The Surreal Movement Among Communist Mexican Artists
The Surrealism movement didn’t really take over the Mexican art world until the late 1930s, as Hitler’s power grew it became more and more evident that Europe was heading into another war and many progressive artists feared for their lives—some escaped to New York, others went south to Mexico.
First up, we have the famous unibrow donning feminist Frida Kahlo—I first heard of Kahlo in 2002 when I saw the movie based on her life, Frida (2002) starring Salma Hayek as Kahlo.
Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, in Coyoacán, Mexico City to Matilde Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón and Wilhelm “Guillermo” Kahlo; her father, a photographer, had immigrated to Mexico from Germany where he met and married her mother. Frida was the third child of four daughters and by the age of six, she had contracted polio which confined her to her bed for nine months. While she was recovering from her illness, Guillermo encouraged his daughter to play soccer, go swimming, and even wrestle to help her recover from the damage the disease had caused in her right leg and foot.
She was enrolled at the renowned National Preparatory School in 1922, where she was one of the only female students to attend and she gravitated toward a group of politically and intellectually like-minded peers. While in school, she became more politically active, to the point of joining the Young Communist League and the Mexican Communist Party. Tragedy struck on September 17, 1925, when Kahlo and her boyfriend from school, Alejandro Gómez Arias were traveling on a bus when it collided with a streetcar. Kahlo was unfortunately impaled through her hip by a steel handrail and subsequently suffered from several injuries and fractures to her spine and pelvis. She was forced to stay at the Red Cross Hospital in Mexico City for weeks to recover from the accident before she was released to recuperate further at home. It was during this time that she found her love for art when she began painting, eventually painting her first self-portrait a year after her accident and gifting it to Alejandro Gómez Arias.
I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”Frida Kahlo
Frida was most famously known for her self-portraits, which accounted for fifty-five of her two hundred paintings, as well as her bold and vibrant color choices. She became a huge feminist figure, with her confident unibrow and deep emotional expression in her paintings. Considering how often Kahlo was either ill or injured, she showed the world the depths of her physical and emotional pain. During the last four years of her life, Kahlo was hospitalized several times—among the medical issues she faced such as gangrene, depression, and reported suicide attempts, it is believed that when Kahlo died a week after her forty-seventh birthday, that it was due to a pulmonary embolism. There are, of course, alternative beliefs, in which people allege that she successfully committed suicide.
The Dream (The Bed) (1940)
Kahlo painted The Dream (The Bed) in 1940 using oils on canvas—it, much like many of Frida’s paintings, depicts the artist herself. It shows the artist laying in her own canopy bed, sleeping, and a papier-mâché skeleton laying atop the canopy awake, watching, and strapped with explosives. She painted this particular work while in Mexico and hazarded to show how life and death in Mexican culture are intricately interwoven. Within Mexican culture, death is celebrated during a festival known as Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) and in Kahlo’s unique perspective, she viewed the skeleton as a representation of mortality. Considering the painting was created during a time when the Western world was effectively killing each other in the Second World War, the concept of death and mortality was never far from anyone’s thoughts. Frida painted green plants all over her own body, which were symbolic of life and rebirth; this was significant because this painting was created around the same time that Kahlo and Rivera remarried and it helped her reputation as an artist grow significantly that year. The clouds in the background give this piece a surreal and airy feeling and give us the impression that the bed is floating in the sky—in Frida’s dream.
The Visual Elements of Color
Kahlo is known for vibrant, bold color choices, but this piece is oddly lacking in color in comparison. I think this was an important choice made by Kahlo to emphasize the importance of the yellow contrasting against the greys and whites, which reinforces the concept of the celebration of death as being a celebration of a life lived.
As I discussed briefly above, the plants that adorn Frida’s sleeping form are green—as is expected, nature is generally symbolized with green. As a result, Kahlo uses green as a symbol of life, rebirth, as it encompasses the true nature of Mother Earth and the cycle of life as a whole.
Yellow is a color that suggests joy—this tracks with Kahlo’s style of using vibrant and bold colors to express her intentions within her paintings. As discussed above, this painting is intended to entertain the ideas of life and death, with life being something to be appreciative of and death is something to be celebrated, instead of mourned. I believe that Kahlo chose yellow here to show that despite hardships, she could still be joyful.
While I wouldn’t necessarily own this particular piece of art, Frida is a woman I highly admire—as a powerful feminist icon, she and others like her throughout the history of art and its evolution, have paved the way for women appearing in male-dominated career paths in a way that allows female artists like myself to not have any barriers in life. I sincerely enjoy this painting, because of the message that it imparts upon the viewer.
