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Mendez index Arturo García Bustos
biographical essay | chronology of professional life and times | TGP album

1924: Mexico City -- Nationalizing the Walls
"Easel art invites confinement. The mural, on the other hand, offers itself to the passing multitude. The people may be illiterate, but they are not blind; so Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros assault the walls of Mexico. They paint something new and different. On moist lime is born a truly national art, child of the Mexican revolution and of these days of births and funerals."
(from Century of the Wind, book III of Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire, 1986)
GROWING UP WITH REVOLUTION

Arturo García Bustos was first known as a printmaker, and later as a painter and muralist. However, his early studies were in painting, and it was from these that his graphic works emerged. He achieved prominence in all three disciplines.

His taste for painting and vocation for art was nurtured by both his family surroundings and the political epoch through which he lived while still a child. Arturo García Bustos was born in Mexico city on August 8, 1926, approximately mid-way through what has come to be known as the Mexican Revolution. By 1926, and for years thereafter, social and economic issues remained in a state of turmoil; liberal revolutionaries, in power since 1917 sought to strengthen a pro-socialist government; wealthy land owners and businessmen and some religious traditionalists (known as cristeros) disagreed, and attempted to thwart economic reforms, or to reinstate the former legal standing of the Catholic Church. Current events throughout the formative years of García Bustos were shaped by a long history of conflict that had polarized beliefs and attitudes; at the same time, mature artists found this history a rich source of inspiration. Muralism, freighted with social and political content, was their powerful, primary response. The Union of Painters (Sindicato de Pintores) stated in its 1921 manifesto that art belonged not just in galleries, was not just for the elite; the art they espoused would have more life, be an art for the people, as was the case with mural paintings. Their periodical, El Machete became the official organ of the Communist Party of Mexico.

The Union of Painters was the antecedent of LEAR (the Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios), which was at its peak during the 1930s and into the 1940s. Founded by progressive intellectuals, LEAR greatly influenced the artistic, political and cultural life of Mexico. Much has been written about this revolutionary organization, whose members included David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, Luis Cardoza y Aragón, Juán de la Cabada, Octavio Paz and foreign refugees, including Juán Marinello and Nicolás Guillén.

In 1938, Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP -- the Popular [or 'People's'] Graphic Workshop) was founded as an outgrowth of LEAR. Members included Leopoldo Méndez, Pablo O'Higgins, Luis Arenal, and Alfredo Zalce. All were revolutionaries, leftists and supporters of socialism.

As a child living in downtown Mexico City, García Bustos regularly saw the frescos painted by Diego Rivera on the walls of the Secretaría de Educación Pública. He acquired a passion for mural painting in a most fortunate and natural way: on his way home from school, he was able to observe Rivera and Orozco at work, painting murals in El Palacio Nacional and in the Iglesia de Jesús. But he was also a witness to street fights between opposing political factions. These very different realities contributed both to his artist's eye and his social/political conscience -- from these would develop a philosophy of social justice on which he would base his life and career as an artist.


EDUCATION

After his mother's death, when García Bustos was two years old, his aunt Teresita took care of him. "She liked to paint and every afternoon, after doing the household tasks, which included taking care of me, she dedicated time to draw and paint flowers, birds, landscapes. I used to observe and imitate her while she painted," García Bustos remembers.

Encouraged by his aunt and family, Arturo García Bustos appreciated diverse art forms. He frequently attended free performances, including symphonic concerts, at El Palacio de Bellas Artes. He spent many hours in the Biblioteca del Congreso de la Unión. Here he poured over the works of Michaelangelo as reproduced in books. He studied and carefully copied these images and illustrations. His first drawing classes were taken with a well-known landscape painter Armando García Nuñez. In the 1940s he took classes at La Academia de San Carlos.

