder
(The Rage of Images) titles the retrospective of some 70 works of Bernhard Heisig, now 80 years old. The canvases have been brought together for an eight–month tour of Germany, beginning in Leipzig last May, thence to Düsseldorf, the cockpit of non–narrative painting, and now concluding in January at the Martin–Gropius–Bau, Berlin’s Municipal Museum. A previous retrospective traveled to West Germany in 1989–90 as the Wall was coming down, while the only showing of his work in the US was in a group exhibition at the same time that visited Harvard, UCLA and the University of Michigan. Heisig was not permitted by the US to accompany his work here. He participated in an earlier group show in England at Oxford in 1984.
His big works, some of them mural–scale, are intended to assault viewers and shock them out of their complacency, their refusal to recognize the reality in which they are complicit. The canvases are indictments of statism and militarism in general, in particular that of his country since Fredrick the Great and especially since the Nazis. Nor did he shrink from criticizing the East German Communist regime for which he was alternately its ornament and embarrassment.
His decades–long indictments are driven by guilt for his own acts and fury at his countrymen for their denial of theirs. At 17 he volunteered for the Nazi Waffen SS
. He served in a panzer
unit, driving a tank, fought in the Ardennes Forest on the Western front and defended his native Breslau in the East during a three–month siege and bombardment by the Russians. He blames the Germans as much as the Soviets for its destruction. He was seriously wounded several times and held in a Soviet prisoner camp. His mother, who had fled on foot across the battlefield during the attack, later visited her son before he was released. They returned to Breslau in 1946 to find it 70 percent destroyed and finally settled in Leipzig in what was then the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
Heisig–s painting is driven by his trying to live down his youthful folly and anger at his contemporaries for not taking responsibility for collaborating with the Nazis. He says that “a sense of guilt slowly came over me.” [Christina Tilmann and Michael Zajonz, Wut erhält mich am Leben, Tagesspiegel
10.21.05] Asked if he would have acted differently knowing what he does today, he replies, “I can only say that I didn’t know any better then. I did what I thought was my duty.” In a number of his canvases a figure holds a rag protesting that “I did my duty and no more than my neighbor.” A recently repainted mural displays the disclaimer: “Saw nothing /Heard nothing/ Did nothing.” Other works show wounded veterans who manicly persevere in their patriotism. Heisig has said that, “The only thing I can really paint well is anger.” [Hanno Rauterberg, “The Only Thing I Can Really Paint Well is Anger,” Die Zeit
, 3.17.05, Trans. from the German on line http://print.signandsight.com]
Bernhard Heisig was born in 1925 in Breslau, the capital of then German Silesia, (now Polish Wroclaw), which until its conquest by Frederick the Great in the 18th century was Austrian and German-speaking. By World War II it had a population of 600,000, still mainly of German descent, most of whom fled or were killed.
The son of a painter, Heisig describes himself as “sort of a child genius” whom he says his father found almost impossible to teach. It was in his studio that he received his first training. [Rauterberg] The boy entered the College of Arts and Crafts in 1941. A lithograph crayon self–portrait of the following year shows his intensity and precociousness. In 1942 he signed up with the
Waffen SS. After the war Leipzig in East Germany became his home for most of his career. For 12 years now he has lived in the small rural town of Strohdene in Brandenburg. In 1947 he joined the SED (Sozialistiche Einheitspartei Duetschlnds
, Socialist German Unity Party), that ruled the GDR, and was later accused of being insufficiently enthusiastic about his membership. He insists that he was then and remains a socialist, though not entirely of the kind the GDR envisioned.
Although he sought admission to the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst
in Leipzig, he could not gain entrance until 1948 and dropped out three years later because he would not succumb to official Socialist Realism, which was ironically dubbed “Socialist Idealism” because of its prescribed depiction of smiling workers devoted to their tractors and assembly lines. The authorities criticized him for his dour painting. The models he sought out were social dissidents: Bosch and Brueghel, Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckman. He was also drawn to the painterly Lovis Corinth and Oskar Kokoshka.
Heisig’s early training had been in the graphic arts and book illustration, which he continued to practice and teach throughout his career, building a reputation. The current exhibition offers a selection of his lithographs, among these a series of Prisoners
of the mid-1960s that show the incarcerated stripped and forced to stand against a rough wall of which they seem to become a part. From this period are lithographs that he did for Berthold Brecht’s Mother Courage
, that show her and the soldiers of the wars of the 17th century reduced to predatory survival. He also illustrated Brecht’s Three Penny Opera
, riffs from which appear in his oil canvases.
Before his cast of mind was apparent he was hired as a tutor at the Hochschule
, then instructor and finally elected rector, because, he said, no one else wanted the position. During his tenure he did not shrink from criticizing the authorities for wanting to impose political orthodoxy on art. In 1964 in a public address he challenged them for their paternalistic restraints on artists, calling for an art that “makes waves, provokes, attacks.” He was relieved as rector but, recanting his indiscretion, was retained to teach. He shifted back and forth from compliance to resistance and underwent interrogation and re–education by the party in 1968, doing caricatures of the authorities between sessions. He finally resigned from teaching.
Between 1968 and 79 he could do an energetic but conventional portrait of Lenin and an ambiguous one of him humorously trying to convince a skeptical old peasant. He expresses his regret for not always standing up to the authorities, for instance, to defend demonstrators who were pulled out of a procession because of their banners, but he did help the opening of an unauthorized exhibition of artists in 1985. Finally he had enough and in 1989 shortly before the tearing down of the Wall, he handed back to the East German government prizes and medals it had awarded him. “It only became clear to me then what a “pile of shit the state was,”he says. [Rauterberg]
Among his earliest freelance work were lithographs of 1951–54 on the revolution of 1848 in Essen and the Paris Commune of 1871 when the populace briefly seized the government after the Prussian defeat of the French. For him this was a defining moment of socialism that was to become a continuing subject of his canvases. Receiving a prize for his illustrations to Brecht’s Mother Courage
in 1965 at the Leipzig book art exhibition, he was exhibiting around the GDR the following year. When in 1973 he mounted the first comprehensive exhibit of his work in Leipzig and Dresden, he was becoming recognized in East Germany as one of its leading artists. He had been rehabilitated and was appointed chair for the federation of art educators in Leipzig and by 1974 in all East Germany. Two years later he returned to the Leipzig Hochschule
as rector to remain until 1987.
The sequence of oil canvases on the Commune between 1962 and 72 reveals how his passion loosened his design and rendering. His painting is still tight in an earlier scene of working people and militia pausing in the street before resuming their battle. But oil studies of 1963 and 64 are painted with a violence that anticipates his mature style. His brushwork in a triptych a decade later matches the fury of the revolutionaries battling the Versailles and Prussian armies backed by a Prussian officer’s uniform propped up by a tailor’s rack, bankers and a bare–breasted dancing girl. In one side panel a communard stands by an ascendant Marianne, symbol of the French people, while in the other she expires among the despairing.
In another painting that also memorializes the Commune on its centenary, Heisig compresses his imagery in a single canvas, so that the scenes become less narrative and more a montage of symbols. Shoved together are the open coffins of the communards, one still firing at the troops of Versailles, a financier with a turned–down collar and tie holding up a puppet of Napoleon III with horns as scapegoat. The dramatis personae fast–forward to troops of both World Wars, a bank of loudspeakers, a table radio and Heisig himself in the foreground in animated speech.
Already in 1964 he did Soldier’s Nightmare
, which was to become the first of a series that extended into the next 17 years with titles like The Nightmare of an Ignorant Soldier
. Each shows an anguished trooper, his body in various stages of undress, suspended prone above the mayhem with a toy tank on his stomach, who desperately holds up his Iron Cross and ribbon. Heisig replays obsessively his horror of battle and painfully dawning recognition of the dementia of war. In one version in a lower corner his mother is screaming at her son’s plight. The title of the 1981 culmination of the series that shows the soldier entirely stripped, is simply The Battle of the Ardennes
, but the struggle depicted is in himself, still fighting to preserve a remnant of his patriotism and pride.
One of his paintings of Icarus plunging naked to the ground is clearly a self–portrait and reverse image of his nightmare with toy tank and Iron Cross. Behind him is the Tower of Babel, another effort to defy human limits. Heisig was to come back to both repeatedly in other works.
The turning point of his style from realistic history painting to phantasmagoria is marked by Fortress Breslau—The City and Its Murderers
of 1969. His characterization of the near total destruction of his native city, this is one of his typically ironic titles. The Nazi decision to defend it had turned it into a fortress and invited its demolition. The suspension bridge across the Oder, that curves placidly and broadens out from the opposite direction, is like a cornucopia that pours out its bitter fruit: a snaking tram stalled by the fighting crowded into the foreground. Wehrmacht
soldiers reel from bullets while one soldier closest to us in a lower corner, continues to fire his machine gun. Another, still helmeted, is strung up by the neck with a caption attached: “I made a pact with the Bolshevik,” in fact to join in the destruction of the city and himself by continuing to resist for three months. Parallel to him but upside down, the nude body of a young woman, her lip–sticked mouth and teeth gaping, is trussed up by her feet above a steel–framed bed (analogous to the bridge) and just showing beneath her, a Nazi flag.
In a version of ten years later, this scene is the center of a triptych in which two nude dancers cavort against a banner whose swastika arms look like theirs and a huge black spider. On the opposite side a veteran holds up an Iron Cross while his other arm has been replaced by a hooked prosthesis. The portrait of a spiked helmeted relative hangs on the wall and the pendulum of a grandfather clock swings, as history repeats itself. The Breslau bridge was to haunt many of Heisig’s images, suggesting that the needless destruction of his native city where he grew up was a transforming experience for him.
Meanwhile Heisig followed the aging of his mother, Hildegard, in a sequence of moving portraits from at least 1966 to her death 12 years later. They show her as a small woman but tough, reflective but independent, gradually losing weight and becoming bent but at the end sitting upright, casting a sidelong glance at her son with a tentative smile. Two years earlier she seemed the survivor as the iconic bridge of Breslau and her city burn. Now she was in possession of herself. Through the succession of six portraits, the artist’s brush, which even in the first sweeps freely in bright hues, is increasingly replaced by palette knife and the tones darken, but his mother’s face remains bright. Her likeness appears in a number of his big montages of horror, a witness.
Heisig’s youngest son, Walter, also is a repeated subject, particularly after he appeared in his father’s studio one day in the uniform of the GDR, having been called up for service. Heisig rememberss that he was dumbstruck at the similarity of cut of his jacket to that of the old Wehrmacht
, which he once wore. [Brochure of the Exhibition] He paints him in uniform but his face chalky, his mouth screaming, his arms out in front of him with two clenched fists. He seems both hysterical in a pose reminiscent of Hitler and terrified. Around him are the now familiar detritus of Heisig’s haunted attic: a prone soldier holding up his ribbon and Iron Cross, fragments of the Nazi banner, howling faces and a giant cosmic egg out of Bosch from which bursts an enlarged crustacean that suggests the technology of war.
During the late ’70s imagery alluding to Bosch and Brueghel appears, although their influence likely was implicit in Heisig’s earlier nightmarish landscapes crammed with human follies. Babel and Icarus, both used by Brueghel, are two versions of the effort to storm heaven, reaching for god-like power, applicable to all imperialisms. In News from the Tower of Babel (1977) a scantily dressed bunny girl pours her heart into a microphone as she sits on the canon of a tank naracistically blinded by her well–primped hair. A soccer player who balances a ball on his nose like a clown suggests the distraction of sports. Meanwhile Icarus screams while plummeting headfirst to earth.
Heisig’s studio became the setting for his phantasmagoria with his collection of stuffed dressmaker dummies, marionettes, puppets and masks that suggest manipulation by leaders and the misuse of art. Das Atelier
of 1979 shows his studio crowded with a live nude model amid props, including a shiny tuba, jester’s cap and bells as well as a maquette of Babel. A prone stuffed dummy with its legs akimbo and a black hand grasping the air is being examined by a barely dressed young woman. Falling backwards, he recalls the artist’s naked image of himself and Icarus in other paintings. A helmeted soldier charges in with a rifle at the ready: Heisig was still struggling with his demons. Meanwhile his mother looks in from a grandfather’s clock. To provide even more immediacy, the artist’s hand with brush reaches in from the edge applying paint to the nude model’s thigh.
In The Persistence of Forgetfulness
, also of 1977, a shouting veteran, who has only one limb intact with which he proudly holds up an Iron Cross, kicks up a wooden leg, as if goose–stepping had become automatic. His own wounding and the corpses of his comrades that sprawl beneath him make no difference, in fact steel him in his militarism. Meanwhile naked lovers embrace, and a jester in cap and bells thumps on his big tuba. Above a tumult of mouths a carnival banner is stretched by cables to read: “We Are Still Brothers and Sisters,” as if their heroics had made them so.Christ Refuses Obedience
is one of his most powerful paintings. In the second of a pair that he was doing between 1984 to 88, a bare–chested soldier with a dog-tag and a red wound in his side grimaces as he rips off the crown of thorns from his bleeding brow and pulls away from the cross. This is said to be a self–portrait. [Exhibition leaflet] The more traditional crucified Christ lies in the shadows. They are enveloped by grotesque human masks and a bullnecked storm trooper (or is he a Teutonic Hell’s Angel?) in the foreground and skeletal puppets at the side, recalling James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels
of 1888. One skeleton pulls a gag across the mouth of a man. A big banner suspended by cords reads: “Everyone So Wise, Judge,” while “Ja,Ja,Ja
” are shouted for crucifixion by faceless mouths.
Heisig was led to examine the origins of German authoritarianism that took him first to the repression of the socialist-led revolution of 1848 against the Prussian monarchy. From his works on this the exhibition offers The First Civic Duty
of 1977, that takes its title from the words of the counter–revolutionary general who proclaimed that “The first duty of citizens is order.” The canvas narrows in on the tumult with the rifles and bayonets of faceless soldiers over the sprawling corpse of a spike–helmeted officer while civilians rush forward and shout, one of them recognizable as Heisig vehmently points in accusation towards us.
The exploration of German history took Heisig back two centuries to Fredrick II, whom the artist presents as the progenitor of German militarism. A series since 1996 on the fighting kaiser display a mad violence that seems the more incongruous because of the decorative white knee britches, blue jackets and cocked hats of the troops that remind you of toy soldiers. Their orderly ranks that reach to the horizon are shattered as the first bullets take their toll. Faces howl in horror as their counterparts would continue to do in the centuries to follow. Fredrick holds the head of his close aide whose execution he ordered when he was exposed as homosexual. As Heisig pursued the subject of Frederick, his subject seems to age and become more crazed and the artist’s rendering more ragged.
During these same years Heisig did a number of smaller works on anti–Semitism. One, The Hunted
of 1989, shows in the shadows a lonely white bearded old man with a yellow star on his coat grasping the railing carefully as he trudges up the stairs of what seems an apartment building. A bit of light catches his cheek and a larger spot the street seen through a window, suggesting his being forced to withdraw increasing from the world.
The title of another work, Two German Painters
, done in 1992, is important because they are Jews, who as such were denied their citizenship by the Nazis. In the sunny background “Jew House” is scrawled on a building and two caskets are being borne through the street. The two artists are in the shadowed foreground. Felix Nussbaum with a yellow star on his coat holds up his identity card, as he appears in a self-portrait that became famous. He had successfully eluded the Nazis until just before liberation when he was captured, deported to Auschwitz and murdered. Behind him is Max Liebermann, the god–father of German modern art, who in 1898 led the Secession from the Berlin Association of Artists in a demand for artistic freedom. After World War I and the discrediting of anti-Semitism, which the Kaiser had formerly given license, Liebermann was selected head of the Prussian Academy. But the advent of Nazism brought back discrimination, and Liebermann died depressed in 1935. Heisig borrows from a well–known photo for his image of the bent old man with a poster of Hitler behind him.
Heisig summed up his view of the world and career in three murals. One of them, Men, War and Old Painter,
dates from 2002–04. Near the center and larger than the other faces is Heisig himself, brush in hand, glancing sidelong at his entire repertoire of imagery, but in particular a woman, in a dark cloak (perhaps his deceased mother} flying off in a dark coat. She is connected by a pair of spurting arteries to a giant golden egg yoke or sun (the source of life?)These lifelines suggest that human blood is incendiary. She flies towards a burning apocalyptic Babel, as if this is the trajectory of life, from fire to fire. Near Heisig is his stock ironic image of a worker with the strip of cloth affirming that “I did my duty like my neighbor.” The rest is a city in flame and heap of heads, including von Hindenburg (German World War I commander who later as president invited Hitler to become chancellor) Hitler himself, Nussbaum, faceless Wehrmacht
helmets aiming and shooting, a brass band, the Pope, women of high society and laughing populace. Dante’s Inferno burns in this world.
A yet larger work, composed of five panels, Yesterday and in Our Age
, was begun in 1974 with revisions completed in 2005. It is an encyclopedic historical panorama and critique. It, too, is not so much a centralized composition as episodic, a montage of incidents, notables and themes familiar in Heisig. The central figure is hardly more prominent than the largest figures in the other panels. He is Heisig’s anti–hero, a worker in sleeveless undershirt who holds a piece of cloth with the broken message: “We only did our duty/No one is more guilty than his neighbor/No one is more cowardly than his neighbor/Doer of our duty.” Next to him a worker submits to crucifixion. Below a chorus of soldiers and civilians presumably shout the same message as coils of brass tubas blare and further down one person covers his mouth, while Heisig himself looks on. Other workers, some in concentration camp stripes, guarded by a soldier, dig the earth. Behind, Mother Courage, desperate to protect her children, pulls her wagon across battlefields on a little stage. Scantily clad ladies join the chorus, and behind them the Tower of Babel looms, symbol of the human welter before us.
The left panel offers a central kiosk with loudspeakers massed at the top and advertisements of grimacing and shouting girlie mouths along with a poster of von Hindenburg. In the lower left corner a prisoner raises his arms in irons to point an accusatory finger toward Hitler. Confronted by this defiance, Der Führer crumples hysterically while a rigid watching Wehrmacht
soldier turns out to be only a tailor’s rack fitted with a uniform and helmet.
The right–hand panels are devoted first to the Paris Commune and a US soldier collaring a guitar-playing protester while the Statue of Liberty looms behind them. A longhaired hippie holds up a placard: “Stop the World. I Want to Get Off.” Icarus plummets again into a bloody sea where a shark surfaces,alluding not only to Mac the Knife in Brecht–s song, but to a world become predatory. Meanwhile three figures, a jester, a blindfolded bald bourgeois and a third looking at his hands are explained by captions: “Saw nothing/Heard nothing/Did nothing.”
Withdrawn from the mural or painted over is a panel that appears in the catalog showing smiling workers, one nursing an infant, and an older woman wearing GDR medals. This seems to have been an early version intended to conform with the authorities’ wishes. With the exception of those who resisted authority—the Communards, the anti–Nazi prisoner and long&ndashhaired protestors in this mural, and elsewhere the soldier ripping off a crown of thorns and insertions of his mother’s face as an antidote in his painted indictments, Heisig rejected positive images in his narrative works. It seems that it was not that he was opposed to the ideal of the worker enjoying his labor—he claimed after all to be a socialist—but he refused to join with officials who used that goal to legitimize their control.
A third mural, Time and Life
, done for a Reichstag cafeteria, dating from 1999, pulls together many of Heisig’s familiar images and generated heated controversy as to whether an artist of the GDR, that some regarded a criminal regime, should be hung in the legislature of united Germany.
The influence of Berthold Brecht on Heisig is pervasive. In one painting Brecht’s Jenny wails into a microphone imagining herself a pirate who will revenge the ignominy of her life. The dramatist’s impact reached to the artist’s very conception of painting and composition. The painter&rsquos pandemonium, his pushing painting to its limits, inflicting his scene on you, generates what Brecht called an “alienation effect” intended to move viewers to distance themselves from the action, forestalling identification with the characters so that you will critically examine their and your own conduct. [David Elliott suggests Brecht’s alienation effect is a general feature of the work of the GDR artists, including Heisig, which were shown at Oxford in 1984. He does not go into any detail, and does not specifically refer to Heisig’s use of this. See the catalog of the exhibition, Tradition and Renewal
, Oxford, England: Museum of Modern Art, 1984, p. 10]
This tactic of detaching viewers from personal involvement yet drawing their attention, even fascination, is also accomplished by the provocative slogans and messages strung up in the paintings of Heisig. Again like Brecht, it is pressed on you that you are confronting a make–believe scene so as not to lose yourself in it. The artifice and illusion are part of a more complex reality that includes both and forces you to try to decipher what is real. Brecht and Heisig entertain and absorb us by taking us behind the scenes, flaunting rather than concealing their artifice with a view to debunking the pompous flimflam of the establishment.
The strategy of both is not mimesis, that is, telling a story, but the analysis of the human condition by selecting illuminating though not necessarily directly connected episodess. Viewers by being lured into figuring out what they see are led to re–evaluate their own conduct. While theater and painting usually invite you to savor someone else’s reality, Heisig like Brecht wants his viewers to rethink it, realize that it did not have to be this way and change their own lives. The idea is not only to induce viewers’ pity and fear. It is not to give them a thorough–going catharsis at contemplating an unavoidable catastrophe of heroic but flawed persons, but to help them see how they and we are responsible for our own disasters and could prevent them if we wanted. The point is: reality is artifice, something we can make or unmake. But there are also consequences and limits, as Icarus, the builders of Babel and militarists discover.
Heisig’s settings are often his studio with all its paraphernalia of conjuring tricks: masks, puppets, marionettes, dummies, live models and maquettes. Or you are at the carnival with its clowns, freaks, masquerades. With these props implying how people can be manipulated, he exposes a world of patriotic illusions and unthinking violence from which a young soldier, later veteran, struggles to disabuse himself. Which is intended to help viewers also to clarify their vision. Art becomes an instrument of demystification and re–engagement.
Another analog to Brecht is Heisig’s use of montage and welding together seemingly disparate images and episodes from different times and places. These include his nightmarish scenes of his own war experience, the inclusion of Babel and Icarus in modern contexts, a charging soldier invading his studio, his mother witnessing these scenes. Heisig’s pulling in far–flung references to throw new light on the issue leads him to expand his canvases into tryptiches and five–panel murals or to divide up a single panel into framed sub–sections, such as the one that exposes different aspects of Fredrick II’s rule.
Large or of medium scale, these canvases are sprawling but calculated scrambles of images and words. They are universes. No part dominates the others, but each throws light on an enfolding reality. In general, Heisig’s canvases do not tell a story or display a consistent setting; they present conflicting and re-enforcing examples, each evocative, intended to build a new conception of things or pose problems that make it difficult for us to evade. This is comparable to what Brecht called “epic theater,” in which there was no tight narrative sequence as in a conventional drama so much as a series of mutually illuminating juxtapositions. By “epic” Brecht seems to have intended a structure composed of varied, discontinuous scenes that cut across time and place, encompassing human history and revealing its perennial plights.
Heisig’s art like Brecht’s is shamelessly didactic, intent on getting viewers to reflect and learn. This is a problem since people resist being told what they should think. And neither artist does. They are problem–posing rather than problem–solving. But they insist on the destructiveness of the way we currently live, forcing on us the responsibility of choosing a solution, while not imposing one themselves. Both artist and dramatist try to overcome resistance by surprise, irony, extreme spectacle and sensory assault, Heisig by brilliant color and stridency, Brecht by song and dance.
They are convincing also because of their unflinching realism, their refusal to sentimentalize. The world they present is unforgiving. It is largely of anti–heroes, its most attractive figures rough–hewn and shrewd. Mother Courage fails to save her three children during the Thirty Years War because as a peddler to opposing armies she is small‐time war profiteerer who gets carried away by haggling for a better deal. While we may be tempted to admire her durability, what is pressed on us by Brecht and Heisig is her becoming a victim of her own unscrupulousness. But some of Heisig’s images of her look like those he did of his mother, whom he shows as someone who has seen everything and remains unbending to the end.
Heisig’s criticism of his contemporaries, one might complain, is only an effort to shake off his own guilt. But he is the first to declare his responsibility and paints not only to confess it and work through his pain but to persuade his contemporaries to do the same and, even more important, to act so as to prevent what he and they perpetrated and condoned from ever happening again.
These are not paintings for your dining room. They are public art appropriate to government buildings and schools in particular, museums of course.
Heisig is important because he presents the overwhelming issue of our time with both passion and craftsmanship. That issue is war, in particular, aggressive, unprovoked war. What is special about Heisig’s indictment is his holding himself and fellow citizens responsible for enthusiastically collaborating with and not resisting state terrorism. It is not so much the Nazi leaders whom he condemns. He accuses those like himself who eagerly enlisted and the public who supported the bigotry, nationalism and militarism that empowered their leaders, who had begun as angry and ambitious small–timers. He decries the evasions of people, their effort to exonerate themselves and their persistence in self–justification and what they continue to believe is patriotism. He exposes how they use the wounds they have suffered to reinforce their belief in the righteousness of force. He presents collective aggression as a dementia that not only wrecks carnage on others but is self–destructive, threatening total catastrophe. As socialists, Heisig and Brecht argue that the people can only save themselves from this and exploitative leaders by taking control themselves and building an egalitarian society. It was by lending themselves to a class–divided society that they drew the worst out of themselves.
Asked if his painting has relevance to the fighting in Iraq today, he says that he is also asked why he keeps painting about the past since it is over. [Tilmann and Zajonz] He replies to both questions that he must understand the past to comprehend the present. “Nothing is over.” His art, he says is a reflection on history. He adds that he wants to avoid an art of lemmings who rush blindly to their own extinction.
He connects the Tower of Babel’s attempt to reach the heavens and Icarus flying too close to the sun to the ambitions of Frederick II, Bismarck, Hitler, and, most important, his fellow human beings today in whom he sees the same threat. That is why he paints. Nothing could be more relevant when once again the West has undertaken a new crusade and empire building. In this age of world wars and war against terrorism, when the state in its self-proclaimed effort to protect civilians kills ten times as many as soldiers, reversing the proportion of a hundred years ago, Heisig’s paintings are nothing if not attacks on the hypocrisy of the “civilized.”
If there is any work that is akin to his, it is the Catharsis
of José Clemente Orozco, a mural painted in 1934. It is a huge tangle of political bosses, prostitutes, the populace charging off in opposite directions brandishing weapons, all depicting the betrayal of the Mexican Revolution. In his apocalyptic works Orozco like Heisig attacks not so much leaders as the common people for permitting themselves to fall prey to them. Both artists hold those whom they most care about as responsible for leaders who exploit their weaknesses, their greed, carnality and eagerness to attach themselves to power.
What has provoked criticism is not only Heisig’s message but that his art is even the bearer of a message in this age when painting is supposed to have freed itself from that burden. He of course would say that this is just one of the evasions of our reality as socially responsible beings that puts our very existence at risk. His message is our pursuit of distractions as well as illusions of grandeur. His achievement is self–knowledge in spite of its cost in personal humiliation and seeking to share his understanding not only with his countrymen but with us.
Heisig has contrived the means to command our attention in spite of our resistance. Both his composition and painting technique grab you. The slashing pigmentation appeals because of its vigor but also its savvy ability to simulate appearances, for instance, the glare of polished brass horns and dull metal of helmets. His painting engages us also by its sheer lushness and clashing hues. Heisig invites us to indulge in the mixing of the senses, the transformation of the visual into the acoustic. Finally he exploits the sound and fury, the in–your–face shock, not as an end in itself like the pyrotechnics of the entertainment media, but inversely to yield the silence of reflection.
***Photo credits. All color illustrations used here were taken from the catalog "Bernhard Heisig: Die Wut der Bilder," edited by Eckhart Gillen and published in Köln, Germany, by Dumont Literatur und Kunst Verlag, 2005. The two black and white illustrations are from Berthold Brecht,"Mother Courage," illustrated by Bernhard Heisig, Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 2001.
José Hernández Delgadillo: Mexico’s Artist Agitator
(Click on the images for enlargement.)
He is safely dead. He will no longer be a thorn in the side of Mexico’s oligarchs—its presidents and politicos, its labor bosses and business tycoons. He also did not hesitate to criticize publicly those artists who failed to take them on.
Mexico’s greatest political artist of the last third of the 20th century died December 26, 2000. The name of José Hernández Delgadillo was sufficiently recognizable in Mexico for him to be nominated for president on the Socialist ticket in that country’s first primary election in 1987. No other Mexican artist, not even Rivera, Orozco or Siqueiros, los Tres Grandes, could claim as much. As matters turned out, the left opposition to PRI (the Partido Revolutionario Institutional) that had ruled Mexico since 1929, finally chose Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, who had defected from PRI. He was not a socialist at all but a “progressive democrat,” as Delgadillo described him, but that was enough for the painter, and he devoted his skills as a muralist to the Cárdenas candidacy. On election night the computers counting the votes “were allowed” to break down. After eight days the PRI candidate, Carlos Salinas, was declared the winner with 50.7% of the votes. Like millions who protested in the streets, Delgadillo believed that Cárdenas actually had won. Because PRI held all positions of state power, Cárdenas conceded in the interest of preserving peace. Delgadillo believed that decision was a major mistake.
Delgadillo was selected as a presidential candidate because he had worked with the disenfranchised all over Mexico—trade unions and campesino associations independent of PRI control, as well as university, polytechnic and secondary students, who traditionally had been a source of democratic socialist activism. He sought to give them a voice, not only by participating in their planning but also engaging them in painting big brazen billboard–like graphics inside and outside their meeting halls and classrooms, along major thoroughfares, even on a barn. Since 1969 he had absorbed himself with creating these works of political art—murals and monumental sculpture—and could count over 200 of them before his death. What is compelling about them is that they are not just propaganda, which they are in the best sense; they are powerful art, drawing not only on the tradition of Social Realism but also on Aztec and Mayan design and his own passionate heart, his gran corazón
Delgadillo’s life is like that of a hero of a picaresque novel, a Don Quixote, not of self–delusion, but a creator of new realities, an itinerant battler against oppression, driven by an unquenchable thirst for social justice and armed with the talent and ingenuity to succeed. It is well to recall that Che Guevara thought of his compañeros and himself fighting against all odds in the Sierra Maestra as Don Quixotes.)
Delgadillo was born in 1928 in Tepeapulco in the state of Hidalgo in the heart of Mexico. [This information about his early life is derived mainly from his Autobiographical Notes, transcribed by his friend Benito Balam in 1981 and translated by Catalina Sherwell Hand in 2003] His father, Francisco Hernández Islas, an apprentice saddle–maker at 13, was kidnapped during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 by an army allied to the Zapatistas and in two years rose to the rank of captain. He was released to take care of his family when his father, searching for him, was mistakenly killed by his son’s troops. Francisco married María de la Paz Delgadillo, whose parents were landowners in the state of Tlaxcala near Puebla. Although they lost ownership of their hacienda during the Revolution, Delgadillo remembers in his Autobiographical Notes its distemper murals depicting local daily life with the peons painted smaller than their master. The large house where he lived until he was seven also was decorated with murals that he describes as “very beautiful.” The art he grew up surrounded by clearly made an impact on him. From his father he gained a strong sense of justice, he says, and from his mother, who occasionally painted, a love for art and literature. As a boy Delgadillo would accompany his father to work in the fields and hunt in the mountains, mixing with the workers and their children who brought maguey to the fermenter that his father owned to be prepared for pulque. They became the subjects of his early drawings. The fledgling artist also was interested in politics by one of his teachers in elementary school. The boy read the newspaper daily, absorbed by the coming of World War II and developing early a hostility to imperialism and the United States.
A teacher encouraged him to go to a rural normal school to become a teacher himself. There he studied with the sons of campesinos, who greatly influenced him as a result of their doing farm labor together. Another teacher introduced him to the Mexican Communist Party that he joined. But he says he did not understand at the time the hammers, sickles and red banners in the murals that had been done in an auditorium converted from the chapel of a nearby hacienda.. His talent was discovered by a biology teacher when he was not paying attention and had to disclose the drawing he was doing of him. As a result he was appointed the illustrator of the school newspaper. He describes how on travelling to Puebla for paints he barely escaped with his life when he came under machine-gun fire as governing party thugs attacked the office of a rival candidate. That was in 1940 and his first encounter with political violence.
It was his copying of bullfight posters (he had done some bullfighting himself) that attracted the attention of a well–known matador in 1945 who offered to take him to Mexico City where he was introduced to the prominent painter Carlos Ruano Llopis. He referred the young man to a disciple, Antonio Navarrete Trejo, whose apprentice he became, developing his drawing and oil technique. Meanwhile he supported himself by clerking in a wholesale grocery and making furniture and pottery. Visiting museums and exhibits, he discovered los Tres Grandes, preferring Orozco to Rivera and Siqueiros. He painted working people and landscapes, as well as portraits, selling them to tradesmen and friends, soon making it possible for him to live off his painting. He had his first one-man exhibit in 1954. The following year he enrolled in La Esmeralda (The National School of Painting, Sculpture and Engraving), studying with Pablo O’Higgins and Ignacio Aguirre, whom he regarded outstanding teachers. O’Higgins had come from the US in the 1920s to do murals with Rivera and became one of the major figures of the second generation of the Mexican muralists and graphic artists of the Taller de Gráfica Popular. It was O’Higgins that Delgadillo credits with teaching him al fresco technique, that is, painting on wet plaster so that the pigment becomes part of the wall.
Delgadillo did his first mural in 1957 as part of his training. It was across the street from La Esmeralda in the Escuela Niños Héroes, an elementary school. In those days every public building had to have a mural, and doing one was frequently part of an art student’s training. Delgadillo’s was a traditional fresco facing an open-air patio. In the monumental manner of Orozco’s murals in the patio of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria it displays a march of indigenous people in their native garb through their village with a banner calling for justice and schools. Delgadillo says that it represents a boy whose father was killed violently in the fields, parting from his mother to go off to school. The mural was damaged by the earthquake of 1985, and the cracks were filled with plaster and left unpainted. Orozco was to remain a strong influence on Delgadillo’s work after 1968, but it was the older artist’s expressionistic Man of Fire theme and style that was to inspire him rather than his earlier solid forms that his young admirer took as a model here.
Between 1956 and ’61 Delgadillo worked in an office doing architectural drafting and engineering for the government of the Federal District, participating in the design of the central Merced and Jamaica markets of the capital. This experience as a draftsman together with his early determination to master the academic drawing of the human figure were important skills he could utilize later. While at the Esmeralda he began to paint more freely, admiring the work not only of Orozco, but also Siqueiros and Picasso. In 1959 and ’60 he received public commissions for high relief sculpture in concrete for the arena in the Magdalena Mixuca Sports City, and he designed a 25–meter high symbol of the book fair there and murals in pavilions. By now he had decided to take as his surname, his mother’s maiden name rather than his father’s because, he said, “Delgadillo” was less common than “Hernández.”
