Undoubtedly, Self-portrait with Machete, 1968, is an important work by David Alfaro Siqueiros; the painting was part of the collection of Italian movie star, Giuliano Gemma up to 1994. The work has been reproduced in numerous books and publications including, Raquel Tibol's Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros y Tamayo, 1974 and, it graced the cover of Mario de Micheli's book, Siqueiros, 1985. Although it has been frequently published and exhibited, little has been written about the painting. (1)
The artist chose to portray himself on several occasions, always in a theatrical fashion. As Rimbaud said: "Je suis un autre." Siqueiros transformed himself into a character or as an eye in the axis of an experimental labor. The face and hands become part of an architecturally constructed expressionist space like a spider's web.
Siqueiros, who was seventy-one at the time of its execution, painted himself as a militant, alive and full of dynamic energy, not an old man but a young man as his youthful features and red hair indicate, as if to communicate self-renewal. Within the artist's oeuvre, this portrait was part of the sketches and murals executed between 1965 and 1970 in his Cuernavaca studio as part of the project for the immense space of the Poliforum Cultural Siqueiros, done shortly after his retrospective exhibition in 1967 at the Museo de Ciencias y Artes de Ciudad Universitaria.
This self-portrait is a re-examination of the artist's life and mission: "Our movement was in favor of public art, which for the first time gave rise to a new type of artist, the citizen-artist, a new engaged artist, opposed to the traditional Mexican artists from before the Revolution."(2) In 1923, the Artist's Union, led by Xavier Guerrero and Siqueiros, founded the newspaper El Machete. Although titled after an agricultural tool and an instrument of labor, the machete, would come to symbolize a weapon in the defense of the worker: "The moving murals of our great muralist painting movement."(3)
Siqueiros's self-portraits bear witness to his "hieroglyphic contentiousness." Each mural encapsulates the goals of the muralist mission on behalf of revolutionizing art itself. The artist portrays himself in a manner in which the machete recalls the violent depiction of the extended arm in Coronelazo.
The entire surface of the composition is made up of a geometrical structure rendered dynamic in sequence. As in the works of the Italian futurists or as in Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912, time is made equivalent to segments in tension. In the case of the Siqueiros portrait, the figurative synthesis activates two-dimensional space, producing the sensation that it is the represented objects which circulate.
When the artist painted María Asúnsolo bajando la escalera (María Asúnsolo Descending the Staircase), 1935, at the Museo Nacional de Arte, Siqueiros countered the futurists's ideas, with his own dynamic pictorial technique, based on new vocabularies of mass media such as animation and cinematic montage. Nevertheless, in this self-portrait, he proposes another revision of the cinematic sense of lines of tension derived from Cubism in order to give the illusion of sequential movement. Siqueiros also evokes Paolo Uccello, in forms similar to those in the Renaissance master's Battle of San Romano. He felt the need to mark the compositional space, as if he were dealing with an architecture made of cables. This was his spatial preoccupation at the moment while working at the Poliforum.
In the self-portrait, the placement of the spears and/or the lines of tension is interrupted by a sequence of highly synthetic, almost abstracted naked bodies with arms stretched upwards and whose rhythmical march is upstaged by the form of a cyclone wire-like Maya figure, at the center of the composition. From there, the innovative use of an anonymous snaking march erupts towards the viewer like explosive lava. Siqueiros's face emerges from one of these nudes with a distant look and massive features--a raised hand and a clenched fist like a comic strip super hero joining the fight with a gigantic machete in hand--a phallic symbol of endless power. The theme of this painting recalls the series of marches for the mural at the Poliforum: La marcha de la humanidad (Humanity's March), in which expressionist and synthetic forms twist around in baroque intensity of a cinematic movement.
In 1968 there were four concurrent Siqueiros exhibitions: three in the Zona Rosa (Galería de la Zona Rosa, Galería de Arte Misrachi, Galerías Iturbide) and one in the Escuela Taller Siqueiros in Cuernavaca. In these spaces he presented the sketches for his murals in progress. In conversation with the journalist Jacobo Zabludowsky, he declared them to be "my personal work, that is to say, the paintings I do so that they can be later enlarged in my murals, they have been done only in the past few days, produced in less than two months." He went on to say, "All these works have been produced with modern materials"--in this case, pyroxyline on wood--"and they will be used in the 5000-square meter mural work I'm currently painting for the Parque Lama, owned by don Manuel Suárez." He also added, "Regarding the specific themes, it's a controversial art whose intention is to show that we do not need to banish the image of man in order to make a modern painting. The themes you see in front of you"--referring to the paintings shown at Galería de la Zona Rosa exhibition in which this portrait stood out--"are simple themes, but they explain the humanist character of the work."
For Siqueiros it was important to show aspects of reality and injustice in the commercial galleries at a time when freedom of expression in Mexico was being violated and the army and public forces were repressing university and technical school students.
Irene Herner, Art Historian, February 2007
(1) In none of those publications, nor in the documents found in the archives at the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros, is there any written information about this painting, except for a reference made by journalist Reni Grobet Palacios in El Universal on September 1, 1968 to the effect that it seemed to the writer an outstanding work at the Galería de la Zona Rosa exhibition. The work is larger than Coronelazo, 1947, the most celebrated of all his self-portraits, but a bit smaller than the preceding one, executed one year before, Estudio quinto para autorretrato, in the mural cycle at the Poliforum. It is also larger than the last self-portrait: Fantasma y realidad, Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros, 1973).
(2) Siqueiros. Cómo se pinta un mural. México: Ed. Taller Siqueiros, 1951, 20-21.
(3) Siqueiros. Docu. SAPS, dated 1933.