Marriage, Infidelity, and Communism
Kahlo first met Diego Rivera, the famed Mexican muralist, in 1922 while he was working on a project at her high school; she would frequently watch as he painted the mural The Creation in the school’s lecture hall and she allegedly vowed that she would someday have Rivera’s child. The two reconnected in 1928 when Rivera greatly encouraged her artwork and they became romantically involved. They were married a year after their reunion and Kahlo began traveling with Rivera wherever he had been commissioned for murals. By 1930 they were living in San Francisco, California before they went to New York for Rivera’s show at the Museum of Modern Art and ended up living in Detroit while Rivera worked on a commission with the Detroit Institute of Arts.
The time the couple spent in New York City in 1933, was controversial when Nelson Rockefeller commissioned Rivera to create the mural Man at the Crossroads in the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center—but Rockefeller demanded Rivera stop working after he painted Vladimir Lenin into the mural and later had the communist leader painted over. Kahlo and Rivera returned to Mexico months after the incident and moved to San Angel. The marriage was never an entirely happy one for Kahlo, who suffered near-constant heartache at the hands of Rivera who never missed an opportunity to be unfaithful to his wife and even bedding her younger sister, Cristina. As a result of the betrayal, Kahlo cut off most of her hair, which had become iconic for her at the time. Kahlo never seemed to catch a break and in 1934 she miscarried the child that she so desperately desired to have.
Despite having a tumultuous marriage and going through several periods of separation, Kahlo and Rivera came together to help Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalia in 1937 after the famed Soviet communist was exiled; when the Trotskys came to stay with Kahlo and Rivera at Kahlo’s childhood home, Leon was always fearful that he would be assassinated by his old rival, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin—it’s even alleged that Kahlo and Trotsky had an affair during this time.
The two eventually got divorced in 1939, but remarried in 1940—it seems that despite their difficulties, they still wanted to be with each other.
Diego Rivera and his twin brother were born in 1886 in Guanajuato, Mexico—unfortunately, Rivera’s twin died when they were both just two years old and shortly thereafter, his family moved to Mexico City. His parents were always incredibly encouraging when it came to his artistic ability and enrolled him in the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts when he was just twelve years old.
A memorable and featured mural artist during the twentieth century, Rivera was actively painting for fifty years of his life between the years 1907 and 1957. Despite having been born and raised in Mexico, Rivera actually spent an inordinate of his time in Europe and the United States fulfilling commissions on a case by case basis. During Rivera’s early work we see how he embraced Post-Impressionism and yet he somehow still retained his own unique perspective and, for lack of better words, his own voice. Like his wife, Frida Kahlo, Rivera was involved in the political scene, becoming a dedicated Marxist and joining the Mexican Communist Party in 1922.
While at the academy, Rivera studied traditional painting and sculpting techniques, and found among his peers a friend in Gerardo Murillo who would become the leading artist in the movement of Mexican Mural creation during the early 20th century, in which Rivera would become known for as well. Rivera and Murillo entered their first exhibition in 1905 and upon completion of his studies that same year, he went on to exhibit more than two dozen paintings at the annual San Carlos Academy show. By 1907, Rivera received a government sponsorship to study abroad in Europe and he took full advantage, first stopping to studying in Madrid to observe and practice realism while studying Eduardo Chicharro Aguera. After Madrid, Rivera moved on to Paris where he would continue living for several years and would eventually emerge as an avant-garde artist.
Throughout his career, Rivera continued to be a central force in the development of national art in Mexico, but his greatest legacy is considered the impact he made on the concept of public art—by creating scenes of American life on public buildings, Rivera inspired Franklin Delano Roosevelt to create the Works Projects Administration program. The WPA program was, in effect, a way to employ millions of job seekers to carry out public work projects, which encompassed the arts and culture, medicine and healthcare, as well as infrastructure.
Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (1947)
This mural was originally designed and painted at the behest of Carlos Obregón Santacilia for the Hotel Del Prado’s Versailles Restaurant in Mexico City, but when the hotel became uninhabitable after the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, it was condemned for demolition and the mural was restored and moved to its own museum. This mural, in English, is entitled Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central, which perfectly suits this joyous display.
It’s important to note that this mural doesn’t depict one random day in the Alameda Central park in Mexico City, but instead depicts famous people and events throughout the history of Mexico. In particular, some of the figures included are Frida Kahlo, José Guadalupe Posada, Francisco I. Madero, Benito Juárez, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Porfirio Díaz, Agustín de Iturbide, Ignacio Manuel Altamirano, Maximilian I of Mexico, Juan de Zumárraga, Antonio López de Santa Anna, Winfield Scott, Victoriano Huerta, José Martí, Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera, Hernán Cortés, Nicolás Zúñiga y Miranda, and La Malinche. While the mural depicts historic events and famous individuals, it is mostly focused on the bourgeois complacency that directly preceded the Mexican Revolution of 1910—the elegantly dressed upper-class in direct juxtaposition to the indigenous family that is being forcefully beaten back by police batons—foreshadowing the violence to come.