By 1943, García Bustos had registered at La Escuela de Pintura y Escultura de la Esmeralda (The Esmeralda School of Painting and Sculpture). Its founders included many European refugees; the surrealist Benjamín Peret taught French; other teachers included Jesús Guerrero Galván, José Chávez Morado, Frida Kahlo, Alfredo Zalce, Carlos Orozco Romero, María Izquierdo, and Agustín Lazo. In class, these well known artists emphasized important contemporary events over academics; the environment at the Esmeralda was revolutionary; the professors were humane, democratic and modern.

After beginning his studies with Agustín Lazo, García Bustos continued to study with Frida Kahlo. He recalls that Kahlo "dazzled with her style of dress, her happiness, youth and wisdom and, above all, her willingness to share her knowledge of painting and humanism, in spite of her shattered health." In 1925 she was badly injured in a traffic accident. Her health was permanently damaged and as the years passed, she grew progressively weaker. Eventually, she had to stop teaching at La Esmeralda but she then invited her pupils to take classes in the garden of her Coyoacán home. This dramatic change was fascinating for García Bustos and her other students -- Guillermo Monroy, Arturo Estrada, and Fanny Rabel, whose nickname, as a group, became 'Los Fridos'. "We enjoyed the openness of the garden, the landscape of El Pedregal and the advice and guidance of Rivera, who many times observed our work; we also were able to observe Frida Kahlo's paintings in progress and the artistic ambiance of the Casa Azul (Blue House)," García Bustos remembers.

In 1947-48, García Bustos became a member of Taller de Gráfica Popular, where he learned printmaking techniques, including relief printing and lithography. The workshop operated as a cooperative, and materials, economic resources and expenses were all pooled, as were any profits. TGP members sold many of their prints to visiting Americans and received commissions to illustrate books and magazines, create posters and banners for trade unions, which were often engaged in the struggle against North American economic imperialism. Members of the workshop actively participated in the political events of this period in Mexico. It was through their mutual interest in art and politics that García Bustos met his future wife, the painter, Rina Lazo. These early years of the Atomic Age found TGP members concerned with the very real threat of nuclear war -- they contributed their talents toward the achievement of peace and social justice, with the help of German, Swiss and Italian antifascists, and groups of Mexican communists.


ART AND POLITICS

His political, leftist, and civil rights interests stemmed from his family, as well as the often turbulent Mexican history. His father and oldest brother were Masons, and they shared a liberal viewpoint on current events, in contrast to the religious conservatives. Political life in Mexico allowed few bystanders. The Partido Nacional Revolucionario (National Revolutionary Party, which became the Partido de la Revolución Mexicana, now the Partido Revolucionario Institucional [PRI]) developed in 1928 out of the anti-religious radicalism of Plutarco Elías Calles. Calles was a Mason -- as were all later Presidents of Mexico until Lázaro Cárdenas. During the Calles presidency, starting in 1924, the relationship between Church and State grew increasingly fragile. Foreign priests were expelled from the country and the churches closed their doors in protest. In 1926, Catholic peasants fought to restore the place of the church. Lives were lost, including that of revolutionary leader, General Alvaro Obregón. The violent fallout from this schism between church and state would last for years.

In 1943, under the direction of Kahlo, García Bustos and other "Los Fridos" artists painted two of their first murals; one was located on the façade of "La Rosita," a pulque store and the other in a public laundry in Coyoacán ("los lavanderos públicos"). For García Bustos the latter project was very important because Kahlo "put them in contact with the most humble groups of Mexico. Frida was always worried about helping those most in need," he said.

At the end of 1945 (while still taking classes with Frida Kahlo) García Bustos and other young artists founded the Jóvenes Artistas Revolucionarios (Young Revolutionary Artists). Members included Pedro Coronel, Alberto Beltrán and those that had collectively been termed "Los Fridos." Their first objective was to widely exhibit their protest art. They organized street exhibits and in this way attracted recognition from a broad spectrum of the population. By then, like his older brother and sister, García Bustos had became a member of the Mexican Communist Party. Kahlo deeply sympathized with his militant stance in support of socialism; although she and Rivera had been expelled from the Mexican Communist Party for defending Trotskyist positions, she still looked hopefully to the future and the efforts of a younger generation to carry on the struggle.

