- Gavin Whitehead
The Assassinations of Leon Trotsky: David Alfaro Siqueiros (S2E1)
Updated: Apr 5
A diehard Communist, David Alfaro Siqueiros fought in the Mexican Revolution in the mid-1910s. Over the next several decades, he would revolutionize the theory and practice of muralism in Mexico and abroad, largely inspired by his radical politics. In 1940, his political convictions led to a less honorable enterprise when he spearheaded an assault on the home of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky as he and his family slept in their beds.
Above: 1940 photograph of David Alfaro Siqueiros, disguised as a peasant. At the time, he was in hiding after leading an assault on the Mexican home of Leon Trotsky. Courtesy of the Casasola Archive.
The Elements, an unfinished mural by Siqueiros, painted on the vaulted ceiling of the Colegio Chico at Mexico City's National Preparatory School. In the bottom righthand corner, you can see a conch shell emblematic of seawater. Fair use.
Peasant Mother (1924), one of Siqueiros's best-known oil paintings. As several scholars have noted, motherhood is a recurring theme in Siqueiros's work. Also, notice the decidedly Mexican landscape and figures. Fair use.
Black-and-white photograph of Tropical America, painted by Siqueiros and the mural block painters in Los Angeles. The unveiling of the mural met with protests, and it was whitewashed. Fair use. To learn more about the effort to restore Tropical America, visit https://www.getty.edu/conservation/our_projects/field_projects/siqueiros/siqueiros_overview.html.
Portrait of the Bourgeoisie, painted by Siqueiros and the International Team of Graphic Artists inside a stairwell in the Mexican Electrical Workers Union. To the left, you can see a fascist demagogue with the head of a parrot speaking to the masses. Fair use.
The New Democracy, completed by Siqueiros in 1944 and displayed in Mexico City's Palacio de Bellas Artes. Fair use.
1918 photograph of Leon Trotsky at his desk. Photographer unknown. Image available through Wikipedia Commons.
Facade of Frieda Kahlo's Blue House, where Leon Trotsky and his wife, Natalia, temporarily stayed after their arrival in Mexico. Today, it's a museum. Photo taken by Garrett Ziegler. (Flickr 2019)
Photo of an interior wall inside Trotsky's house in Mexico City. Bullet holes left by the would-be assassins remain to this day. Photo taken by Carlos Lowry. (Flickr 2008)
---Debroise, Olivier. So Far from Heaven: David Alfaro Siqueiros and “The March of
Humanity” and Mexican Revolutionary Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University
---Jolly, Jennifer. “Art of the Collective: David Alfaro Siqueiros, Josep Renau, and their Collaboration at the Mexican Electricians’ Syndicate.” Oxford Art Journal 31, no. 1 (2008): 129-51.
---Knight, Alan. “Mexico, c. 1930-46.” In The Cambridge History of Latin America, Vol. 7, ed. Leslie Bethell, 3-82. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 19
---Patenaude, Bertrand M. Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary. New York: Harper, 2009.
---Rochfort, Desmond. Mexican Muralists: Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998.
---Siqueiros, David Alfaro. Art and Revolution. Translated by Sylvia Calles. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976.
---Stein, Philip. Siqueiros: His Life and Works. New York: International Publishers, 1994.
---White, D. Anthony. Siqueiros: Biography of a Revolutionary Artist. BookSurge Publishing: Scotts Valley, California, 2009.
David Alfaro Siqueiros raised his .45 caliber revolver in the air and fired a warning shot. He could only hope it would frighten off the mob that was closing in around him. Aged twenty-seven, Siqueiros had an unruly tangle of curly black hair on his head and a long, slender face that was equine enough for his friends to call him Caballo, Spanish for “horse.” It was 1924, and he was cornered in a dimly lit stairwell at the Preparatoria, Mexico City’s National Preparatory School. He belonged to a cohort of promising young painters receiving state funding to complete murals there. Many of the muralists, Siqueiros included, were members of the Mexican Communist Party, and their radical politics guided their hands as they painted their walls. Unfortunately, much of the faculty and student body heartily loathed their leftist messaging and had started raising hell about it. They baited the painters and vandalized their murals, pelting them with stones and shooting them with blowguns. The artists took to carrying firearms to protect themselves as well as their handiwork. With tensions escalating as long as they had, the face-off in the stairwell must have appeared inevitable in retrospect. A swarm of approximately sixty students was besieging Siqueiros’s workstation, and it looked likely that somebody would get hurt. To his relief, however, he wasn’t alone for long. His brothers-in-brushes heard the report of his pistol and rushed to his aid, thirty or so strong. Meanwhile, a sculptor named Ignacio charged toward the fray from the opposite direction to defend Siqueiros, leading a battalion of battle-ready stonemasons and firing his own pistol to intimidate the rabble. Finding themselves threatened from multiple sides, the students took flight. Siqueiros escaped unscathed, as did the rioters.
Revolutionaries polarize, revered by some and resented by others for challenging the status quo. One of Mexico’s most celebrated muralists, Siqueiros was revolutionary in more ways than one. Throughout his long and checkered career, he radically reimagined how to make murals in the modern world. For him, painting and politics were inextricably linked, and his leftward convictions informed both how—and what—he painted, much to the dismay of some viewers and patrons. Outside the art world, Siqueiros fought for revolutionary causes on the battlefield. As a student, he put his education on pause and took up arms in the Mexican Revolution, a bloody conflict that changed the course of history in his homeland. As an established painter almost two decades later, he would risk his life in another war, this time on foreign soil.
One rainy night in 1940, his political convictions drove him to commit a less honorable act of violence. He and several others opened fire on the Mexican home of Leon Trotsky as he and his family slept in their beds. A much-vaunted hero of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky had since become public enemy number one in the Soviet Union as a result of a coordinated, state-backed character assassination, causing a schism within the Communist Party.This would lead to more than one attempt on his life, the last of which proved fatal. Today, we’ll hear about how Siqueiros blazed trails within muralism, how Trotsky divided Communism, and why the one revolutionary came for the blood of the other under cover of darkness. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 1 of Assassins . . .
The Assassinations of Leon Trotsky: David Alfaro Siqueiros
Birth of a Revolutionary—and a Revolution
Born on December 29, 1896, Siqueiros came of age during the Mexican Revolution, a ten-year period of political upheaval, lasting from 1910-20. It would shape his worldview. It started with a revolt against the strongarm dictator, Porfirio Díaz. From 1876 to 1911, Díaz served almost continuously as president of Mexico. Under his leadership, the country enjoyed relative stability after prolonged conflict in the nineteenth century. Mexico modernized as investments flowed in from overseas, with a growing number of train tracks and telegraphs crisscrossing the nation. Meanwhile, domestic industries boomed, including mining and oil. Yet prosperity came at a steep price. Díaz maintained his grip on power by crushing opposition. Furthermore, his policies favored foreign investors plus an elite minority of landowning Mexicans while impoverishing the peasantry and indigenous populations. By 1910, an ailing Díaz had grown increasingly unloved as unrest simmered among the working-classes. That year, a moneyed northern landowner, Francisco Madero, ran against Díaz in a presidential election, prompting the autocrat to jail him in response—a massive mistake, Díaz would soon learn, as it touched off an uprising. Against expectations, the rebels bested the Federal Army loyal to the dictator. In May 1911, Díaz resigned and went into exile, and soon thereafter Madero succeeded him as president of Mexico.
The ouster of Díaz created fault lines in Siqueiros’s family. By 1911, they were living in Mexico City. Largely influenced by his spirited sister, María de la Luz, a fifteen-year-old Siqueiros leaned way to the left, bidding good riddance to Díaz. Meanwhile, his father, Cipriano, a strait-laced lawyer with an enviable income and well-knotted ties to the landowning class, resented the Revolution. Friction between father and son would shake the household. One night, Cipriano gave a dinner party, and the teenaged David came home to a dining room full of anti-revolutionary fat-cats. When they pestered Siqueiros about his own political views, the firebrand smoldered. After declaring, “I only know that all the hacendados [the bigtime landowners] are a pack of thieves!” he proceeded to lock himself in the adjacent room and started smashing whatever he could, jumping out a window and hurling chunks of pavement at the house while his father and guests looked on in horror.
Apart from acting out at home, Siqueiros engaged in activism at school. The same year as his dinner-party conniption, Siqueiros enrolled in classes at the Academy of San Carlos, the National Academy of the Fine Arts. Like many of his classmates, he was disappointed by the old-school curriculum. Many of his educators worshiped classical European art while more or less ignoring native Mexican traditions. Their method of instruction required their pupils to sketch copies of antique statuary, working from photographs or modern reproductions, among other equally stultifying exercises. Students longed for a pedagogy with less stone and stasis and more life and liberty—the freedom to improvise rather than merely imitate or to draw the human body from living, breathing models. For a time, Siqueiros and his schoolfellows sought extracurricular means to fill these gaps in their education. For instance, he and several others hired a young woman to pose nude for them in the home library of his wealthy friend only for a housemaid to burst in on them. When the servant saw what they were doing, she chased the youths into the street, the model half-naked, condemning what she viewed as pornographic activity.
The boys might have laughed about the after-school escapade, but the problem remained: the Academy’s curriculum needed an overhaul. Emboldened by the downfall of Díaz, Siqueiros and his schoolmates confronted the administration head-on. It started when anatomy students staged a protest, which spread to other departments. Soon, they were striking, refusing to attend class and gaining national attention. The strikers set their sights on Rivas Mercado, the director of the academy, covering the walls with placards demanding his immediate removal and the hiring of a more forward-thinking replacement. When Mercado arrived at San Carlos with his wife and daughter one morning, Siqueiros joined a horde of demonstrators in bombarding them and their car with rotten eggs, tomatoes, and rocks. The violence landed him and several others in police custody. Though he later expressed regret about harming the director’s daughter, Siqueiros boasted of his part in the onslaught. The strike dragged on for more than a year. In the end, Mercado had little choice but to step down. The Porfirio Díaz of this academy had been overthrown.
Now was not the time for jubilation, however. The nation was nosediving into another crisis. In 1913, aided by the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, several top army officers staged a coup against President Francisco Madero. A ten-day siege of the capital city ensued, resulting in the death of more than 1,000 Mexicans, many of them civilians. The counterrevolutionaries installed the conservative Victoriano Huerta as president. He in turn ordered the successful assassinations of both Madero and Madero’s vice president, Pino Suárez. Soon, Huerta found himself embattled by multiple revolutionary forces. They overpowered the Federal Army, forcing Huerta to resign just over a year after assuming the presidency. The bloodshed wasn’t over. The revolutionary armies turned on each other in a struggle for power.
It was during this stage that Siqueiros enlisted. This chapter of the Mexican Revolution is dizzyingly complex, and we don’t have time to discuss it in detail. Suffice to say that he fought on the side of a politician named Venustiano Carranza. After a brief stint as a frontline reporter, Siqueiros joined the “Battalón Mamá,” a squadron comprised of teenaged boys along with older, more experienced soldiers.
Throughout the conflict, Siqueiros survived numerous brushes with death, often showing bravery in the face of danger. One night, his unit was journeying to Tehuantepec by rail when Siqueiros awakened to the sound of gunshots, and the train ground to a halt. Peering out a window, he discerned flashes of light in the distance. Aware of what he was seeing yet wanting to avoid panic, he reassured his comrades, “Don’t worry, they are only fireflies.” Within seconds, however, these harmless “fireflies” were piercing the wall and ripping through the soldiers. His battalion was trapped. After a frenzied firefight, the train restarted. By the time they had reached safety, however, several were dead, including two schoolfellows of Siqueiros.
Over time, the Revolution mixed hardship with unexpected pleasures. As Siqueiros traveled the country, he patronized famed restaurants and brothels alike. In the words of his biographer, D. Anthony White, “The joys, sorrows, excitement, and terror which [Siqueiros] experienced throughout the Revolution, [sic] ran the gamut of human emotion and made an indelible impression on him.”
As time would tell, Siqueiros fought on the winning side, attaining the rank of second captain. Carranza took Mexico City and went on to serve as president. In 1917, his government promulgated a newly drafted Mexican Constitution. Among other provisions, it expanded labor rights, limited the power of the clergy, and instituted agricultural reforms, making it possible to redistribute land. All in all, however, more than one million Mexicans lost their lives throughout the Revolution. Because of the staggering perils they faced as well as the significance of the reforms brought about by the Mexican Revolution, many would view Siqueiros and other veterans as national heroes. He would certainly benefit from this standing later in life.
A People’s Art
After hanging up his soldier’s pack, Siqueiros resumed his studies. Starting in 1919, he received state funds to explore art history in Europe. Over two years and across several countries, he learned the ins and outs of all the “-isms” of the avant-garde, from Cubism in Paris to Futurism in Italy. He also gleaned lessons from classical masters, visiting the Sistine chapel to marvel at Michelangelo, to give an example.
As he soaked in what he saw, Siqueiros developed his own ideas about the kind of art he wanted to make and the kind of art his country needed. Muralism loomed large in his ruminations. Mexico required a popular art, Siqueiros insisted—art for the masses instead of individuals. He associated the latter with easel painting, which Siqueiros regarded as supremely bourgeois. You painted on a canvas and sold the picture to a buyer, probably a member of the upper crust, who hung it up at home where nobody else could see it. Murals you could paint in public places, on giant walls. They belonged to nobody and thus to everybody. For Siqueiros, the very surface he painted on carried a profound political meaning.
A Teacher in Name and a Novice in Practice
In 1922, Minister of Education José Vasconcelos lured Siqueiros back to Mexico City with an opportunity to paint for the people. The years before and after the Revolution saw a flowering of the arts. Frontrunners of this renaissance placed Mexican rather than European themes at the center of their work, determined to nurture a national culture. As this new generation of artists blossomed, Vasconcelos commissioned the country’s most visionary painters, including Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, to complete a series of murals inside the Preparatoria, the scene of the clash between Siqueiros and the student protestors.
Strictly speaking, Vasconcelos would not hire Siqueiros as an artist. As it turns out, the Mexican government was prepared to bankroll only so many painters. Exploiting a loophole, Vasconcelos employed many of his muralists not as artists but as instructors instead. Thus, Siqueiros first appeared on the payrolls as “Teacher No. 29 of Drawing and Manual Crafts.” A major irony underlay this title. Nobody could deny his facility with a brush, yet Siqueiros was hardly in a position to teach “Mural Crafts.” At this stage of his career, he had painted a grand total of zero murals. He was a teacher in name and a novice in practice. Over the course of two long years at the Preparatoria, he would teach himself how to work in this medium through an agonizing process of trial and error.
It was with lofty ideals about what he was doing if little idea about how to do it that Siqueiros hauled his painting supplies into his new workplace. Founded as a Jesuit school in 1597, the Preparatoria opened as a secular boarding school in the late 1860s. Its façade consisted of a blood-red volcanic rock known as tezontle, in addition to a series of windows and doors with jambs and lintels wrought from cantera, a grayish-white stone. In all, six sections composed the complex. The largest college, the Colegio Grande, was structured around a sun-soaked patio planted with trees in the colonial style. Also on campus was the old chapel, converted into a library at the Preparatoria. Searching for where to paint his murals, Siqueiros alighted on a remote stairwell in the Colegio Chico or Little College. The stairs connected the first and second floors, with six walls and two domed ceilings at his disposal.
Before setting to work, he erected a wooden barricade around his stairwell, securing it with a padlock while he was away. As something of a challenge, Siqueiros resolved to use one of the stairwell’s vaulted ceilings as the surface of his first mural. Next, he pondered two big questions, two big questions that dog most painters and would certainly dog him as he matured as a muralist.
The first was how to paint. In the beginning, he went with encaustic. Using this ancient method, Siqueiros combined pigments with heated wax and then applied that mixture to the concave ceiling of the Colegio Chico. Next, he blowtorched the colored wax, causing it to dry. Repeating these three basic steps over and over, Siqueiros ended up with layer upon layer of wax, fused together by the heat of his blowtorch.
The second big question was what to paint. The answer sprang in part from Siqueiros’s theory of muralism. From the outset, he considered this medium a whole different beast from easel-painting. Muralists paint on walls and ceilings, which amounted to more than oversize canvases. Walls and ceilings constitute buildings, propping them up and dividing their interiors into rooms and floors. For this reason, he concluded, muralists must take the architecture of their workspace into account while conceiving their pictures. In the Colegio Chico, Siqueiros was painting on a vaulted ceiling. Because this surface was overhead, he wanted a subject that would look at home in the heavens—an eagle or an airplane might have fit the bill. In the end, however, he settled on an angel. Employing encaustic, he painted a winged woman draped in a white shawl, hovering on high and gazing downward. Large and sinewy, her arms are muscular enough to belong to a bodybuilder. Siqueiros painted elemental symbols on either side of his celestial being. For example, pinkish-blue conch shells call to mind oceanwater. He titled it The Elements.
Painting this angel turned out to be hell. When Siqueiros inspected his work each day, he often hated what he saw and scraped it away, repainting from scratch. Due to these setbacks, Siqueiros spent eight full months on the mural, causing his employer a succession of headaches that turned into migraines. Finally, Siqueiros moved on without ever finishing The Elements.
As 1922 turned into ’23 and then ’24, Siqueiros changed his mind about both how and what to paint. Preparing for his third mural, he abandoned the cumbersome technique of encaustic. Instead, Siqueiros adopted fresco, another ancient method whereby artists painted on wet plaster. Not without challenges, fresco painting was a battle against time, requiring artists to complete the picture before the plaster dried.
As for the subject matter—or the “what”—of his mural, Siqueiros dispensed with the supernatural mysticism and went for a down-to-earth depiction of real Mexican people. Titled Burial of the Sacred Worker and featured on the Art of Crime website, the mural portrays three workmen carrying a coffin made of rough timber, a hammer and sickle engraved on its deep-blue lid. They’re headed toward the viewer, and the casket appears almost to protrude from the wall. Perfectly stoic, the laborers betray no emotion as they convey their comrade to his final resting place. Siqueiros painted his pallbearers as indigenous Mexicans, their short, dark hair, angular cheekbones, and well-defined jawlines modeled on Olmec ceremonial masks and statuary that the muralist had studied at the museum of anthropology. In so doing, he made art history. Burial of the Sacred Worker stands as the first mural to depict indigenous Mexicans as members of the modern working-class. In unusually high praise, Diego Rivera proclaimed that Siqueiros had achieved “the most complete synthesis of our race” since pre-Columbian times.
Compared to The Elements, Sacred Worker featured more overtly political imagery, as would much (though far from all) of Siqueiros’s later work. The hammer and sickle inscribed on the coffin plus the solemn dignity of the laborers clearly point to his Communist affiliations. Very much in line with the nationalist renaissance in contemporary art, moreover, Siqueiros foregrounded not Europeans but Mexicans in this mural.
El Machete Vs. the Hammer of the State
Siqueiros might have continued painting murals at the Preparatoria were it not for his political activities at the time. While he and his fellow muralists were cashing checks from the Mexican government, they were also railing against the Mexican government. In 1922, a group of them formed the Syndicate of Painters, Sculptors, and Technical Workers, an organization allied with the Communist Party. Siqueiros assumed a prominent position as general secretary and became the public face of the organization. In March 1924, Siqueiros published the first edition of a revolutionary newspaper that became the press organ of the Communist Party, El Machete. The muralist designed the famous masthead—a woodcut of a fist gripping a machete with the title of the periodical emblazoned in bold lettering on a blade of pure black. Apart from eye-grabbing engravings and prints, El Machete featured incendiary slogans like, “The Rifle in the Hands of the Proletariat is the Only Guarantee of Liberty.” In the dead of night, the publishers descended on working-class neighborhoods in Mexico City and pasted copies to the walls like posters. Since the Revolution, the government had swung like a pendulum back toward the right, and it would not countenance the Syndicate’s criticism. On December 13, 1924, it called for the termination of contracts of any and all muralists associated with El Machete, Siqueiros among them. He was out of a job. By this point, partly because of the Syndicate’s rabblerousing, demonstrators had damaged his murals. Only The Elements remained intact, still unfinished. It would be eight years before Siqueiros painted another mural, fifteen before he painted another in Mexico.
After working as a labor organizer in the state of Jalisco throughout the mid-to-late ’20s, Siqueiros got himself deeper and deeper in trouble. First, he ran afoul of the Communist Party for his lack of discipline. Then he landed in prison for political reasons. While behind bars and then under house arrest, he turned out more than 100 oil paintings, making him a national celebrity-painter. Still, the political situation was dicey enough from him to pack up and move to Los Angeles in 1932.
Blazing Trails in Los Angeles
It was in the city of angels that Siqueiros embarked on his next mural project. After a friend put in a good word for him, he was hired to teach a summer course on fresco painting at the Couinard Art Academy. Siqueiros hadn’t worked on a mural—fresco or otherwise—since his ill-fated tenure at the Preparatoria. Back then, he had borne the title of “teacher,” too, but only for the sake of appeasing bureaucrats in charge of the state coffers. Now, he was on the hook for providing actual instruction to a classful of students, many of whom worked as professional painters. Given this platform, Siqueiros would do more than teach fresco. He would spearhead what he considered a revolution in the art form.
To this end, he assigned a class project: he and his students would collaborate on a mural on the outside wall of the Couinard Art Academy. However, painting outdoors posed a formidable challenge. They would have to work with a medium that could survive the wind, heat, and rainfall of Southern California. Remember, customary fresco made use of plaster as a base, but plaster would flake and fade away under harsh weather conditions. Ready as ever to shake things up, Siqueiros marched into class one day and made a dramatic declaration: “Traditional fresco is dead!” It was a sudden and unexpected death, but nobody was crying, partly because Siqueiros had masterminded a novel form of fresco painting, one he deemed fit for the twentieth century. He and his students would paint on wet, white cement instead of moist plaster precisely because cement could withstand the elements.
This leap forward led to yet another hurdle. As noted earlier, painting on damp plaster was a race against the clock. Cement dries even faster than plaster, meaning Siqueiros and his pupils faced greater time pressure. Then it hit him: his modern muralism required the speed of a modern tool—the spray gun. At the time, manufacturers were already using the instrument to paint automobiles and household appliances like refrigerators and stoves. Despite murmurs of skepticism, Siqueiros brought his students around to the idea. Armed with a spray gun, Siqueiros found that he could paint not just with greater speed but with increased spontaneity, his spirits soaring as he blasted away. Whether in military uniform or a pair of overalls, Siqueiros loved to pull a trigger.
Equipped with their spray guns and christening themselves the “mural block painters,” Siqueiros and company set to work on their project. In keeping with the collectivist ethos of Communism, Siqueiros preached the necessity of teamwork. In theory, he and his students collaborated as equals on a shared undertaking. In practice, however, Siqueiros was the master and they his apprentices. At the end of the day, he had the final word on what they painted.
Never was this more evident than the final night of their enterprise. By then, the class had painted a construction site, based on photographs of working-class builders. Beneath the Couinard Art Academy’s second-story windows, about a half dozen painted laborers hunch down on a scaffold, their attention turned to the street down below. The evening before the mural’s completion, the team had yet to paint what it was the construction workers were looking at on the street—that part of the wall remained untouched. When the headmistress, Mademoiselle Chouinard, asked what would go there, Siqueiros informed her that he and his team would paint a street performer—inspired by the buskers who made their music and executed magic tricks throughout Los Angeles. After a hard day’s work, however, Siqueiros was exhausted and told his collaborators to head home for the night. A surprise was waiting for them the following morning. Siqueiros had lied about his fatigue and finished the mural in the middle of the night. He would pull this and similar stunts throughout his career. Making an executive decision, Siqueiros ditched the promised street performer in favor of more politically freighted subject matter: a labor organizer standing on a soapbox, clearly addressing the construction workers above, flanked by a Black man to the left and a white woman to the right, each of them holding a baby in their arms. Interracial harmony and coordinated reform efforts among the working-classes can bring about a bright future, the artwork implies. The “mural block painters'' titled it Street Meeting.
Not unlike Siqueiros’s murals in the Preparatoria, Street Meeting riled up viewers unfriendly to Marx and his disciples. In the taste-making magazine, California Arts and Architecture, one critic opined, “The art of fresco in this country will languish until it is able to free itself from the sorrows of Mexico and the dull red glow of Communism.” Others took issue with the inclusion of a Black man. Before long, anti-red protestors demanded that Chouinard destroy the mural. In the end, she gave in.
Without question, this marked a loss for the “mural block painters.” At the same time, the negative publicity won them notoriety. Soon, other artists wanted to join up, and the team ballooned from seven to twenty-four in number. Then they received a new commission. F.K. Ferenz, owner of the Plaza Arts Center, hired them to paint one of the Plaza’s exterior walls. Far larger than the side of the Couinard Art Academy, this wall measured sixteen feet tall by eighty feet wide. The “mural block painters'' would relish the challenge.
As the crew got to work, Siqueiros tussled with a theoretical and practical problem that bedeviled him for years, one that never would have occurred to me before I read up on muralism. It’s all about perspective, and how the viewer engages with the picture. Think about how you look at a painting on canvas in a gallery, the canvas being of average size. Chances are you approach it, stop, study the Picasso or Matisse or whoever, and then move on. You remain stationary when viewing the artwork, taking it in from a single vantage point. That’s not how it goes with monumental murals, especially outdoors. Say you’ve got a mural on the façade of a building right on the sidewalk in the middle of a city block. Plenty of viewers would see the painting as pedestrians bound for some destination—work or wherever. They may well look at the picture as they pass by, but they may not stop to do it. Moreover, as they proceed from one end of the block to the other, they invariably see the mural from a variety of angles. In contrast to the typical gallerygoer, then, a good number of mural-gazers remain in motion while viewing the painting, checking it out from shifting vantage points. This insight gave rise to Siqueiros’s concept of “the dynamic spectator.” While at work on the second L.A. mural, Siqueiros photographed the Plaza from various spots on the sidewalk, getting a sense of how it would look to a mobile viewer, and made alterations to the composition accordingly.
Early on in the process, Siqueiros announced the title of the mural: Tropical America. When the scaffolding came down, it stunned the neighborhood. The colors were so bold, they almost poked you in the eye. As many observers studied the mural, however, they bristled at its message. In the minds of many, the title had conjured visions of exotic Latin American flora and fauna—you know, like toucans and jaguars and cocoanuts and whatnot. That was not what Siqueiros gave them. The mural’s central panel shows an indigenous Mexican, crucified, his arms roped to the crossbar and his head lolling so far to one side it seems about to fall off. Perched above the corpse is a gigantic bald eagle. Far from a sunburst of tropical exotica, the mural issues a searing indictment of American imperialism and its devastating impact on indigenous Mexicans.
Not unlike Street Meeting, Tropical America unleashed a furor. While the art community marveled at its vibrant hues and composition, less appreciative observers condemned its political commentary. Mr. Ferenz caved under pressure in the end and had the mural whitewashed. Siqueiros fumed over what had turned out to be another bust.
The Mexican Revolution, Pt. II?
In 1931, not long before Siqueiros moved to Los Angeles, left-leaning Mexicans hailed what they saw as a sequel to their own revolution. It took place an ocean away, on the soil of their former colonizer: Spain. After Spaniards effectively voted in favor of abolishing the monarchy and introducing a democratic republic, the reign of King Alfonso XIII came to an end. Honoring the people’s wishes, he stepped down and departed Spain of his own volition—a dramatic change, to say the least, since the forty-four-year-old Alfonso had ruled as monarch since birth. His resignation gave way to the Second Spanish Republic. Energized by the historic turn of events, the new Republican government instituted measures to improve public education, redistribute land, update the armed forces, and separate church and state. Many of these reforms recalled those of the revolutionary government in Mexico.
