For decades, a mysterious work by Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros remained hidden in a basement. Its recovery was a very long fight against time and oblivion.
The case of David Alfaro Siqueiros’ Plastic Exercise mural is an example of how art opens up space with unusual events in the news. Created in an atmosphere of controversy, in collaboration with prominent artists and using iconoclastic techniques that included film projections on the walls, this iconic work of Mexican muralism, otherwise valued at several million dollars, has suffered all kinds of setbacks. We can even say that he returned from oblivion to stay. It can be seen in all its splendor in the Plaza Colon of Buenos Aires.
The story of finding the plastic exercise mural, by David Alfaro Siqueiros, in a dark basement of an abandoned house in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, begins with a gloomy scene: “When you reach the basement, slowly and lit by the dim light of a candle, we began to try to interpret that bustle of shapeless figures, of harmonic colors, where only some foreshortenings put some order on the whole.” That is the story of Héctor Mendizábal, author of the book “El mural de Siqueiros,” in Argentina, which he co-wrote with Daniel Schavelzon. The story continues: “It seemed that things were not as figurative as the dim light, the dirt, the water that flowed through the broken windows, the graffiti on the paintings and the ashes of some occasional ‘linyera’ suggested.”
The history of the mural is a story of forgetting and decades of failed efforts to bring it out of the shadows. David Alfaro Siqueiros came from Mexico, where mural art had reached great heights with artists such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. He arrived in Buenos Aires in 1933, and although he spent only a few months in Argentina, he looked for walls in streets, even in squares and parks, because he considered that interior spaces limited mural painting. However, paradoxically, he ended up painting on one of the walls of the mansion of an Argentine magnate, more precisely, in the basement.
The Mexican artist received the commission to intervene a space reserved for playing poker. It was a complex place to paint, small, with curved walls and poor lighting. There he displayed Plastic Exercise: absolutely naked female figures, all with their legs crossed except for one girl, who experts later identified as Blanca Luz Brum, his wife, from whom he was separated. In contrast, the few male figures chastely hide their sex. Siqueiros’s assistants were the artists Juan Carlos Castagnino, Antonio Berni and Lino Eneas Spilimbergo, later quoted masters of Argentine painting.
The mural lived a brief time of splendor, but then fell into oblivion. The residence was sold and its new owner – who perhaps did not know what she had at home – closed the basement. Years later, the property was sold to a new owner, who understood the value of the work in his basement, but could not do anything to salvage it.
As a result, tangled rumors of a superb mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros, hidden, in a basement spread across Mexico. In 1973, Jaime del Palacio, cultural attaché of Mexico, traveled to the rumored basement to verify the existence of the mural. As soon as he verified that the work was real, he decided to process his purchase, by the Mexican State, and transfer it to Mexico, but the bureaucracy did not allow the purchase.
Years later, the house was abandoned and became a refuge for vagabonds, who damaged the work, ignorant of its enormous value. However, in 1988, the house was part of a judicial auction, where those who knew of the mural renewed their energies to try to save it once more. This time, at last, they were successful.
The first attempts to save the mural included a meticulous cleaning and drying of the walls. Subsequently, they proceeded to demolish part of the house and dig around the enclosure to extract the walls, ceiling and floor where the mural was painted. The pieces were stored in a warehouse, awaiting display. But chance, again, put the work to sleep, for almost 20 years, wrapped in a tangle of disagreements, procedures and interventions of the Mexican and Argentinian governments.
Finally, in 2008, 75 years after its creation, the mysterious Siqueiros mural in Argentina was moved in boxes to the Casa Rosada Museum in Buenos Aires, and in 2009 it was restored to its original form, just as the artist had conceived it.
Muralism was born in Mexico as an art sponsored by the State. Between 1923 and 1926, different artists painted 24 murals in official buildings. Siqueiros signed four of them: “The elements,” “The call of freedom,” “The burial of the worker” and “Myths.” Later, the Mexican artist, known for having a difficult and conflicting personality, settled down in the city of Montevideo, to then go to Buenos Aires, where the long history of his plastic Exercise began.
The next time you visit Buenos Aires, take time to visit the Siqueiros mural, a piece of Mexican art, culture, and history, in Argentina. ■
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