In 1945 García Bustos contributed to a magazine founded by Siqueiros. The magazine would run three years (1945-1947) and each issue was titled according to the year of its publication: i.e., 1945. Influenced by an Orozco drawing, the García Bustos illustration for 1945 showed the people of Mexico being crushed under the weight of the bourgeoisie.

In 1951 he made his first visit to Europe, specifically to East Berlin during an international youth festival. The festival took place during the height of the Cold War and the anti-Communist armed conflict in both Vietnam and North Korea. He painted banners in support of peace for political demonstrations, made prints and posters and illustrated a number of publications. From Germany, he toured museums in Italy and France to see original works from the Italian Renaissance and French Impressionism and post-Impressionism.

In 1952, the intellectual, poet and art critic Luis Cardoza y Aragón, invited García Bustos to Guatemala to teach and promote the development of social art. He accepted and lived there for two years, during which time he designed posters dealing with agrarian reform and founded a printmaking workshop where he taught the students how to express their desire for change through art with a social/political agenda.

Guatemala, a country long used to dictatorship, had been since 1944 moving toward democracy. Guatemala was one of the first democracies in the Americas. García Bustos influenced his students to promote muralism as a public artistic expression addressing and communicating the will of the people, as distinct from easel painting, a more private artistic expression, adopted by the bourgeoisie.
He organized art contests, exhibits and other events at the Casa de la Cultura. The democratic changes in Guatemala attracted poets such as Pablo Neruda and Nicolás Guillén, among others, as well as Ernesto Che Guevara who was at that time a student, traveling around the Americas. But in 1954, the democratic government ofJacobo Arbenz was overthrown by a military junta, with the complicity of local entrepreneurs, the CIA and the encouragement of United Fruit and other United States corporate interests. Che Guevara was also a first hand observer to the destruction of democracy in Guatamala, by the so called 'Yanqui Boot,' and the consequent fighting and bloodshed. Witnessing these events, thinks García Bustos, contributed to Che Guevara's determination to defeat dictatorship in Cuba.

In 1954, back in Mexico, García Bustos returned to making art that illustrated political and social content. He also began work on a series of linocuts, Testimonio de Guatemala. In this print series, García Bustos portrays the condition of Guatemala during the dictatorship, its democratic development, agrarian reform, the threat of imperialism, and the brutal aggression that destroyed its democratic government. The series ends with the resurrection of one guerilla fighter, and an eloquent phrase from the Mayan codex, Chilam Balam de Chumayel: "This war will not fail because this land will be born again." These prints, exposing the situation in Guatemala, were widely displayed throughout Latin America. Some were shown in France as well as in the United States. Exiled Guatemalans, in other Latin American countries organized movements for peace.

In 1957, while teaching at the School of Fine Arts, part of the University Benito Juárez, in Mexico City, García Bustos became a member of El Frente Nacional de Artes Plásticas (EFNAP), another association of artists whose objective was, like that of LEAR and Taller de Gráfica Popular to disseminate art, not for the sake of art but as a force for social change. EFNAP fostered and fought for the teaching of muralism, and the consolidation of the Mexican school of painting. EFNAP provided a dissident voice in discussions with the school's Board of Directors, who did not share the EFNAP philosophy and in 1957 García Bustos and his wife were encouraged to find work elsewhere. They chose to teach instead at La Escuela de Bellas Artes in Oaxaca. For the next year, they lived in Oaxaca -- teaching, making art and traveling in the area.

Among the works of art created in Oaxaca was a print titled the Mercado de Tlacolula (Tlacolula's Market). This won first price in a national contest organized by the Salón de Plástica Mexicana and the first prize and a gold medal in the VI World Youth / Students for Peace Festival, which took place in Moscow in 1957. It shows an old market with bread and chocolate vendors where peasants come from the mountains to buy their groceries.

