Open Letter to the Painters, Sculptors and Engravers of the Soviet Union – Siqueiros
I know that your art fulfils a political function of a magnitude unmatched in the history of the world. All your work is at the service of a social movement which has opened a new era for humanity, and you have the unlimited support of the first proletarian State. It is quite evident that with your painting, sculpture, engraving, posters, illustrations, stage design, etc., you have made the backward Russia of the Tsars into a country which leads in agriculture, industry, science, education, sport, in everything which makes men happy. There is no city great or small, no village, no factory, no railway station, recreational centre, school, theatre, where you have not expressed socialist ideology, and eulogized your great men and your heroes in work of all sizes. Both in the public squares and on the walls and interiors of hundreds of thousands of blocks of flats you have contributed to their ornamentation. You are repeating in a free society what others did in the condition of slavery; public art. Your art is an art of the state, ideologically committed, eloquently purposeful, and for this reason realistic. It is a heroic art, an epic art. And this helps you to find technical solutions, for example the varnished tiles you are manufacturing. Of course, there is still a lot more to be done and this is what I would like to say something about.
I have been a member of the Mexican Communist Party since 1924, and we communists never limit ourselves to the analysis of positive facts; we examine every aspect of a problem, and criticise each other and ourselves. And this is what I propose to do with you.
In Mexico, where our painting is partly financed by the state, it is ideologically committed, realistic and interested in new techniques. We have been contaminated by formalism which is the natural product of bourgeois economy and submission to imperialism. Your own art has not been affected by this leprosy which has degraded the art of the capitalist world; but your art suffers from another form of cosmopolitanism: formalistic academism and mechanical realism. Between French formalism and academism, we can find an element of similarity: they both denationalise art and make it impersonal. The formalists in the manner of the School of Paris and the academicians in the manner of the academy of Rome are as alike as two drops of water, whatever their nationality. [. . .]
I am sure you will agree with me that realism cannot be a fixed formula, an immutable law; the whole of the history of art, which shows the development of increasingly realistic forms, proves this. If we run quickly over the history of painting, from cave paintings, through Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, we shall find that this is absolutely true. We might agree with those who say that no work of art is superior to another work of art, and that therefore no period of art is superior to any other period of art, but this is not to deny the uninterrupted process of ever enriched forms in the direction of a realistic idiom ever richer, more civilised and more eloquent. Every period of art which has not been stifled by immovable formulas has striven to make its art more real. Realism can never be anything but a means of creation in constant progress, [. . . ]
That you have forgotten this fact in the Soviet Union is evident in the perpetuation of old realistic styles which belong to the immediate past, rather like the realism of American commercial advertising at the beginning of the century; and I find this influence present also in the work of the Polish painters and in those of the other popular democracies. If we observe the process of your work over the last thirty-eight years, we shall find that your formal language has not progressed at all, you have merely improved your technique. But you must not forget that it is precisely the constant perfection of style in a limited, repetitious realistic area of creation which has always led to decadence. The painters who came immediately after the Renaissance were much more skilful than their predecessors, but their work is infinitely inferior. Raphael was formidable, but the Raphaelists who came after him were detestable – and this is just one example. It is certainly not true that every exaltation of form is formalism, because in that case we should not be able to understand any of the great Venetian painters, nor Michelangelo, El Greco, Goya, Daumier, etc., or, in the case of Mexico, Orozco. The formalists worship form for its own sake, in a purely plastic exercise, and the true realists have always used form to achieve greater plastic eloquence, to give greater eloquence to their subject; when all is said and done, the realist speaks in a plastic idiom. Were it not so, however true and beautiful the political content of our work, it would nevertheless be a poor artistic expression of which everyone would soon tire.
A study of the history of art will show us that art has always tended towards realism, while constantly perfecting its materials and tools. If we look at the four centuries of great Italian art, it is easy to see that the artists of each period were never satisfied with the materials and tools of their predecessors; on the contrary, they were always searching passionately for new processes. Their progress was not only parallel to the development of science, technique and industry, it was often ahead of them. They perfected tempera and oils, were always finding new and better pigments and – why should we not say so? -broadening the range of their professional ‘tricks’ so as to perfect their work. In Mexico we have had people who did the same thing and others who resolutely opposed them, and this is the reason that much of our painting uses age-old techniques, which renders it less politically eloquent. Painting, like all the plastic arts, is material and physical, and must therefore express itself in terms of its vehicle. In your case, Soviet comrades, it is even more serious, because none of you are interested in finding new material techniques, although you have a State more able than any other which has ever existed to provide you with the effective and moral means to achieve this transformation.
While all the great painters, at every period of history, systematically enriched the principles of composition and perspective, the painters of the School of Paris have not only not contributed anything in this sense but they have also lost all the discoveries of the previous twenty centuries. In our contemporary Mexican movement, although we were systematically opposed by those who clung to traditional formulae, we have tried to find solutions to this problem, as can be seen in much of our work. Soviet painters, on the other hand, have remained dominated by the methods of composition and perspective used by academics all over the world. And this has happened in the only country in the world where science has been placed at the service of the people and could give them enormous help.
No, neither the forms of realism nor its material means are static. It would be absurd to think that the masters of the past knew all there was to know about realism (they might have thought the same of their immediate predecessors), and it would be equally ridiculous to think that materials and tools discovered thousands of years ago are the last word.
Apart from the painting produced by the School of Paris (the greatest fiction in the bourgeois world of culture, because this type of art suppressed public art, denied ideological art and excluded the image of man and his environment, in favour of pseudo-libertarian geometric forms), there are only two important art expressions in the world today: the Mexican experience, today operating under increasingly adverse conditions, and the Soviet experience, operating under increasingly favourable conditions. There has recently been a collective move in the right direction in the popular democracies and in Italy and France, but this is still very new.
These two tendencies, through criticism and self-criticism, could help each other to eliminate their negative aspects and strengthen their positive ones.
Mexico has a great tradition of painting and an artistically gifted people; but Soviet painters are no less richly endowed in this respect, their tradition is magnificent and their painters very capable. Soviet painters have a professional discipline which we lack and a faculty for expressing psychological phenomena which, in my opinion, is unequalled in the whole world. They are producing really monumental art, their art is intimately integrated with their architecture, but they must shake off the routine forms which are tying them down. [. . . ]