Who Was This Man-and Why Did He Paint Such Terrible Things About Us?


Rivera’s choice of Miss Wills to represent California’s beauty was criticized by some, but, by and large, his clients were delighted-so much so that local leftists accused Rivera of having sold out to the millionaires. Where was California labor martyr Tom Mooney, they asked. Rivera replied that he believed a mural “true” only if it harmonized with the room for which it was created and “I cannot believe that the place for an image of Tom Mooney, victim of a bourgeois frame-up … is an exclusive restaurant dedicated to the sole use of its stockbroker members.”


For Rivera, California was “the ideal intermediate step between Mexico and the United States,” but it was Manhattan, the towered citadel of capitalism, that drew him most powerfully. And when an invitation arrived from Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., inviting him to mount a large one-man show at New York’s newly established Museum of Modern Art in the winter of 1931-32, Rivera eagerly accepted. As the New York Times pointed out, there was ”… an element of the bizarre” in Mrs. Rockefeller’s hospitality; Rivera had already savagely caricatured her father-in-law in a well-known Mexico City mural. But neither she nor Rivera seemed troubled by the fact.

A shipboard reporter described the artist’s first glimpse of the New York skyline. “It was seven o’clock in the morning as the ship rode up the bay. Mr. Rivera studied the fog, the red sun rising over Brooklyn, the lights in the Manhattan towers, the shadows; he pointed to the tugboats, to the ferries, to a gang of riveters at work on the extension of a dock; he waved his great arms and declared: ‘Here it is-the might, the power, the energy, the sadness, the youthfulness of our lands … for whether the architects know it or not, they were … inspired by the same feeling which prompted the ancient people of Yucatan in the building of their temples.”

His New York show included some 150 works-mostly easel paintings, sketches, and drawings. There were only seven frescoes, portable and hastily painted for the exhibition. Three of these were New York scenes: workers drilling the foundation for Rockefeller Center, welders laboring inside a vast gray-and-blue boiler, and a third panel entitled Frozen Assets (right).

It was this last fresco, a strange, cold cross section of Manhattan, that made some critics uneasy-and helped make the show a public sensation. Rivera himself described it best: “At the top loomed skyscrapers like mausoleums reaching up into the cold night. Underneath them were people going home, miserably crushed together in the subway trains. In the center was a wharf used by homeless unemployed as their dormitory with a muscular cop standing guard. In the lower part of the panel I showed another side of this society: a steel-grilled safety deposit vault in which a lady was depositing her jewels while other persons waited their turn to enter the sanctum.”

It was not a cheery picture, especially, as Rivera’s friend and biographer Bertram Wolfe recalled, because “this was the beginning of the third and worst year of the great depression and Americans were very touchy about it. It was distinctly impolite … for an invited guest to have noted it, or to have snapped the host when he was not ‘dressed for a picture.’ There were obscure, disquieting hints in this work of what [Rivera] might paint when he got to know America better.”



Rivera’s next target was Detroit, and here the ironies of his situation compounded themselves. In March, 1932, the nearby Ford Motor Company town of Dearborn exploded in labor violence: police opened fire on marchers demonstrating for jobs, killing four and wounding scores more-many of whom were then arrested and manacled to their hospital beds. Just a few weeks later, Ford president Edsel Ford gave $25,000 to the Detroit Institute of Arts, urging that Rivera be hired to paint twenty-seven murals on the walls of its Italianate garden court. Not to be outdone, General Motors promptly asked that Rivera also paint a “machinery and industry” mural for the GM pavilion at the imminent Chicago World’s Fair. (The offer was later rescinded.)

Rivera accepted both invitations: it seemed that in spite of all that he had done to prove his hatred for capitalism, the capitalists could not get enough of him. He had become fashionable almost in spite of himself. He spent three months sketching in factories and mills, and six more painting the Art Institute murals. Critic Edmund Wilson, who followed Rivera’s paradoxical career in America with amused interest, described them like this: