In 1931, Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist, accepted a commission to make frescoes for the Detroit Institute of Art. It seems at first glance to have been an unlikely commission. He was a communist, and the funding for this project was provided by the Ford motor company, Capitalist, big C.
We were walking down Madison Avenue in NYC, my mom and I, looking in art gallery windows here and there. I was maybe twelve. It would have been the mid-1950. In one window, there was a detail print of a mural. I can’t remember whether it was from a work by Larry Rivers or Diego Rivera. My mother was intensely interested in modern art. She thought I should be interested in it, too. She had had just enough luck in her efforts to fan my interest to launch into a lesson on murals. My mother wasn’t impressed with Rivers’ one mural effort by that time, George Washington Crossing the Delaware. She said she did rather enjoy Rivera's murals. I don't remember why because she was critical of their conscious appeal to “popular sensibilities" and thought they were too political. In her mind, art should be neither popular or political, a view held by many Americans who wanted to cast their lots with intellectuals. This shunning of the popular and the political in art has left a legacy that is still with us, I would say unfortunately.
So Rivera's mural in Rockefeller Center fit into this lesson. In 1933 when Rivera hadn't quite finished it, Nelson Rockefeller, the benefactor of the mural, got wind of the fact that Lenin had a prominent place in it and ordered work stopped and essentially fired Rivera. The mural sat behind cloth sheets for awhile, and some seven months later, Rockefeller ordered it destroyed. And it was.
My mother thought it was an example of the problems of mixing art and politics. She managed to plant a seed of interest in my mind with this story, but not because I agreed with her. politics in art did interest me much more than what seemed to me the hyper-intellectualism of art critics and my mother.
The seed lay almost dormant for years and years although I recognized some of his work decorating posters and doctors offices and the like. Even after my then- husband and I visited Rivera's hometown of Guanajuato in the 1990s visit, he remained no more than a small part of the clutter in my brain.
My interest in Rivera burst into full bloom quite unexpectedly. I was reading the NY Times online one morning not long ago a (it becomes a way to avoid more serious projects) and came upon a story about Detroit's bankruptcy which told of the possibility that the bankruptcy might make it necessary for the Detroit Art Institute to sell its collection to pay city workers’ pensions. Among the top four or five works most likely to bring in large sums was Rivera’s mural called Detroit Industry. Huh? Who knew he’d done a mural in Detroit of all places? I poked around a little and found a number of sites with photos of the mural. They were incredible. For the first time in my life I wanted to go to Detroit, if only to see this mural.
I started to read, first about Rivera, then about Detroit at the time of the creation of the mural, then about Mexico at that time and earlier, and about Henry and Edsel Ford and about actual conditions at Ford plants, about the effects of the Depression, about other actors in the story of the Detroit murals: Henry and Edsel Ford, Valentiner, Frida Kahlo, and other Mexican muralists and on and on. How could I stop? It’s a growing tapestry I'm not ready to disentangle myself from.
At first, when I thought of Rivera, I imagines him as short, fat, and homely. I knew considerably more about Frida Kahlo, as many USAers do. I wasn’t alone wondering how Kahlo could find Rivera attractive, which indeed she did.
I fit what I saw into these preconceptions.You can see both Rivera and Kahlo in this mural Diego painted called ”Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park”.
I didn’t realize that Diego had pictured himself as a boy in this central panel (he is standing in front of Kahlo and next to a calavera). I know, I know. How many men would wear striped socks? Preconceived notions, etc.
As I started rummaging through material I found that Rivera was indeed an attractive man for all that people (including him) described him as having odd and ugly-sounding features. But he wasn't short at all. In fact, he was quite tall, over six feet. And though at his heaviest, he was just plain fat, his height balanced his weight somewhat so that in no way did he appear like the very round dwarf I'd imagined.
In the photo at left, you can get some idea of his size. In the next posts on Rivera, I’ll show you some photos and paintings of Diego and some quotes from him and others so you can perhaps build up an idea of what he was like.