This work has been requested on loan by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for the forthcoming exhibition, Rivera's America, scheduled for the fall of 2020.
Rivera in America
In an essay published in the catalogue to Diego Rivera’s 1949 retrospective in Mexico City—commemorating a career that had already covered half a century—the US critic and artist Walter Pach recalled an interview that had taken place in 1942. Rivera had asked him: “Don’t you think that what really matters is a Declaration of American Independence in art?” By “independence,” of course, Rivera meant freedom from the artistic dominance of Europe, and particularly of Paris, which implied that nations across the Americas were dependent or derivative outposts. Pach underscored Rivera’s broad, continental use of the term “American,” noting the painter’s important connections to the United States. “For him,” Pach continued, “any attempt to divide American art according to political borders was inherently false, and even absurd.” Pach believed that differences in language and colonial history between the United States and Mexico—and other Latin American countries by extension—mattered less than the fact that they shared what he called the “American earth, with its character, traditions, and the artistic remains of its ancient inhabitants.”
The pan-American and pro-American vision that Rivera expressed in 1942, as war raged in Europe, was already evident in the last mural he painted in the United States, Pan-American Unity (The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and the South of the Continent), commissioned for the Golden Gate International Exposition, held in San Francisco in 1939-40. That utopian project marked the culmination not only of Rivera’s own work in the United States (San Francisco in 1930-31; Detroit in 1932-33; New York in 1933-34), but of a series of murals painted by José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros on both coasts over that same decade, ranging in scope from Siqueiros’s now-faded Tropical America in Los Angeles (1932) to Orozco’s condemnation of wartime destruction, Dive Bomber and Tank (1940), painted for New York’s Museum of Modern Art. These works—sponsored by the Ford and Rockefeller families, but also by civic boosters and educational leaders—helped stimulate new interest in mural painting in the United States. In May 1933, just two months after Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office, painter George Biddle wrote him a letter, alerting the new president to the fact that “Mexican artists have produced the greatest national school of mural painting since the Italian Renaissance.” He urged FDR to sponsor a similar program in the US, which would allow young artists to create “living monuments [to] the social ideas that you are struggling to achieve.” The successful result was a series of generous federal programs that commissioned murals—some by painters who had worked as assistants to the Mexicans, such as Ben Shahn, Philip Guston, and Lucienne Bloch—in public buildings across the United States over the next decade.
Those monumental works, however, represent only the tip of an artistic iceberg—though the chilly metaphor seems somewhat ill-placed. For reasons that relate to geographic proximity, but also to a shared political and economic history, Mexican art was everywhere in the US in the 1920s and 1930s, and not just works by the three most famous muralists, Frida Kahlo, Rufino Tamayo, and Miguel Covarrubias are among many who lived and worked there in the same period. Museum exhibitions of Mexico’s ancient, colonial, and modern art crossed the country; hundreds of books and articles were published, intended for scholarly and popular audiences alike; leading commercial art dealers—from Alfred Stendahl in Los Angeles to Erhard Weyhe and Pierre Matisse in New York—presented Mexican work in their galleries; and collectors—not just wealthy patrons like Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Stephen C. Clark, but songwriter Cole Porter, actors Edward G. Robinson and Paulette Goddard, and photographer Carl Van Vechten—snapped up key paintings, sometimes from the easel before they were even dry.
Meanwhile, artists across the United States were captivated by what became known as the Mexican “Renaissance” in the decades after the Revolution of 1910-20. For some it was a chance to experience political and social transformations; for others it was a welcome respite from urban life in the machine age, even an extension of the indigenous and “Hispanic” cultures they had already experienced in arts centers in the US Southwest, like Taos and Santa Fe. They traveled to Mexico by train or boat, some for short trips, others for extended stays, though their interests were varied. Edward Weston and Anni Albers were entranced by Mexico’s folk art; Marsden Hartley and Paul Strand were inspired by the intensity of Mexico’s cosmic and religious forces; Isamu Noguchi and Elizabeth Catlett were caught up in the radicalized political environment that had sought to empower Mexico’s peasants and workers. In the mid-1930s, Jackson Pollock, then a young student but soon to become the most famous US artist of the postwar period, absorbed the maelstroms of Orozco and the technical innovations of Siqueiros, as well as the scale of muralism itself, even though he never traveled south of the border.