However, the bloodless advent of the Second Spanish Republic morphed into brutal civil war. Much like Mexico at the time of the Revolution, Spain was a bitterly divided country. The Republican government claimed victory in the 1936 elections, yet much of rural Spain remained under the control of the Nationalist opposition, a coalition of conservatives, monarchists, traditionalists, and others led by a merciless military junta. General Francisco Franco held a prominent position in this body. Never quite known for their democratic principles, the Nationalists didn’t care who had won more votes in a free and fair election and took up arms against the Republicans.
As World War II loomed on the horizon, the Spanish Civil War became international in scope, each side receiving assistance from abroad. From the beginning, Mexico sided with the Republicans. Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas provided rifles and ammunition as well as homes for orphaned children. In addition to Mexico, the Soviet Union, United States, United Kingdom, and France threw their weight behind the Republicans in one way or another, particularly the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy supplied the Nationalists with weaponry, soldiers, and air support as they battled their way toward Madrid.
While the conflict raged, volunteer soldiers flocked to Spain to defend the Republic against the insurgents. Siqueiros was one of them. Following the events with a careful eye, he celebrated the birth of the Second Spanish Republic and deplored the outbreak of civil war. By 1936, he had taken up residence in New York City, where he ran an experimental workshop, exploring techniques like dripping paint on canvases. (One of the workshop participants, Jackson Pollock, attained legendary status for perfecting this method during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism.) As 1936 drew to a close, Siqueiros bid farewell to the big apple and sailed for Valencia. For the second time in his life, he was charging full tilt into civil war.
During the struggle, Siqueiros emerged as a capable leader. Having become second captain in the Mexican Revolution, he was made major, the next highest rank, upon his arrival. He would later be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. Absurdly, Siqueiros had charge over a unit that consisted almost entirely of anarchists. Commanding officers tend not to want anarchists in their regiment for a simple reason: they’re never super thrilled about following orders. Nevertheless, Siqueiros won their respect and then their obedience, facing mortal danger with unfailing sangfroid. He led an attack on a blockhouse under machine gunfire, engaged in hand-to-hand combat in a blizzard, and stood his ground in a marsh as enemy artillery units inched ever closer. Through it all, Lieutenant Colonel Siqueiros showed uncommon panache, particularly by virtue of his spiffy uniforms. He sported an American cap with visor, a leather strap drawn tight across his chest, and riding pants tucked into spit-shined boots. According to rumor, the tricked-out swashbuckler even plowed into battle wearing a purple-and-gold cape. Asked why he favored such flashy apparel, Siqueiros responded with an argument that few could dispute: “What’s the sense of being an artist if you cannot design your own uniform?”
Portrait of the Bourgeoisie
Despite his valor, the Spanish Civil War wouldn’t resolve the way Siqueiros had hoped, with the Nationalists overturning the Republican government and Francisco Franco seizing power. Siqueiros left Spain before war’s end and refocused on painting. He worked in South America for a time, even completing a mural in Buenos Aires. Still, one major goal remained unaccomplished: he had yet to finish a mural in his native country.
In 1939, the opportunity presented itself at long last. Siqueiros founded and agreed to serve as leader of the International Team of Graphic Artists, which brought together painters from Mexico and Spain. After some haggling, Siqueiros negotiated a commission at the Mexican Electrical Workers Union in the nation’s capital. Just as he had solo at the Preparatoria, Siqueiros and his collaborators would paint the walls and ceiling of a stairwell, this one with about 100 square meters of surface to cover. Siqueiros and company cracked on with it, implementing many of the methods he developed in Mexico City and Los Angeles. After examining the stairwell from multiple vantage points to understand how a “dynamic spectator” would see it, they had at the walls with spray guns and air brushes, working as a collective. All in all, it took fifteen months to complete the mural, two-and-a-half times the six-month estimate Siqueiros had given. They titled their handiwork Portrait of the Bourgeoisie, hailed by art historian Desmond Rochefort as “one of the great moments in twentieth-century mural art.” It is a trip. Taking this stairwell was like passing through a portal into an otherworldly jungle—a part surrealist, part proto-steam punk dreamscape. In one section, a fascist demagogue, represented as a trenchcoated man with the head of a yellow parrot, enflames the masses with a flower in one hand and—more significantly—a torch in the other. The parrot possesses qualities of a machine as well. It’s mounted atop—and seemingly powered by—a spring-loaded mechanism, meant to evoke the spinning gears, conveyor belts, and electrical currents of industrial capitalism. It would take ages to describe the mural in its entirety, so I highly recommend that you visit the Art of Crime website and see it for yourself.
After his doomed efforts at the Preparatoria, Siqueiros had finally brought a mural to fruition. Yet he lacked the opportunity to savor the victory. When it came time to unveil the mural, nobody could miss who was missing from the event: the head of the International Graphic Artists wasn’t in attendance. He wasn’t even in Mexico. In fact, he had fled the country after leading a siege on the Mexican villa of Leon Trotsky, the scourge of Communism according to Stalin and thus a hated enemy of Siqueiros, too. We’ll hear how Trotsky fell foul of the dictator and how Siqueiros attempted to assassinate him after a quick break.
The Rise and Fall of a Russian Revolutionary
To understand how Trotsky wound up on a collision course with Siqueiros, we have to talk a bit about the former’s background. By 1940, Trotsky had undergone a meteoric rise during the Russian Revolution followed by a precipitous fall in its aftermath.
The Russian Revolution sprang from World War I. After heavy losses in the Great War, still scarring Europe with its hideous trenches, the Russian military mutinied in February 1917. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, marking the end of the monarchy. A provisional government cropped up in its place, though it wouldn’t stick around for long. In October 1917, the far-left Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, revolted and toppled the wobbly new regime, ushering in the world’s first socialist state. In a pattern that should sound awfully familiar by now, the October Revolution descended into all-out civil war, pitting the Bolshevik Red Army against the White Army, which fought for the interests of various groups who opposed the Bolsheviks.
As war commissar, Trotsky helped lead the Red Army to victory. In his late thirties and just shy of six feet, he had a shock of irrepressible white hair, a penetrating gaze magnified by a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, and a pointed goatee. At a glance, he may not have seemed suited to the office of war commissar. Anybody could tell you he was brilliant—he had written on politics, literature, history, and other topics before the Revolution—yet he knew little to nothing of military tactics. The solution was simple: he left that to the generals. What Trotsky could accomplish better than just about anyone was to rally troops around a common goal, which he did with a slew of public speeches. He brought charisma and conviction to the podium, yes, but these alone did not account for his effectiveness. Trotsky made frequent recourse to threats of dire punishment, particularly for deserters: “Cowards, scoundrels, and traitors will not escape the bullet—this I vouch before the whole Red Army.” Another example of such ruthlessness can be found in his ploy to ensure the obedience of tzarist soldiers, carryovers from the old regime. Many revolutionaries questioned their loyalty to the Bolshevik agenda. Trotsky coerced them into fighting like hell for the Red Army by holding their wives and children hostage. Throughout the civil war, he spent little time at his headquarters, instead traveling Russia from Petrograd to Moscow to fire up the soldiery. He made his journeys in an armored train, which consisted of twelve cars in the early days and carried some 250 armed guards. Trotsky dubbed it his “flying administrative apparatus.” His cross-country warmongering catapulted him to fame, and according to the Russian revolutionary’s biographer, Bertrand M. Patenaude, they “made ‘Lenin and Trotsky’ synonymous with Russian Bolshevism.”