The Visual Elements of Color
Contrast: Rainbow of Colors
The various different colors that appear in this mural are significant for contrast; Rivera knew how to draw the eye to certain aspects of the mural, allowing everything to stick out as unique homages to color.
Symbol: Rainbow of Colors
This painting with its large variety of colors is symbolic of all of the conflicting emotions and states of being according to human nature.
Mood: Rainbow of Colors
I find that Rivera’s choice to utilize a rainbow of colors in this piece was significant—bright yellows, reds, blues, and greens show this as a celebration of sorts—where all aspects of life are being embraced—sadness, joy, passion, rebirth.
I thoroughly enjoy the spirit of Rivera’s artwork and if it were not for his character as a human being, I would probably be proud to own a replica of any one of his works, but I am the type of person that can only look past character flaws to a minor extent.
David Alfaro Siqueiros
Born José de Jesús Alfaro Siqueiros on December 29, 1896, in Camargo, Chihuahua as the second of three children. Born to a family with a rich father, when his mother died when he was only four years old, his father sent him and his siblings to live with their paternal grandparents. His rebellious sister was his earliest influence and she encouraged him to resist their father’s religious ideologies and become curious about new political ideas such as Marxism. In 1911, at the age of fifteen, while attending the Academy of San Carlos of the National Academy of Fine arts, Siqueiros became involved in a student strike. They were demanding changes to the school’s teaching methodology and the impeachment of the school’s director.
By the time Siqueiros was eighteen years old, he and several of his artist peers decide to join Venustiano Carranza’s Constitutional Army, which was in direct opposition to the government during President Victoriano Huerta. President Huerta fell in 1914 and it was then that Siqueiros became obsessive with the idea of post-revolutionary fighting; being a part of the military afforded him the opportunity to travel and be exposed to a Mexican culture that he had never before experienced.
David is best known for his large murals and frescoes—aside from Rivera, he is considered one of the most famous Mexican muralists and was also a member of the Mexican Communist Party—unlike Rivera and Kahlo, however, Siqueiros was a Stalinist and a supporter of the Soviet Union and reported led an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Trotsky in May 1940.
Echo of a Scream (1937)
This iconic painting was created in 1937 in Mexico, before Siqueiro even started working against Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship. The painting specifically was created to represent the aftermath of a war and the trauma of human loss—in particular the aftermath of the Spanish civil war. There is opportunity to look at this painting in two completely separate ways, both literally and metaphorically as a commentary on war.
There are two baby heads, one enlarged and seemingly floating, the other coming out of the mouth of the larger head. This child sits in a literal warzone of rubble, spent shells, broken cannons, and shrapnel; the child is crying as a result of the devastation that surrounds him.
The significance of the contrasting shocking red against the dark and dismal greys and blacks is enormous—there is a reason why Siqueiros only emphasized one color. This highlights the dark and dreary state of the world around the subject of the painting.
The red in this piece provides us the flash of an idea of not only blood, but pain and suffering as well. The depth of its involvement with it’s subject, the child wears this symbol like the garment itself, as a removable or changeable item.
Mood: Black & Grey
The blacks and greys in this piece bring to mind war, suffering, loss, and destruction for me—they highlight anguish and destroyed lives, motherless and homeless children as is depicted here.
I find that Siqueiros created some incredibly and thought provoking artwork and I really would just like to understand his messages behind them. I think his work is tragically beautiful and I would love to own copies of his work, especially this one in particular.
“#14 The Dream (The Bed).” Humanitas Chalk Festival, chatsworthchalkfest.weebly.com/14-the-dream-the-bed.html.
Arcq, Teresa, and Jennifer Field. Surrealism in Mexico. Di Donna, 2019. .
“David Alfaro Siqueiros.” 81 Artworks, Bio & Shows on Artsy, www.artsy.net/artist/david-alfaro-siqueiros.
“Diego Rivera, His Life and Art.” Diego Rivera – Paintings, Murals, Biography of Diego Rivera, www.diegorivera.org.
Editorial, Artsy, and Alexxa Gotthardt. Surrealism Reached Mind-Bending New Heights in Mexico. 25 June 2019, www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-mexico-surrealist-mecca.
Editors, Biography.com. “Diego Rivera.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 16 June 2020, www.biography.com/artist/diego-rivera.
Frida Kahlo and Her Paintings, www.fridakahlo.org/.