Paint the Revolution: A Chilling Retrospective on Conflict and Destruction

Jordan Gunselman

Visitors to the Paint the Revolution exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art yearn for a fortunate opportunity to see, firsthand, famous pieces by painter-turned-pop-culture-icon Frida Kahlo or one of Diego Rivera’s renowned large-scale works. The front of the museum itself had been temporarily adorned with a self-portrait of Kahlo.

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The long-anticipated exhibition opened Oct. 25 and begins with works from Mexican artists in the 1910s. It’s an era of political upheaval in Mexico. Leaders sought the cultural unification of their countrymen and one way they tried to achieve it was through public art. Artists like Francisco Goitia, José Clemente Orozco and Rivera painted adoring landscapes of Mexico as well as propaganda pieces from the horrors of battle. The artists focused on the everyday lives of Mexicans, particularly workers and people of indigenous heritage. The era of bright landscapes and romanticism in Mexican culture was an important historical step in setting the stage for an epic societal upheaval.

The exhibit displays appreciation and romanticisation of the indigenous culture, intertwined with early Mexican nationalism. The first few rooms contain portraits of half or fully nude dark-skinned women, staring out of the paintings and into the eyes of museum-goers. Julio Castellanos’ “Three Nudes” is the most recognizable of these, as well as Kahlo’s first self-portrait. img_0305_edit

The next few rooms continue to explore the themes and political ideologies that shaped Mexico’s reconstruction. Once the timeline on the wall hits the 40s, viewers suddenly walk into a room covered floor to ceiling in paintings, splattered with chunky blacks, grays, oranges reds. Intermixed with fire, blood and destruction, it’s World War II primarily through the eyes of David Alfaro Siqueiros.

A close up of Three Nudes by Julio Castellanos, on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
A close up of Three Nudes by Julio Castellanos, on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

One side of the room is covered in paintings entitled “The Birth of Fascism,” “Collective Suicide,” and “The End of the World.” Covering the opposite wall is a mural by Siqueiros called “Portrait of the Bourgeoisie.” Siqueiros wrapped in the mural all of the societal evils he saw as bringing about the collision of empires in Europe and around the world.

The recreation of the mural Portrait of the Bourgeoisie by David Alfaro Siqueiros covers a wall in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Paint the Revolution exhibit.
The recreation of the mural Portrait of the Bourgeoisie by David Alfaro Siqueiros covers a wall in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Paint the Revolution exhibit.

While a close look at the detail in Frida’s small, symbol-laden paintings is worthwhile, this jolting curation of heavy, violent works by Siqueiros is the pinnacle of the exhibition. The next few rooms delve deeply into surrealism as the artists attempted to piece together reality after their country and their world had been decimated by war.

The timeliness of this current exhibition is not coincidental. Most of the themes displayed, Mexican identity, instability on a world scale and mass political dissent are pivotal to the current political climate in the U.S.

There was a panel discussion at the museum entitled “Art as Activism,” discussed these connections between current cultural themes and the themes in the exhibit, bringing them to the forefront of museum-goers’ consciousness.  

San Diego native panelist Marcos Ramirez Erre’s work largely focuses on war, nation and identity, sharing many of the themes contained in the Paint the Revolution exhibition. Of his most recent pieces is a billboard which, designed to look like a highway road sign, lists cities the U.S. has bombed, as well as the year of the bombing and the number of miles away those cities are. The billboard has been banned from its original location in Reading, Pa.

Noah Marshall, a freshman at Drexel University, said he felt some of the topics discussed at the panel were particularly prevalent.

“I think because issues are becoming more focused on and I think because people are becoming more involved that this is very big,” Marshall said. “And people are realizing that they can become a part of this and it’s not just something that they should just pass by anymore.”

Philadelphia’s own Joe Boruchow, one of the panelists and a paper cut-out artist, has done his best to create just that effect. His most recent series was directly inspired by this election and he posts copies of his recent pieces all over the city so people have a chance to see and engage with his work.

“If something gets under my skin, I have to exercise it in some way,” Boruchow said. “Making paper cut-outs is how I do that. George Bush and Trump sure got under my skin. I’m always just working with what’s bothering me, what’s interesting me.”

The Paint the Revolution exhibition essentially documents decades worth of what “got under people’s skin” in 20th century Mexico – from Kahlo’s disgust with American capitalism and consumerism in “Self Portrait Along the Border Line between Mexico and the United States” to Siqueiros’ morbid criticism of sweeping political movements in “The Birth of Fascism.”

David Alfaro Siquieros’ “The Birth of Fascism” on temporary display at the exhibit.
David Alfaro Siqueiros’ “The Birth of Fascism” on temporary display at the exhibit. Photos by Jordan Gunselman.

Take some time to examine the symbols in Kahlo’s paintings and question what they represent. Admire the massiveness of Rivera’s murals and soak in the calmness in his earth tones and smooth brush strokes. Definitely experience the drama in Siqueiros’ chaotic “Collective Suicide” and other works created in the wake of international terror and uncertainty. Attempt to comprehend the artists’ and the world’s reactions to worldwide bloodshed and the anticipation of complete annihilation. The exhibit runs until Jan. 8.

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