Art of the 20th Century

 




Art Styles in 20th century Art Map



 





Diego Rivera






Seif-Portrait



 

 


 

CONTENTS

An Artist is Born

Apprentice Years in Europe

The Mural - a Post-Revolutionary Ideal

Communist Ideology for Capitalist Clients

From Recognition to Renown

Dream of Peace and Unity: the Last Journey

Appendix:
collection "Frida" - Frida Kahlo

 

 

 

 


1930
 

Communist Ideology for Capitalist Clients

The Mexican mural movement stimulated the integration of literary, artistic and intellectual forces in post-revolutionary Mexico and made a major contribution to the formation of a cultural Mecca which attracted many artists from the United States, Europe and other Latin American countries. In the United States the works of the "three great Mexican muralists", Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera, were well-known from the 1920s, after the publication of numerous articles and a large influx of cultural tourists to Mexico to watch the artists at work. After many commissions for easel works had been received, especially by Rivera from American collectors, the latter was also commissioned to paint murals for American city authorities.

Rivera had received repeated invitations from his friend Ralph Stackpole to work in San Francisco. The Californian sculptor had become acquainted with Rivera in Paris, and the friendship deepened in 1926 when Stackpole visited Mexico. He greatly admired Rivera's work at the Ministry of Education and at Chapingo, and had bought some of his paintings and taken them home. One of these came as a gift into the possession of William Gerstle, the president of the San Francisco Art Commission. The art connoisseur was very keen for Rivera to paint a wall in the California School of Fine Arts, and Rivera was glad to accept the commission. When in 1929, together with other artists, he was commissioned to decorate the new San Francisco Pacific Stock Exchange building, Stackpole arranged for a wall to be reserved for the famous Mexican muralist.
 


1932
 


 

 


Flower Festival
1925
Los Angeles County Museum of Art


 


Las Ilusiones

 

Rivera's decision to make an extended stay in the United States was not only a response to American demand. The situation had progressively worsened for muralists during President Calles' term of office (1924-1928), most of them receiving no further commissions. The following years too were marked by repression of dissenting political voices. In 1929 the Communist Party was banned and many Communists, including Siqueiros, were imprisoned. The result was a cultural wave of emigration of many progressive artists and intellectuals to the United States, where many were offered alternative opportunities for work.

At first Rivera was refused entry into the United States because of his Communist opinions. This is scarcely surprising: although he had ceased to be a member of the Communist Party in 1929, as general secretary of the Anti-imperialistic League of American Countries he had severely condemned President Herbert Hoover, visiting Mexico in late 1928, for his Nicaraguan policy. He finally obtained a visa through the support of his friend the insurance agent and art collector Albert M. Bender, who had bought Rivera's work on previous visits to Mexico, and who had contacts with influential figures. From this time Rivera was criticized in the United States for accepting contracts from American institutions, not only by the media, from which he attracted anti-Communist comment, but also by envious fellow-artists in San Francisco. The fact that the Mexican was offered projects from which they were barred became more conspicuously evident than ever when at the end of 1930 he was allowed to exhibit the considerable number of 120 works at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. Only after he had finished the commissioned murals, which were enthusiastically received not only by the public at large but also by the press, and after Rivera had made public appearances with his artist wife, was there a general critical change of opinion.

From December 1930 to February 1931 Rivera painted the mural Allegory of California for the Luncheon Club of the San Francisco Pacific Stock Exchange.
Together with his work in the Stock Exchange building it was unveiled in March. After a holiday on the property of the Stern family in Atherton, California, where he painted a small-size fresco in his hosts' dining room, in April-June 1931 he completed The Making of a Fresco for the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute.
 


Allegory of California
1930-1931


 


The Making of a Fresco
1931


As soon as he had finished these works, Rivera was obliged to return to Mexico to meet the president's request for him to finish his abandoned work in the National Palace. Soon after his return he received an offer of a large-scale exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Following the Henri Matisse retrospective, it was only the second one-man exhibition organized by the Museum, which had been founded in 1929, and there was no further exhibition of comparable scope and importance in the United States until the exhibition in commemoration of Rivera's birth in 1986. After the main wall of the stairway of the National Palace had been completed, the rest of the work in the Palace was now interrupted once again; with Frida Kahlo and the well-known art dealer Frances Flynn Paine, Rivera sailed for New York on board the steamer Morro Castle. As a member of the powerful Mexican Arts Association, which was financed by the Rockefeller family, Paine had made the offer of the retrospective to Rivera in Mexico. The latter used the voyage to complete various easel paintings after studies in his sketchbook, predominantly variations on details of his frescoes at the Ministry of Education. In the month remaining between his arrival in New York and the private view, Rivera worked as if possessed on eight portable frescoes, of which five were also versions of scenes from his Mexican murals, the other three expressing his first impressions of New York in the Depression years. When the retrospective opened on 23 December, 150 works had been assembled. The overwhelmingly favourable press reviews brought 57,000 visitors to the exhibition - a considerable figure for the time.

