Luis Arenal Bastar was an important Mexican painter, engraver, and sculptor and one of the most politically active printmakers in twentieth century Mexico.
Arenal had an interesting educational history: While he was still an adolescent, he studied mechanical engineering for two years before emigrating in 1924 to Los Angeles. In LA he studied architecture for two years, supporting himself by washing gasoline cans. Upon his return to Mexico, he worked as a translator in an advertising office and studied both law and sculpture from 1927 to 1928 at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas. And in 1929, he returned to the U.S. to study in California.
It was in California that Arenal began his art career in earnest, painting murals and showing his work in Laguna Beach, Los Angeles, Redlands, and San Bernardino. He had his first solo show at the Plaza Art Center Gallery on historic Olvera Street in LA.
This time and place was particularly important for Arenal because it marked his meeting David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of “Los Tres Grandes” (The Three Greats) of Mexican muralism (the other two being Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco). Arenal—along with Thomas Montague Beggs (the head of the art department at Pomona College), Jackson Pollock, Lee Everett Blair, Philip Guston, Millard Sheets, and a dozen others, assisted Siqueiros with his first Los Angeles mural, Street Meeting, a large fresco executed on an exterior wall at the Chouinard Art School, and with a mural at the Plaza Art Center. These artists, “[e]nthusiastic over the classical method of painting watercolor into wet lime plaster” wrote the Times, dubbed themselves the “Fresco Block,” though Siqueiros later renamed it the “Block (or Bloc) of Mural Painters”. Arenal would continue to collaborate with Siqueiros until Siqueiros died in 1974.
Later, after Siqueiros returned to Mexico, the Block of Mural Painters assisted in a campaign organized by the Hollywood John Reed Club on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black adolescents who were tried in Alabama in 1932 on charges of raping two white women—one of the most notorious injustices in American history.
Arenal’s political activism, which fully emerged upon his return to Mexico from California in 1933, was central to both his identity and his art. Not coincidentally, Arenal’s father had died fighting in the Mexican Revolution. Soon after returning to Mexico, Arenal became the General Secretary of a group called the Mexican League Against War and Fascism. One of his most important professional associations began the following year, when he co-founded the Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (“LEAR”)—which would go on to become a highly influential arts organization. The year after that he co-founded the group’s magazine, Frente a Frente, as a tool to advocate against war and fascism and to support communism. He was a delegate for LEAR to the first Congress of American Artists in New York in 1936; he then stayed in New York for a year, working on a commission he was awarded to paint murals to decorate the then-newly-constructed Bellevue Hospital. Upon his return to Mexico in 1937 he c0-founded the Taller de Gráfica Popular (Workshop of Popular Graphic Art, or “TGP”). TGP may be the best example of the symbiosis between prints and politics that had developed in Mexico. Its founders (including Arenal) were committed communists who abandoned mural painting to concentrate on printmaking, demonstrating how important prints had become as a vehicle for artistic, social, and political expression.
In 1940, Arenal joined Sequeiros and Antonio Pujol in the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Leon Trotsky at Diego Rivera’s home in Coyoacán. Trotsky had arrived in Mexico in 1937, much to the horror of the communists there who regarded him as a pro-fascist provocateur. (Rivera, on the other hand, was a supporter of Trotsky.) Beyond causing major ruptures within the TGP, the failed assassination attempt forced Arenal to flee to the United States and then led to his traveling around South American from 1940 through 1943, after which he returned to Mexico City.
In 1944, Arenal accepted the position of Director of Sculpture at the Centro de Arte Realista Moderno, Mexico City.
In 1947, the TGP published a portfolio entitled Prints of the Mexican Revolution: 85 engravings from the artist of the TGP [Las Estampas de la Revolucion Mexicana, 85 Grabados de los Artistas del Taller de Grafica Popular, editado por la Estampa Mexicana], which contained works by Arenal, Ignacio Aguirre, Angel Bracho, Mariana Yampolsky, Alfredo Zalce, and other important TMP artists. In 1949 he founded a magazine called 1945-1946, acting as the head of writing and graphic design. He was a founding member of the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana. In 1955, he was one of the founders of the Instituto Regional de Bellas Artes in Acapulco. In 1977, he was named the director of the Siqueiros Workshop in Cuernavaca.
Arenal’s last major work was the Cabeza de Juárez monument (thirteen meters high and nearly three tons) in Iztapalapa, which he worked on from 1972 to 1976. It is now a museum.
Arenal was married to Macrina Rabadan, a feminist who became the first female member of parliament in Mexico.
Arenal’s art is found in important museums world-wide. His importance in art history was recognized by his inclusion in the 1980 history American Prints and Printmakers by influential scholar Una E. Johnson.