Two prints and one large painting completed during his stay in Oaxaca are especially noteworthy: the painting includes a citation, once again, from the Chilam Balam de Chumayel -- the Mayan book that speaks of the cruel life during the days of the Conquest. Hernán Cortés kneels before a cross on an altar, his bloody hands clasped in prayer. The base of the altar shows the the pre-Columbian Mayan world he has destroyed.

The two linocuts, one of Benito Juárez and one of Emiliano Zapata all had a wide distribution and stirred some controversy in an art world where Abstract Expressionism, and not figuration (let alone political content) was becoming the fashion. By 1958 García Bustos and Rina Lazo had returned to Mexico City. The following year, García Bustos traveled to Cuba after the success of the Cuban Revolution. There he exhibited his Guatemalan print series, and lectured about the Guatemalan military coup, which had influenced Che Guevara and indirectly contributed to the success of the Cuban revolution. This exhibit, inaugurated by the Mexican ambassador to Cuba, Gilberto Bosques, was viewed by those who had made the Cuban revolution, and who were then still living in military barracks. Ernesto Che Guevara, commander-in-chief at that time, facilitated García Bustos' Cuban stay. "I had permission from Che Guevara to enter, day or night, at any time, and also to eat what the rest of the soldiers ate," García Bustos remembers. In the company of leaders such as Camilo Cienfuegos, Che Guevara and Raúl Castro, García Bustos attended a speech by Fidel Castro, in which Castro spoke not just of the Cuban proletariat but of the proletariat of the whole world. García Bustos was moved by the speech, and drawing what he "saw and felt" he produced a series of linocuts that found favor with Castro.

In 1961 he returned to Cuba as a representative of General Lázaro Cárdenas to the Convention of Latin American Countries in Support of Peace and National Liberation Movements. Fidel Castro agreed to have García Bustos do a special print for the occasion, using a slogan with words to the effect that peace is more powerful than war. Their struggle was in defense of peace and against nuclear weapons. In Mexico, Lázaro Cárdenas supported the National Liberation Movement, an important force in the furtherance of the democratic development of Mexico. In Cuba, García Bustos did a series of etchings.

On his return to Mexico he became a member of El Círculo de Estudios Mexicanos and participated in the publication of Amigos de la Democracia Latinoamericana (Friends of Latin American Democracy), a newsletter in which his print images were published.

THE MURALS

Mural painting is a life-long passion with García Bustos. In addition to the murals that he painted under the direction of Frida Kahlo, he painted others in cooperation with his wife, Rina Lazo, and still others on his own. In 1949 and 1950, the Mexican Communist Party proposed that García Bustos and Rina Lazo paint a mural in the escuela de Temixco, Morelos in order to promote political consciousness among the rural population. That was an exciting experience because the two artists developed an intimate knowledge of the lives of rural people and their oppression by the land owning aristocracy, known as 'caciques'. They also learned to use a technique, a la vinelita, to paint on cement walls, which do not permit the application of frescos in the traditional manner. García Bustos painted Pobladores de la Región deTemixco en la Epoca Prehispánica, using for models the people living in the region but set in a market of the pre-Conquest era, with peasant farmers and a landscape in the background. He also included a portrait of the revolutionary leader and advocate of land reform, Emiliano Zapata. Rina painted the men and woman workers on a coffee plantation as they harvested and transported the crop. These murals were created gratis; the artists received only food and lodging while the work was in progress.

After completing this mural, García Bustos and Rina were asked by the Communist party to paint murals depicting the Cooperativa Ejidal de Atencingo, Puebla (a cooperative in the town of Atencingo). The cooperative drew its members from five ranches and nearby sugar cane plantations. These exploited peasants were bound to the land by William Jenkins, an infamous cacique, who acted with impunity under the protection of the brother of the former Mexican president, Avila Camacho. To complete these murals, Atilio Carrasco, a Bolivian painter, joined García Bustos and Rina. They painted during the day and at night they listened to the stories of the country people, and the cruelties they had experienced. There were more optimistic conversations as well, because over time, the peasants had seen the concept of socialism gain in support and strength.