This period of dynamic cultural and intellectual exchange (and not just in painting) irrevocably shaped the history of art in both countries. Indeed, it is impossible to understand the ascendance of the so-called New York School in the late 1940s without taking into account not only Pollock’s fascination with the muralists, but the impact of more abstract artists like the Austrian exile Wolfgang Paalen, the Chilean-born painter Roberto Matta, and the US artist Robert Motherwell, who generated and expanded theories about Surrealism while living in Mexico during the Second World War. Diego Rivera’s 1942 comment that “America” (or at least New York) was about to declare its artistic independence from Europe was prescient. But so was his acknowledgement that as far as the history of art was concerned, trying to separate Mexico from the United States because of differences in language or government was futile, and “even absurd.”
James Oles, Senior Lecturer, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts
1 Walter Pach, “Relaciones entre la cultura norteamericana y la obra de Diego Rivera,” in Diego Rivera: 50 años de su labor artística (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, 1951), p. 207.
2 Pach, p. 209.
3 Karal Ann Marling, Wall-to-Wall America: A Cultural History of Post-Office Murals in the Great Depression (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), p. 31.
4 See James Oles, South of the Border: Mexico in the American Imagination, 1914-1947 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993) and Lizetta Lefalle-Collins, et al., In the Spirit of Resistance: African-American Modernists and the Mexican Mural School (New York: American Federation of Arts, 1996), among other sources.
The Rivals by Rivera
From 1931 onwards, Diego Rivera achieved unprecedented success in the United States extending from the East to the West coasts. The artist had received mural commissions in San Francisco, and later in Detroit, New York, and Chicago. However, his crowning achievement came in 1931 when he was honored with a one-person exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, second only to Henri Matisse, who had been the subject of a retrospective earlier that same year.
Rivera’s growing prestige was not only the result of the critical acclaim received for his true fresco murals in some of the most well-known public buildings in Mexico City, such as the National Palace of Fine Arts and the Ministry of Education, but also due to his participation in the Paris avant-garde circles as a distinguished cubist and follower of Cézanne, a friend to Pablo Picasso and paladin member of the Galerie L’Effort Moderne, championed by art marchand Léonce Rosenberg. As such, Rivera was not only the foremost painter of the post-Revolution Mexican Mural Movement, but also, his work reflected universal dialogues with the history of art, from Antiquity and the Italian Renaissance—as seen by Alfred Barr—to the School of Paris.
In June 1931, while in Mexico, Rivera was visited by arts promoter, Frances Flynn Paine, to discuss the preparations for his New York exhibition. Flynn Paine, was acting in representation of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the resolute arts patron, and founder and promoter of MoMA’s programs, and who, since 1930, had been planning with Alfred Barr an exhibition of the artist’s work at The Museum of Modern Art. It was also Flynn Paine, who was charged with the task of ensuring that several important works by Rivera entered Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s personal collection, including this magnificent painting rarely on public view since 1937. Abby, who was married to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., first visited Mexico in the early 1900s, during the Belle Epoque era of Porfirio Díaz and became fascinated with Mexican culture; as such it was not unusual that years later, she would acquire one of Rivera’s most emblematic works of the 1930s. The monumental oil painting, The Rivals, was completed in a makeshift studio aboard the Morro Castle—the ship that in November 1931 transported Rivera and Frida Kahlo to New York.
Painted for Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the work remained in her collection until the early 1940s when it was then given to her son David Rockefeller. In this painting, Rivera applies his unparalleled skills as a painter and colorist no doubt to impress Mrs. Rockefeller, the principal supporter of his MoMA retrospective. The scene, inspired by ‘Las Velas’ Mexican fiesta, depicts an annual tradition indigenous to the Isthmus region of Oaxaca for which women wear embroidered huipiles or blouses, attractive gold jewelry and their hair pulled into moños (buns) and, enaguas or skirts in bright colors. The feast has indigenous roots, and is celebrated during the month of May in honor of family patron saints, amidst exotic palm trees, and papel picado or delicately cut multicolor sheets of tissue paper strung from the roofs to enliven the festivities.
