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


“Ford workers [left] as pinched and pallid worms are seen enmeshed in the metallic entrails of conveyors; between ranks of pale sexless virgins excising the glands of animals, a bone-spectacled drug-manufacturer studies the pharmacopoeia, with one hand on a system of push-buttons and the other on an adding-machine which surmounts a church-windowed radio. Creatures like infernal pigs with jointed mosquito proboscides brew poison-gas and manufacture projectiles; a Holy Family [below left] consisting of a medical Joseph, a white-halo-capped nurse-Virgin and a dough-faced Infant Jesus whom Joseph is vaccinating, rise above the manger animals, the horse, the cow, and the sheep, which have piously supplied the serum.…”

Wilson noted that “when the frescoes were nearing completion, the conviction began to sting the Detroiters that something was being put over on them.” A storm broke at the opening in March, 1933. Clergymen were outraged by the “Holy Family.” Others objected to Rivera’s view of factory life, “unrelieved in its suggestions of bondage to the machine.” George Hermann Derry, president of the Marygrove College for Girls, charged that Rivera had “foisted on Mr. Ford and on the museum a Communist manifesto.…” The Detroit News suggested that the murals simply be obliterated, while the Free Press found the choice of a Mexican artist ludicrous: “They say the English have no sense of humor, but can you imagine the delight with which Punch would receive the suggestion that Rivera be commissioned to portray the soul of London on the Walls of the Royal Academy?”


Citizen’s groups formed to demand that the murals be removed; a phalanx of factory workers vowed to defend them. There were demonstrations, counterdemonstrations, mass meetings. Record crowds streamed through the museum to see what all the shouting was about.

Through it all, Rivera stood his ground: “If my Detroit frescoes are destroyed,” he said, “I shall be profoundly distressed … but tomorrow I shall be busy making others, for I am not merely an ‘artist,’ but a man performing his biological function of producing paintings, just as a tree produces flowers and fruit, nor mourns their loss each year, knowing that the next season it shall blossom and bear fruit again.”

The murals stayed, thanks largely to two staunch defenders: the Institute’s director, William R. Valentiner, who declared that it would be as wrong to ask Rivera to alter his vision at the request of any pressure group as it would have been to remove crucifixes and religious paintings from the museum’s collection for fear of offending non-Christians; and Edsel Ford himself, who said, “I admire Ri vera’s spirit. I really believe he was trying to express his idea of the spirit of Detroit.”

Rivera’s peaceful disguise was now almost gone. In Detroit, he wrote, he had for the first time expressed his “true analysis” of life under capitalism-and had gotten away with it.


At the height of the Detroit controversy, Rivera received still another invitation, this time from twenty-five-year-old Nelson A. Rockefeller, then occupying his first responsible position as executive vice president of Rockefeller Center, Inc., and charged with decorating and renting space in the glossy new office complex in midtown Manhattan. Would Rivera consent to paint a mural for the new RCA Building? The fee would be $21,000. “The philosophical or spiritual quality should dominate,” Rockefeller explained, ”… we want the [paintings] to make people pause and to turn their minds inward and upward.… Our theme is New Frontiers … man’s new and more complete understanding of the real meaning of the Sermon on the Mount.” Elsewhere, Rockefeller summed up the official theme as “Man at the crossroads facing the future with uncertainty but with hope.”

Rivera accepted at once. And, perhaps stung by leftist criticism of his hobnobbing with millionaires, he resolved to abandon his peaceful “disguise” entirely. He sent Rockefeller a sketch of the proposed mural, plus a lengthy verbal description filled with phrases such as ”… workers of the cities and the country inheriting the Earth … machinery controlled by the worker … the union of worker, peasant and soldier under the leadership of the workers” and “the denunciation of capitalism as breeding war, crisis, and unemployment.”

Rockefeller seemed to like it fine. The building management wired Rivera: “Sketch approved by Mr. Rockefeller. Can go right ahead with larger scale.…” Rivera began painting in March, 1933, with six assistants (including Ben Shahn). The artist at work became a tourist attraction. He was worth seeing. Weighing over two hundred pounds (down a hundred from a crash diet that had intensified his Detroit ordeal) and peering out with enormous froglike eyes, he clambered nimbly up and down the scaffold, his sure brush racing over the wall. And as he painted, there emerged a grand May Day celebration with rows of workers marching beneath Communist banners. No one seemed perturbed. On April 3, Rockefeller wrote Rivera that “everybody is most enthusiastic about the work which you are doing.”