February 10, 2012

Siqueiros's "Grabados"

        David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) was one of the major Mexican political artists, especially known for murals.  I think political art requires a very tricky balancing act: to reveal injustice or social problems without being merely hateful and vicious, and simultaneously to express a clear message without being mere propaganda.  That's why I seldom like political art regardless of whether or not I agree with its message - I just don't think it's usually very good art.
        That said, these wood block prints by Siqueiros caught my eye.  He called them "grabados," which my Spanish dictionary translates as "engravings," but that must also be the same word for "woodcuts."  In any case, these thirteen wood block prints were apparently carved in 1930 while Siqueiros was in prison.  They were published as a book in 1931, with originals in black ink on orange tissue paper pasted into the pages.  I don't know what Siqueiros had to say about the theme of the set.  They're clearly representing his recurring theme of workers and oppression.  They emerged, like all his art, from his political convictions, but some of them have a visual impact that seems more universal.
        Two of the prints in particular really appealed to me.  They're very simple and stark, but that gives the figures a dignity that lots of precise little details might not
have shown so well.  I think of the first one as a mother and child, but its title, "The Family," gives it a slightly different feel - these two are complete in themselves.  There's both a beauty in that, and a question mark.
        I see the second as wise women - but that's just me.  It turns out that its title is "At the Pawn Brokers," so presumably these people represent the nameless desperate poor.  But perhaps Siqueiros meant for us to see them as both desperate and yet still possessed of wisdom and dignity.  In any case, in both these blocks I like the straight, stiff postures, the enveloping shawls, and the blocks of shadow.

        You can see all thirteen woodcuts in the series here at Jose Vera Fine Art & Antiques.

[Pictures: The Family, and At the Pawn Brokers, wood block prints by David Alfaro Siqueiros from 13 Grabados, 1931.]

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