Siqueiros’s compositional strategy was grounded in the perspectival rules established by Quattrocento muralist Paulo Uccello. Where Uccello was able to depict accurate three-dimensional space using a single vanishing point, “the poliangularidad (poliangularity) of Siqueiros’s compositions is established upon the topographic intersection of angles and triangular forms, from diverse perspectival points established by the pyramidal convention of Renaissance composition” (Irene Herner, “Escorzar, hacer mazzacchios y pintar pirámides,” Siqueiros: El lugar de la utopia, Mexico City, 1994, p. 57). Here, the balanced pyramidal composition of Siqueiros’s Conquistador is disrupted by a perspectival dissonance; the impossible angle of his head and shoulders at once imbues him with vital motion and draws the viewer into the composition. By synthesizing modern approaches to perspective from Cubism with Quattrocento geometric harmony, Siqueiros sought to improve both the legibility and emotive power of his compositions, to impart historical knowledge and inspire radical political action.
Siqueiros believed that revolutionary art must be created with accessible means. The Americas’ first innovator in the artistic application of industrial paint, he exploited the low viscosity of pyroxylin to create rugged textures and nebulas of color. He imparted this knowledge to students at the American Artists’s Congress in New York in 1936 (among them, a young Jackson Pollock) and continued to innovate his techniques throughout his life, the subtle smoky qualities of his earlier work giving way to resplendency in mature works like Conquistador. Here, Siqueiros masterfully manipulates the dripping of this paint to meld the crimson of the Conquistador’s plumage with the glowing locks of his hair and with the tempestuous sky.
Siqueiros’ murals are studded with labyrinthine networks of iconography; Conquistador is similarly complex. While the subject’s iconic morrión bears the shape and plumage of the helmet worn by Hernán Cortés, its hefty, gleaming chinstrap more closely relates to the animal-headed, heavily ornamented regalia worn by Aztec warriors as documented at the time of contact. In the mural panel Cuahtémoc Reborn, painted in a few years earlier in 1950 for Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes (see fig. 1) Siqueiros depicts the Spanish-slain Aztec hero born anew, clad in armor bearing both Spanish and Aztec form and symbols, wielding a glowing sword against an onslaught of flames. Conquistador may present a hybrid hero born of mestizaje, the racial and cultural mixing championed by Mexico’s post-revolutionary government as the source of Mexico’s inherent strength.
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