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'America Tropical': A forgotten Siqueiros mural resurfaces in Los Angeles [Updated]

September 22, 2010 |  9:34 am

America tropical mural los angeles culture monster

A significant artwork from the Mexican muralism movement has sat unseen for more than 70 years, whitewashed soon after it was completed to mask its political content, on a second-story exterior wall of a historic building in Los Angeles.

David Alfaro Siqueiros, like his Mexican contemporaries Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, traveled and painted north of the border while Mexican modernism flourished and grew an international profile in the early- and mid-20th century. He lived in L.A. for about seven months in 1932 and was commissioned to paint a mural on the old Italian Hall in the Olvera Street district. Siqueiros was asked to paint something celebrating "tropical America," part of efforts by a booster named Christine Sterling to transform the Olvera Street area into something like a stereotypical Mexican village.

The resulting mural, "America Tropical," scandalized L.A. elites who were perhaps expecting lush foilage and colorful birds. The centerpiece of Siqueiros's mural depicted an Indian peasant with an eagle -- symbolizing American imperialism -- bearing down from above. The mural was whitewashed, and Siqueiros was later deported from the U.S. after his visa ran out.

Siqueiros traveled on, and the mural was largely forgotten for decades.

America tropical whitewashed

Earlier this month, ground finally broke on a project that will see conservation of the mural and construction of an adjoining visitor center. The project, conceived as far back as the 1960s and expected to be completed by 2012 or 2013, will help fill in a key chapter in the long history of cultural and political exchange between Mexico and the United States, particularly in Los Angeles, professor and muralist Judy Baca notes in an essay for PBS.

Siqueiros experimented with a new technique while painting "America Tropical," reinterpreting the fresco approach on wet cement. He also seemed aware that the commission was an opportunity to "create a work of revolutionary character." Christopher Knight, art critic at The Times, elaborates at Culture Monster:

Siqueiros, of course, was profoundly influenced by Italian Renaissance frescoes -- he made studies of Masaccio's early 15th century Brancacci Chapel in Florence -- as well as by the fervent industrial motifs of early 20th century Italian Futurist painting. And he was partly inspired in this by the urging of Dr. Atl -- Gerardo Murillo -- the spiritual guide of Mexican Modernism, who had studied at the University of Rome. So a politically trenchant fresco of a crucified Indian peasant painted on an upstairs wall of El Pueblo's Italian Hall doesn't seem a stretch.

Author and professor Ruben Martinez, writing in our Opinion section, describes an intriguing family connection to Siqueiros' mural on Olvera Street, and argues:

During his stay in Los Angeles, Siqueiros, a lifelong revolutionary, absorbed the political moment. He painted on behalf of indigenous Mexicans, then as now among the most oppressed and rebellious of Latin America's peoples — and, by extension, Mexicans in America, then as now a disposable labor force that doubles as scapegoat in troubled economic times.

Interestingly, Martinez writes that during the era when his grandparents played music in a restaurant downstairs from where Siqueiros worked, some Olvera Street employees "were paid to assume 'sleepy Mexican' poses in shaded corners." (La Plaza believes it, but just can't imagine it.)

Getty america tropical conservation

There are a variety of upcoming events and exhibitions in L.A. related to Siqueiros's work in southern California, including the exhibit "Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied," at the Autry National Center museum. The Getty Conservation Institute is performing the painstaking conservation work on the mural, as seen above, and shouldering $3.95 million of the $9 million overall cost.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

[Updated at 12:06 p.m.: A previous version of this post used the term restoration instead of conservation regarding work on the mural, and did not specify that the Getty Conservation Institute is contributing only $3.95 million of the overall project costs.]

Photos, from top: A man identified as Robert Bredecio, an assistant to muralist David Alfaro Siquieros, stands before the completed "America Tropical" mural. (Credit: Getty Conservation Institute); a view of "America Tropical," partly whitewashed. (Credit: PBS); Leslie Rainer, a Getty project specialist, working on "America Tropical." (Credit: Getty Conservation Institute)

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