Through the popular American world tennis champion Helen Wills Moody, who was also an art connoisseur, portrayed in the central female
figure of the mural Allegory of California in San Francisco, Rivera met the leading representatives of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Dr Edgar P. Richardson and Dr William R. Valentiner. The two directors of the museum offered him an exhibition of paintings and drawings in February/March 1931 and proposed to the Institute's governing body, the Arts Commission of the City of Detroit, that Rivera should be commissioned to paint a mural in the museum's Garden Court. The muralist, as Richardson enthusiastically put it, had "perfected a powerful narrative style", which made him "the only living artist who can adequately represent the world we live in". Richardson found it interesting that "while most painting of the present day is abstract and introspective, an artist like Diego Rivera emerges, whose powerful and dramatic art can give incomparable narrative form to any subject he likes. He is a great painter and his subject-matter demands greatness."

Thanks to the support of Edsel B. Ford, chairman of the City Arts Commission, Rivera was able to start work on preparations for the murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts in January 1932, immediately after the New York exhibition had ended. With Frida Kahlo he booked into a hotel situated opposite the museum. Edsel B. Ford, son of Henry Ford and first president of the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, had a budget of 10,000 dollars for the frescoes. The Institute's plan for only two wall surfaces of the inner courtyard to be painted, so as to ensure what was felt to be the appropriate artist's fee of 100 dollars per square metre painted, was rejected by Rivera when he inspected the site. He was so inspired by the spacious wall surfaces that he agreed without further ado to paint all four of them for the same total fee. For he saw that the subject-matter prescribed by the Commission would allow him to realize his dream - the creation of an epic of industry and the machine.

In the United States the fresco series Detroit Industry is today considered one of the century's outstanding achievements in monumental art. The frescoes are a synthesis of the artist's impressions during his studies of the Ford family's industrial plant, and especially of what he saw at the River Rouge complex. A few months previously, the first new Ford Model V-8 had come off the production lines, and Rivera depicted its production in these murals. At the Ford works he became acquainted with the routines of factory work and the grave problems that had been caused by the anti-union policies of the period, and observed the miserable condition of the poorer classes that had been brought about by the world economic crisis. Before the scaffolding had even been erected in the courtyard of the museum the artist was designing the composition of the murals in preparatory sketches, from which he then progressed to drawings which were accepted by the Commission. "I've had to do a lot of preparatory work," Rivera wrote at the time to his friend Bertram D. Wolfe, "which has consisted mostly of observation. There will be 27 frescoes, which together will form a plastic and thematic unity. I am hoping that this series will be the most complete of my works; I feel the same excitement towards the industrial material of this place as I did towards rural material when I went back to Mexico ten years ago."
 


1933
 

 

The mural series on the four walls around the courtyard incorporates an iconography of the points of the compass, and where the walls mark off the limits of the cosmos, space is extended by the mural paintings. Together with the decoration of the Chapingo Chapel, this is the only opportunity that Rivera had to design a set of frescoes of comparable completeness to that of the Renaissance spatial designs of the Arena or Sistine Chapels; all his other murals are on separate walls or aligned groups of walls. He began work in July 1932 on the east wall opposite the main entrance. These murals represent the origins of human life and of technology. The infant depicted is often seen as the son of Diego and Frida lost in a miscarriage while they were in Detroit, and here immortalized as a symbol of the cycle of nature. On the west wall, through which the inner courtyard is reached, the new technologies of air and water are depicted. In the most advanced technical achievement of the time, the aeroplane, man's triumph over nature is represented. On the one hand peaceful use of technology is shown in the manufacture of a passenger aircraft in process in the aeronautical department of the Ford company, on the other its misuse in a warplane. Rivera not only pursues the theme of duality in the grisaille central area of the wall, where the coexistence of nature and technology, life and death is symbolized, illuminated by the star of human hope and striving, but makes it the main theme of this entire series.