The environs of Atencingo inspired them to paint a series of murals about the peasant's struggles, as initiated by Emiliano Zapata in the early 20th Century and the earlier war of independence (c. 1812-1821) in which Hidalgo and Morelos were the leaders. It was the last mural and its subject matter that caused the most furor. This mural showed the exploitation of the peasants by the caciques; the killings ordered by Jenkins against those who protested, and the cruelties that were rampant in the area. Because of this mural, García Bustos and Rina Lazo were threatened with death if they did not leave Atencingo. The murals were almost finished by the time they left but many were destroyed later. Despite the loss of their work, García Bustos and Rina felt a satisfaction in knowing that their efforts had served to politicize the peasants, and to have shared in the experience with Carrasco.

It was almost 15 years before García Bustos was asked to paint another mural. In 1964, architect Pedro Ramirez Velasquez asked him to paint the Sala de Etnografía de Oaxaca. Rina and García Bustos knew Oaxaca very well, having formerly been commissioned to teach painting and printmaking (respectively) there in the School of Fine Arts. This time he was commissioned to paint a mural portraying different ethnic populations in the state of Oaxaca. They considered many ideas for the mural's imagery, but nothing seemed exactly right. Finally, in just one night, he did what he hadn't been able to do in three weeks: he drew the complete cartoon (the sketch for the mural) to size. "A heroic deed that I have never repeated!," he said. The three part mural portrays the central valleys to the right, Juárez mountain in the center and the Isthmus, Jamiltepec and other towns on the left. Uniting the landscape of the region is the main theme: a large market, emphasizing the customs of each area, the regional costumes, the dancing, and all the various characteristics of the state.

García Bustos also painted the central stairway of the Palacio de Gobierno in Oaxaca, portraying the history of Mexico and Oaxaca. For this mural, he interviewed reporters, investigators and intellectuals to document more information relating to the historic themes. There was some opposition to the choice of García Bustos for this work, because he had not been born in Oaxaca. Opponents, including Octavio Paz, wanted Rufino Tamayo to paint the mural. In spite of the opposition, García Bustos did the work, dividing the mural into five sections, each addressing a different period of Mexican history. From the pre-Columbian era he included mythology and the origin of Man; the construction of the Mitla temples and the tombs of Monte Albán. Also included are images of potters and weaver women, stone grinders, astronomers, and goldsmiths working on an image of the sun. The mural was inaugurated in November of 1980. García Bustos would paint a second mural here, Cosmogonía de los Pueblos Indígenas de Oaxaca, in 1986.

In 1989, a mural was commissioned for the University Metro station: La Universidad en el Umbral del Siglo XXI (The University in the shadow of the 21st Century), and in 1999, he completed a mural at Glaxo Wellcome Laboratories, which includes portraits of Nobel laureates James Watson and Francis Crick, for their work in genetics.

ARTURO GARCÍA BUSTOS: VERBATIM


In a number of speeches, García Bustos discussed his thoughts on art and politics. On August 13, 1976, in a speech about education and the sad development of uncommitted, compromised art, delivered at the theater Hidalgo del Seguro Social, Mexico City he compares "committed art" [art committed to a cause, an idea or the town or society that produced it] with non-committed art. For instance, "the big cathedrals were made to seal their committment to God and with the medieval society that produced them; it is only now, after centuries, that theories of pure art, of art that is non-committed and therefore non-contaminated [with ideas] has emerged. Committed art is potentially subversive for the status quo. But it is the powerful [those who have most to lose by a change in the status quo] who want to silence the voice of the artist.