Everything would change with the death of Lenin in 1924. To many observers, Trotsky seemed like Lenin’s most probable successor. In the end, he sabotaged himself due in large part to character flaws. He had an international reputation for haughtiness and hostility toward those who disagreed with him—in the words of English playwright, George Bernard Shaw, “When Trotsky cuts off his opponent’s head, he holds it up to show that there are no brains in it.” His hubris cost him many an ally. Furthermore, Trotsky faced an unremitting and many-fanged foe in Joseph Stalin, a savvier politician and backroom dealmaker. Due to various ideological differences as well as their mutual lust for power, the rivalry between them overheated. During one meeting, Trotsky lambasted Stalin as the “gravedigger of the revolution,” whereupon Stalin stormed out of the room.
Needless to say, Stalin prevailed. He would lead the Soviet Union and the Communist Party from 1924 to his death in 1953. By contrast, Trotsky’s downfall was swift and irreversible. In 1927, Stalin expelled him from the Communist Party. The following year, Trotsky and his wife, Natalia Sedova, went into exile in Central Asia only for the autocrat to cast them out of the Soviet Union in 1929. In subsequent years, the Trotskys relocated from Turkey to France and from there to Norway, none of these nations particularly jazzed about hosting Stalin’s archnemesis. Stalin later regretted letting the exile escape.
Nevertheless, Stalin and his henchmen could still harm Trotsky from Moscow. By dint of a turbo-charged misinformation machine, Trotsky emerged as the Soviet Union’s most abhorrent boogeyman, somehow responsible for the motherland’s every ill, even freak accidents like train derailments and factory fires. Then came the show trials, which filled newspaper columns around the globe. The first took place in 1936, and while Trotsky himself was not in the courtroom, his name echoed throughout the proceedings. The defendants included big-name Bolsheviks who had aroused Stalin’s ire for one reason or another. According to the state, they had colluded in a conspiracy to assassinate Stalin and overthrow the government, a conspiracy masterminded by Trotsky from abroad. There was no validity whatsoever to the allegations. Shockingly, however, all but one of the accused confessed publicly to committing these crimes. All were found guilty and sentenced to death.
The Soviet Union’s sustained smear campaign against Trotsky, especially the show trials, opened up a fissure in the Communist Party around the world. Those supporting Stalin cried out for Trotsky’s blood. Others known as Trotskyists sided with his opponent.
In 1936, Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas granted Leon and Natalia political asylum. The couple sailed from Norway to Tampico in January 1937, exhausted after years of repeated displacement. From Tampico, they proceeded to Mexico City by rail, a dusty landscape dotted with cacti and agave sliding by outside the window. They settled in a suburb of Mexico City, Coyocán, which literally translates to “place of the coyotes,” taking up residence with none other than muralist Diego Rivera and his wife, Frieda Kahlo. The Trotskys stayed at their breathtaking Blue House, pictured on the Art of Crime website. (As some listeners might know, there’s a story to be told about the fraught relationships among Leon, Natalia, Diego, and Frieda, but that’ll have to wait until a bonus episode later this season.)
By 1940, Leon and Natalia had moved a few blocks away from the Blue House to a villa on Avenida Vena in Coyocán. Their grandson, Seta, aged fourteen, had also joined them. Easy to miss unless you were looking for it, the Trotsky residence stood at the end of a dirt road lined with adobe houses. Brick-and-stone walls standing fourteen feet circumscribed the house, shaped like a letter “T.” It was one story but for the northeast corner, which was outfitted with a tower overlooking a river flowing nearby. Trotsky spent many of his days in his study, dictating biographies of Lenin and Stalin with the help of his Dictaphone. He took exercise when he could, though less than he would have liked. He had loved to hunt and fish as a younger man, but now, aged sixty, Trotsky suffered from insomnia, fatigue, high blood pressure, and dizziness, limiting the kind of physical activity he could engage in. When he did make it outdoors, he liked to pull on a pair of thick work gloves, uproot cacti from the surrounding countryside, and transplant the more delightful specimens to the patio at his villa. Endearingly, he had recently taken to raising chickens and rabbits as pets, which he kept in wooden hutches inside the patio. The zoological pastime became an obsession. To his stock of chickens he added Leghorns, Plymouths, and Long Island Reds, among others. Meanwhile, the rabbits mated like, well, rabbits. By his final months, he was caring for more than 100 in all.
Life on Avenida Vena might sound bucolic. It seemed more like incarceration to Trotsky. He and Natalia had never felt welcome in Mexico. President Cárdenas’ decision to open his borders to them infuriated Stalinists, and the capital city was seething with anger before the asylum-seekers had even shown up. Soviet sympathizers plastered the walls with posters featuring slogans like, “Out with Trotsky, the Assassin!” The day following Leon and Natalia’s arrival, the Communists staged a massive demonstration in the Plaza de Santo Domingo, right at the heart of the capital city. The rhetoric became more violent with time. By the beginning of 1940, exclamations of “Death to Trotsky!” punctuated meetings of the Communist Party. For the sake of Trotsky’s safety, a team of more than ten policemen and armed bodyguards provided twenty-four-seven security at the Coyocán villa. One watchman had even rigged up an alarm system with tripwires connected to light bulbs that could illuminate the patio and expose intruders at night. Out of concerns for his wellbeing, they discouraged Trotsky from leaving home for long. Coyocán became his prison.
Trotsky’s villa would seem like a war zone when Siqueiros laid siege to it. It’s difficult to say when, how, and why the plot to assassinate Trotsky took shape. It appears to have originated when the muralist was fighting in the Spanish Civil War, back when Leon and Natalia were granted asylum by President Cárdenas. Whenever the idea took root, Siqueiros supported Stalin and wanted his great adversary dead.
It was around midnight on the early morning of May 24, 1940. Heavy rain turned the unpaved roads of Coyocán to mud. A pair of headlights cut through the dark as a car pulled up to a house on the Calle de República de Cuba. The driver and passengers opened their doors and headed inside, where they found Siqueiros along with a half dozen or so others. The newcomers arrived with a small arsenal in tow, including a Thompson submachine gun, four revolvers, and two Thermos bombs.
Explosives and firearms notwithstanding, the mood remained light. Some of the confederates handed out disguises—a set of police uniforms plus a soldier’s—and cracked jokes with each other as they tried them on. Evidently unsatisfied with his own outfit, Siqueiros went out and returned two hours later at 2:00 a.m. He wore the uniform of an army major, his eyes concealed behind a pair of dark glasses and a fake mustache fastened above his upper lip, the kind you could twirl if you were feeling cartoony and particularly villainous. We should expect nothing less from the guy said to have fought in the Spanish Civil War wearing a cape of purple and gold. “How does it suit me?” Siqueiros asked as he modeled his uniform for his comrades. “Very well,” they responded amid roars of laughter.
