Power and Painting

Power and Painting

Pintura y poder

Yvon Grenier

Mexico has historically been a rich laboratory to study the linkages between art and politics. For good or bad, political art is probably the best known Mexican art outside of Mexico.

And yet, one of the most interesting case of a politically committed artist is usually overlooked, even in Mexico: the case of Mexican painter Vladimir Kibaltchich, better known as Vlady (Petrograd, 1920 – Mexico city, 2005).

Vlady is an interesting case for numerous reasons. To begin with, he is, in my own amateurish and subjective judgment, as great a painter as any of the best known Mexican painters of his generation. But more to the point I am making here, his art offers an inspiring contrast to the two main artistic currents of his time: to simplify, the didactic political art of the Muralists on one hand, and the non-explicitly political and nonfi- gurative art of their successors, on the other hand. Vlady was an outsider, both artistically and politically, who nonetheless found himself at the intersection of the artistic, cultural, intellectual and political fields in the second half of twentieth century Mexico. His work and itinerary represent a unique vantage point from which to examine what Tocqueville called les passions générales et dominantes of his time. Finally, many of Vlady’s “political” paintings (he would not call them this way: I do) constitute powerful illustrations of how far an artist can go working with political themes while exploiting to the fullest both the enchanting and the dystopian possibilities of art.

In and Out. An Outsider at the Crossroad

The son of Belgium-born Russian writer and dissident Victor Serge (1840-1947), Vlady emigrated from France to Mexico with his father.

He became a Mexican citizen in1949 and spent the rest of his life in that country. If one assumes for a moment that his oil paintings constitute his most important work (one does not have to make that assumption: his etchings are fabulous), then it is probably fair to say that his most important work is obsessively political. One could mention several masterpieces, starting with the colossal mural Revoluciones y los elementos (1974-82), dedicated to his father Victor Serge. This mural (2,000 m² of paintings, accomplished between 1974 and 1982 in the Ministry of Finance’s Miguel Lerdo de Tejada Library) contains multiple murals-episodes on what Vlady called the English, French, American, Christian, Musical and Sexual revolutions, as well as a gem entitled La inocencia terrorista. Other magnificent paintings include: the mural Xerxes (1974-1990), a personal interpretation of Persian Emperor ordering his troops to punish the sea; the enigmatic mural Herejia (Heresy, 1987) in the Government National Palace in Managua, Nicaragua; four oil paintings commissioned by the Ministry of the Interior of Mexico in 1994 (Violencias fraternas, El general, El uno no camina sin el otro, Caida y descendimiento), and interestingly, almost immediately “sequestered” in the old Lecumberri prison, because apparently the government authorities interpreted them as a tribute to the Zapatista rebellion; the magnificent Trotsky Triptych (three oil paintings: Magiografía Bolchevique, La Casa and El Instante); the constantly reworked Escuelas de los verdugos (1947- 2005); and portraits of Archbishop of Chiapas Samuel Ruiz (Tatic, 1997) and Emiliano Zapata (1998) (the very best portrait of Zapata I have ever seen), the latter commissioned by the government of Puebla, Mexico.

It is important to notice that in Vlady’s paintings, politics appears as a source of artistic inspiration: it is never an overarching goal, and painting is never a means to a political end. The goal of painting is painting: pintura pintura, as Vlady said.

Vlady carefully studied the work of the muralists (especially Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco) and was initially thrilled by some of the work of the “Mexican School of Painting” (as we all know, led by the famous three muralists: Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco). Characterized by a “clear readability of style and unproblematic assimilation of content”, this school dominated the artistic scene until the late 1950s, when it was challenged by a new “generation” of painters determined to break free from the muralists’ straitjacket. Known as the Generación de la ruptura, this group strove to emancipate painters from the official mission to produce didactic, nationalistic and revolutionary (in the political sense) art. Most took this opening as an opportunity to turn their back on “political art” and even figurative art. The result is a production that, in its best rendition, remains profoundly attached to Mexico’s history and artistic tradition (think about the fabulous oeuvre of a Tamayo for instance), but no longer via overt political or “nation-building” lenses.

Soon Vlady “ruptured” from this “generation of rupture”, remaining committed to free and cosmopolitan art while continuing his artistic exploration of historical and political themes, especially “revolution”. Henceforth, Vlady’s art sat uneasily between two great generations of painters, the muralists and the post-muralists. This reminds me a thesis defended by French sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel, in a study on public appreciation of museums. They propose a distinction between “classical periods” and “periods of rupture”, suggesting that to be associated with the latter negatively affects the lisibilité (readability) of one’s oeuvre. The public, and probably the art critiques that shape its perceptions, like to find in artistic works the familiarity of a period, a trend, a “school”, a tradition—even what Octavio Paz would call, referring to modernity, a “tradition of rupture”. With Vlady, this was highly problematic. For all his connections to both the Muralists and to their opponents, Vlady did not fit in and could not easily be “read” by his contemporaries.

Politically, Vlady was considered a Trotskyite; ergo, in view of his attachment to his time and place, he was (again) both in (the revolutionary left) and out (definitely the wrong camp within the revolutionary left). Of course, Vlady’s political commitment was a great deal more complex than that. His peculiar fascination for the persona of Trotsky stemmed not merely from political principles but also from deep emotional ties to his father, to mother Russia, and to personal memories revolution, war, exile and persecution. Vlady was not a political activist or a man of the party in a conventional sense.