"We live in one of the most visible moments of change in the balance of power, surely one of the more visible moments in the history of humanity, greater than the Renaissance and the French Revolution. The communities of the world claim their rights to their independence, their natural resources and their culture."

In a speech given on the 70th birthday of Javier Guerrero, a well respected painter and engraver and also a revolutionary of the left, García Bustos lauded him and others whose work created and strengthened the Mexican Painting Movement. He also criticized the so-called 'fifth generation', a new generation of painters that "do not know for whom they paint; they have turned their backs on the people. Their selfishness and 'malinchismo' (denigration of one's own culture in preference to a foreign culture) have become elevated in this destructive generation that struggles to erase any popular image, all noble sentiment; promoting all the morbid, the decadent..."

El Arte de la Nueva Clase (The Art of the New Class) is the title of the speech given when he was inducted into the Academy of Arts. He shares meditations about Mexican art and its history; an art of the people, an art of political struggle in which he participated either with direct action or with solidarity through his art. He expresses his good fortune and appreciation for having worked closely with and learned from "great spirits of humanity such as José Clemente Orozco, Pablo Neruda, and Frida Kahlo." He salutes the Mexican people with their costumes and traditions, the richness of the landscape, the seeds of the revolution and great pre-Columbian cultures.

He speaks of the pre-Conquest Indians, how they "patiently created art that came from the heart; they transformed stone into serpents, eagles devouring hearts and wild tigers running through the forest trails. With clay, these people molded pottery and on deer leather and paper made out of bark they painted their mythology, history, interpretation of the cosmos, legends and poetry and their original ways of thought."

"With the Conquest, the oppressed Indians had to adapt to new forms of expression. During the first years as a colony of Spain, they were prohibited from painting and sculpting, in effect destroying the continuity of their culture. They were forced to abandon their legends, to learn a new language; and to transform their thoughts, their ethics and aesthetics. However, the new culture did not impose itself completely and the old culture did not die totally. Thus was born a crossbred culture, rife with many original characteristics. The tlacuilos (Indians) that possessed the technique for making murals, interpreted European pictures, but did so through their own traditions, a process that developed in Mexico over 300 years of colonization. Mexico became a country filled with murals: the convents were full of frescoes; churches were decorated with expressive forms to catechize the Indians who were familiar with the concept of reading ideograms and symbols."

"In 1537 printing arrived to Mexico and with it great engravers such as Juan Ortiz. The French revolution (1789-1799) inspired the Mexican intellectuals, who initiated their own Independence War (1812-21). In those early years of independence, lithography was introduced to Mexico by Italian artist Claudio Linati. More than wood engraving, lithography was the instrument that best suited the artist of the 19th century." [Editor's note: lithographic reproduction is faster than engraving, and with the advent of new printing technologies in the later 19th Century, the costs of reproduction fell.]

"It wasn't until 1922 that, with a socialist tendency inspired by the Russian Revolution, mural painting emerged. It was a result of European experiences and the impulses of the Mexican Revolution. José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, the three greatest artists, painted murals to expose the recent history of the people of Mexico, their lives, traditions and customs."

"Many other painters emerged and great masterpieces were produced but then new currents surfaced: futurists in Russia, the Dadaists in Paris. Looking for new forms they became lost in the labyrinth of formalism."

Sources:

Abel Santiago: En Tinta Negra y en Tinta Roja; Arturo García Bustos -- Vida y Obra. Edición de la Fundación Todos por el Istmo, A. C., 2000. In Spanish, translated here by Mariateresa Alvarez-Sánchez.

Anita Brenner (text) with historic photographs assembled by George R. Leighton: The Wind That Swept Mexico: the history of the Mexican Revolution 1910-1942, New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1943 (third edition). This book is currently available in a trade paperback re-edition (1971) from the University of Texas Press.

Eduardo Galeano, Century of the Wind Book III of the trilogy, Memory of Fire, 1986. First American Edition, translated by Cedric Belfrage, New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.