Imagine a breaking story on the evening news. A camera in a helicopter pans the waterfront of a major port city, where two angry mobs face off on the deck of a pier. A much larger crowd behind a fence shouts encouragement or threats. This is the setting of Strike on the Pier (cover), by the Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974). Although the protesters cannot be seen clearly, they appear to be raising their arms and shouting. Magnification is not helpful, because the mobs are sketched as collective units rather than as individuals with distinguishing features. Wind-whipped waves and passing cloud shadows increase the tension of the scene. In his landscapes, such as Twilight (JAMA cover, October 17, 2012), Siqueiros has a way of summoning the forces of nature to create a mood. Strike on the Pier does not engage the viewer directly, because the subjects are so far away, but it is clear that a human struggle is taking place, probably over working conditions—and for Siqueiros, a lifelong workers' activist, the specific issues were less important than seeing workers stand up for their rights. This landscape demonstrates how the structure of an urban environment can promote social dissent by providing large public spaces where people from all walks of life are free to gather and express their opinions. David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), Strike on the Pier, 1954, Mexican. Gouache on board mounted on Masonite. 55.9 × 70.5 cm. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art (http://www.clevelandart.org/), Cleveland, Ohio; gift of Semi J. and Ruth W. Begun, 1995.175. Siqueiros himself never hesitated to take action in a worthy cause. At the age of 15, he protested the curriculum at the National Academy of Fine Arts, where he was a student. In his late teens, while serving with the Constitutional Army in the Mexican Revolution, he observed the poverty of farm workers and resolved to find a way to empower them. When he resumed painting after the war, he had a good idea of what he wanted to achieve: an art that was monumental, nationalistic, and universal. Siqueiros was an idealist but also a pragmatist; he understood that if public art was to have any chance of making an impression on masses of people, it would have to be accessible and inviting and have a clear public purpose. He envisioned public spaces where people could gather in large numbers, such as stadiums, theaters, cinemas, schools, and museums. Today large public facilities are ubiquitous, but in 1920s Mexico this was not the case. Siqueiros, like many of his countrymen, advocated for industrial expansion and urban renewal as engines of economic opportunity. Building booms are dependent on labor, and the more value placed on labor, the greater the opportunity for workers to organize and negotiate for better wages. In Strike on the Pier, the scale of the port implies a thriving industrial sector, and the pier serves as an open forum for dock workers to air their grievances. Siqueiros' interest in the construction of new buildings was to some extent self-serving. He was primarily a muralist, and he often relied on government commissions for the opportunity to paint murals on the walls of public buildings. By a process of trial and error, he learned that a mural was less likely to look out of place if it was integrated into the design of the building. He believed that painters, sculptors, and architects should all work together in the design and construction of public spaces, to avoid a mish-mash of themes and styles, so he and some like-minded artists founded the Syndicate of Revolutionary Mexican Painters, Sculptors and Engravers in 1923. Their goal was to collaborate on projects and create art that would educate and support workers in their negotiations with employers. Unfortunately, this and subsequent unions of Mexican artists had difficulty persuading architects that an integrated approach was desirable, but Siqueiros' urban landscapes, such as Strike on the Pier, express his vision of a well-designed, modern city. In this painting the point of view is high above the ground. To enable himself to visualize how a city would look from the air, Siqueiros collected photographs of cities from all over the world, including a set of aerial images from the Compañía Mexicana de Aerofoto. The view in Strike on the Pier is tilted and foreshortened, as though Siqueiros was thinking of how the docks would look from a small airplane rather than from a fixed point on a tower or a crane. The painting also has a cinematic quality, as if the viewer is scanning the port from left to right. In the 1930s, Siqueiros had conversations with the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, and they may have discussed how films are made by stringing images together in sequence. By this analogy, Strike on the Pier is Siqueiros' view of a single frame in the long struggle to better the lives of his countrymen.
– American Medical Association
Published: Nov 14, 2012