During most of the 1960s he confined himself to easel painting, some very sizable. Most of it was of rough-hewn and shadowy hulking figures even having difficulty to breathe in a murky ambience of oppression and war. Hombres
, a work of 1961, shows two haunted figures, one robust, yet shielding his body with his arms, the other behind, skeletal, suggesting a photo negative, as if exposed to atomic radiation. It won him a scholarship to Paris for six months, but he remained there two years partly through commissions by the Mexican government. During his stay he learned French, the only foreign language that he could speak. His work brought him considerable recognition although his principal motif during the decade was the human figure at a time when it was out of fashion in the international art circles dominated by abstraction, both gestural and hard edged. He was one of a group of artists who were utilizing the human form to express the plight of mankind in the face of violence, especially the Cold War that was not cold at all in Latin America and Vietnam while threatening to engulf everyone in thermonuclear apocalypse. These artists did not share a common analysis, ideology or politics. Indeed, most were non-political. Nor did they join together in any lasting association. It was precisely their separateness and alienation that characterized them. It was only this shared sense of helplessness conveyed by the use of the vulnerable human body that united them in the minds of a number of art critics who described them as the “New Humanism,” “Interiorists” or even more vaguely in the self-characterization of some of the Mexican artists who exhibited together, “The New Presence” (La Nueva Presencia).
Individualism prevailed, and the Mexican Mural Movement that had flourished during the post-Revolutionary era was now in eclipse. But the veterans of this socially concerned art, who were organized in the Salón de la Plástica Méxicana, invited Delgadillo to become a member in 1961 and he exhibited in their annual shows. The Salón, although funded by the government, was governed by the artists themselves, and Delgadillo was to serve on its board of directors. Artists still received a few state commissions to do public art but simply repeated the old themes, which had lost their political and artistic credibility. Delgadillo himself complained of this although he designed a mural in 1963 for a building of PRI and received second prize for his efforts. For most young ambitious Mexican artists it was the abstract styles that had emerged in the United States during the 1940s and ’50s that they belatedly embraced in the hope that they would gain distinction and clients.
Having exhibited widely during the ’60s, particularly in Europe but also gaining a one–man show in Beverly Hills in 1967, Delgadillo began undertaking new projects in Mexico City that year. On the basis of his growing reputation and connections, he received a government commission to design murals for the newly completed Metro in the capital. Based on his knowledge of the Paris Metro together with his architectural and engineering experience gleaned a decade earlier, he rejected the temptation to repeat the worn out themes of the Mexican Revolution and instead submitted a complex proposal using new materials and technologies for public art. The government wanted him to do the murals by himself or with assistants, but, while he believed that he possessed the skills to carry out the project on his own, he felt it would be wrong not to share the design and execution of the project with other artists. This led to his abandoning it altogether.
All of this was to change utterly. Delgadillo was caught up in the popular demonstrations led by students in 1968 that galvanized the widespread grievances that had been accumulating since the end of the Revolution in 1920. Most of the government leaders for a quarter of a century after the Revolution had been generals and officers in its armies who had seized power but had co-opted its causes of free elections, the distribution of land to those who tilled it, collective bargaining by trade unions, public education and social welfare. They made only token concessions to consolidate their power. Among these were the encouraging of murals on revolutionary and nationalist themes. Muralists had been from the end of the Revolution among its chief advocates but also the most outspoken critics of officials and bosses who had assumed its mantel. Because the government sought to trumpet its revolutionary achievements, it found it difficult to gag its artist critics, particularly when they won international fame. The former generals, now politicians, allied themselves with the bosses of labor unions and campesino associations, forming in 1929 the predecessor of what was to become the Partido Revolucionario Institutional, which constituted a nationwide political machine that managed to remain in power for 70 years, the longest regime of any nation in the world during the 20th century with the exception of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, which ruled only four years longer. The 19th century oligarchy of regional magnates, caudillos, who had presided over enormous estates and populations, now was replaced by a new oligarchy appropriate to an industrial, urbanizing society but one in which agriculture continued to play a major role. Party bigwigs initially rebuffed corporate business, especially foreign and particularly US investors, nationalizing the nation’s rich oil resources in 1938 and grabbing for themselves government contracts in all types of production. Mexico developed economically as a semi–modern nation run by a network of bureaucracies with everyone dependent on favors and connections under the domination of party magnates.
During World War II private fortunes had been made in industry and agriculture supplying the US with consumers goods and food while its domestic production had been channeled to armaments. By the 1950s the PRI oligarchs were collaborating with investors and industrialists outside their circle and from the US. The government had never met its full legal obligations to create new community-owned countryside, the ejidos, by redistributing the land of the pre–revolutionary haciendas. The state insured the votes of campesinos by controlling the distribution of seed and deciding who should receive roads and irrigation. The disparities between rich and poor increased with campesinos being driven from the land by US agribusiness investors to shan-tytowns (colonias proletarias, ciudades olvidades) on the margins of the cities. The wages of industrial workers lagged for years, and strikes had been severely repressed. Workers and civil servants’ demands for unions independent of PRI control were denied, often violently. PRI had never allowed itself to be defeated in presidential or gubernatorial elections In the mid–60s the government also clamped down on efforts to open the nominating process for public office and annulled mayoral elections that the party had lost. In 1968 civil servants con-trasted the low level of their pay with the cost the state was spending on preparations for the impending Olympic Games. The international competitions were intended to show the world the results of three decades of rapid develop-ment, Mexico’s economic “miracle” that had in fact imiserated much of its population.
These contradictions were brought to a head during the summer of ’68 as the result of a tiff between two secondary schools which escalated because of police over-reaction. Street demonstrations followed, and the brutality of the authorities drew in the students of University and Polytechnic students, then the middle sectors of the population with their varied grievances against the government. As elsewhere around the world that year, students became the advocates of truly representative government. Because these moderate demands were denied, people in all sectors—workers, campesinos, professional people whose advancement was stymied, and especially students, increasingly took matters into their own hands to dismantle the political machine. They called for participatory democracy, auto–gestión (workers’ self–management) and authentic community control in the urban barrios and the ejidos. They were demanding direct citizen involvement in public decision–making at the workplace as well as constituencies, direct democracy. The students formed a Consejo Nacional de Huelga (National Strike Council).
On October 2, ten days before the beginning of the Olympic Games, some 5,000 protestors marched to Tlatelolco near Mexico City’s Centro for a rally. It had in the 1960s become a show-place re-development project. The Foreign Ministry and affordable residential high-rises were built around the Plaza de las Tres Culturas with its Aztec remains and a colonial church. As the crowd was about to break up, tanks and troops suddenly appeared and shots rang out. It became a killing-ground. Afterwards the government charged that students had begun the fray by firing on the soldiers.
It was only in the last few years that the truth of Tlatelolco has begun to be exposed. President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, fearing that the demonstrations would embarrass his government if they continued to the Olympic Games, ordered that snipers place themselves in the apartment buildings that flanked the plaza and fire on the soldiers below so as to provoke their shooting into the crowd. Luis Echeverria, head of the Interior Ministry and later to become president, directed the attack. One of the first to be hit was a general in command of a paratroop battalion. [Sam Dillon, “Anniversary of ’68 Massacre Brings Facts to Light,” NY Times, Sept. 14, 1998] Between 200 and 1,500 were killed. Some 2,000 demonstrators were beaten and jailed. The number of dead could not be verified because the army quickly carried off the bodies.
Delgadillo, whose mother and sister had an apartment at Tlatelolco, was not present at the shooting, he said, because he was repairing a crack that had developed in an elaborate mobile sculpture he was working on in the basement of the Palacio de Bellas Artes a mile away. While down there, he heard the shooting. The massacre changed his life and art. As he wrote, “From 1968,the year of the brutal repression of the Mexican people, I decided to take their side in order to struggle against this unjust system directed by the upper bourgeoisie and imperialism.” [Statement in Presencia del Salón de la Plástica Méxicana, INBA, 1977]
At that time Delgadillo was teaching at the Esmeralda, and his prestige was such that in 1969 he had been made director of art for the Centro Residencial Morelos, another new affordable housing project in the capital. The project was financed and under the direction of the National Bank of Mexico. Delgadillo and 24 of his students did 40 murals between the rows of windows at ground level. The students were given freedom in the design of their works. Delgadillo contributed at least three and likely more of these. His pieces depict robust women and men seated on the ground in conversation or watching the residents pass. The figures are monumental like sculpture, garbed in flecked apparel with even legs x–rayed to take advantage of the pattern of bones. These are impersonal decorative works that bear a resemblance to his more haunted, atmospheric easel work of the 1960s. A particularly beautiful even more abstract composition using these forms is a bas relief mural he created using polyester. But one of the panels shows a blindfold bandaged bound figure, seemingly beaten into submission while another is prone on the ground. “69” is stamped on the first, its numerals awry, while the date is partially shone again, as if to drive home the aftermath of the tragedy. This was his first mural explicitly about the political oppression of the time, although his earlier painting of the 1960s alluded to the general ambience of foreboding.
Meanwhile, Delgadillo along with two other well–established artists, Benito Messaguer and José Capdevila, designed three murals composed of fully abstract forms about 20 feet wide and rise from the ground the full 15–story height of the towers, perhaps 150 feet. Similar works were being done about the same time in New York City where they were called “supergraphics.” They were to become ubiquitous around Mexico City and the world over the next decade, employed to decorate bare walls of high rises. Delgadillo and his compañeros, following the traditional method of fresco muralists, picked out their designs on full–scale paper so that craftsmen could mount the sheets on the wall, charcoal through the holes, strip off the paper and recreate the design. Workmen who were used to the height then airbrushed the final murals. The results were impersonal, without meaning, simply rather elegant shapes floating along the flanks of the towers that broke up the rigid rows of windows and brick corners.
But the final work of the project marked a turning–point for Delgadillo. Without advising the bank, he decided to com-memorate the victims of Tla-telolco. In the center of a little plaza among the apart-ment towers, he created a three–story high free–stand-ing monument in crusted concrete (cemento de arena) around a steel armature. There are three separate pieces. In the grass lies a twice–life–size severed head painted bone–white and screaming at the sky. The remaining pieces are unpainted raw gray concrete. Resting on a simulated tombstone, a massive casket on its side exposes the corpse inside, its body wrapped in bandage-like straps. Behind it a big arm rises in a pledge, its muscles and tendons echoing the casket straps. Stark abstract pattern is adapted to the human forms with a view to expressing a deeply felt message, a mix Delgadillo used in some of the murals here at the Residencia and was to pursue elsewhere. A journalist described the work as La Noche de la Tinta Negra, (The Night As Black As Ink), and the name has stuck. Tlatelolco changed Delgadillo’s art and life, and this work signifies that transformation. His previous painting depicted passive victims. It had been characterized by introverted pathos. This monument and his following work was also about victims, but they now resist. The transformation is from plight to fight. His adoption of new stylistic means embodied this. From the murky stippled images of suffering there suddenly appear hard–edge figures of resistance. With this work he put at risk a promising career within the art establishment to commit himself to an art of popular protest and proletarian revolution.
In his autobiography Delgadillo says that after Tlatelolco, he decided never to work for the government or its private affiliates again. He refused to cooperate with a regime that abused its people, and he insisted on artists’ freedom of expression. In 1975 the government offered to send him and his works on an international tour, but he refused. Such an exhibit of protest art, he said, would lend credence to the authorities’ claim that free speech and democracy existed in Mexico. He would do as few things for the private sector as possible, only for a minimal livelihood, and these usually were political in theme. Some of these works were on exhibit and available to purchase at the Salón de la Plastica Méxicana and a private gallery, Mer Kup, that handled his pieces for many years. He now sought to devote himself mainly to serve what he saw as the “ongoing revolution.” He joined together with other artists, singers and actors of the Arte Colectivo en Acción. He did illustrations for magazines, newspapers and other publications, like small books of poetry, as well as covers for phonograph records and tape recordings devoted to revolution and distributed to students, workers and the popular sector. This was one of the tasks to engage him for the rest of his life. Delgadillo says that the “massive mobilizations of the people of 1968 and the fascist tendencies of the Mexican government that turned Mexico City in just a matter of days into a terrorized city” that culminated in the massacre of Tlatelolco moved him to study Marxism to understand what was happening. Although he had joined the Mexican Communist Party while a student in normal school, by the time of Tlatelolco he appears to have left it, realizing that many of its members were opportunistic, willing to sacrifice their politics to their careers or, on the other hand, become ciphers of Stalinism.
Tlatelolco was followed by a reign of terror with paramilitary death squads, Los Halcones (Falcons), attacking suspected opponents of PRI. In 1971 during a march of students and workers through the center of Mexico City calling for educational reforms, political rights and the freeing of political prisoners, 40 students were killed in front of the press. Much of the opposition went underground and some re-emerged as urban and rural guerrillas. During the student strike of 1968, the government, fearful that the democratic contagion would spread to restless labor unions, made a deal with them for better wages. When hard times came again in 1973, workers renewed their demands to make unions independent of government leadership. That year also campesinos who were being marginalized by agribusiness stepped up land seizures that peaked in 1976 with the result that Echeverria, who was president, was compelled to support some at the end of his term, only to have these resettlement efforts overturned by his successor, López Portillo. In the state of Guerrero former school teachers Genero Vásquez Rojas and Lucio Cabañas, led insur-gencies until they were killed. Members of the families of business execu-tives and officials were kid-napped, and US subsidi-aries were bombed in 1974.
These events moved Delgadillo to create in 1973 the first of his militant murals. His main support came from student organizations, which invited him to paint at univer-sities, technical schools and teachers’ colleges throughout the country. The murals appear on these institutions’ facades, in their patios and lecture halls. Delgadillo said it was better not to seek permission. Since the universities are formally “autono-mous,” that is, run by the students, faculty and alumnae, the students were often conceded the walls. If the authorities interfered, that itself could become a chance to raise underlying issues. Delgadillo did the designs, and often he invited the students to help with the painting, filling in the flat monochromatic color in the forms he already delineated. He had found a vehicle to engage untrained artists in powerful public statements that all could immediately grasp. A work was often completed in the course of a day, during which students performed music, attracting viewers and discus-sion.
These works are vehemently agitational. The earlier ones from 1973 to ’76 look like billboards or enormously enlarged posters with their strong, flat color and stark, silhouetted figures. Typical of these is a work he painted in 1973 on two adjoining walls of a broad passageway through the Esquela de Diseño y Artesenias (School of Design and Crafts), situated in Mexico City’s Ciudadela (Citadel), built in 1807. Here everything is rendered in black, red, yellow and white. At the left, automatic weapons are pointed from the helmeted heads and hunched shoulders of the military. (In other versions it is only impersonal aimed gun barrels, projecting from the edge, reminiscent of Goya’s Desastres de la Guerra.). In the center, the decapitated heads of civilians lie on the ground, their screams or final breaths rising from gaping mouths like the speech volutes of Aztec painting. At the right, survivors defend themselves with flailing fists and a tool quickly snatched up. (In other works they have found rifles that they point back at their assailants.) Big wedges of color like search-lights cut across the figures and pull the mural together. Mostly the figures are only heads, fists, arms, sometimes chests. The rest is coils, indicat-ing their outward and inward turmoil. Great beaks of flame burst from their midst and like projections of their vehemence strike back at their attackers.
The same year Delgadillo condensed this imagery at the Colegio de Ciencias y Humanidades Azcapotzalco in the capital. Here the defenders have found their own weapons but along with them point a sickle and a book, knowledge also being power. Represented in sharp black silhouette against the white wall, they reach out in both directions from red and yellow concentric crescents, again coils of passion. Black speech volutes and flames project from the knot. Lying on the ground at the side are two severed heads of their comrades. The simplicity of the design and the explosive feelings it displays are compelling. Delgadillo was doing a class here with students who proudly displayed their full–scale mural designs on paper.
Also in 1973 he elaborated this vocabulary of forms into more complex murals where enriched pattern combines decorative appeal with emotive power. At the entrance of the lecture hall of the Law School at the University of Zacatecus, Delgadillo spread his familiar imagery across a long wall, the figures swallowing up the doorway. Against the military who are firing above bodies that breathe their last volutes, the survivors resist with only their shouts and fists, their passion expressed by red and yellow coils, wedges and licking flames. The composition is a big dynamic splaying out of swirling geometric forms. In a secondary school also in Zacatecus that year he painted as vigorous a work on the second level of the central patio open to the sky. Here the fury of the victims of impersonal muzzles pointed from the left strikes back with a single rifle and fists, rendered with even more intense gestures, now in orange, vermilion and black against the cream stucco. Big beaks and talons of color project from the knot of defenders, as one of their number falls backward, but one of his arms is repeated as in a time-exposure but also suggesting other persons who will join the struggle. The variety of these two works done nearby in close succession indicates the inventiveness of the artist as he expanded the possibilities of his forms.
The bold hard–edge patterns of these murals remind you of a vastly magnified woodcut or silkscreen, a pre–Co-lumbian codex and Mayan low-relief sculpture. Their forms have been appropriated from indigenous art: profiles with bridgeless noses and open mouths that indicate speech or shouts; the squarish builds of the figures; the broad, ritualized gestures; the stylized repetitions like the row of heads that suggest ancient rather than modern murder. Arms and faces are cross–hatched, seemingly bandaged and outlined with straining blood vessels, bone and muscle. The markings sometimes resemble war paint or masks. Like earlier Mexican muralists, Delgadillo utilized the forms of Indian culture to emphasize the rich heritage of his people, their capabilities and resistance to exploitation. His figures often seem primordial. It is as if they have sprung from the earth and huddle close together for protection against their assailants as they fight back. Sometimes he represents them with the harrowing faces of his victims in his easel work of the 1960s, their eyes reduced to empty sockets, their mouths gaping. But fight back they do. These big graphics bring to their outrage and calls to action a breadth of reference, a semi-abstract form and monumentality that link them to the fine arts. These murals connect popular and high culture in a new way.
This was the design of Delgadillo’s early murals at schools and universities elsewhere in Mexico City, Cuernevaca, Toluca, Veracruz, Jalapa, Pachuca, Fresnillo, Zapatepec, Durango and Tepic. At the same time as Delgadillo used students as assistants, he encouraged them to do murals of their own with the result that where he has painted, there was usually an outburst of student work, as at the normal schools at Tuxtla Gutiérrez. This was guerrilla art, indicting the attacks on civilians and encouraging their protests. That most remained on walls for years indicates the power of the student movement and the support of some professors.
