by Alex Early and Carl Hall
For three decades, a set of black-and-white linocuts hung on the exposed brick walls of the Pacific Media Workers Guild office on Natoma Street, rarely eliciting more than passing interest. They were clearly well done, and every now and then somebody would speculate about their potential value, or ask about the artist, Leopoldo Méndez, whose signature in pencil could barely be made out on each piece.
The late Rex Adkins, a San Francisco Chronicle editor and longtime union officer, told anybody who asked that he had bought the prints at a nearby pawnshop for $1 each. He had spotted them in the window nearby on downtrodden Sixth Street, the story went, while walking back to the Guild office from lunch. He had them framed, spending more on the frames than the art.
Nobody knew anything in particular about the prints, or the artist, or the story behind the scenes depicted of peasants in struggle, including a series showing a captive rebel facing a firing squad.
For an embattled labor union with longtime ties to the United Farm Workers, the low-budget wall decorations seemed to make a good fit. Now, it turns out, the art has become an asset worth a lot more than mere decoration.
The wood frame and glass protecting one piece shattered a year ago during the jostlings of an office move. Long impressed by the power of the images and quality of the work, the union local’s executive officer, Carl Hall, took the damaged piece to a professional frame shop for repairs. But when the framers noted signs of mildew and general deterioration, and suggested they’d have to reframe all six because they couldn’t match a new frame with the five intact old ones, Hall decided to find out first whether the prints were worth the expense.
After examining the linocuts, Oakland art restorer Karen Zukor estimated that it would take four hours per piece to clean and properly prepare the prints for professional framing. She also found evidence that the pieces Atkins picked up for the price of a sandwich certainly were worth saving – maybe even worth several hundred dollars, if not thousands, if an appreciative buyer could be found.
David de la Torre, director of the Mexican Museum in San Francisco, said Mendez is one of his favorites among the pioneers of Mexican printmaking. He is included in the museum’s current show, “Dialogos Gráficos: Posada to the Present.”
Méndez was a lesser-known but highly respected and influential contemporary of Diego Rivera. He was a leading figure in Mexico’s popular art movement, an artistic and cultural renaissance that followed that country’s revolution a century ago.
Born in 1902, Méndez made posters, prints and murals that depicted the lives and hardships of everyday Mexicans. A prolific artist and book designer, he helped create two well-known collectives, the People’s Graphic Art Workshop and the League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists. But Méndez never achieved the personal fame of far-better-known associates like Rivera, Frida Kahlo, David Alfaro Siqueiros or José Clemente Orozco. That was partly because of the artist’s dedication to collaborative and political artwork.
“Obviously, Adkins got a pretty good deal,” Hall said. “This art is worth a lot more than the price of a sandwich.”
Once aware of this unexpected cultural windfall, Hall considered turning it into income for the Guild. But as he learned more about artist, particularly after reading art historian Deborah Caplow’s biography, “Leopoldo Méndez: Revolutionary Art and the Mexican Print,” Hall decided that a union hall was a far more appropriate showcase for Méndez than any private collector’s living room.
“For Méndez,” Caplow writes, “the value of art was in its social utility rather than its value as a commodity. Méndez positioned himself in opposition to injustice, fascism and war by producing images of violence and oppression.”
The particular pieces owned by the Guild were made in 1950 as illustrations for the opening and closing credits of “Un día de vida” (“One Day of Life”), a Mexican film that tells the story of a dissident army officer, sentenced to death for protesting military complicity in the assassination of Emiliano Zapata, a revolutionary hero and land reformer.
The film is difficult to find today but retains a cult following in the former Yugoslavia, where it was extremely popular in the 1950s and 1960s. As Slovenian writer and director Miha Mazzini explained during an interview, the Yugoslav government began importing films from Mexico after dissident Communist leader Josip Tito split with the Stalinist Soviet Union 65 years ago and stopped showing Russian films.
Mexico was a preferred source of cinema, he said, because “it was far away, the chances of Mexican tanks appearing on Yugoslav borders were slight, and, best of all, in Mexican films they always talked about revolution in the highest terms.”
Mazzini said “Un día de vida” led to what he calls a “Yu-Mex” craze, which included Yugoslavians holding Mexican themed parties and Yugoslavian singers specializing in Mexican ranchera music. The film and its soundtrack were so popular that some older people in the former Yugoslavia consider “Un día de vida” the most famous film ever made, whereas in Mexico itself it is largely forgotten.
The only surviving versions of the film available online have Serbo-Croatian subtitles. Méndez’s contribution is clearly visible as the credits roll, showing the same artwork now hanging on the Media Workers Guild’s wall.
In the Bay Area, the tradition of Mexican political art personified by Méndez lives on in the work of such local artists as Juan Fuentes and Favianna Rodriguez, and collectives like Dignidad Rebelde, Design Action Collective, and the San Francisco Print Collective.
These artists and collectives produce prints, posters and murals supporting immigrant and women’s rights, tenant struggles, union organizing, the Occupy movement, and other causes. They share Méndez’s belief that creating works of social utility is more important than achieving personal celebrity.
“Exhibiting in a gallery doesn’t mean success,” Rodriguez said. “Success means making something people will put up and use.”
Leopoldo Méndez and his Taller de Gráfica Popular, the People’s Graphic Workshop, have been a great influence in San Francisco, according to local printmaker Juan Fuentes, former director of Mission Gráfica, a collective located in the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts.
“He has influenced so many artists in the Chicano movement,” Fuentes said. “His approach and his imagery was always so right on target in terms of what was going on politically in Mexico. I strive to have the kind of impact that Méndez had.”
The Méndez collective became a model in Mexico and globally. The TGP, as the Taller de Gráfica Popular was generally known, became “a great inspiration,” Fuentes said, noting that Méndez and his collaborators “were doing politically influenced art long before we came around, and they set an example for artists taking on social issues.”
Now that the Guild’s small collection of work by Méndez has been authenticated and newly restored (with help from Zukor), the union is planning a formal unveiling and celebration of the artist.
The event is open to the public. It will take place on Tuesday, July 8, at the Mexican Museum (note this new location) in Fort Mason, Building D, as part of San Francisco’s annual month-long Labor Fest. The program includes a reception and art showing at 6 pm. At 7 pm panelists will speak about the artist and his genre, the background on its journey to this union, and its restoration. The program will end promptly at 8 pm.
Among the invited guests will be Guild members, other union activists, art historians and Bay Area artist-activists who are keeping Méndez’s cultural legacy alive. Students in the Guild’s summer program for labor reporting, Bay News Rising, will participate. For more information, see mediaworkers.org or call (415) 421-6833.
Alexandra Early is a member of Guild freelancers.