Detroit Industry or Man and Machine
1932-1933


 


Detroit Industry or Man and Machine
1932-1933


 


Detroit Industry or Man and Machine
1932-1933

North Wall


 


Detroit Industry or Man and Machine
1932-1933

South Wall


On each of the north and south walls two androgynous guardian figures sit enthroned above the achievements and also the misuse of industry, pharmacy, medicine and science in Detroit. They represent the four races that make up the workforce of North America, and hold the mineral resources of coal, iron, chalk and sand in their hands - the four basic ingredients in production of the steel needed for automobile manufacture. In the main areas of each of the north and south walls the different stages in production of the Ford Model V-8 car are shown: motor manufacture on the one wall and the bodywork assembly line on the other. For the figures of the workers in the foreground on the north wall Rivera used portraits of his assistants and of Ford workers.



Aztec Coatlicue figure, c. 1487-1521
 

In the murals of these two walls Rivera once again draws on various artistic models. The compression of space, the representation of simultaneous events, the breaking up of forms into basic geometric elements, are clearly derived from the compositional method of Cubism. The massive creations of pre-Columbian sculpture served as models for the gigantic machinery. The whole composition of these murals, the subdivision of each wall into main and subsidiary fields, the inclusion of portraits of donor figures, the depiction of the vaccination of a child in the manner of a Christian motif - all this refers back to Italian fifteenth- and sixteenth-century painting; the relief-like, monochrome, grisaille frieze running along the bottom of each main wall area is reminiscent of tympanum sculpture in medieval churches. Overall, Rivera creates a new aesthetic for the steel age.

While Rivera was still working on Detroit Industry, he was commissioned to paint a mural in the main corridor of the lobby of the as yet unfinished RCA building, known as the Rockefeller Center, in New York, and in 1933, continuing the leading theme of the Detroit frescoes, he painted Man at the Crossroads, "Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future", as the commissioning committee worded the theme. The Mexican artist's murals had already provoked controversy in the United States; now in New York the political position he expressed in the new fresco was to cause a major confrontation.


Overall design for the mural begun in the RCA Building,
New York and destroyed before completion
Man at the Crossroads, Looking with Hope and High Vision
to the Choosing of a New and Better Future,
1932.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.


In Detroit critics had claimed to find blasphemous, pornographic and Communist elements in his work, and held it against him that he had admitted the raw world of industry into the sublime world of culture. The safety of his work had been in question, and physical attacks on it had been threatened, until eventually Edsel B. Ford had made a public statement in support of Rivera. This was not to happen in New York when a showdown occurred over the mural at the Rockefeller Center, in which Rivera expressed his views on the evils of capitalism and the positive aspects of socialism. Only the previous month, April 1933, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, wife of John D. Rockefeller, viewing the work while it was being painted, had praised Rivera's depiction of the Moscow May Day celebrations and bought the sketchbook containing preparatory drawings for it. However, a portrait of Lenin with other Communist ideologues now suddenly appeared in the mural as representatives of the new society; it had not been shown in the preparatory drawing approved by the commissioning committee. This drew bitter reactions from the conservative press and contrasting expressions of support for the artist from the progressive organizations of New York. The brothers Nelson and John D. Rockefeller, as the client's representatives, got in touch with the artist. Rivera refused their request to paint out the portrait.

The unfinished mural was covered early in May; the artist was paid off and released from his obligation. So ended the capitalist world's patronage of the Mexican, and he returned in disappointment to his home country.

In February 1934 the mural was wholly destroyed, but in the same year Rivera received the opportunity to paint an almost identical version of the planned New York mural, entitled Man, Controller of the Universe, in the Palace of Fine Arts (Palacio de Bellas Artes) in Mexico City, the first in a series of works by the leading figures of the "Renaissance of Mexican mural painting" commissioned by the Mexican government.

In the course of his four-year sojourn in the north, Rivera had become one of the most famous artists in the United States, as celebrated by the intellectual left and the artistic community as he was despised by the conservatives and industrialists. The destruction of his mural was the destruction of the illusion that he had found in the United States a country of clients who would allow him to make free artistic use of his political views.
 


Man, Controller of the Universe or Man in theTime Machine
1934
Palacio de Bella Artes, Mexico City


 


Man, Controller of the Universe or Man in theTime Machine (detail)
1934
Palacio de Bella Artes, Mexico City


 


Man, Controller of the Universe or Man in theTime Machine (detail)
1934
Palacio de Bella Artes, Mexico City


 


Man, Controller of the Universe or Man in theTime Machine (detail)
1934
Palacio de Bella Artes, Mexico City


 


Man, Controller of the Universe or Man in theTime Machine (detail)
1934
Palacio de Bella Artes, Mexico City


 


Man, Controller of the Universe or Man in theTime Machine (detail)
Lenin and Trotsky

1934
Palacio de Bella Artes, Mexico City

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