Grade Level: 9-10
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.
David Alfaro Siqueiros
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
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?
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.
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.
Students will deliver a short, persuasive speech inspired by the life and art of Siqueiros:
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.
VA:Cn11.1.HSI Describe how knowledge of culture, traditions, and history may influence personal responses to art.
VA:Cr1.2.HSI Shape an artistic investigation of an aspect of present-day life using a contemporary practice of art or design.
VA:Pr6.1.HSI Analyze and describe the impact that an exhibition or collection has on personal awareness of social, cultural, or political beliefs and understandings.
VA:Re7.1.HSI Hypothesize ways in which art influences perception and understanding of human experiences.
VA:Re8.1.HSI Interpret an artwork or collection of works, supported by relevant and sufficient evidence found in the work and its various contexts.