Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Eleven Images from Picturing the Proletariat

In the wake of Mexico’s revolution, artists played a fundamental role in constructing a national identity centered on working people and were hailed for their contributions 
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to modern art. John Lear's new book, Picturing the Proletariat: Artists and Labor in Revolutionary Mexico, 1908–1940, examines three aspects of this artistic legacy: the parallel paths of organized labor and artists’ collectives, the relations among these groups and the state, and visual narratives of the worker. We asked Professor Lear to pick a handful of images studied in the book to represent the progression and politics of the Mexican proletariat.

Eleven Images from Picturing the Proletariat

By John Lear

The late John Berger proposed a fundamental “way of seeing” art. He wrote, “The question: what went into the making of this? supersedes the collector’s question of: what is this?” As a historian of Mexico’s working people, I began my research for Picturing the Proletariat with the related assumption that art both reflects and shapes the world in which it is produced. This would hardly be a surprise to the politically engaged, Communist-inspired artists who came of age during Mexico’s 1910 revolution, or to anyone who has seen the monumental, government-sponsored murals painted on public buildings in subsequent years by “los tres grandes” (Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros). At one level, my new book is about how post-revolutionary artists “discovered” the working people of Mexico after 1910, came to see and organize themselves as “intellectual workers,” and reached out to newly organized unions. On another level, my book is about the ways these artists “pictured” working people stylistically and discursively over three decades. I found hundreds of long-forgotten or largely ignored prints, photographs, and murals. Many were embedded in journals and street posters, or painted on union and market walls instead of government buildings; and many were by lesser-known artists with more intimate ties with working people.
I include here eleven of the 146 works of art in the book. The images mostly speak for themselves, but I offer some commentary on what went into the making of each piece. Together they suggest some of the ways artists and labor leaders represented working people in revolutionary Mexico.

1. The Pre-revolutionary “Worker-Citizen” 

Saturnino Herrán began Allegory of Construction/Allegory of Labor in 1910, before the revolution, as a commission for the government of dictator Porfirio Díaz. Immersed in the urban transformations of the capital and aware of recent landmark strikes at Rio Blanco and Cananea, he was one of the first fine arts painters to introduce the worker as a subject, using the visual strategies of symbolism and allegory. His strong, fair-skinned construction workers labor at essential tasks, building the monumental structures of Mexico City, while a wife feeds her resting husband and children on the margins of the worksite. They invoke the shared goals of the pre-revolutionary elite and mutualist workers’ associations, by which male workers were to reject recent labor conflicts yet assume their proper roles as “worker-citizens” who construct the nation.

2. The Pre-revolutionary “Worker-Victim”

By contrast, the artisan printmaker José Guadalupe Posada developed years earlier a primitive style of relief prints for the satirical penny press for workers that challenged elite notions of development and highlighted conflict between the working class and its exploiters. As this 1903 front page of La Guacamaya demonstrates, he distinguished between two subsets of the exploited working class: in the masthead, the virile and outraged artisan class (with whom he himself identified), and in the caricature below, the victimized worker-campesino, literally consumed by factories, his flesh converted to gold. But while Posada’s prints denounced abuses of this “worker-victim,” they never advocated strikes and suggest an ambivalence to the outbreak of the 1910 revolution. Herrán and Posada, who both died during the decade of revolutionary fighting, offered two distinct archetypes of the worker that would clash and mingle over the next thirty years.

3. The “Worker-Citizen-Consumer” of the 1920s

This is a typical cover of the post-revolutionary union periodical Revista CROM, published for around a decade starting in 1926. Artists organized and participated in the revolution’s first several years of mobilization3 and fighting, but only in the national reconstruction of the 1920s did their representations of the working class flourish, in the context of intense labor organization and cultural politics. The officialist CROM labor federation, closely allied with President Calles, published its own journal illustrated by commercial artists. Drawings blended the earlier style of Herrán with art deco and art nouveau styles and conveyed the reformist politics of the federation itself. Like this cover, illustrations depicted attractive, muscular, Europeanized and above all individual workers who, together with industrialists and government leaders, constructed the post-revolutionary nation with their tools and the national flag in hand. This worker was also bound to middle-class consumer aspirations featured in articles and advertisements aimed at their wives, a “worker–citizen–consumer” with an explicit and unprecedented political role and palpable aspirations of individual social mobility.