The most important influence on Delgadillo was José Clemente Orozco. His Promoteo in the refectory of Pamona College in Clairmont, California (1930) and Man of Fire (El Hombre en Llamas) in the cupola of the Chapel of the Hospicio Cabañas in Guadalahara (1939) appear to have provided continuing inspiration to Delgadillo’s spiraling figures wrapped in flames, the fire inflicted on them by their oppressors and the fire of their own outrage and capability springing back in response. They are not merely in flames but more importantly, enflamed. The connection is more overt in Orozco’s burning soaring figure surrounded by a ring of gesturing followers at Guadalahara. But it is also evident in the flame–illuminated muscles of the naked Prometheus who is wresting fire from Zeus. Although influenced by Orozco’s vortices, Delgadillo selected and concentrated them so that his composition stands as original on its own and projects its own power. In fact, the younger muralist’s spirals are usually only part of his full composition with the rest posing a counter force, as in the case of soldiers who attack the coils of workers. Delgadillo transforms Orozco’s fully rounded figures into flat, graphic designs that possess a different kind of boldness. The full expression of his borrowing as well as his independence was to come at the height of Delgadillo’s career in his Hombre Nuevo Hacia el Futuro in Cuernavaca in 1989.
But there is an important difference in the way that Delgadillo and Orozco visualize the struggle for liberation, and it is based on a key difference in their politics. Orozco presents a single leader who is creative and incorruptible surrounded by the frightened quailing masses. Delgadillo shows no leaders. It is the people themselves who together take the initiative to resist. It is not the “man on fire” but the “people on fire” that he depicts. Part of Orozco’s strength is that although he takes the side of the people, he berates their divisiveness, their gullibility before demagogues, their frequent drunkenness and their proneness to brutality. From his point of view, it is only the unique leader who can save them—Quetzalcóatl (in his murals at Dartmouth College), Zapata (his easel painting), Prometheus and the “Man on Fire.” Delgadillo shows the people sometimes frightened and cowering, sometimes in retreat, sometimes even brutal in their outrage (the University of Toluca murals), but it is the people alone, without leaders, who he shows pulling themselves together to strike back.
In his easel work of the 1960s Delgadillo depicted people crushed, intimidated and passive. It was Tlatelolco, then afterwards government and paramilitary attacks that roused in him the determination to challenge the forces of repression and to do so by grassroots organizing. It was the mass organization of the students and their supporters before Tlatelolco and the continuing resistance after it led by teachers like Genero Vásquez Rojas (and more distantly the example of Che Guevara, who also appears in one of his murals), leaders who were close to those whom they led, involving them in the leadership, that Delgadillo regarded as the agents of liberation, the self–liberation of the people. What Delgadillo counted on was not the unique leader but the solidarity of the people. He sought to provide that kind of leadership himself to the groups of students, trade unionists and campesino associations that he worked with, not only doing murals with them but also planning political strategy. Although his friends called him el director de la orqesta, he continually sought the opinions of those whom he worked with. He often took the initiative and offered his talents but sought the participation of everyone else to the limit of their abilities.
Even art critics sympathetic to the Mexican mural tradition like Raquel Tibol complained that Delgadillo repeated himself with this imagery, that he was not showing growth, which was so cultivated by modern artists. His response was that he did frequently draw on the same repertory of forms, but he tried to adjust them to the issues of the groups who sought him out. He was inventive developing considerable variety within his idiom. His imagery is so rich in allusion and bold in design that it is compelling. In any case, Delgadillo said that his viewers in Tuxtla Gutiérrez were not aware of his images in Durango or Monterrey. His principal public were not the cosmopolitan bourgeoisie and art professionals but students and working people, especially those in the localities where he painted who needed expression and validation of their resistance. Moreover, Mexican working people and students were steeped in their native traditions at least as much of the better-educated. Delgadillo’s aim was not so much formal innovation as meeting the needs of those whom he painted for. He was moved by the desire to create social activist art. This was against the grain of much sophisticated Modern Art that was pre–occupied with personal expression and innovation to only stimulate the mind. There was however an alternative Modern Art—-that driven by social justice and political mission, which the Mexican muralists and graphic artists had created. At its best it expressed intense feelings, those of social passion—empathy for the abused, outrage against the abusers. But that tradition had fallen into decay. In his easel work of the ’60s Delgadillo had experienced and expressed personal despair but this was not so much for himself alone but for humanity. His feelings were especially desperate because he was isolated, unassociated with any viable political resistance movement.. But now that despair had been transformed into political passion because he was participating in the mobilizing of the oppressed.
It was not only the imagery of Delgadillo’s murals that was new. It was also his manner of working. He wanted to paint in public and engage viewers by allowing them to witness the evolution of the process. He always cooperated with the local students, workers, campesinos or popular groups. He wanted to understand their issues so that he could adopt his thinking and imagery to their needs. Often he joined them in strategizing for their projects, bringing to them his increasing experience about how to do activism and function as part of a larger social movement. At first he designed his murals in advance, but as he became practiced, he was able to size up the wall on the spot, determine how it would be seen and improvise a design while working, as he describes in his autobiography. He also wanted to paint in simultaneous collaboration with other “cultural workers”—-poets and musicians”-who performed while he painted before the crowd that gathered. Los Mascarónes, a political theater group, might put on a skit. Doing a mural became a multi-cultural “happening,” a total experience of expression around a common theme, which he believed would be that much more effective in drawing out people and arousing them to political action. The first time Delgadillo engaged students in assisting him in painting a mural was at the Azcapotzalco Colegio in 1973. Making art with others became a participatory experience with a view to motivating people to act together to take charge of their lives. Few of these activist murals bears a title, a further break with convention. They spoke for themselves. They were calls to action. They were not part of an artist’s oeuvre, his collected works. Delgadillo says that the murals were part of the struggle that he and the community shared.
As to his materials, he tried to get the best paints that he could given his means and those of the groups with which he was working. What was key, he says, was the condition of the wall. If the surface was sound, even the cheapest paints would last for years although there would be fading due to the sun, weather and pollution. But there was not much time to prepare a surface. For exteriors he mainly used vinyl industrial and house paints. He and his crew had to work from ladders, scaffolding being too expensive, and this became precarious with murals that could be three stories high, as at the University of Toluca. While the students protected the walls they had worked on, still the authorities or hostile groups sought to remove them. By 1981 alone, some 30 of the 150 murals he had painted were destroyed. Law suits that he filed against the perpetrators were not successful.
In 1975 Delgadillo described himself as one of the few “artists of struggle” in Mexico at that time. “It is very risky to do political art now,” he said. “You endanger your liveli-hood and freedom.” Wasn’t his celebration of civilians resist-ing with rifles romantic, and wouldn’t it mislead people about the govern–ment's vulnerability? “No,” he replied, “the guer-rillas are contributing to the liberation of Mexico. They cannot do it alone, but they are a necessary part of the rebuild-ing of society.” He took the position that, while popular organizing was necessary in the barrios, unions and schools to bring non-violent pressure on the regime, that alone was insufficient given the shootings of civilians by the government and its paramilitary allies.
In 1982 at an exhibition of his art at the Salón Plástica Méxicana, he put up a statement that contended that violence was a major part of Mexican art of the previous 70 years because the Mexican people had had continually to struggle against oppression, beginning with the forces of Zapata and Villa to secure the aims of the Revolution of 1910—pan, tierra y libertad. The government’s embrace of dependent capitalist development had resulted in 60% of the population being undernourished, 40% still illiterate and a foreign debt that ate up 73% of government revenues. Efforts by the people to make good the Constitution’s promise of land to the tillers and trade unions controlled by their workers had been violently put down. Most recently, the repression that had continued since 1968 and ’71 had compelled the people to defend themselves. As he said in his autobiography “I believe that in order to be effective in revolutionary art, one has to understand that the aim of every revolution is to seize power.”
Earning a livelihood in this manner was precarious. Besides doing smaller pieces for sale, Delgadillo found a patron, a pioneer Mexican plastic surgeon, Dr. Mario González Ulloa. In 1975 the doctor commissioned him to do a mural for a medical conference hall at the former Hacienda Cortès in Cuernavaca, which he had recently purchased, restored and turned into a luxurious resort. (The contradiction of militant anti–establishment art in such a locale is possible only in Mexico where well–to–do professionals support progressive political art and there is a tradition of radical painting, originally supported by the state.) Delgadillo had illustrated a book of the physician as early as 1963 and another in 1972.
Delgadillo was able to work on the conference hall mural by himself without the pressures of time and the interference of hostile groups. This permitted him to utilize the tonal and atmospheric effects of his earlier easel pieces, combining this with his flat graphic designs. The mural, intended to be portable, was composed of five panels joined side by side, and then by five more that were originally hidden behind the first and only later exhibited adjoining the others.. In the work a crouching group of armed civilians leave behind their massacred compañeros as they press apprehensively forward. Black diagonals suggest charred timbers collapsed from a ceiling. The figures overlap each other to form a wedge and exhibit a solidity and weight not found in the artist’s earlier work. . It is as if these are indigenous people who live close to the earth and wrested rifles from their enemies to defend themselves. A row of severed heads gape from the ground while others have been tumbled in a pit. The entire scene appears caught in the reflected crimson and magenta light of a nighttime conflagra-tion. The overall but nuanced reds and ashen grays are a change from the flat tones and sharp contrasts of his previous murals. Still strong graphic elements remain with the rhythmical-ly repeated, overlapping figures, their war paint and searchlights that splay across them. In the second sequence of five panels panic grips a crowd of gaping heads whose arms with their hands hacked off reach forward while behind them hulking figures rise from their knees. As robust as they are, their skeletons show as in an x–ray. They all flee from a terror which at the far left edge is incarnated by a serpent that rears up on its coils and bares its fangs over naked corpses. The paint application in this second set of panels is rougher and crusted, applied by a palette knife. The ensemble was titled Represión-Revolución.
From here on Delgadillo was to work in two styles—this more studied type that he could pursue working alone, and the flat graphic style that he utilized with untrained assistants on campuses. At first glance the ex–Hacienda Cortéz mural was a curious, even contradictory undertaking in what was serving as a medical conference hall in a resort for the well–to–do. Even though it became part of a museum devoted to the art of Delgadillo, it still would be seen by a very small number of people. To be sure, the doctors who attended could be sometimes responsive to the message of the mural and were persons of influence; still the work belonged in a museum or in a school where there was a wide circulation of the public. The siting of the mural here had to have been an expedient simply because walls in museums and government institutions except schools were not available to the artist. When 14 years later in 1989 Delgadillo’s masterpiece was completed on the semi-circular end wall of the barrel–vaulted auditorium and easel pieces were displayed in an adjoining chamber, the ex-Hacienda Cortéz would become the best place to see a collection of his art in Mexico, but still it was barely known and visited. Still it was a fortunate repository until the time when his work would be more widely recognized by the establishment that could provide for its public viewing. However, the 1975 mural panels were mobile and could be carried to other venues when the occasion arose. This mural in particular points to the mixed audience that Delgadillo’s work was to enjoy: radicalized students, workers and campesinos on the one hand and an educated progressive sector of the middle and professional classes. Because there was a small body of politically and institutionally well–connected professional people in Mexico, some of these artists themselves, like members of the Salón Plástica Méxicana and professors in the art academies and other disciplines, the so–called intelectuales, there was the possibility of occasional exhibits for political dissidents in the big institutions like the Palacio de Bellas Artes. But Delgadillo’s real audience was in the streets and universities. Only if the activism there were successful would venues in the prestigious institutions become available. That would be one of the results of a successful revolution.
This mixed audience had been created by the Mexican Revolution and was widespread since the government’s first mural commissions of the 1920s. The Revolution’s first minister of public education, José Vasconcelos, who was responsible for many of these commissions, was sincere about a popular cultural transformation of the country by providing murals in all public institutions, especially schools. After his tenure the government continued to fund the murals of Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros and their associates even when the artists were critical of it because the ruling oligarchy of the Revolution’s generals wanted to preserve the pretense that it was fulfilling the social–democratic promises of the Constitution of 1917 (at the time the most progressive document of its kind in the world). The government also tolerated its critics among the painters because of the international acclaim Mexican murals had won. It sought with considerable success to control all sectors of Mexican society, coalescing in 1929 as the fore-runner of the Partido Revolucionario Institutional, which continued to rule Mexico for the rest of the century. The political establishment supported the muralists commissions as long as they did not become too critical. But there was an increasing tension between artists to conform and to speak out as the government sought to suppress independent action of any kind. While the authorities could eliminate political opposition by intimidation and murder, as Delgadillo learned while a student in normal school, they could just as easily cut off funding for its critics in the visual arts.
Government pressure drove many artists whose attachment to democratic socialism was mixed to do hackneyed work celebrating a Revolution whose inheritors were increasingly betraying it. Los Tres Grandes and their colleagues had been so successful that the managements of all large buildings, public and private, wanted a mural for theirs. Under the auspices of PRI, government offices, schools, airports, market halls and of course museums were provided funds for murals in their reception areas and patios. Murals became jingoist decoration. In addition, private buildings where the public was invited like theaters and department stores, country clubs and factories spent their own money on murals, most of them routinely patriotic. Commenting about 1977 on the recent murals of another painter in a public building, Delgadillo said that any art which does not openly challenge the regime gives it prestige. However, he and his colleagues, Messaguer and Capdevila, had done some of the first super–graphics to be displayed on Mexico City’s high rises. But that was in 1969 just after Tlatelolco when he was first thinking about politicizing his art. Delgadillo could at least claim that he balanced this commission with his Night Black As Ink sculpture and the smaller–scale murals in the same complex. He was critical in his 1981 autobiography of the second generation of Mexican muralists, including José Chávez Morado and Juan O’Gorman, for not addressing the current betrayal of the Mexican Revolution by PRI. In private both men were critical, and O’Gorman did easel–sized pieces against current US Cold War imperialism in the 1980s, but their public works did not meet Delgadillo’s requirements.
The reaction to the outpouring of decorative “revolutionary” murals came in part from artists and art students who recognized the hypocrisy of the mural culture, which proclaimed freedom while the government that paid for this art suppressed liberty in the daily life of Mexicans. Some of these like Delgadillo wanted to return to protest murals, while most preferred to do art of personal expression, which had become the fashionable current of Modernism in the aftermath of World War II. During the 1920s the PRI regarded private corporations as rivals to its power and nationalized the oil industry. By the 1950s the PRI oligarchy, by now thoroughly entrenched, decided it would be personally profitable to the ruling oligarchy to reach an accommodation with private industry, finance and commerce. PRI concluded that the mural tradition stood in the way of capitalist and state-capitalist development and that it would parcel out much less funding to muralists and not tolerate their socialist critiques. The hostility of PRI to art of serious social criticism was reinforced by its anti-communism that arose in Mexico independently of the US Cold War but at the same time and for partly the same reasons. By mid-century the Communist Party of Mexico was outlawed because labor bosses sought to eliminate the rivalry of Leftists in the trade unions. It made no difference that some Leftists, those pressing for union democracy, were not necessarily Communists. All Leftists were opportunistically linked by the Right. At the same time the increasing investment in Mexican industry and agriculture by US business during World War II and after made for increasing penetration of Yankee anti-communist Cold War ideology and culture. US investors no more than Mexican wanted to have to deal with Leftist unions. In the arts that meant abandoning political expression altogether and turning to the private world of feelings and innovation for its own and the market’s sake. PRI could conveniently present critics of its regime as Moscow-controlled, whether these were dispossessed farmers, independent labor unions, students protesting education cuts or artists criticizing state repression..
Democratic socialism in its varied Mexican forms and parties still had a widespread appeal to working people and professionals who sought to participate in the control of their labor and government, which was denied them by the PRI oligarchy. By the 1970s Delgadillo was becoming one of the Left’s most articulate spokesmen. At the same time Mexican intellectuals, the university educated who were interested in ideas and believed that politics should be governed by the principles of the 18th century Enlightenment, its notions of reason, human rights and representative government as against superstition and authoritarianism, tended to identify with the democratic Left. The ideas of liberalism, socialism and anarchism (that is, collective self-management and direct democracy) that had informed the Revolution still had strong adherents among not only intellectuals but also the working class and the campesinos who supported ejido cooperatives.. The Revolution had displaced once and for all religious control of the schools and produced a new breed of secular teachers and professors in public education who identified with the 1917 Constitution, the ideas of which they in turn disseminated to the students of all classes, helping turn the youth against the bossism of PRI. While most workers and campesinos had to submit to the PRI in order to earn a living, or take the risk of insurgency, the university educated professionals who resented the oligarchy that hobbled their vocational as well as political lives had more freedom to circumvent it, to discuss ideas and support artists and writers who opposed the government.
