On History and Relevancy: Luis Arenal
Posted on 6 January, 2015
María Elisa Morales Maya
The exhibition Luis Arenal Bastar: un realismo militante (A Militant Realism) signifies in many senses, not just because of its unpublished status, given its documentary character, but because of the diversity of processes that the materialization of an exhibition such as this may imply. Developed as part of a wider research project, this exhibition regarding the promoter, painter, sculptor and muralist from Tabasco, was organized under the responsibility of Alberto Híjar, with my collaboration. We are both researchers at the National Center for Research, Documentation and Information on Visual Arts (Cenidiap), of the National Institute of Fine Arts (INBA), an institution fundamentally dedicated to the conservation of the documentary memory of visual arts in Mexico. This is precisely what led us to work with the archive of this reserved figure of our history, and to include diverse materials of an incalculable historical and testimonial value that belonged to the author. The exhibition was inaugurated on May 8, 2014, in the Espacio Alternativo gallery, at the National Center of the Arts.
During the inaugural tour of the exhibition, the public had access to documents that are but a few examples of the collections that are part of this heritage. It generally consists of ideas materialized in paper, and links with militants of that time made tangible in posters, personal and administrative writings, sketches, sculpture, graphic work, painting, photography, books and magazines, allowing us to imagine Arenal’s vision and promotion skills, to foster the integration of collectives of promoters of engaged and interdisciplinary work, such as the John Reed Club, Taller de Gráfica Popular (Popular Graphic Workshop), Taller de Arte Realista (Realist Art Workshop), the 1945, 1946 magazine, and the Taller Siqueiros in Cuernavaca, Morelos.
He was a founding member of LEAR, the Revolutionary Writers and Artsts League, and of its magazine Frente a Frente. He always abstained from self-promotion and from the exaltation of his work in the creation of the organizations he conceived, preferring instead to work and focus in the principles that originated them, until the time came when his convictions led him to break with them, as it happened in the case of LEAR.
Luis Arenal’s decision to opt for work and for the professionalization of production processes in the visual arts left its mark on no less than 600 sketches for a wide variety of projects, easel works, murals, propaganda, calendars, among other things, referencing social organization, its nature and the multiplicity of socio-economic problems of that era, which are still present today.
His constant analysis of form, of chiaroscuro, of shade, and of brushwork intent, is manifest in two small notebooks, displayed in a glass cabinet, where Luis Arenal put down all kinds of graphic and written notes: quotations, reminders, musings, colleagues’ names, traces of life.
One of the series of sketches gathers different hand postures. Here it is possible to appreciate the aesthetic force of this visual representation through two pieces in particular. They are of the same shape, hands, but one is a closed fist, well delineated, detailed, voluminous, full of energy: in contrast, the other hand is holding a glass, the line is soft and delicate, as if the figure were floating. This is how Arenal makes the inevitable reference to social classes.
Going through other sections of the gallery, we can get a glimpse of Arenal’s daily life. For instance, in the poster that the painter turned over to trace a pencil sketch of some details of a horse’s body. The horse, by the way, is one of the more recurring symbols in his archive. What needs to be pointed out here is that this poster was printed by Partido Popular Mexicano, a publication that agitated for the creation of that party, published by Vicente Lombardo Toledano in 1947. It is without a doubt a historical jewel multiplied by two, allowing us to imagine the scene in which Arenal, in one of his workplaces, surrounded by ordinary materials in his life, picks up whatever is at hand and decides to use a poster he won’t be needing anymore, which will suffice for drawing, not wanting to let any pending idea to get away.
In the early 1930’s, Arenal coincided in time and thought with David Alfaro Siqueiros. Their exchange of concepts and representation techniques would lead them to establish a very close collaboration as colleagues and friends. Their friendship would later become as family bond, through the relationship between Siqueiros and Angélica Arenal, Siqueiros’ last life companion and his model for such well-known projects as the one in the second floor of the Palace of Fine Arts, where Angélica’s naked torso is the central figure of the mural entitled The New Democracy, inaugurated in 1944.
The comradery and aesthetic understanding between Arenal and Siqueiros is not hard to understand; the evidence abounds in the Graciela and Luis Arenal Documentary Collection. It would not be surprising to find among these materials some sketches made by Siqueiros himself, or by both of them: documents which were the fruit of their joint work. In future studies, the truly complicated task will be to reach a historical balance between these two figures, in order to prioritize the products of this significant encounter. An encounter from which we benefit today, through the preservation and promotion of the documentary memory that is the task of all of INBA’s Research Centers.