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Essay written by Olivier Debroise for the exhibition catalogue Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America. In his essay, “The Vertical Screen,” Olivier Debroise explores David Alfaro Siqueiros’s manifesto “Los vehículos de la pintura dialéctico-subversiva” (ca. 1930) as well as Sergei Eisenstein’s theories of “The Dynamic Square” (1931).
Debroise affirms that Eisenstein's break with a linear cinematographic construction as well as the innovations adopted by Siqueiros are connected with the crisis of the avant-garde in the twenties. Both the cinematographer as well as the painter were interested in transforming the screen and painting in order to interact with the spectator in a more effective and emotional way. The solution for the artists was based on a theoretical reformulation that would lead them to the use of cinematographic dynamism and active contemplation in their cinematographic and mural compositions.
The exhibition Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America opened at the MFAH from June 19, 2004—September 11, 2004. This was the first exhibition in the United States devoted to the innovative contributions of Latin American artists to the phenomenon that became the 20th-century avant-garde. For the exhibition catalogue, the art critic and curator Olivier Debroise wrote about the theoretical and artistic influences that the painter David Alfaro Siqueiros and the cinematographer Sergei Eisenstein exerted over each other.
Around 1930 —after the introduction of sound in movies— the film industry was looking for more effective narrative tools. One of the discussions was centered on the screen frame size, which was one of the main interests for Sergei Eisenstein. The cinematographer had been analyzing at length the psychological implications of the horizontal frame, its banality, and how it induced passive contemplation. Eisenstein’s search for different possibilities in film composition increasingly led him to painting. And it is during this decade that Einstein will meet with the artists Diego Rivera, Roberto Montenegro, Jean Charlot and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
At that time, the Mexican muralists were trying to create solutions to the limitations on narrative and visual rhetoric created by the horizontality of the walls in the colonial and neocolonial buildings which had been assigned to them. Siqueiros’s solution, the “cinematographic mural”, which aims to transcend the static limits of painting, was developed soon after his encounter in Taxco with Eisenstein in 1931. Debroise suggests that Einstein for his part adopted the format of the vertical narrative/composition in his films as a result of seeing Siqueiros’s vertical mural in the staircase of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (1931), from which he even copied its principal motif - the burial of a worker, in the first sequences of his unfinished film Que viva Mexico! (1930).
While painting the staircase of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, Siqueiros faced a “structural problem: he had to take into account the wall's fragmented surface, and he had to force the juxtaposition of sequences in a way that evoked the Constructivist photomontage rather than the continuous assemblage”. In 1939, while creating Portrait of the Bourgeoisie, Siqueiros confronted a similar challenge, as he had to take into account the physical movement of spectators while climbing the stairs. The mural, located at the headquarters of the electricians’ union in Mexico City, had to be placed in a narrow space along a staircase to be viewed while in motion. The spatial effects and the visual deformations were to unfold as the viewer climbs up the stairs from one story to the next. Each segment was to appear individually, thus forming a sequence. As Debroise states, Portrait of the Bourgeoisie tends toward verticality. It is as if Siqueiros wanted to apply, almost literally, Eisenstein's theories of "editing within the frame."