4. The “Worker-Victim-Militant” of the 1920s

David Alfaro Siqueiros’s We three are Victims; We three are Brothers is typical of the more militant art in the newspaper El Machete, initiated in 1924 by a collective of politicized, avant-garde artists flirting with the Communist Party and often challenging the government status quo. They discovered and borrowed from Posada to depict the working class in wood-block prints and ballads. The first of two related prints by Siqueiros focused on a theme derived from Posada, the exploitation of workers by foreign capitalists, as well as the postrevolutionary elite and the leaders of the officialist CROM labor federation. But unlike in Posada’s prints, this “worker–victim–militant” organized collectively to bring about his own transformation, as depicted here in Siqueiros’ second image, of working class unity. The accompanying play, written by his wife Graciela Amador, explained that unity would result from the enlightenment offered by militants of the Communist Party.

5. Woman as Artist and Militant

I include this iconic 1929 photograph by Tina Modotti because so few of the politically engaged artists of this period were women, and because women were rarely portrayed as workers, in spite of their significant presence in the paid labor force. The very existence of a woman photographer of Modotti’s stature, and the relative freedom with which she lived her life and photographed in Mexico was largely due to her being a foreigner. In the photographs she did for El Machete (which by then had become the official organ of the Communist Party) and other journals, she largely accepts the naturalization of the paid proletariat as male, while photographing women in their domestic labors—caring for children, washing laundry, or carrying burdens on their heads. Months before her expulsion from the country as a dangerous communist, Modotti constructed this image of female militancy that, in terms of its artist and subject, is unique for the period.

6. The “Worker-Militant” in the 1930s

Artists and worker movements were revitalized and radicalized with the six-year presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940). The Communist Party’s advocacy of a Popular Front, related international cultural movements, and the alliance of working-class leaders and artists behind the Cárdenista reforms facilitated the formation of the most important artists’ collective to date, the League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists (LEAR) in 1934. Their journal, alternative murals, and some posters, flyers, and pamphlets for their own events and for government publications have been reproduced, mostly in relation to the LEAR’s role as precursor to the longer-lived Taller de Gráfica Popular. Much less known and perhaps more revealing are their graphic collaborations in El Machete and with labor unions such as the Mexican Electricians Union (SME). 

In the context of Cardenista reforms and mobilizations, the “worker-victim-militant” was pictured less as a victim and more as a militant connected to a collective. In this December 1936 example from the electricians’ Revista Lux, LEAR artist Santos Balmori portrays the electricians’ leader Francisco Breña Alvirez rallying workers in Mexico City’s central plaza in support of President Cardenas’s showdown with former president Calles. The SME leader is featured rather than Cardenas, with whom he shared the podium. Balmori constructs his image using photographs of the event, a famous photograph of Lenin haranguing the masses, and the priorities and world vision of the leadership of the Electricians Union. Among the banners held in the crowd is a sign for the Communist Party and another for the LEAR, pointing to the close collaboration of the artist collective with labor leaders.

7. Colossal Worker

In this March 1936 Revista Lux cover by Santos Balmori, a colossal worker represents a labor movement recently unified within the CTM labor confederation, part of a trope that pictures unified leaders and masses as a single colossal worker representing the exploitation, protest, and ultimate victory of his entire industry or class. Balmori's work reveals the influence of Soviet constructivism from his years in Europe. The worker is often embedded in the economic infrastructure and confronts the global forces of imperialism and capitalism. He is also portrayed as the fundamental actor in the creation of a democratic and socialist order in Mexico that seemed by 1936 to be very much in the making.

8. The Art of the Strike

Among a series of photomontages by exiled German and LEAR member Enrique Gutmann, the flyer he produced for the July 1936 electricians’ strike stands out. The print medium competed with photographs and photomontages aimed at a more sophisticated working class. Just left of center, a fragment shows the same electricians’ leader, Francisco Breña Alvirez, inserted over a group of electricians marching with their banner at the entrance to the foreign power company. At the top right is the Necaxa power plant, from which a vast web of electricity generating towers spread transmission lines. On the left, these wires are severed by two sets of huge hands, initiating the strike. At the center, three candles above a streetcar illuminate the dark sky, symbols of a modern city idled and darkened by the power of the working class. In the right foreground, masses of laborers from other unions support the strike with their bodies and banners. The discordant scales, times, and spaces of Gutmann’s fragments suggest a very different aesthetic from the murals and prints of the period. The chaotic photomontage effectively invokes the Electricians Union’s public profile, its fundamental role in generating or withholding electricity, and the solidarity of the rest of the Mexican working class behind the electricians (which wasn’t always the case). They did win their strike.