Painting Revolution in Post-Revolutionary Mexico

Mexican poet and intellectual Octavio Paz once said that modern Mexican painting is the result of the confluence of “two revolutions: the social revolution of Mexico and the artistic revolution of the West”. For Vlady, one would have to revise this equation. Using a useful distinction proposed by Milan Kundera, between le petit contexte (the historical environment) and le grand contexte (what really matters: the realm of art and its own distinctive traditions), I would mention for the first the political revolution in Russia, the intellectual revolution in Europe (Marx, Freud, Nietzsche) and to a lesser extent the social revolution in Mexico; and for the second, first and foremost, the great paintings of the Renaissance, not so much the “artistic revolution in the West”, if by that one means modernist and avant-garde trends, which Vlady rejected. The muse of Revolution remains a common anchorage, however. One cannot say that he conceived this obsession in Mexico, though it may not be a coincidence if he adopted a country whose modern identity is so dependent on the idea (and myth) of revolution

While an enthusiastic observer of revolutions (in Russia, Mexico, Nicaragua) as well as a compagnon de route of revolts (in Chiapas notably), none of his paintings really promote a particular type of political mobilization or programmatic beliefs, not even revolution (not unambiguously any way). The epicentre of his explorations of revolution is to be found in his own family (the Kibaltchich have time-honoured revolutionary credentials back home in Russia), in the “betrayed” revolution in Russia, and then in Mexico and the rest of Latin America.

Vlady prefers to question himself and history about revolution, blurring the private and the public and looking for signs of timelessness in history. All of this comes out in his paintings, not in his (scattered) written texts, which read like textual translations of non-textual (images, colors) “ideas”.

In sum, Vlady proposes nothing else than an artistic exploration of the revolutionary phenomenon. What does it teach us about revolutions? That revolutions are about both liberty and power, and that these two objectives are largely incompatible. No Manichean narrative of revolution is to be found in Vlady’s work, because good and evil cannot be completely untangled. Man is in history and history is a tragedy, because the human condition is a tragedy.

What is to be done? Trying to be free. Some of his political role models—Trotsky, the Che—were blessed by defeat and sacrifice, though only after a journey in power that arguably cast umbrage on their aura as humanist revolutionaries. Their tragic ends redeemed their true nature as romantic pursuers of the u topos. In the quest for freedom, politics is not the only path: in his Revolución y los elementos, Vlady explores the themes of musical revolution and Freudian revolution. Eroticism is a dominant theme in his work.

The Visible Hand of the PRI

Some of Vlady’s political paintings were commission- ned by governments of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), most notably the colossal Revolución y los elementos. This oeuvre, like most of the other ones commissioned by the government (with the possible exception of the Zapata), is far too enigmatic and critical of power to lend itself to propagandistic use. This begs the question: why would either side agree to this arrangement? Arguably the government approached him and others at a time when the revolutionary aura of the PRI regime had disappeared or was rapidly fading. «Anti-popular regimes foster spectacular demagogic public art”, as David Alfaro Siqueiros once said (and he should know). Clearly, Vlady’s murals are not demagogic, but they are political murals, on the theme of revolution, so perhaps from government officials’ perspective, that was better than no murals (or nonpolitical murals) at all, for in some ways it constituted a public engagement with a key legitimizing myth of the regime, from what they perceived as an ultra-leftist perspective. (After all, the Bolsheviks found some use for Alexander Blok’s hazy poem The Twelve in the early days of the revolutionary regime.) The odd fact that the premise (the 18th century baroque chapel San Felipe!) is used for the Secretaría de Hacienda y Crédito Público’s public library suggests that the full story on this commission would probably give due recognition to the dreary role of individuals, bureaucracy and accidents, rather than grand schemes featuring grand scheme, Machiavellian politics and the judgment of history. It is well known that PRI administrations co-opted artists and writers: the detailed history of how this was done remain to be written.

Turning the arrow in the other direction: In keeping with both his artistic and political dispositions, Vlady preferred to have a public rather than a private patron. No patron is perfect, and no patronage is not a practical option. His antipathy to private galleries, commercial art and capitalism was notorious. Here his leftist dispositions met time-honoured Romantic cult of disinterest. Picasso once remarked that painters are typically less politicized than writers. This is true for Mexican painters, who have been much less critical of the government officials and policies than writers. Granted, Vlady accepted government commissions when it was no longer deemed irreproachable to do so. But I doubt that his acceptance of government contracts constituted a major factor explaining his artistic as well as political marginalization in Mexico.

The Art of Political Art

The liaison between art and politics is so obvious in Latin America that one can be forgiven to overlook how complicated and paradoxical their relations can be. Art is routinely conceptualized as a vehicle to transmit political messages, in historical conditions (democratic deficit, marginalization of the majority, cultural elitism) that make this pattern of transmission probable and efficacious. Yet, some questions typically remain unexplored, such as: where exactly is the political in art? Is it to be found in the “content”, the “form” (i.e. “content of the form”), in our interpretation of it, or in some combination thereof? In what sense can we say, as writers and artists routinely do, that great art is necessarily critical of societies and governments? Is art still critical, as all great art should presumably be, when it serves a political ideology, a political actor, even a government? These are tough questions to answer, namely because generalizations on such critical matters are perilous. A good way to make progress is to take a close look at one (or a few) specific cases, grappling with, rather than leveling, the uniqueness that typifies great art in all its inclinations (including political). The case briefly examined here suggests that political art is at its most powerful when art remains “on top”, questioning politics rather than being merely used by it. In his art, Vlady’s politics is a daunting, telluric force (in comparison, Picasso’s politics seems a nature morte, an estheticized depiction of misfortune and tragedy). Only an exceptional artistic vocation could have harnessed such a powerful impulse. The outcome is a pure intensity, one that is perhaps too difficult to withstand, in these soporific times of ours.