Nobody was laughing when it came time for the assault. At around 3:00, the assassins split up and agreed to reconvene outside Trotsky’s villa. Siqueiros got into his car and started the engine, three other gunmen disguised as policemen having piled in with him. As he drove toward their destination, Siqueiros may have sensed nervousness among his companions. They were storming a well-guarded fortress, after all. Siqueiros insisted that they would penetrate the Russian’s defenses without issue. They had bribed a watchman who would secret them inside. “What if that guy betrays us, and we all get machine-gunned?” one of the riders demanded. Undaunted as always, Siqueiros smiled and made a simple reply: “There’s no danger of that.” He parked a block or so away from Avenida Vena and watched the minutes tick by on his wristwatch.
At about 4 a.m., Siqueiros and his accomplices sprang into action. They approached the wall surrounding Trotsky’s villa and stormed a small brick casita outside. It contained five policemen, three of them fast asleep. The trespassers easily overpowered them and tied them up. From there, they proceeded to the southwestern corner of the property, where they met up with their fellow invaders outside the garage, the one and only entrance to the villa. As expected, they found its massive wooden doors bolted. One of the raiders, Felipe, called out, and after a moment the doorway opened. Before the intruders stood a twenty-five-year-old New Yorker called Robert Sheldon Harte, the renegade bodyguard who had evidently upheld his end of the bargain. The assassins were in. They disabled the alarm system, cut the telephone wires, and took up their positions.
A Shift in Perspective
A few minutes later, Natalia Sedova awoke to the pop-popping of fireworks. Still half-asleep, she wondered if the neighbors weren’t setting them off during one of their fiestas. But that couldn’t be right. What she was hearing was not outdoors. The explosions were deafening and coming from all around her, from inside the house. Lying beneath the sheets, she took in a deep breath and recognized the acrid odor in the air: gunpowder. Intruders were spraying her bedroom with gunfire.
Trotsky came to consciousness as his wife hustled him out of bed, her insomniac-husband slowed by the sleeping pills he had taken before bedtime. Natalia flung him onto the floor in the corner of the room and threw herself on top of him. Bullets streamed in through the French windows directly above the married couple as well as through two doors, each on opposite sides of the room, creating a three-way crossfire. The missiles ricocheted off the ceiling and walls while shards of glass and splintered plaster flew in all directions. Questions flashed through Trotsky’s mind as he lay prostrate on the ground. Where were the guards? What about the police? Was their fourteen-year-old grandson, Seta, okay? One volley of bullets was coming from his bedroom.
The assault went on for several minutes. The guns fell quiet only for the silence to be broken by the thud of an explosion. The door to Seta’s bedroom burst open. A uniformed man stood on the threshold, almost silhouetted by flames right behind him. Raising her head from the floor, Natalia caught a glimpse of the invader. The helmet on his head and the buttons on his greatcoat glowed blood-red in the firelight. He waited there, watching, surveying the scene for signs of life. After a moment, he raised a handgun and fired multiple rounds into both Natalia and Leon’s beds. Then, he vanished.
The Trotskys lay there, unmoving, as if turned to stone with terror. Then, without warning, a cry pierced the air. “Dedushka!” The voice belonged to Seta, who had called “Grandfather!” in Russian—at once a plea for help and an expression of concern. Leon and Natalia snapped into action—they later recalled this moment as the most distressing that night—and rose from the floor, rushing into his room. The boy was nowhere in sight, but a small fire was blazing near a wrecked wardrobe cracking in the heat of the flames. Guns went off now and then outdoors. “Have they taken him?” the grandfather worried. Natalia heaped carpets and rugs on top of the blaze, hoping to smother it, while Leon went for his gun.
A minute or two later, Leon and Natalia heard Seta again, now overjoyed, this time calling out to friends who were staying the night at their house. He was safe, they realized, and the attackers appeared to have beaten a retreat. Natalia and Leon went to the other, unopened door in their bedroom, which led to the study. Finding it jammed, they hammered on it with their fists until they heard guards on the other side. Younger and stronger than the trapped married couple, the security officers forced open the door. Both the Trotskys and the sentinels were astonished by what they saw: none of them were hurt.
Everybody gathered on the patio outside to assess the damage. Against all odds, nobody had died. There was one injury, however, sustained by none other than the teenaged Seta. Roused from sleep by the thunder of gunfire, he dove under his bed. In the ensuing chaos, a bullet passed through his mattress and grazed his big toe. When it was safe to come out from his hiding place, he limped his way to the kitchen, teary-eyed and talking terrified nonsense, leaving a thin trail of blood as he hobbled. One of Leon’s guards had spotted him and brought him to safety. As became evident, the Trotskys’ two automobiles had disappeared. Adding insult to injury, the assailants had stolen them to make their getaway, leaving the garage wide open. Perplexingly, they noted, Robert Sheldon Harte was missing.
Accounts of the assault on the Trotskys’ villa are chilling to read. Tragedy was only narrowly avoided. At the same time, it’s hard not to look at Siqueiros and his band of gun-toting goons and think, “What a bunch of blunderers.” The fiasco began with the assassins dressing up like frat boys heading to a costume party at two in the morning, to the soundtrack of Police Academy. A couple hours later, they discharged more than 300 bullets at the Trotskys’ villa. Only one of these projectiles struck a member of the household. Even then, it hit him in the toe. The toe. The wounded individual wasn’t even their target, but a fourteen-year-old boy. Siqueiros and friends bungled this assassination attempt. It began as a farce and it ended as one, too.
Siqueiros in Hiding
It took little time for the authorities to learn of Siqueiros’s complicity. Meanwhile, the Communist Party distanced itself from him and the attempted assassination, condemning the painter as a “pedant with a machinegun.”
Siqueiros wouldn’t make it easy for police to hunt him down. He had fled the capital and gone into hiding in Quenada, a town in the northerly state of Jalisco. More than a decade earlier, Siqueiros had earned the trust and respect of the local peasantry as a labor organizer. In an effort to blend in with them, he underwent a radical transformation, starting as an untanned artisan and assuming the guise of a sunbaked field worker. He grew out a mustache, bathed in the rays of the midday sun, and donned the traditional boots and sombrero of the region. Unfortunately for him, it would take more than a sombrero and a tan to fool his old friends. During a chance encounter with a couple of buddies, they recognized Siqueiros at once and insisted on celebrating the surprise reunion with a bottle of mezcal. Still, he lay low. He adopted the alias of “Macario Sierra” and never slept in the same place twice, saddling up and riding to the mountains, where he bedded down in caves or fields.