9. The Popular Front

I feature this wonderful print on the cover of my book because it marks a high-point of working-class mobilization and artistic collaboration. Published in El Machete in 1936, it shows workers in overalls joined not only by a campesino-peasant, but also by their Popular Front allies, professionals, and office workers in suits. The image and the poem below it celebrate May Day by invoking a Popular Front slogan: “NATIONAL UNITY OF ALL POPULAR FORCES,” the red flag reads. Each figure bears the acronym of an organization, including the Communist Party (PCM), the new, unified labor confederation (CTM), a union of campesinos (UCN), and the official ruling party (PNR). Significant is the placement of a barefoot woman in the central position, here representing the Sole Front for Women’s Rights, signaling a great organizational inclusion of women during these years and acknowledging Modotti’s earlier photograph. In the very back, a suited man represents unified artists and intellectuals, with the initials “LEAR” on his extended palm serving as a collective signature for the artists.

10. Workers Divided

Balmori’s lithograph on the April 1937 cover of Revista Lux suggests a pivot in the visual narrative of the working class. When this print was made, the Cárdenas government had moved toward moderation and the institutionalization of its coalition in a new party. Because of this institutionalization, the Communist Party, the CTM, and its constituent labor unions underwent internal and external crises. Balmori’s cover embodies the Electricians Union critique of and break with the CTM federation, emblematic of the fundamental division between the powerful national industrial unions that insisted on democracy in their ranks, and the many company- and regionally based unions that formed the main constituency of CTM's authoritarian leadership and supported its incorporation into the reformed ruling party. The image inverts his previous relief cover of the electrians leader speaking before a unified mass of anti-Callista workers. The heroic speaker here has morphed into a demagogue, shrieking into a microphone at the now undifferentiated and sedate masses. The central banner declares, “Long Live our Maximum Leader,” an ironic suggestion that CTM leaders like Lombardo Toledano had revived the authoritarian leadership of the 1920s. The muted gray tones of the lithograph suggest the ambiguities and divisions of mass mobilization in the age of fascism. The divisions suggested here led to a call for “Unity at All Costs,” backed by the government and the Communist Party, that greatly weakened the vitality and autonomy of the organizations of artists and workers. 

11. The Post-1940 militant citizen

This poster done by TGP artists Alberto Beltrán and Arturo García Bustos for the CTM federation in 1947 suggests a resolution of sorts to the conflicts of the late 1930s, and the fundamental shift of political culture after 1940. Artists were themselves torn by differences over the role of politics in art and their divided loyalties among unions, the PCM, and the government, all factors that led to the disolution of the LEAR in 1938. Their smaller and longer-lasting successor organization, the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP), tried to defend workers, campesinos, and students who challenged the post-1940 institutional order and dramatically different political climate, one that would shift further right in the context of World War II and the Cold War. The extraordinary visual aesthetic they had created continued to hold sway and still featured the worker as a fundamental national actor. But in many of their portrayals, especially those done for the CTM and the official state party, the colossal symbolic worker who earlier took on domestic and foreign capital now defends national resources and national industry from imperialism, with the Mexican flag or its patriotic colors foregrounded. The worker–victim–militant, rendered in the powerful aesthetic derived from Posada and his post-revolutionary heirs, became gradually fused with the nationalist message of the worker-citizen, derived from Herrán and Revista CROM, a worker-militant-citizen with militant modifying “citizen” instead of worker.

While the CTM poster suggests a narrative closer to the fundamental role of artists and organized labor in the immediate post-revolutionary decades, it is hardly the end of the story. The traditions of working-class militancy and the visual vocabularies developed between 1920 and 1938 continue as points of reference and as oppositional tools, used at strategic moments by a much more broadly constituted and defined Mexican people, and by veteran artists and the younger generations of artists inspired by them.


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