After having exhibited extensively both in Mexico and abroad during the ’60s, Delgadillo in the following decades increasingly refused to participate in official shows and international competi-tions, anxious not to compromise his politics. He did most of his work for the students and urban and rural laboring classes, but he earned the respect of a few of the socially enlightened professionals. He served on the representative council of the Salón de la Plástica Méxicana, the autonomous organization of socially-conscious artists, some of whom who had been among the first generation of muralists and graphic artists of the 1920s. Siqueiros (who died only in 1974), Leopoldo Méndez (d. 1969) and Pablo O’Higgins (d. 1983) had been founders, and members included veterans José Chávez Morado, Raúl Anguiano, Juan O’Gorman, Fanny Rabel and Elizabeth Catlett Mora. It maintained a gallery in the Zona Rosa of the capital where tourists circulated and could take home works of the Mexican social artists. Delgadillo participated in its annual exhibitions, some at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and had shows at the Mer–Kup gallery in the fashionable Palanco district of the capital. Delgadillo observes in his Autobiographical Notes that Echeverría while president from 1970–’76 had revived commissioning murals from artists once associated with the Left, providing them with prestigious sites and good materials. It was an effort to win back support of Left intellectuals after he ordered the attack on the students in 1968 at Tlatelolco. Delgadillo was bitter that many of the muralists he had once respected and were his friends had succumbed to these commissions. He describes them as “traitors to the proletariat, who little by little began to be assimilated by the system and who have enjoyed great privileges in the terrain of public art in Mexico.” In 1975 after a big one–man exhibit, the Echeverría government offered to send his work on interna-tional tour, but he declined because he believed that exhibit-ing his protest art overseas would lend credence to the authorities’ claim that free speech and demo-cracy existed in Mexico. He was also offered to decorate the Palacio Nacional but declined.. Delgadillo responded publicly “that I would never work for the Mexican government as long as it continued to repress workers, peasants and the people in general.”
Between 1920 and 1950 artists of the Left prevailed in Mexico, doing both public art, easel painting, sculpture and graphics, art that was to have a major influence around the world but especially in the Americas. While the ubiquitous murals were viewed daily by millions of people in schools and other public buildings, graphics, especially lithographs, were distributed as a way of reaching the masses because of their affordability. Commercial galleries also handled the work of these artists as they became popular among the middle classes and tourists. But by the 1970s when Delgadillo chose to become an artist of the renewed Mexican Revolution, he was almost alone. Given the oppression of the Mexican government, the only possible patron of art that took the side of the workers and peasants would be a revolutionary party, Delgadillo said. But no such party could survive, which impeded the development of collective art. Nevertheless, there had been continually resurgent small urban and rural political organizing and even insurgencies since the 1950s, the student movement of ’68 and a new wave of grupos, both political and cultural, that became active in the 1970s. They formed storefront community centers that frequently did murals in their neighborhoods. In Mexico City there were a number of them in the old working-class enclave of Tepito and others across the county, one cited by Delgadillo that included young muralists in Michoacán. For himself, he was determined to go on, depending on commissions for public bas-relief murals, the purchasers of his small canvases and works on paper as well as the support of friends and his chief patron, Dr. González Ulloa. Most of these smaller pieces were connected to popular struggles.
As early as 1972 figures similar to those in Delgadillo’s murals appeared in his acrylic canvases that were sometimes try–outs for the larger pieces. In a watercolor of 1972 a bone–white bare-headed worker with a bridgeless nose shouts back and raises an x-rayed arm as he fends off unseen assailants. Flames peal from him, suggesting not only what has been inflicted on him but also his own fiery defiance. An acrylic of 1974 shows two stocky campesinos in undershirts, one with a machete being confronted by bayonets and a rifle barrel that cross their bodies. Black and gray wedges cut across acid yellow and green. The figures in both pieces are unsentimentalized robust workers, which was almost always the case in the work of Delgadillo at this time. Their rage and resistance brutalizes their faces. Even among these works on paper there is refined pen–and–ink drawing of scratchy lines and hatching. The drawing can become even delicate. A watercolor of 1973 shows three upright arms with hands open and blood trailing from bullet holes. A piece done with pen-and-ink and watercolor of five years later presents the profile heads of two laborers, one lifting a hewn stone into place, the other shouting amidst coils that suggest speech volutes and struggle. The latter bears the smooth features of a young man, an appealing face that recalls Mayan reliefs which was to recur frequently in the artist’s work. The brownish watercolor is a kind of workers’ heraldry that proclaims the demand of working people to control their own labor and their willingness to fight for that. Like most of Delgadillo’s figures, they are mestizo, which was appropriate for urban workers.
On the other hand, a large watercolor of 1978 offers a huddled up mother, seemingly indigenous, floating in space embracing her fetuses who in turn float inside her, one of them with its arms about her head, an image of elemental gestation, the origin of life in the cosmos. She looks warily behind her and seems possibly embraced by a shadowy serpent–headed male. She is rendered in pen and ink crosshatching while the whole scene is bathed in washes of tarnished yellow and browns. Delgadillo had also used this imagery in an easel painting. A yet more elaborate decorative version of the theme occurs in a polyester bas relief mural he did in the basement garage of the Dalinde Hospital where his patron, Dr. González Ulloa was in residence. All of these are emblematic icons, condensing their meaning in potent images that sometimes are small but always are monumental. While most of Delgadillo’s work was activist and his images of women those of the working class and campesinas, his interest in lithe, decorative female figures, also appeared in his watercolors of the 1970s and seemed intended for the commercial clientele.
Delgadillo was always on the look out for new ways of arousing people to activism. An innovative medium that he used was to paint and frame the metal plates from which some of his graphics were produced. This gave the works a sculptural solidity like bas reliefs.. He also turned to a skilled weaver to render one of his characteristic compositions into a coarse thickly woven tapestry. Here the attackers are represented only by the muzzles of their weapons at the upper left while the rest of the scene is of tumbled bodies of the living and dying. Rendered in black, gray, blue and white wool, everything is reduced to minimal detail and all of that boldly patterned. The coarse weaving suggests the serapes of the people whom the artist depicted.
In his murals as well as his drawings and watercolors Delgadillo became a master of evoking terror. His early easel pieces of the 1960s had depicted haunted skeletal victims and figures falling beneath a violent onslaught. But there was no sign of the perpetrators, little indication of the source of suffering. The threat was all–consuming and ubiquitous but was all the more terrible because unidentified.. Titles like Hiroshima gave some specificity. It was as if the end of the world loomed. After Tlatelolco there was no doubt about the perpetrators. The artist dwelt as much on those who inflicted terror, presenting them in absorbing detail, as he did on resistance to it. For the artist to make them so vivid was to fight back, to subject them to his indignation. He presented the military and behind them the money-hungry as predatory monsters, finding warrant in the work of Orozco, Siqueiros and Goya, who in turn drew their inspiration from popular culture where anonymous artists created visual grotesques to represent human beastliness He gave vent to his outrage obviously hoping to move viewers to share it in his representing corruption and brutality as gross brutes, swollen by their gluttony, fanged, and over-laden with weaponry to attack the defenseless. Already in 1973 at the University of Toluca he painted animal–headed military rearing from a block along with claws, rifles and skeletal bones confronting across three stories of windows the faces of workers, campesinos and students with only one gun and the flames of their outrage to protect them.
In a pen–and–ink drawing with watercolor of 1978, bloated helmeted half–human monsters with automatic rifles, their shark–tooth maws open to tear at human flesh, their bodies mottled by disease and bones revealed in x–ray, crouch on the corpses of their victims. In another of the same year, a huge knotted serpent again with shark teeth is pointing multiple guns as it hovers over a terrorized crowd not knowing in what direction to flee. Yet another piece reveals a barred cell where two automatic rifles are pointed by unseen assailants at a prisoner reduced to an almost fleshless skeleton except for a screaming mouth and closed eye. These nightmarish images have a credibility that is compelling. The inventory of horror is familiar enough: monsters, guns, prison, vulnerable flesh: but it is the harrowing vividness with which Delgadillo presents them that is altogether convincing. He could count on ordinary people resonating to these works because of their familiar traditions of Judas figures and boogey men that terrified and entertained. But what is remarkable is how powerful these images can be to otherwise skeptical cosmopolitan viewers. The Mexican readers of daily newspapers and especially those who had directly or indirectly known the violence of the government and its para–military thugs could find in these images visible equivalents of state terror. Delgadillo had to have felt the horror himself so deeply that he was driven to find the means to embody it. As late as 1993 he was still devoting his ingenuity to depict government brutality, as in his mural–sized canvas, Conspiracy and Struggle
(Conciliabulo y Lucha
During the ’80s Delgadillo was also doing other pen and ink drawings as well as logos for the newspapers of trade unions and activist organizations with which he was associated. Here, too, he combined Social Realism and Pre–Colum-bian design. He il-lustrated pamphlets and books of poetry, especially of his friend Benito Balam, which were distributed not only at bookstores and readings but also at factory gates. These drawings brought together a refinement of draftsmanship and humanism with often brutal subjects. There is one beautifully drawn indigenous humanoid mask within masks of the skull (calavera) of a serpent that he did for Balam’s La Colera del Agua. The plunging figure that he did for another pamphlet of poetry, Desde Los Siglos del Maíz Rebelde
, in 1987 was to reappear in his big mural El Hombre Nuevo two years later.
I became acquainted with Delgadillo in 1975 when I was on sabbatical from teaching at San José State University. Around the corner from the little hotel where my wife Ruth and I were staying was theater of CLETA (Free Center of Theatrical and Artistic Experimentation) of UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonomia de México). On the facade above its marquee was one of his defiant murals, actually occupying three different surfaces at right angles to each other. I inquired about its author and called him up. We met, and I showed him the collection of slides of North American community murals that I had documented and brought along, hoping for a chance to project them for Mexican viewers. These were recent works that were being done in the Black ghettoes and Latino barrios across the country by artists and local residents to defend their communities against racism and gentrification. Delgadillo recognized the similarity of what socially engaged artists in the US and Mexico were doing and set up a slide showing in the theater. He gave us in return the first “Delgadillo” we were to own: a large watercolor in reddish tints and pen–and–ink line drawing of one of his primordial figures in profile— bridgeless nose, mouth agape and his insides in coiling turmoil but with a supple arm raised over his head as he presses forward amidst striped streaming bands of indigenous design. It is titled La Lucha (The Struggle). When we left the capital, he gave us a list of his mural sites around the country, and since we had driven down to Mexico in a battered Rambler station wagon, we were able to include many of his murals in our itinerary.
We returned to Mexico every two or three years, partly to keep up with Delgadillo’s work and our friendship. I would bring along a new set of slides of community murals in the US and Europe, and Delgadillo would set up showings. On one occasion in January, 1978, he asked if I would show the slides I brought to friends of his. I should know it would be a “little dangerous” but not much. With Ruth we took a colectivo from San Angel and then started up by foot into the hills through the woods and then a string of minimal cottages. It was dusk. He directed us to keep out of view as much as possible, and we stopped from time to time in the shadows to see if the way was clear. Our destination was a new encampment of paracaidistas (squatters who appeared as if from nowhere) on a government–controlled but otherwise deserted ejido. These were not displaced campesinos but families of urban workers who could no longer afford the cost of housing in town. Here in the mountains above Mexico City at 9,000 feet they were building huts from waxed milk cartons, corrugated tin and other discarded materials. They had set up a communal kitchen under a tarpaulin among the black pedregal lava. The banner over it read: “The community kitchen is the product of the work of the unity of the masses and their struggle.” An outdoors meeting was underway. When it was finished, the men and boys departed, and a table was brought out, and Delgadillo provided the slide projector.
It was now night and we set up under the stars. When I asked why the audience were only women and children who huddled in their serapes against the cold, it was explained that the slide-showing was to serve as a decoy to distract the authorities while Delgadillo and the men drove out the local charro, figuratively a cowboy, in fact a government agent, who was giving them a hard time. At first the electric line that they had tapped into was hardly strong enough to flip the slides. The viewers understood clearly the connection between the struggles of the deprived in the US with their own. When the men returned after their successful mission, we all partied inside a warm, well-illuminated shed—alcohol prohibited. The reason the slide showing was outdoors was to distract officials from the serious business of the night. Afterwards when we were climbing down from the mountain, we came on a clearing from which you could see the lights of Mexico City. But you could not tell where they gave way to the stars. It was as if heaven and earth merged. I felt an elation that perhaps Delgadillo sometimes did when he had done something that was useful to people who shared none of his privileges.
In 1983 Delgadillo was building with his own hands a brick studio and living quarters, a sort of turret, in another colonia popular, this one longer settled with houses constructed of cinder blocks. While he was building his turret, a neighboring family kept many of his drawings and watercolors, and when we visited, he displayed them in their yard while clothes were being washed in a tub nearby, chickens and goats picked among the lava and other neighbors were butchering meat in their garden.
Also during that visit he had me show slides to the bus drivers of SUTAUR, the union that operated Route 100 along the Paseo de la Reforma. He served on its board of directors. Its 18,000 members had won indepen-dence from PRI bosses after a strike during the winter of 198l–82 that involved pitched battles with the police in front of the National Palace. As a result the bus drivers became a part of the 2% of Mexican unionists who elected their own officers and deliberated policy. By happy chance I had along slides of a bus drivers’ mural in London. In the discussion that followed the viewers expressed surprise that workers elsewhere could gain access to public walls.
In 1984 we visited him in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of Chiapas where he had been painting with students at two teachers’ colleges since 1977. The walls of the buildings at both were covered with their work that reflected the struggles in which teachers had joined with campesinos who were organizing throughout the state. These were mainly Mayans of the eastern coffee–growing area of Chiapas, who had participated in the National Indigenous Congress in Patzcuaro, Michoacán, in 1975 that was sponsored by the government. It sought to control the national organization that the native people had formed, as it did other peasant associations and trade unions. PRI was intent on co–opting the agitation of the campesinos because although the percentage of the rural population had declined from 65% in 1940 to 35%, their actual numbers had in fact more than doubled from 13 to 27 million. Never since the Conquest in the 16th century had there been more Mexican peasants without land. Not only were they exploited as tenants and wage–labor, millions were being driven by agribusiness into urban shanty towns or across the border to the US. By 1979 independent–thinking participants in the Congress split off and formed the Plan de Ayala National Organizing Committee (CNPA) , named for the program of Zapata of 1911 that called for the seizure of land taken from its tillers by landlords and politicians.[George Collier, Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas, Oakland, CA: Food First, 1994, p. 70ff. Also, “Aun Tiembla—It Still Trembles,” NACLA Report on the Americas, Sep-Dec. 1897, p. 31ff] The expropriation of land was a process that had begun with the Conquest in the 16th century and accelerated when in 1857 the Liberal Party had come to power and seized and privatized not only Church lands but also the traditional native communal ejidos, benefiting speculators, ranchers and merchants. In spite of the promise of the Constitution of 1917, only a portion of the ejidos had been returned, and with the advent of agribusiness that process was entirely reversed.
Under the banner of Zapata the CNPA forged a union with the CNTE, a national association of 150,000 teachers who also in 1979 declared their independence from the government run national teachers’ union. The struggle with the government had been aggravated by President López Portillo declaring the end of land redistribution. The two independent organizations led a nationwide mass march on Mexico City in 1981 to demand the resolution of land claims and the release of political prisoners. The following year CNPA held a national congress at Venustiano Carranza in eastern Chiapas, which became a continuing center of the alliance with the independent teachers’ union. Delgadillo denounced in an editorial he wrote for Excelsior the low wages and high rents imposed by big landowners as well as their killing of 16 Indians when they sought to take back their land in Chiapas. The organizing of the campesinos from their center in Venustiano Carranza was to mark the beginning of a movement that eventuated in the attack by Zapatistas, under the command of Subcomandante Marcos on San Cristóbal in 1994 and continued the struggle into the new millennium. Delgadillo, whose father had been one of the original Zapatistas during the Revolution, was to support their namesakes in the 1990s.
The murder of impoverished campesinos in Chiapas had already begun in 1980. In protest the following year Delgadillo and students painted a mural of their corpses on an outside wall at the Escuela Normal Matzumatza in Tuxtla Gutiérez. It is captioned: “Homage to the campesinos fallen in the struggle at Golonchán.” There in a village near Comitán, which has since disappeared from maps, the military had massacred some 50 Tojolabal Mayans, who had occupied an abandoned finca, one of the plantations of the ladinos (well–to–do mestizos). [John Ross, Rebellion From the Roots, Monroe, MA: Common Courage, 1995, p. 70f, 157] The Indians who had gathered to receive a visit from the governor were shot point blank by the troops of General Absalón Castellanos Dominguez, who was a disciple of General Barragán who ordered the massacre at Tlatelolco. Castellanos Dominguez was selected by PRI as its candidate for governor of Chiapas two years later and masterminded a reign of terror on behalf of the big landowners against the Indians.
Meanwhile Delgadillo guided the untrained students in doing murals that protested these and earlier attacks. Some images dated 1977 presented bold images that leapt from the outside and inner walls of campus buildings. Among them was a long work in the cafeteria, showing campesinos, workers, and students confronting the heavily armed military coiled up like a serpent. Delgadillo designed the thick woodcut–like lines which the students filled in with a heavy–handed style declaring their defiance. Across the 50–foot cornice of one classroom building the message was carefully printed: “Future teacher, your salary will depend on the working class—let us prepare to overcome its ignorance and struggle for its liberation.” When my wife and I first appeared on the campus in 1984 looking for Delgadillo and I was taking pictures of the murals, we were confronted by a large body of students who wanted to run us off, accusing us of being CIA. We explained that we were friends of the artist, and then they wanted to pose in front of the murals with their fists upraised.
At another teachers’ college on the other side of Tuxtla, La Escuela Normal Estado del Icach, I watched Delgadillo and students redoing an earlier mural that presented a young man and woman holding up a book from the flames whipping about them. The caption read: “Compañeros: Your goal should not be a degree without consciousness but to participate in the revolutionary transformation of society.” A dozen students watched as others joined Delgadillo on the ladders. A student turned up with a guitar and serenaded the painters. The caption on a nearby mural with faces of a worker, campesino and student called on onlookers to join a frente with them. In another the beguiling all-nude figure of a woman recalling Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People affirmed that “A Popular Democratic and Anti-Imperialist Revolution is the Task of all Exploited People.” The dates of 1977, 81 and 84 on the captions indicated that Delgadillo had returned to these campuses to restore and paint new murals He explained that he had also helped the students plan their political strategy and asked me to show slides of murals in the US and elsewhere in Latin America to them. The next day Delgadillo was heading to the neighborhood of San Cristóbal to do more murals with campesinos. The murals at these two teachers’ colleges in Tuxtla established a precedent for the many done by other hands that were to appear a decade later in the Chiapas in support of the new Zapatistas.
