- Historic Sites
Who Was This Man-and Why Did He Paint Such Terrible Things About Us?
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
But on or about May 1-May Day-a bearded face that had been partially obscured by a soft cap emerged with the cap painted out. It was a portrait of Lenin.
Three days later, Rivera received the following letter from Rockefeller: “While I was in Rockefeller Center yesterday viewing the progress of your thrilling mural, I noticed that in the most recent portion of the painting you had included a portrait of Lenin. This piece is beautifully painted but it seems to me that his portrait, appearing in this mural, might very easily seriously offend a great many people. If it were in a private house it would be one thing but this mural is in a public building and the situation is therefore quite different. As much as I dislike to do so I am afraid we must ask you to substitute the face of some unknown man where Lenin’s face now appears.”
Rivera replied that Lenin had appeared in the first sketch ”… as a general and abstract representation of the concept of leader … I understand … the point of view concerning the business affairs of a commercial building, although I am sure that the class of person who is capable of being offended by the portrait of a deceased great man, would feel offended … by the entire conception of my painting.”
Lenin, Rivera told the press, was “the supreme type of labor leader … the man whom I have loved more than any other in the world. Whom could I substitute?” Would it help, he asked, if he balanced the Lenin section with a “figure of some great American historical leader, such as Lincoln, who symbolizes the unification of the country with the abolition of slavery, surrounded by John Brown, Nat Turner, William Lloyd Garrison or Wendell Phillips and Harriet Beecher Stowe … ?”
Rockefeller did not reply, and Rivera began to fear the worst. He had seen his work defaced by angry mobs in Mexico and had sometimes painted there while wearing bolstered pistols to fend off potential assassins. He hired a photographer to record the mural, but guards refused the cameraman entry; later, one of Rivera’s assistants managed to make some murky pictures with a miniature camera concealed in her blouse.
Rivera recalled “a mysterious warlike atmosphere” in Radio City on May 9, when, after police reinforcements moved in, the artist was ordered down from his scaffold, handed a check for $14,000-completing payment for the mural-and barred from the building. Rivera and his helpers left at eight o’clock in the evening. By ten, scores of angry art students were marching outside, chanting “Save Rivera’s Art” and “We want Rivera!” The police ordered them to stop; they refused. Waiting taxi drivers took the side of the police, and a free-for-all began. It took mounted policemen to disperse the angry crowd while thousands of moviegoers in Radio City Music Hall next door were locked inside for their own protection.
The battle of Rockefeller Center was joined. Rivera defended himself on the radio: “Take an American millionaire who buys the Sistine Chapel, which contains the work of Michelangelo. …Would [he] have the right to destroy the Sistine Chapel?”
The Rockefellers had the mural shrouded in canvas, then solemnly assured the public that “the uncompleted fresco of Diego Rivera will not be destroyed, nor in any way mutilated.”
Rivera’s supporters were not satisfied. They picketed Rockefeller’s home with signs reading “Hitler and Rockefeller stifle culture” and “Save Rivera’s murals from Rockefeller vandalism.” Even artists who did not share Rivera’s politics supported his right to paint what he liked, but the New York Times was not sympathetic: “An apotheosis of Lenin on the walls of Rockefeller Center is about as appropriate as a frieze of swastikas over the doors of a synagogue. “The New York American agreed:”… not even a flaming Red would pretend that Lenin belongs in the Pantheon of American heroes.…”
Even Will Rogers took sides: “I string with Rockefeller. This artist was selling some art and sneaking in some propaganda. Rockefeller had ordered a plain ham sandwich, but the cook put some onions on it. Rockefeller says, ‘I will pay you for it, but I won’t eat the onions.’ Now the above is said in no disparagement of the Mexican artist, for he is the best in the world, but you should never try to fool a Rockefeller in oil.”