The manhunt brought investigators to a farmhouse in the village of Santa Rosa, an adobe dwelling with three rooms and a basement. On June 24, police entered the structure and discovered an easel holding a blank canvas, along with two brushes and as many cans of paint. The floor was strewn with cigarette butts and .22 caliber bullet casings. Ready to make use of their own firearms, the officers proceeded downstairs to a small kitchen with a dirt floor. After a moment, the detectives relaxed. Nobody was there now, but somebody had been in recent weeks—plain as day, the earth on the floor had been upturned. They prevailed on a neighboring peasant to dig it up with a pickaxe, and before long the stench of putrescence seeped into the cellar. Later on, a forensic team unearthed the body of Robert Sheldon Harte, the double agent who admitted Trotsky’s would-be murderers the night of the assault, the corpse peppered with quicklime and bearing two bullet wounds in the back of the head. A bloodstained cot and quilt interred with the cadaver indicated that Harte’s killer had shot him while he slept. The grisly discovery baffled police. Why had Harte gone with the assailants the night of the attack, as he appeared to have done, and why had they ultimately taken him out? Indeed, to this day, the exact nature of Harte’s participation as well as the circumstances surrounding his death remain unexplained. Police were certain of one thing, however. Vital as it was, Harte’s exhumation brought them no closer to Siqueiros.
Death of a Revolutionary
While law enforcement was hunting the fugitive, Trotsky upped security. He had no illusions about his safety. It was only a matter of time before his enemies made another attempt on his life. Within a few months of the midnight strike, turrets lined the top of the villa’s outer wall. Double iron doors replaced the wooden garage entrance. Steel-plated shutters covered the windows. Bullet-proof wire netting sprang up around the premises. Barbed-wire barricades impeded access to key parts of the property. Not exactly homey, but these fortifications went a long way in allowing Trotsky to sleep easily at night.
Nevertheless, they wouldn’t save his life. In truth, they did nothing to hinder his assassin. This was a man named Ramón Mercader, a Spanish-born Communist and an agent of the NKVD, the interior ministry of the Soviet Union. Posing as a French-Canadian businessman named Frank Jacson, he earned Trotsky’s trust and ingratiated himself to his family and protectors.
On the sunny afternoon of August 20, Mercader turned up at Casa de Trotsky with a raincoat and a hat, unshaven, skittish, gray-green in the face. During a previous visit, Mercader had asked Trotsky for feedback on an article he had written, and now he had returned with a revised draft for his perusal. Natalia received Mercader outside, immediately registering his sickly appearance, and walked him around to the rabbit hutches, where the pair found Leon tending to the critters. Natalia sensed that Leon would have preferred to stay with his pets rather than critiquing Mercader’s revision—the first draft was facile, and he doubted the author would have made much improvement. All the same, Leon would not begrudge his friend a second chance. “Well, what do you say,” he asked. “[S]hall we go over your article?” Closing up the hutches and brushing off the blue denim jacket he had on, Leon walked over to Mercader. Together the two men made their way to his study, Natalia accompanying them to the door, which her husband shut behind him.
A short time later, a terrible cry lacerated the midday quiet—a security guard described it as “prolonged and agonized, half scream, half sob. It dragged me to my feet, chilled to the bone.” Another sentry stationed outside turned toward the source, Leon’s study, and aimed his rifle in that direction. He saw a flash of blue through the window—Trotsky’s jacket—as the Russian grappled with his attacker. Worried he might hit his employer by mistake, he held off on firing but kept his finger on the trigger. Moments later, the outside door to Leon’s study flew open, and he staggered out, blood streaming down his forehead onto his face. “See what they have done to me?” he groaned. Natalia darted to him while two guards dashed into his study and found it in shambles. Trotsky’s Dictaphone was smashed to pieces, and blood had spattered the floor and desk. Books, papers, and overturned chairs littered the floorboards. Only later would one of Trotsky’s bodyguards catch sight of the pickaxe, soaked with blood, lying in the mess. Mercader stood in the middle of the room, hyperventilating, his arms hanging flaccid, a pistol in hand. One of the security officers threw him to the ground and battered him with the butt of his revolver. “They made me do it!” Mercader cried. Mercader’s assailant laid aside his pistol but kept the blows coming with his fists. “Kill me! Kill me!” the imposter pleaded. “I don’t deserve to live.”
As Trotsky’s bodyguards contacted police, the Russian’s security detail reconstructed the attack. Trotsky sat at his desk to go through the essay, after which Mercader produced the icepick and struck him on the head from behind. Though stunned, the Russian had risen to his feet and fought off the attacker. An attending physician examined the gash on Trotsky’s head and assured him that it wasn’t serious, though the grave expression on his face made a less reassuring prognosis. An ambulance rushed Trotsky to the Green Cross Emergency Hospital. Inside, doctors laid him out on a cot and prepared him for surgery, Natalia staying by his side all the while. When a nurse started shaving the patient’s head, a shadow of a smile crossed his face, and he told Natalia, “Look, we found a barber.” Aided by Natalia, the doctors undressed him, and then husband and wife exchanged three kisses, the last they ever would. Trotsky underwent surgery that night and fell into a coma. He died the following day, August 21, 1940.
Mercader spent twenty years in prison for assassinating Trotsky. Upon his release, however, he received the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, Order of Lenin, the single highest honor you could earn from that nation. One country’s criminal was another’s champion.
From Handcuffs to Handshakes
Siqueiros could not evade capture forever. Shortly after Trotsky’s passing, soldiers armed with carbines surrounded the muralist and took him into custody, binding his hands behind his back and slipping a noose around his neck. He was certain he would never make it back to Mexico City alive. When his captors escorted him to their commander, Colonel Salazar, however, Siqueiros received a pleasant surprise. Salazar apologized for all the rifles and manhandling and directed his men to untie the painter’s hands. Then, ordering them to stand at attention, Salazar heaped praise on Siqueiros as a national hero, a battle-tested veteran of the glorious Revolution, not to mention an artist of international repute. Hopping into their cars, the soldiers drove the painter to a nearby village and treated him to a banquet in his honor.Figuratively speaking, Siqueiros had gone from handcuffs to handshakes, and this congenial reversal of fortune in many ways foreshadowed what lay around the corner.
Back in the capital, Siqueiros was jailed while awaiting trial. He wouldn’t stay in the slammer for long. In a “Wait-a-minute-what?” turnabout, the Communist Party suddenly came to his defense, calling for his release despite having denounced his attack on Trotsky. In the meantime, more than fifty Spanish and Mexican intellectuals submitted a petition to President Manuel Ávila Camacho, in which to quote biographer D. Anthony White, they demanded leniency for him “on the basis of his artistic achievement and contributions to national culture.” Natalia Sedova could not have objected more vehemently, decrying Siqueiros as a terrorist. Over the widow’s protestations, the authorities let Siqueiros out on bail. During a private audience with President Camacho, moreover, Siqueiros listened with interest as the head of state encouraged him to go into voluntary exile to dodge prosecution. It sounded to him like sound advice. Shockingly, Siqueiros flitted off to Chile and never stood trial for leading the assault on the Trotsky villa. Nor was he—or anyone else—held to account for the fatal shooting of Robert Sheldon Harte.
Siqueiros was back in his native land before long. and he would go down in history as one of the “Big Three” in Mexican muralism, along with Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. One of Siqueiros’s best-known murals, The New Democracy, adorns an interior wall of Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes.
Yet a different museum in Mexico City reminds visitors of the darker side to Siqueiros’s legacy. Trotsky’s house in Coyocán remains open to the public, and those who stop by and enter his bedroom will find haunting traces of Siqueiros and company’s failed attempt to assassinate the Russian: a wall covered with bullet holes, a mural painted with gunfire.