Between 1980 and ’83 Delgadillo wrote a weekly column for Excelsior (then the New York Times of Mexico), which in an effort to appear even–handed, tolerated his radicalism. Usually these features were on politics, but when he could combine this with art, he did. His articles reflected the crisis that hit in 1982 when the government found itself bankrupt and unable to repay its heavy foreign debt because of the fall in the price of oil. Foreign governments and the International Monetary Fund rushed to the rescue, but their loans were conditioned on Mexico devaluating its currency, selling off its nationalized industries and cutting social programs and subsidies that supported low prices for basic foods. In succeeding years as a result of this neo–liberal structural adjustment the real income of working people was cut in half.
Delgadillo took advantage of two Excelsior articles n 1983 to describe the first congress of the Movimiento Revoluci-onario del Pueblo, which was seeking government recognition as a national party. He was its cultural secretary. Its program called for a coming together of “Marxists, Chris-tians, national-ists and all those willing to struggle for a socialist and democratic society.” Setting as its goal the state expropriation of large landhold-ings, monopolies and multinationals, it envisioned a society of publicly-owned industries and cooperative agricul-ture that respected small urban and rural enterprises. It called for a new constitu-tion with a popular assembly and tribunals based on mass organizations of workers and cam-pesinos. The people in arms would replace the repressive military. Techno-logy and science would be oriented towards affordable housing, free health care and educa-tion. Communications media and the arts would be accessible to all. They proposed “to change completely the conditions of life...and to create a new people and new men, a new culture and new spiritual values.” Finally Excelsior concluded that it had done enough for opposi-tion comment and cancelled Delga-dillo's column.
Writing for the catalog of an alternative commemora-tion of the Orozco centennial in 1983, Delgadillo reflected on how the work of the master could be carried on in the current era of social crisis and conformist culture. He spoke out for
an art that is class–-conscious, humane and revolution-ary.... For a resurgence of muralism in our country, students and artists will have to depend on worker, campesino, student, popular and revolu-tion-ary organiza-tions, the only ones able to impel in a programmatic way a social and critical art. This is necessary for muralism to shake itself free from its snobbish and reaction-ary public and reach popular sectors.
Delgadillo called for a muralism stripped down for political struggle:
To succeed this resurgence requires sacrifices. It will have to utilize economical materials, take less time for comple-tion, and the economic expectations of its prac-titioners will have to change.
Still he was confident that “the vigor of these works will make a valuable aesthetic, human and revolu-tionary contribution to contemporary art.”
To protest the severe austerity program that the administration of President Miguel de la Madrid had imposed, 162 unions mounted a national work stoppage in l983. As their contribu-tion, Delgadillo and his compadres painted a 100-foot long unauthorized mural condemning the layoff of a million workers in the previous 10 months. It faced the major intersection on the Paseo de la Reforma and lasted one day.
When he agreed to be a “pre-candidate” of the Mexican Socialist Party for the nation’s presidency in 1987, Delgadillo pressed not only for a truly representative Congress but also a participatory democracy “exercised in assemblies in the neighborhoods, trade unions and workplaces.” People would undertake collective tasks and begin to construct people’s power (poder popular), that is, collective self-management. He also urged the restoration of the environment and protection of the nation’s rich natural resources for the people as a whole rather than private profit. To prevent further exploitation of working people, the foreign debt would have to be cancelled.
Delgadillo was a member of a group of about 30 intellectuals, most of them younger, some artists, but also poets like Benito Balam and the political songster, José de la Molina. He called them affectionately los muchachos, while they called him “Pepe.” He enjoyed being the veteran and center of his circle. He was soft spoken, courteous, enjoyed camaraderie, laughed readily. He always asked about your family. If he believed a store clerk or waitress had treated him well, he would quickly do a little portrait of them while they were making change and present it to them. He addressed taxi drivers as maistro. Approaching a stranger on the street to make an inquiry, he would preface his request with “Buenos dias, señor.” He was intense but gentle, forever planning and hustling, seeking new commissions, trying to connect people whom he believed should know one another. He was always absorbed, thinking through ideas, analyzing the political situation, pursuing every lead to organize allies or to seek out opportunities to paint. He was an incredibly energetic agitator in spite of his advancing years and gradual loss of hearing. He was determined about how things should be done. In the street he rushed ahead with short steps and sometimes comic briskness, whistling to others to keep up or simply to himself during brief gaps in conversa-tion. At table he doodled on napkins or scraps of paper. Among friends he would suddenly turn serious and call on them to give their impressions on a particular issue and end up lecturing them. He would remonstrate with museum guards and officials about the neglectful way an important work was displayed.
During his campaign for the presidential nomination on the Socialist ticket in 1987, my wife and I caught up with him in an office in Mexico City where he was asleep on the floor rapped in a blanket. When he realized our presence, he leapt to his feet, embraced us and led us around the city to introduce us to his political allies—activists and union leaders—both to expose us to the excitement and to show his friends that he had support from across the border. I realized over the years that the emphasis he gave in his images to arms reaching out, seeking, challenging, arms often too long for the bodies they were attached to, flailing arms conveyed by repeated lines, described what he was so much about.
He was a mestizo of middle height. Photos of him in the ‘60s show him meditative and conventionally groomed, his hair trimmed. By the ’70s he let his straight hair grow over his ears and neck; by the ’90s there was less of it. He had been married to the artist, Beatriz Zamorra, and they had three children together. They divorced, and she made a career for herself in New York doing abstract works of black on black. When we were first getting to know Delgadillo in 1975 and he was taking us to his mural sites on campuses, he had in tow his eleven–year old daughter, Miriam. Without warning she picked up a clod of dirt and tossed it at one of his murals. Delgadillo kept his cool, but I had to feel for him and for her also, for she had to put up with all the attention her father was getting. The fact that Delgadillo and her mother were divorced may have had something to do with her feeling of neglect, but it was clear that she had something of her father’s brazenness. Maybe he admired her pluck: it was an act that showed she was of the same mettle as he. As absorbed as he was with art and politics, he was a man whom women wanted to take in and care for.
Significant new stylistic developments emerged in Delgadillo’s art in 1978 at the Escuela Superior de Economia of the Instituto Politecnico Nacional. Here he utilizes three interior sides of an entrance area open to the sky to depict current oppression and the revolution it for which it cries out. The rap–around scenes are rendered in blue–grays, vermilion and orange except for the oppressed who are reduced to a shadowy brown, a new palette for the painter. He utilized this newly enriched color for figures that were now fully rounded and tonally modeled while still preserving something of his flat graphic style. At the left a huge serpent unfolds on the second floor level. A pair of brutal human heads attached to its body snarl as guns and missiles project from its coils aiming at people huddled together as if in a factory or prison on the ground level while corpses are piled up alongside them. On a wall to the right Delgadillo continued the scene of enslavement with a heavily armored conquistador running Indians through with his sword before the ruins of their structures. Meanwhile facing all this from the other side, a two–story–high modern worker wields a long industrial tool while his compañeros are firing rifles in the opposite direction. Below them there is a march of smaller workers with guns, campesinos with machetes and others raising their fists as red flags are borne in the background against an orange sky on fire at dawn, a procession suggesting not only the future revolution but also the procession of struggles out of the past. Delgadillo titled the ensemble Armamentismo y Opresión (Armament and Oppression). The three–sided composition was a call to action not without grandeur.
The three murals formed an enclosed space, a virtual world transformed, awaiting students as they came to class. This kind of painted environment Los Tres Grandes had pioneered. It is inherent to the very concept of muralism, which aims not to decorate an already existing space but to create a new space for viewers. Delgadillo wanted them to imagine a world not only visually but socially and ethically changed. By their scale murals are a social art to be seen by many people simultaneously in what is usually a public space. These painted walls that gather people before them address them as members of society. By enveloping them, which occurs even on a single big surface but is enhanced when the work embraces a number of sides and sometimes the ceiling, murals make it possible to reshape not only the viewers’ space but even their social consciousness. This makes murals a unique instrument of artists like Delgadillo committed to social change and the empowerment of the people.. Armamentismo y Opresión was one of the most ambitious works of Delgadillo. Therefore there was special reason to condemn its wanton destruction in 2002 by the school’s administration.
Delgadillo did his first mural in the US in 198l in San Fernando City, California. Sponsored by a local Chicano associa-tion, its 10 by 40 feet filled a wall in a public park. It carried forward his effort to translate political passion into motion: now zigzagging lightning bolts of color and vibrating forms charge the entire surface. Having used a single set of concentric spirals in the composition of his first activist murals in the early 1970s, Delgadillo here chose to utilize three such vortices, one next to the other, prompted by the sheer length of the wall. At the left the US bald eagle attacks the brown eagle of Mexico. In the center a giant tiger striped in the colors of the US flag pounces on a little band carrying placards proclaiming the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, by which the US seized half of Mexico in 1848. On the right, four young men, repre-senting Mexico’s different races and guided by a bare breasted Liberty aloft, stand astride the dead tiger triumphing over it with their outstretched arms. Delgadillo continued to expand his palette with the richly contrasting orange and blue tonalities, and again mixed graphic flat surfaces and striping with painterly modulations. While the mural was short-lived, lasting only a few years, it carried forward the emergence of a new style that was to become his characteristic manner for the rest of his career.
Two years later in 1983 Delgadillo utilized his new palette on the outside wall of the Colegio de Ciencias y Humanidades Plantel Oriente in Mexico City. Here three bare chested brown skinned young men thrust their fists and a rifle forward over a beleaguered compañero. Their motion is conveyed by the vibrating profile of the leading figure. The inscription reads: Por la Revolución Democratica Popular
. About the same time he did a five-story high mural on the outside of the Sindicado de las Electricistas, inside of which Siqueiros had done his famous three–wall and ceilinged staircase mural, Death to the Bourgeoisie in 1939. Delgadillo had a much simpler task, that of a grand gesture of a worker raising his gloved hand gripping a pliers. The big caption reads, En Defensa de Contractos Colectivos y Sindicatos. Beneath the mural on the wall surrounding the union’s parking lot a collective of trained but less experienced comrades of Delgadillo painted big panels celebrating the electrical workers. This was one form of collaboration between him and non-professionals, which had occurred also with some of his students at the Polytechnic Institute.
In 1987 Delgadillo completed a 200–meter long mural in Pachuca in his native state with the title, La Lucha y Contradiccónes en el Estado del Hidalgo
. It stretches along a stuccoed wall opposite the Jardín del Arte. There are a sequence of scenes depicting troops guarding workers shot and jailed while others toil in the mines, their women ground down in poverty, then the populace rising in revolutionary struggle with a nude Liberty urging them on from above. It is a highly stylized driving design, rich in oranges, browns with black details against a deep blue sky, its composition reverting to the flat graphic planes of his earlier painting.
Delgadillo returned to the US in 1989 and with his irrepressible energy lined up a number of mural commissions in the San Francisco Area. With him were his longtime friends, the poet, Benito Balam and artist José Tlatelpas. They were joined by a Mexican dancer, Pedro Romero, and together did presentations at cultural centers and peñas, as well as the dedications of the murals Delgadillo painted. I was recruited to project slides of Delgadillo’s earlier works. The group called themselves Maíz Rebelde (The Rebel Corn). One friend, José Meza Velásquez from Tepíc in Nayarit where they had done murals together, was now living in Oakland and provided him a space to work and organized a workshop of artists who came up from Mexico. Meza mounted an exhibit of a mural that Delgadillo did on the spot and the paintings of the other Mexican artists as well as a mural of his own.
In the workshop Delgadillo painted a portable mural on canvas, La Lucha Campesina
, which addressed the struggles of farm workers in California and Mexico. They continued to be exploited on both sides of the border with Mexican campesinos being driven off the land by agribusiness and the import under NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) of cheap North American corn that undercut the cost of native maíz. Campesinos were thrown out of work and forced to seek odd jobs in the city or immigrate without documents to the US. In California they had become the principal source of low–wage urban labor as well as the majority of agricultural workers, which meant that they could be exploited because of their lack of papers. California produced at least a quarter of all fruits and vegetables consumed in the US, and therefore the plight of the undocumented was taken advantage of by growers and distributors of food on a massive scale. In Delgadillo’s mural farm workers with machetes confront a serpent–like coil of patrones and police, all rendered in rich orange and black, like the last moments of a desert sunset. Flames leap from the chests of the campesinos who stand firm before their assailants—fanged, taloned monsters with steel helmets, automatic rifles and a vicious dog. In front of them handbills with the workers’ inscriptions float down, while their wives with their infants cower behind them. It is vintage Delgadillo, classic in its simple composition and vehemence, beautifully painted in the burning twilight. After being widely exhibited in the Bay Area, it was taken to Tepíc by Meza to be installed there permanently in a museum.
Again during his US journey Delgadillo took on the struggle of farm workers against the capitalist system in a mural in the office of the California Institute of Rural Studies in Davis, the site of the University of California’s principle school of agriculture where research is done in agribusiness and the genetic modification of crops.. In the mural farm workers raise their fists and pitch forks as what seem the spirits of cultivation fly down to attack the web of a system that traps farm workers and their families. In the center a monster spider spins its net of exploitation. A blazing yellow sun illuminates the scene. Delgadillo titled the work, Elements of Nature, Production and Struggle in the Countryside. The composition with its plunging spirits and centripetal design seems to have been borrowed from the even more ambitious mural, El Hombre Nuevo that he had left unfinished in Cuernavaca. to come to California.
Shortly afterward Delgadillo worked on another complex project in an office of Raza Si, (Instituto de Orientación Popular), an immigrant services organization in San José. There he returned to his confrontation of the people and the grotesque monsters of the establishment, again a fanged serpent with its jaws unhinged and wide, followed by hulking humanoids, also saber–toothed and taloned with their victims underfoot. The coil of people fend off their assailants with their gestures and a scroll of poetry of Benito Balam proclaiming popular solidarity. The scene is illuminated by wedges of bright yellow light that project like bayonets from the fury of the masses. Once more Delgadillo borrowed the centripetal design of his Cuernavaca mural with a plunging young woman offering a dove to a man.
Staying at our home in Mill Valley during much of his California visit, Delgadillo and I watched on TV the demonstrations of the pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. We were transfixed by the man in shirtsleeves with a briefcase confronting the line of tanks and then the carnage that they left behind. This made a tremendous impression on Delgadillo: he was re-living Tlatelolco 21 years earlier. The memory of the massacre remained sharp: in 1984 he had joined with compañeros in a commemorative painting of it covering 1600 square meters of the pavement of Tlateloco. Now he turned our dining-room table into a drawing board, jacking up two table legs with stacks of National Geographics. On it he did a dozen 30 x 16 inch pen and watercolor pieces depicting the tragedy in Beijing. One showed protesters crushed under the jointed metal plates of a tank’s caterpillar tracks. Another was of a young man, his mouth agape, his eyes and nostrils wide, brandishing his arms in multiple lines amidst the flames, searchlight beams and tracer bullets. We took the drawing to a printer who turned it into a poster with the words, “Solidarity with the People of China,” and Delgadillo signed copies of it at a memorial service for the victims at San Francisco’s Symphony Hall.
Shortly after finishing these pieces, Delgadillo was asked for a banner to be used at a rally against a new Migra (the Immigration and Naturalization Service) detention center in Oakland. He went to work with a 9–foot long piece of canvas on our deck showing a woman stretching out her arm to protest the internment of the undocumented. Within hours of the request he was at the site, mounting the work on the center’s cyclone fence.
Delgadillo returned to Mexico to complete what was to be the high point of his achievement: El Hombre Nuevo Hacia el Futuro (The New Man Toward the Future). He had taken as his title and theme Che Guevara’s concept of a society in which people gain control of their work and lives and thereby produce creatively for one another. “Liberated labor” in Che’s words would replace what Marx described as “alienated labor.” [“Notes on Man and Socialism in Cuba,” 1965 ] Delgadillo shows four diving nude “spirits” with a trowel, compass and star chart, a brush and cluster of speech volutes, delivering their gifts to a man and woman who swim through space to receive them. For Delgadillo these figures were simply symbolic of the gifts of culture, which he regarded as the creation of society. The bestowers and recipients gyrate in concentric curves like the coils of figures in struggle in Delgadillo’s earliest murals, but now their meaning is the granting or in fact, engaging, of the gifts of nature and nurture, which is to say, liberation. The severe flat color and hard–edge forms of the past have given way to modulated golds, scarlets and blues. Tongues of flame emanate from the three–dimensional flesh and hair suggesting inner fire. Arms with clenched fists still indicate the need for struggle, but they are at the side, as if much has been won, permitting the symbols of creativity to dominate. The theme is no longer defiance of oppression but of soaring human capability.
Here more than ever before Delgadillo seems to have been inspired by Orozco’s Prometheus in the refectory at Pamona College and Man of Fire (Hombre en Llamas) in the dome of the Guadalajara church of the Hospicio Cabañas and now in addition Man the Creator (El Hombre Creador) in a cupola at the University of Guadalajara, completed in 1939. Both in subject and composition there are striking connections, although Orozco has fire and creativity being stolen from the gods. It is the central burning figures and the concentric form that link the works. Particularly in the last of Orozco’s three murals there are a number of details that must have been suggestive to Delgadillo, such as the dashed in geometrical projections that likely inspired his curvilinear star or planetary chart and Orozco’s triangular ruler that becomes a compass in Delgadillo. But Delgadillo’s central figure, the hombre nuevo, does not signify the unique, creative leader, which Orozco’s protagonists do. Delgadillo’s is symbolic of humankind, all human beings receiving the gifts of culture and society that cultivate their own abilities. It is not only this swimming male figure but also the diving young woman who are the beneficiaries of liberation and recipients of the gifts of the spirits, one of whom reaches out to her in a cluster of speech volutes. This is a culmination of Delgadillo’s principal motif of “the people in flame” and reaches beyond them by depicting the fruition of their efforts. Delgadillo, who wrote admiringly of Orozco and used these spiraling forms in so many of his earlier murals, executed a work here that stands independently on its own meaning, beauty and power. It crowns his achievement as an artist of struggle who here envisions the future of human struggle, which in fact would be a new beginning.