Yet the theme, so profoundly Mexican, is not necessarily the painting’s most captivating feature, but rather the modern use of multiple planes coupled with the artist’s chromatic sensibility which Rivera makes full use of to resolve the painting. The vibrant tones and the sinuousness of certain compositional elements echo the decorative and sensual qualities found in Henri Matisse’s paintings of the 1930s. For Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, whose incredible largesse as an arts patron extended to Matisse, also the subject of a recent MoMA retrospective, the aesthetic affinities between the two international modern painters must have seemed undeniable.
Prof. Luis-Martín Lozano, art historian
Rivera at Rockefeller Center
Within the long history of Rockefeller collecting and patronage, the story of the family’s association with Diego Rivera is among the most intriguing. Amid the myriad works of art adorning the iconic Rockefeller Center, Rivera’s controversial mural Man at the Crossroads—destroyed in 1933 before it was completed—remains a fascinating piece of history.
Artists's agent Frances Flynn Paine first introduced Diego Rivera’s work to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in the 1920s. Museum of Modern Art Director Alfred Barr, who had lived with Rivera for a short time in Moscow, was equally enthusiastic about the painter’s artistic promise. Abby was encyclopedic in her taste for fine art, yet “none of her affinities was as incongruous,” noted historian Cary Reich, “as her patronage of… Diego Rivera.” Decidedly left-wing and a member of the Mexican Communist party, Rivera held political leanings seemingly at odds with the Rockefellers’s own capitalist affiliations. Both Abby and her son Nelson, however, were taken by the artist’s Modernist sensibilities and growing international acclaim. For her private collection, Abby purchased a number of Rivera’s oil paintings, sketches, and even a book of watercolors commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. When Barr proposed staging an exhibition of Rivera’s work at MoMA in 1931, Abby and Nelson enthusiastically approved. With the money from Abby’s purchases, the artist and his third wife, Frida Kahlo, traveled to New York, where Rivera was hailed as “the foremost living master of fresco painting.”
The teenage David Rockefeller met both Rivera and Kahlo when the artists visited his family’s Manhattan residence. “He was a very imposing and charismatic figure,” David recalled of Rivera, “quite tall and weighing three hundred pounds. He spoke very little English but perfect French in addition to Spanish.” As David’s father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., endeavored to finish construction on the new Rockefeller Center complex in Midtown Manhattan, Abby and Nelson approached living artists—including Rivera, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse—to complete a mural for the lobby of the RCA Building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
In 1932, Rivera completed an initial sketch for a grand lobby fresco depicting human cooperation and scientific development. In a letter accompanying the sketch, the artist wrote to Abby: “I assure you that… I shall try to do for Rockefeller Center and especially for you Madame, the best of all the work I have done up to this time.” Rivera won the commission, and in early 1933 began work on a vibrantly-colored mural that stood in stark contrast to the otherwise subdued color palette favored by Rockefeller Center architect Raymond Hood. As Rivera spent grueling fourteen-hour days on the piece, enthusiastic patrons such as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney joined Abby and Nelson on the artist’s scaffolding to view his progress.
Rivera’s mural, Man at the Crossroads, differed substantially from the original approved sketch. Among the work’s new artistic elements were explicitly Marxist images of capitalist-fueled war, oppression, and the wealthy leisure classes. Standing at the ‘crossroads’ referenced in the work’s title were not only the peace and progress of science and technology, but Vladimir Lenin himself. As a MoMA trustee, Nelson was no stranger to the bold thinking of Modern artists; yet he was unhappy that Rivera had strayed so far from the work his family had been promised. “It was quite brilliantly executed,” David later wrote of the mural, “but not appropriate for the lobby of the RCA Building.” As Man at the Crossroads began to attract negative media attention, Nelson and even Kahlo unsuccessfully implored Rivera to remove Lenin from the work at the very least. In a momentous decision for both Rivera’s oeuvre and Rockefeller Center, the mercurial painter demanded the mural’s wholesale destruction. MoMA conservators were ultimately unable to both remove and preserve Man at the Crossroads, and Rivera was dismissed after being paid in full.
In 1934, Rivera recreated Man at the Crossroads at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes, with the peace-bearing Lenin now joined in the final composition by a martini-sipping John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Abby later gifted a number of Rivera's works, including the initial sketch for the mural, to the permanent collection at MoMA. The “interesting subplot” of Rivera at Rockefeller Center, as David referred to it, did include a silver lining: Nelson eventually made peace with the artist, and visited Rivera in Mexico years later.