David Alfaro Siqueiros Speaks

Grade Level: 5–8

Students will consider the social and political motivations of David Alfaro Siqueiros to help them analyze his self-portrait. With his writing as their guidance, students will write and deliver a persuasive speech and create a propaganda poster about a current issue they care about.

siqueiros

David Alfaro Siqueiros
Mexican, 1896–1974
Self-Portrait, 1948
oil on hardboard, 120.7 x 90.8 cm (47 1/2 x 35 3/4 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Andrew W. Mellon Fund

 

NAEA Standards

1-B Students intentionally take advantage of the qualities and characteristics of art media, techniques, and processes to enhance communication of their experiences and ideas.
2-C Students select and use the qualities of structures and functions of art to improve communication of their ideas.
5-B Students analyze contemporary and historic meanings in specific artworks through cultural and aesthetic inquiry.
6-B Students describe ways in which the principles and subject matter of other disciplines taught in the school are interrelated with the visual arts.

CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS

  • History/Social Studies
  • Language Arts

MATERIALS

  • Computers with internet access for student research
  • Heavy paper or cardboard
  • Markers
  • Magazines and newspapers
  • Scissors and glue

WARM-UP QUESTION

David Alfaro Siqueiros wrote: “The artist must paint as he would speak. I don’t want people to speculate what I mean, I want them to understand.” What does this self-portrait say to you?

BACKGROUND

Siqueiros was an outspoken Mexican painter and political activist during the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. He focused on important issues in his society, taking up a written, visual, and verbal “call to arms” for art to be created for and about the indigenous people of Mexico. He believed art—especially large murals—had a public purpose and duty to alleviate the problems of his “compadres.”

Born in 1896 in Chihuahua, Mexico, to a bourgeois family, Siqueiros went to Mexico City as a teenager to study art and architecture. The year was 1910, the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. He became immediately involved in student strikes to fight for the rights of Mexican workers and the poor. At age 18, he joined the Mexican Revolutionary Army, and later, the Communist Party. Jailed and exiled from Mexico several times for his radical views and his harsh criticism of the Mexican government, he continued to fit for the rights he believed in for the rest of his life. Even so, the government commissioned large-scale murals by Siqueiros and his fellow muralists, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, who shared his revolutionary outlook.

Rejecting traditional methods of fresco painting, Siqueiros is responsible for several technical innovations. He developed a method of direct painting with quick-drying, industrial materials and spray guns on cement. He also used escultopintera, a combination of sculpting and painting, in several of his works. The material used in this self-portrait is “pure Siqueiros.” It was a new type of plastic paint developed especially for him at the Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City. Similar to oil paint, it dried faster so that he could apply new layers quickly. The thick buildup of paint on his right sleeve—called impasto—is an abstract work of art in itself.

Siqueiros died in 1977, his revolutionary murals and writings secured his place in both the history of Mexico and the history of art.

GUIDED PRACTICE

Although this self-portrait was not a mural, one can still sense the strength of his revolutionary resolve. In the upper right corner, an almost three-dimensional star zooms into space, propelled by the flames of a rocket. For Siqueiros, the star was a symbol of socialism. He includes it to reinforce his central belief: “The artist . . . must make up his mind to serve either the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. I believe that painting and sculpture should serve the proletariat in their revolutionary class struggle.” What indications do you see in this portrait that Siqueiros is serving the proletariat (the working or lower class in a society) rather than the bourgeoisie (people of the middle class, often concerned with material interests)?

What else does Siqueiros tell you about himself in this self-portrait? What are some words you would use to describe his pose and gaze? What about the proportions enhances certain features?

Siqueiros titled this work “Self-Portrait of the Coronelazo.” A colonel in the Spanish Civil War, Siqueiros was called a “coronelazo” or “big shot” by his political opponents. By using the slang term in the title, he is “punching” back at his challengers, showing them through facial expression, gesture, and symbol, the power he and his art still wield. Siqueiros made his clenched fist as big as his head and positioned it to extend out of the painting—into the viewer’s space. The gesture—a punch ready to explode—contains the passionate anger he felt toward his political opponents, reactionaries who were on the rise in Mexico in 1948 when he made the painting.

What do you note about the style of painting? Does it add to or take away from the personality he chooses to portray?

Siqueiros’ features are recognizable, but he blurs things together. His ear turns into the brim of his hat. His eyes, hidden in shadow, become a line that extends into the background. It’s almost as if his body is becoming one with the roughly painted surface—with his art—just as his passion for helping the people of Mexico merged with every part of his own life.

ACTIVITY

Students will deliver a short, persuasive speech inspired by the life and art of Siqueiros:

  1. Students will take up a political or public issue they care about.
  2. They will then conduct research to find out more about this issue.
  3. To express their point of view and argue for political action, they will write a three-minute speech. Use the following statements by Siqueiros to assist students with crafting powerful language to try to convince their listeners to take up their cause:

    With their admirable and extraordinary talent to create beauty, peculiar to themselves, the art of the Mexican people is the most wholesome spiritual expression in the world and this tradition is our greatest treasure. —From Siqueiros’ Declaration of Social, Political and Aesthetic Principles, 1922

    We repudiate so-called easel painting and every kind of art favored by the ultra-intellectual circles, because it is aristocratic and we praise monumental art in all its forms, because it is public property . . . . Art must no longer be the expression of individual satisfaction, but should aim to become a fighting, educative art for all.
    —From Siqueiros’ Declaration of Social, Political and Aesthetic Principles, 1922

    Portrait painting is also a good art form, though some would say it is not. . . . We must . . . advise the new Mexican painters to paint portraits as well.
    —From Siqueiros’ explanatory leaflet for mural Plastic Exercise, 1933

    The painters and sculptors of today cannot remain indifferent in the struggle to free humanity and art from oppression.
    —From Siqueiros’ explanatory leaflet for mural Plastic Exercise, 1933

    Mexico was the only modern country to . . . reconstruct the practice of mural painting in all its essential . . . fundamentals. This has had international repercussions.
    —Siqueiros’ message sent from prison to the delegates of the General Assembly of the International Association of Art Critics, held in Mexico, 1962

  4. Students may want to first practice giving their speech with a partner by using gestures, and speaking loudly and clearly.
  5. Lastly, they will present their speech to the class.

EXTENSION

Now that students have a cause they believe in and that is supported by research, they will create a propaganda poster to advertise their stance to a larger audience. On a heavy piece of paper or cardboard, students will use images and words cut out from magazines and newspaper and/or markers to outline their main arguments and invigorate others to join them in their cause.

Related Resources

Explore an online feature about propaganda art at MoMA

View a slideshow about the Mexican Revolution

Discover Robert Runyon's photographs of the Mexican Revolution (1910–20)

Visit the exhibition feature The Cubist Paintings of Diego Rivera: Memory, Politics, Place

Contact

Questions or comments? E-mail us at classroom@nga.gov