Delgadillo said that this was one of the few murals for which he was paid handsomely, which enabled him for the first time to use scaffolding rather than ladders. It was the climax of his career, although he was to continue to do a few more large impressive works during the next decade. The work was executed on the semi–circular end wall at the rear of the stage of the large barrel–vaulted auditorium of the ex–Hacienda Cortés, where the 1975 five–panel mural of refugees still was mounted but now for the first time with its five additional panels on view. The remaining walls of the chamber are filled with the artist’s easel pieces of varied date. With the completion of El Hombre Nuevo, the auditorium together with a chamber in the hotel section of the ex–Hacienda where the artist’s easel pieces of the 1960s are exhibited were inaugurated as the Delgadillo Museum.
Delgadillo returned to the San Francisco Bay Area in the fall of 1989 to do a mural for the cannery workers of Watsonville who had been on strike for 18 months. It was to be painted in the office of an old friend, Oscar Rios, an official of the Agricultural Workers and Packers, who was then running for city council, but an earthquake damaged the wall just before Delgadillo was to begin painting. Instead he bought an 18–foot long piece of canvas that he hung up in the living room of a friend. He had done a mural for the devastating trembler that shook Mexico City in 1985 and borrowed from its design. From a large globe-like container of charred human bodies still burning a woman springs forth, an Aztec goddess saving her son, a symbol of the human instinct to protect one another, the artist explained. “It’s about saving lives. People don’t think about themselves or anything else—they think about saving lives. The spirit of helping others is the most crucial element that comes out of an earthquake.” [Quoted by Jill Maxwell, “Mural depicts workers’ struggles, quake victims,” Front Row supplement to the Morgan Hill Times, Nov. 9–16, 1989] That same spirit of solidarity Delgadillo saw also in the striking women cannery workers. He titled the work A Pesar de Las Desgracias, El Futuro es Nuestro (In Spite of Misfortune, the Future is Ours). Rios was elected and in time became mayor of Watsonville in whose office the mural finally found a home.
Delgadillo was once more in the Bay Area in 1993 and did another mural, now for Local 28 of the Hotel, Restaurant Employees and Bartenders’ Union in Oakland. It is a big panel over the outside entrance of their offices and returns to the flat graphic style of two decades earlier, which still was effective. In it five workers of different racial backgrounds lunge forward, only the top half of their bodies seen and their arms reaching out toward the future. They are rendered in yellow with black shadows and detail. Beneath them a wedge of much smaller blue marchers also presses forward, brandishing fists, placards and banners. In the background rise the brown skyscrapers where they work. Stylistically it is similar to the first mural that I saw of his painted in 1973 at CLEATA, the UNAM theater in Mexico City. The earlier work had drawn me to seek him out, and this work of 20 years later indicates how sound and sustainable his imagination had been.
Back in Mexico Delgadillo utilized this flat graphic style for a pair of three–story tall panels at the Conjunto Habitacional EDO in Iztapalapa in 1993. With assistants he depicted women with their men and infants raising their fists and marching together. He titled it La Muher en la Lucha por la Vivienda (Women in Struggle for Housing). Rendered in earthen tones, it represented a different palette but no less vehemence of expression. Conciliabulo y Lucha
(Conspiracy and Struggle) of 1993 offered a new variation on a familiar theme of the artist. It is a large mural–scale canvas rendered tonally with figures in the round. It shows pouring over a big table a group of brutish figures, goat– and serpent–faced and skull–headed, plotting and dividing previous loot while their troops point their muzzles towards the people’s vanguard at the right. A line of workers fend off their assailants by reaching out defiantly, wrapped in golden flame that curls from their hands and illuminates the whole scene while more flame flares up from inside them. Behind, doves flutter among their women and children.
In 1996 Delgadillo was in Vancouver, British Columbia, participating in a mural workshop with Richard Tetrault and exhibiting his own work at the La Corte Gallery there. Working with him were his old friend José Tlatelpas, Tetrault, Claudine Pommier and Jeanie Kamins. The mural done on canvas presents a youthful Indian face, a familiar Delgadillo icon, shouting speech volutes calling for the defense of areas frequented by local native peoples (called first nations in Canada), the Clayoquot Sound and Stoltmann Wilderness. These Canadian artists including Alberto Ceritos had with the assistance of Delgadillo been doing exchanges with Mexican public artists since early in the decade. They were commissioned by the state of Morelos and the Consejo Mundial de Artistas Plásticos de México to do a mural in the Library of the University of Cuernavaca in 1991 with local artists. In exchange the Canadians invited the Mexicans to work with them in Vancouver that year, and the next the Canadians exhibited at the Salón de la Plástica Méxicana. This was typical of the exchanges that Delgadillo fostered among socially progressive artists both at home and abroad. As we have seen, he had in the mid–1960s painted for two years in Paris even before turning to political painting, and in 1974 he participated in a New Figuration exhibition in Tokyo. In his last years he was invited again to go to Japan to exhibit his work but was too ill.
Since his becoming engaged in community–based political murals in the 1970s, he sought to connect with like–minded artists and supporters of socially–concerned public art abroad. That was a continuing component of our friendship. He tried to bring together from around the world people who were doing murals and public sculpture as well as historians and supporters of social art. As a leader of the Society of Visual Arts of Mexico he participated in hosting the First International Conference of Visual Artists in Oaxtepec in the state of Morelos in 1989. There COMAP ( Consejo Mundial de Artistas Plasticos, the World Council of Visual Artists) was born. It called for artists’ participation in the establishing of national arts’ policy and legal protections for artists as well as strengthening exchanges among artists across borders. Delgadillo was elected as one of Mexico’s four members of the directorate of the organization. The second meeting of the group occurred in San Francisco in 1992. Here the main topics of the workshops were public art (where Delgadillo made a presentation) , art, technology and ecology, the legal rights of artists and art markets.
In an unyielding effort that extended over years, Delgadillo secured government and private funding, assembled a staff and finally succeeded in 1997 in mounting the Primera Jornada Mundial del Arte Publico y Muralismo. (Jornada in this context means conference.) Artists, curators and writers on art came from all over the Americas as well as a few from Italy—some 70 of them. A dozen or more arrived two weeks before the conference to paint murals that were then exhibited at a cultural center during the main sessions. All participants assembled first at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, that grand turn-of-the century pile of collonades and domes, where the murals of los Tres Grandes are exhibited, then traveled by busses to a 19th century textile mill that had been converted into a conference center near Tlaxcala in the Valley of Puebla with Popocatépatl smoking in the distance. It was a gathering of veterans and younger artists who wanted to show slides of their work and discuss their projects as well as the issues they shared. Although social art had flourished from the 1920s to the ’40s and had been neglected and even suppressed during the ’50s and early ‘60s, those who gathered were responsible for its renaissance thereafter which had made it more participatory and democratic than ever before. These included Bolivia’s chief political muralist, Walter Salón Romero, and Argentina’s Italo Grassi. The conference published a Declaración de Tlaxcala, that affirmed that public art has historically been necessary for a people’s identity, and that this was put at risk by the globalization of the market and the concentration of capital, which threatened to break the link between art and the aspirations of society. The declaration also insisted on respect for the liberty of expression in the creation of public art, an issue of great importance because governments had almost always sought to force such art to conform to their agenda. Delgadillo more than anyone else was the driving force of this convocation, which was repeated the following year in Buenos Aires without his presence.
Delgadillo fell seriously ill in January, 2000, with multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease He received good hospital care because the son of the Dr. González Ulloa who had been his chief patron, took on the obligation after his father died. When he was released, his daughter, Beatríz, a psychologist, brought him to her home in Coyoacán where she and her brother, Francisco devoted themselves to his care. Francisco, who like his sister had reverted to the Hernández surname, was an artist in his own right, doing ecological murals with communities. During the spring and summer his father worked on a suite of prints. When it was clear that he was failing, his children prepared a homenaje, a public homage, for him, and the socialist mayor of Mexico city provided a chamber in the Old City Hall on the Zocolo, the great plaza also faced by the National Palace. His children feared that he might not survive for the event, but he did and was brought to it in an ambulance. Some of his portable murals were exhibited along with smaller works and photos. About 200 people attended, and he was fully alert during the eulogies, which were well covered with full-page stories in the press.
A month later he still hung on, and this is when I last saw him. He was huddled under the covers, a maroon scarf about his head. He seemed to be pressing the last remnant of his incredible vigor to him. His eyes were parted slightly but unseeing. There was no way to stir him. You could only say good bye and let him go. He died a week later.
The problem was now how to keep alive what he had accomplished. This was especially difficult because many of his murals due to their political outspokenness had been destroyed. Moreover, his protests of the institutions did not make it likely that they would do much to preserve his memory or work.. But his native state of Hidalgo committed to a permanent exhibition space in its capital, Pachuca. Beatriz and Francisco were hoping that the City of Mexico, with its leftwing government would mount two of their father’s murals in Metro stations. They were also seeking a grant for a research fellowship from UNAM for a scholar who would assemble photos of their father’s work, his papers, including an autobiography, writings about him and do an extensive study of his life. This study is part of that project.
José Hernández Delgadillo was an artist–activist who carried on the mission of Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros to the end of the 20th century. He followed their example of not only being a spokesman of the dispossessed but also helping them speak for themselves and discover their own abilities to act on behalf of one another. To re–engage art in the social struggles of our time he utilized two different ways of working, one that invited the untrained to collaborate with him, the other to work on his own to employ more specialized refinements. He made important contributions in both. He did not have access to the material resources of the state that los Tres Grandes did nor major political figures to intervene for him. The government was far from generous in granting him its walls, and when it did, he refused because he believed that this would lend legitimacy to those who were exploiting the Mexican people. But he did have the friendship and support of other artists and the workers, campesinos and students whom he championed. And he had his own gifts and great heart. That was enough to make him Mexico’s most important artist of the last third of the 20th century to contribute to the resumption of the real Mexican Revolution that had been aborted by the politicians and abandoned by most painters.
Now five years after death of Delgadillo, we can see that he was in the forefront of the tide of participatory democracy that is finally spreading across Latin America. After the efforts in that direction initiated by the Mexican Revolution at the beginning of the last century, the aborting of those efforts by the demagogic party machine that ruled during the rest of the century, the repeated risings against it that occurred during its second half to which Delgadillo contributed, a new day is finally dawning. Now the leadership has been taken by other popular movements in Latin America, which began in the middle of the last century with Don Pedro Albizu Campos and the Puerto Rican Independistas
, the government of Jacabo Arbenz in Guatemala, the Cuban Revolution, Salvador Allende in Chile, the Tupamaros in Uruguay, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador, Maurice Bishop in Grenada, Michael Manley in Jamaica, Bertrand Aristide in Haiti, the Christian Base Communities of Liberation Theology throughout the Hemisphere—all of them suppressed, the tide has again turned as a result of popular resistance and creativity. This tide has been carried forward in the new century by the people of Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, most recently in Bolivia. Workers, campesinos
and most strikingly indigenous peoples are leading the struggle for their emancipation. In Mexico this movement has been given life by the new Zapatistas, whom Delgadillo supported. This hemisphere–wide movement for direct democratic participation and autonomy against US corporate globalization and political hegemony cannot but effect the national election of 2006 in Mexico. It is sad that Delgadillo has not lived to see the fruition of his efforts. It is the loss of Mexico and all of us who look forward to the next stage of the struggle to which he gave so much.Photo Credits: Almost all photos of the work of Delgadillo were taken by Alan Barnett except for the photo near the end of him working on the mural in Vancouver along with the color portrait,which were taken by the local muralist who worked with him, Richard Tetrault. The photos of Hombre Nuevo and Conciliabulo y Lucha were also done by others. The final black and white photo of him with the self portrait was taken by Miguel Angel Gamboa.
Murals and the Integration of Art, Work and Community
Introduction To A Book In Progress
This is a history of murals from the caves to the present that understands them as forms of the work and expression of society. It examines the social functions murals have performed, who decided their messages and was served by them, who actually created them and how. Walls and ceilings of very different societies—those of rock shelters, temples and churches, palaces, capitol buildings, post offices, schools and neighborhood walls today—have borne murals because people believed they were necessary to their well–being, even survival. The making of murals has contributed to the bonding of societies. Murals like all art have made visible people’s values, traditions and identity. They have been created to assist their collective hopes and ward off their fears.
This study explores how historically art was once integral to the ordinary work of humanity, how art and work became divorced and how the community murals of the past 40 years point the way toward their reintegration. The moral of this story is that art needs to be recovered as a natural and necessary component of all work or we continue to be denied our humanity. Lacking art in our work, our efforts remain incomplete and we as individuals and social beings unfulfilled. But to recover art in their work, people must control their labor. Art is the sign of people’s control of their work, the verification of their freedom. (Work and labor are understood here as equivalent.) [Some commentators have sought to distinguish work and labor, assigning the first to the production of durable products and the second to things readily consumed like food and the performing of routine maintenance. The distinction implies that the former can be things of lasting beauty, the latter not, and that work requires more skill than labor, which is often onerous toil. While the distinction may be useful in other contexts, here it would be arbitrary. Cf. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1958]
The reason for studying the reintegration of art into work and community is that their union is the mark of fulfilling productive activity. Conversely, their divorce is a sign of oppressed labor. People once required that all things that they produced and used express in their visual form their values, ideas and abilities. Doing this well required that it be done with style, the traditional forms of community or a personal form and flair. This was also expected of the manner of performing face–to–face service. Sensitivity to others, courtesy and grace were regarded as enhancing human exchange. Most people of course still hold at least to the latter practice. The reintegration of art into work and community is important because for most people today livelihood is not only insecure, it barely if at all utilizes their talent, initiative and caring for others. As a result it is stultifying or minimally tolerable.
Ability creates its own need: the possession of aptitudes and skills urges their use in ways people believe are worthy. Others who could benefit from them suffer by their suppression. People want to express their ideas and values in their work. They want their work to be useful and to utilize their abilities. Individuals may have unique capacities and personal messages, or traditional competencies and values they want to engage. In either case they want to do well what they regard is important and they personally identify with. They want to bring into full being what is only potential in them while it remains unformed. They want to bring themselves into full existence, to actualize themselves in their work and be of use to others they care about. They want to see themselves reflected in their work. They also want to work with others who share the same objectives.
It is argued here that both secure livelihood and work that engages the energies and expression of people require that they control their labor and that the only way that that can be accomplished is if they cooperate toward that end. When work accomplishes these purposes, it takes on the character of art. The murals that have been painted in the barrios and ghettos of this country and in communities around the world during the last 40 years point the way to these objectives.
One reason that murals are especially useful in studying the relation of art and work is that their very scale makes more evident than other forms of art that all are in fact products of manual labor as well as mind. Murals are not only painted, they are constructed. Murals are integral to the building on which they appear. Fresco, the perennial technique of murals around the world, physically imbeds imagery into the wall as part of its fabric. A mural is usually produced by groups of workers, as most utilitarian products are. In some epochs the construction of a public building was not regarded as complete unless it possessed a mural. During the Italian Renaissance, murals were not adventitious or applied art; they were cult images necessary to the function of churches. Again in 20th century Mexico and the US during the 1930s, people believed that murals were essential to government buildings, including schools and post offices. A mural makes its wall articulate: it speaks to the functions of the people who work or live inside; it announces how its building should be used.
Further, the reintegration of art, work and community is most clearly demonstrated by murals because they are pre-eminently a form of public and social art, intended to draw people together before them and focus their attention on current concerns and issues in the light of their enduring bonds—their shared traditions and long–term goals. Murals are intended to bring many people together before them at one time, reminding them that they are members of society and inspiring them to employ their efforts for it. This is true whether their society is authoritarian or democratic. It was only in the 20th century that art, especially public art, could be counted on to express the view of its actual creators after a lapse of many centuries when it was subject to the prescriptions of elites who had no other role in its making. It is only in a society of equals that true community is possible since only then do all share fully in the decisions and benefits of life.
The separation of art and work occurred when self–appointed elites overcame what had previously been egalitarian societies and compelled the majority to provide for them, forcing regimented toil so that artistry was eliminated from most of people’s productive activity. Most of the art that was created in these class–divided societies was for the masters who could commandeer talent. Through much of history murals have been commissioned by elites to advance and ornament their power. But early in the past century in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, the first partially successful national liberation struggle of its era, the creation of murals came again under the control of the people who created them. Moreover, the muralists painted on behalf of working people and claimed that they as artists were “cultural workers.” Even more revolutionary, the muralists sought to revive the creativity of all people not only by giving them a chance to assist them in doing murals but by urging the reintegration of art into all work by workers gaining control of it. Work was to become cultural. This was not far–fetched because most Mexican workers were still close to craft traditions and had not yet been deskilled by industrialism.
These muralists were moving in the opposite direction from the great muralists of the Renaissance who, caught up by the spirit of the entrepreneurial individualism of their time, did everything they could to distinguish themselves from skilled artisan-craftsmen as well as one another, to say nothing of the unskilled. Nevertheless, as artists they had to concede, often grudgingly, to the agendas of their patrons, whether prelates, autocrats or merchant princes. This has been the paradox of individualism in Western society. Artists since the Renaissance have been par excellence careerists and entrepreneurs, the principal exponents in our society of self–expression . But they have found it much more difficult than other professionals to earn a livelihood. They have engaged in perpetual trench warfare to win approval and patronage, while trying to distinguish themselves from other artists and preserve the integrity of their vision, which often yearned for social connection.
During the past century the Mexican muralists and those who painted with their communities in the US and abroad pursued an altogether different model. This study concludes that the murals produced in the deprived communities of the United States and the world during the last half century followed the Mexicans’ example and have sought to reintegrate art, labor and community. They have attempted to democratize human production and thereby liberate the creativity of all people.
My thesis is that the recent murals, particularly of this country’s deprived communities, by drawing out residents’ creativity have provided to all of us a model of the integration of art and socially useful work. These murals have shown that all work can and should express the values of its workers. They have also shown that community requires mutual communication and one of the major ways it can be accomplished. They are a unique form of work that have connected the trained and untrained to use their insight and best abilities, stifled in daily labor or joblessness, for their common well being. While protesting against racism, the murals have promoted community-controlled education, health care, housing, cultural centers and gardens that provided residents food, all of which offered dignified work to those most in need of it. These undertakings, too, have been animated by a creativity, initiative and caring about the community that are the qualities of art. The murals together with these services have successfully countered racism with ethnic pride, generating respect for residents both from the police and the downtown power structure. In these activities people of color displayed a will to resist discrimination and a resilience reinforced by their rich cultural heritage. They demonstrated the refusal of human beings to submit long to the repression of their innate creativity. It was partly because of their traditions but also because the makers of community murals were deprived that they were compelled to cooperate and to provide for themselves what no one else would or could—a public voice.
The community murals and services anticipated and provide an example to today’s New Localism of community and regional self-reliance guided by participatory democracy. Under the banner, “Another World is Possible,” the current generation of activists who include people of all races and nationalities, workers, family farmers, students and professionals, are seeking to transform regimented daily work of often doubtful social utility into projects that engage their values and talents. They envision the networking of sustainable self–managed localities that would provide an alternative to socially–irresponsible corporate globalization and statist imperialism. In this they are engaged in the most far–reaching art, that of structural social change and the transformation of their way of life.
Community murals are a form of “appropriate technology,” a kind of economic development, originally conceived by aid workers and tailored by the deprived of the Third World during the 1960s and ’70s to meet their needs and utilize their aptitudes and resources with a view to stimulating their initiative and control of their lives. It was therefore a democratic technology in contrast to those designed to enrich the already privileged. As a communications technology appropriate to the people who operate and use them, community murals pioneered the New Localism.
What makes community murals art is not only that they are a form of visual communication. They are art because they are work in which their makers engage their talent, thought and feeling, giving the things they produce a design and embellishment that symbolically express their values and concerns. As a result, the experience of making and viewing these images heightens vitality and provides new energy for living. This is the esthetic pleasure of making and doing, consuming and using. It is not only what today are called the fine arts where human expression can present itself. In fact all products that have visual form and all services, especially when they are delivered in person, offer opportunity to express the serious thinking and feeling of their makers and most important, to do something about them. When this occurs, this creativity conforms to what has traditionally been regarded “art.” Art and creativity do not require innovation or new insight. These are uncommon amplifications that are certainly desirable, but lively customary expression is also refreshing. Energizing and renewing us is enough. A feast requires no more.
The process of creating community murals has been especially satisfying to locals who participate because it is a cooperative undertaking of people who examine with their neighbors an issue important to them, seeking a solution, then how to visualize it, and finally taking on together the challenge of painting. The process for them is as fulfilling as the product, as the process of digesting it often is for viewers. The process of creation is not merely a means to a product. It is satisfying as an activity that draws out their inner resources and though which they grow. By re–orienting attention to the experience of creating a work of art, community murals have shifted the focus from art as a precious treasure to be placed on a pedestal and displayed in a museum, to a living exploration and transformation by their makers of the world and themselves. This is after all what life is at its best, the on–going creative engagement of people with their social and natural environment. By thinking about art as a process of production, it becomes easier to compare it with ordinary work. This is facilitated also by thinking of the viewing and digesting of the work also as an experience that to some extent recapitulates that of the maker. This active “art appreciation&rdquo is conducive to the work inspiring the viewer’s follow–through in his or her action in turn.
The efforts of local people to create a mural have become a model for other workers that helps them realize that the daily process of work could be intrinsically fulfilling. The mural process becomes a model of work and a way of life in which work becomes art when it activates the values, abilities and initiative of its producers and users. When the process of production of any well-designed product is intrinsically satisfying, the worker is also a consumer, and the means to the product or service becomes an end in itself. That satisfaction is esthetic, the pleasure of watching, and even more so, of causing, things to take shape. The worker then becomes an artist, and work becomes a deeply meaningful way of life, not only a livelihood.
Luminaries such as Karl Marx, William Morris, John Dewey, Paul Goodman, C. Wright Mills, Adolfo Sánchez Vásquez, Paolo Freire, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Raymond Williams, Herbert Read, Ivan Illich, E.F. Schumacher, Matthew Fox, Amanda Coomaraswamy and Studs Terkel are the best known of those who advocated for work that allowed people to realize their innate creativity, which when it did, took the form of art. This view of art was restated by René Yañez, an organizer of some of the first mural projects in San Francisco, when he said that “If something has good craftsmanship and a little soul, it shows. I believe that anything that is done well and with love, honesty and skill is art.”
Yañez invited local people, who came from different ethnic groups, to exhibit in a community arts center their regional breads and pastries, homemade altars, their richly detailed low riders and family photos (where people present themselves in distinctive ways). He helped contributors and visitors understand that these were forms of art, art that they made. This resulted in raising their self-esteem as producers of culture and recognition of one another’s worth: this was empowerment.
Nora Watson, a staff writer of an institution publishing healthcare literature, interviewed by radio host and author Studs Terkel says something similar:
“I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us, like the assembly line worker, have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people. A job like mine, if you really put your spirit into it, you would sabotage immediately. You don’t dare. So you absent your spirit from it. My mind has been so divorced from my job, except for a source of income, it’s really absurd.” [Studs Terkel, Working, New York: Avon, 1972, p. 675]
Spirit, soul, this is what makes skill art. She says that she wants her work to be a profession of herself.
The vernacular crafts that Yañez exhibited like folk art before them have historically been the last remnant of the creativity of working people when they were compelled to devote most of their efforts to performing routine toil for employers or in previous ages, masters. In societies where people directed their own labor, the production of the substance of daily life—their apparel, utensils, tools, weapons, shelter and sanctuaries—not only required manual skill but design and imagery that expressed local traditions and values, thereby integrating art into work. These societies included the native tribes governed by councils of all adult members, the free cities of the Middle Ages presided over by craft guilds, isolated communitarian experiments during the last 500 years, and trade unions of self–employed artisans and skilled workers that have survived through the industrial revolutions that deskilled people.
Murals have always been regarded as utilitarian work necessary to the well being of their society. They began as the magic of prehistoric hunters who believed that the images that they created on cave walls contained the animating spirits of the mammoths and lions represented and that the images could affect the hunt, ward off attacks or transfer the animal’s power to the hunter (if the conduct of their Stone Age counterparts that have survived to this day can be counted on to inform us about them.) As magic, art made things happen. When millennia later artists created murals in the tomb chambers of their kings, they believed that the painted servants would provide for them in the next world. As people came to have faith that the power that controlled everything resided in deities, murals were utilized to invoke the gods, another form of work. Gradually society has come to understood murals as no more nor less than a means of affirming the shared identity of its members and arousing them to action—to slave for a despot or rebel against him. Murals have remained utilitarian in their purpose.
The present prevailing separation of art from work is the mark of oppressed labor since workers, when they control their labor, tend to produce like artists. The divorce of their expression from their products and services has been the plight of most working people since warlord and priestly elites imposed what is described generically as the “state” and divided society between the privileged classes and their providers. The elite commandeered a minority of the talented to promote their power and entertain their leisure with what came to be called the “fine arts.” But the majority of the population was reduced to regimented drudgery to provision the elite, its taskmasters and the military. Much later employers inflicted their own form of forced labor by controlling all sources of livelihood. Any benefits with regard to working conditions and livelihood had to be fought for and was, with art being as important a weapon to the protesters as it was for the privileged.
This divorce of art from work that began in ancient times continues to this day in the industries, offices and fields where people have to sacrifice working with their hearts and talents to making a livelihood. It was not technology as such that deskilled labor as much as employers who organized work to maximize profits, and for that purpose not only imposed the division of labor and assembly lines, but also had machinery designed to produce as much as possible for as little as possible, reducing the number of workers and deskilling them so that those who remained became the proverbial tenders of machines and now key punchers. It is contended here that, if workers controlled their own labor, they would likely design power tools to facilitate their skill and expression as well as the uses they determined. Moreover, the family farm that was once a cherished way of life in most countries is being wiped out by agribusiness with its big combines.
The greatest violence that has been perpetrated against people throughout history has not been the intermittent wars and individual acts of mayhem that has taken so many lives but the continuous suppression of human creativity by the powerful few who control the labor of the many and channel it to serve only their own purposes.
Indeed, the frustration due to that suppression of creativity in work has likely stimulated a substantial amount of personal aggression that has been channeled into state-sponsored mayhem. Compensation for blocked expression also feeds the consumerism where people seek the illusion of control by compulsive buying. The satisfactions of acquisition become a poor substitute for those of realizing oneself in production and service. The cynical acknowledgement of the failure of society today to provide for the deepest inner needs of people appears in the Army’s recruitment slogan: “Be all you can be.”
Community murals are at the growing tip of humanity’s age–old efforts at communication and community building. Communication is community, and community, communication. These mutually re–enforcing activities have been elemental functions of our species to invent itself: each tribe, community or nation constructs and has sustained itself by its creative labor. Part of that is its making images to identify itself, where it believes it has come from, its attachments to the world and where it is going. Murals have served people by conceptually shaping their society at the same time as they have aided everyday practical tasks of procuring food, providing security, bonding members and reproducing them.
Today’s community muralists have not been simply decorating walls. They have been engaged in community building, in transforming people’s atomized, often alienated living and working only alongside each other and being exploited by those far distant. The muralists, who include neighbors who never before put brush to wall, have been occupied not only in protesting oppression but also making the first draft of a better world. In doing that they have been already working and living as they want to be, creating in fact the society they envision on their walls. The process is the product.
The community murals of the last four decades are reconnecting art, which has been largely self–absorbed since the mid–20th century, with social reconstruction. To that end they are exploring the reintegration of art and all productive activity, which the modern profit-driven economy has pulled apart ever since craftsmen were forced to decide between working with their heart and pursuing a livelihood. Community murals have in fact become a model for daily work in which producers and consumers cooperate to create their products and services, drawing on their best abilities and expressing and continually re–examining their values and how they act on them.
They are the most vivid example of democratic economic and social development by which deprived communities and professional artists have together been building an alternative to top-down, capital-intensive aggrandizement, which can discard people because they are not permitted to control their work. Doing murals in a setting of community self-reliance projects an economy of creative and socially useful work as well as sustainable livelihood rather than private profit, consumerism and acquisitiveness. Community murals are in fact at the leading edge of efforts to reconstruct the way of life not only of the deprived but the whole society.
This book is based on a number of propositions:
* Human beings are innately creative. They deeply want and find fullest satisfaction in exploring the world and discovering and expressing themselves in their work--their insights, skills and caring for one another. They feel a profound need to project their aptitudes into the real world and see their mind and hands reflected in their work.
* Creativity is the way that human beings actively adjust to their natural and social environment, By changing the world, they change themselves.
* We are social beings, needing one another to be cared for and to care for in turn. We need others to educate our abilities and to provide opportunities to be useful and validate ourselves through our work, gaining through it the respect of others. Our sense of selfhood and even individuality is profoundly influenced by the kind of society we live in.
* Creative work, work that expresses the insights and abilities of its makers and serves other people, is art. It enriches experience and generates in its makers and users new energy for life.
* To be able to work in this way requires that workers control their labor, which can only be accomplished cooperatively.
* Community murals are the products of the most deprived members of society together with professional artists who are concerned that together both of them engage their creativity. The professionals bring their skills, while the deprived bring not only their concerns but also their own creativity that has often been enriched by their ethnic culture that has been essential to the survival of the oppressed as a community. This has been the case of all oppressed peoples who have cultivated their traditions as folk and vernacular cultures in the face of the dominating social order.
* Community murals therefore offer a model of remoraling not only art but also labor, that is, restoring their function of meeting the fundamental needs of people, not only for livelihood but also personal and collective expression.
* The community mural movement is a key current in the global tide in which both the deprived and the advantaged have sought creative work, community, health, peace and, to achieve all of these, control over their lives. In the pursuit of these objectives, they are seeking to overcome the aggrandizement of global capitalism and political hegemony. While the main work of this global movement has occurred in communities around the world, representatives have met annually in World Social Forums at Porto Alegre, Brazil, and Mombai, India, to share their achievements and issues under the banner, “Another World Is Possible.” They have supported popular organizing among deprived peoples around the world who have been organizing to resist the depredations of the transnational corporations and local elites. This has involved demonstrating against the transnational corporations and world leaders at their frequent meetings.
* The community muralists provide models that offer guidance to this worldwide movement to restore creative work, community, local and sustainable economic self-reliance and global networking. They, too, have been meeting at different sites around the world to share and advance cooperation, discussing many of the same issues. All of this lays the groundwork for the true enrichment of life and peace.
Community murals compel us to re–examine what art is. They remind us that art consists of a system of symbolic forms by which people designate what and how they see and understand their world.. Science tells us that the real three-dimensional world registers on the mosaic of nerve receptors at the back of our eyes—the concave retinas—as two stereoscopic upside-down two-dimensional images that are subsequently united and “righted” by our brains. “Righted” by turning them right-side up to correspond with our knowledge of the world acquired by touching it. The original data are further ordered by visual schemas that our brain seems wired for and our culture reinforces: for instance, our predilection for frontal and profile views that are easier to remember and represent in drawing. This is loaded with a whole baggage of meanings based on previous personal experience but even more on the ideas and feelings that we have assimilated from our society. What we literally see and understand are visual forms that are shaped by visual experience and community culture. These visual forms are therefore symbolic, bearing an accretion of meanings and associations attached to the shape of the fabricated object or the image it bears by our learned culture. Crucial to this formulating and stabilizing of our visual and conceptual notions of the world are the images we make of them on flat walls, canvas and paper as well as three-dimensional sculpture. For these images fix in stable symbolic forms our ideas of the world, how it looks and what it means. Our hand–made images, our art, affect what we see and how we respond to it.
The source of human creativity is the labor process, for ordinary work changes nature, shapes it to meet human needs and provide new satisfactions. By changing the raw material of nature every day to provide the wherewithal of their existence, people are being creative. When they alter their daily ways of doing this to meet their and their community’s desires, they are even more creative. By changing the world and their relations to it, people change themselves; they make discoveries about the world and themselves; they develop new abilities and grow. The pleasure of such growth—of greater understanding and capability is at the root of esthetic pleasure. People thereby generate new functional relations with their human and natural environments. They generate new coherence and order, an important component of art. A short definition of art is any making that expresses meaning and feeling through its shape and imagery. It heightens the experience of making and using, generating fresh energy for life.
While humans are otherwise weak in relation to their environment, the unique source of their power and astonishing development has been their ability to create visual and verbal symbols, the media of their communication and thinking. Their making of symbols and all forms of discourse are part of their creativity and their labor. Art therefore is inherent in productive labor.
Murals were among the earliest forms of art. Nominally a mural is wall art, actually art that fills most of a surface or is large enough to dominate the space around and before it. Murals from their first appearance in caves often traveled up walls and across ceilings. In religious sanctuaries of every era, murals reached up to vaultings and depicted the heavens. Michelangelo painted the ceiling and one wall of the Sistine Chapel. Since ancient times large pavements like those of the Hellenistic era have also been covered with imagery, sometimes pictorial scenes, like the Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii, usually in mosaic. The term “mural” has been used loosely to refer to all monumental mainly two–dimensional art. Many of these works are in low– or even high–relief, as in the case of the prehistoric caves, as well as the carved relief sculpture of the Assyrians and the Parthenon Frieze, both of which were painted. Because of their scale, murals are a type of environmental art that transforms the space before them and suggests what lies beyond them, beyond the immediate vicinity. The tapestries of the Middle Ages, altar pieces and Gothic stained–glass windows will be taken as a closely allied form. While all art attempts to transport viewers to somewhere else or make the what is remote present, murals more than any other try to transform their immediate environment, lifting people out of their present lives to reshape consciousness and reality or identify and depict what their makers believe is real.
By their sheer scale murals become public statements in contrast to smaller easel works that tend to be personal and intimate. Murals are about people in their social relations. Their size usually requires the work of many, which is conducive to social rather than private expression.
Murals have been produced on surfaces where many could see them as they stood or knelt together, danced, yearned or prayed. This was what we now call “public art,” art that is to be taken in, not in private individual contemplation, but as people gather together or stop momentarily to view it during their work or coming and going in the street and public buildings, such as schools and government institutions. A mural by its sheer scale and location invites collective viewing and brings people together. It assumes and cultivates community, projecting its values and traditions: a mural is “social art,” proclaiming the bonds that make a society. If its art succeeds, a mural imparts a message to arouse and elevate: it alters or raises consciousness, imparting a social dimension to self–awareness: you are not yourself alone but a member of a collective body. A mural not only declares what is real; it often is employed to change reality or at least the conduct of its viewers, who in turn may try to change social and political reality. Beginning in the caves, murals were among the primordial forms of art, and they have continued as one of the fundamental means by which humans have addressed one another and the world— its forces, deities, or however they conceive their connections with everything around them. It is the power of murals to summon up our most serious concerns that distinguishes them from that other form of public art that is the billboard, which attempts a meretricious sell of commodities and candidates.