- Historic Sites
Who Was This Man-and Why Did He Paint Such Terrible Things About Us?
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
News of the controversy frightened off General Motors-its invitation was withdrawn-but Rivera still had enough money left from his Rockefeller Center fee to support him while he painted a new mural-a gift to the working people of New York. He chose the walls of a dingy auditorium in the New Workers School on West Fourteenth Street. There he painted twenty-one portable frescoes based on his own simplistic version of American history. The frescoes-which eventually came to decorate an International Ladies Garment Workers Union rest home in Pennsylvania until they were destroyed by fire—showed Pilgrims bilking Indians at gunpoint, slavers flogging blacks, Ku Klux Klan burnings, the electrocution of Sacco and Vanzetti. George Washington was depicted as just another slave owner since, Rivera believed, he had ”… played a thoroughly conservative and even reactionary role” after the Revolution. And there were caricatured tycoons aplenty, including a bulbous-nosed J. P. Morgan clutching a moneybag and, again, the mummified, beaky visage of John D. Rockefeller smiling smugly not far from the disfigured heads of war wounded, their jaws, noses, eyes blown away.
Artist Louise Nevelson, who worked with him on the New Workers School murals, recalled how it was to be around him. “He was a great artist,” she said, ”… the most giving person.” His New York home was open to everyone: “Princesses and queens, one lady richer than God. And workmen, laborers. He made no distinction.…“In the evenings, he and his friends would adjourn to an Italian restaurant where they took turns creating “murals” on the tablecloth, using wine and spilled sugar as colors.
By the time the freewheeling artist had completed his work at the New Workers School, he and his wife had run out of money. So, Nevelson remembered, “we got together a group, put the money together, and bought tickets for them. Took them bodily to the boat and saw that they left.”
Though Rivera had left the field, the battle of Rockefeller Center had not quite ended. On February 13,1934, the New York Times headlined: RIVERA RCA MURAL is CUT FROM WALL . Under cover of darkness, the paper reported, a “corps of men” had uncovered the mural, then smashed it to bits with hammers. A terse press release from the Rockefeller offices simply said, “The Rivera mural has been removed from the walls of the RCA Building and the space replastered. The removal involved the destruction of the mural.” There was no mention of the Rockefeller pledge to keep Rivera’s work intact.
The artist cabled his outrage from Mexico. “In destroying my paintings, the Rockefellers have committed an act of cultural vandalism.” Pickets marched again.
Once more, the Times rallied to the Rockefellers. Artistic censorship was not the issue: “It is not censorship to suppress a mural display which is in shrieking contradiction with its environment, with its own purposes. A mural painting is a signboard. People don’t hang signboards in front of inns announcing that poison is on sale within … yet that is what a Lenin mural on a Rockefeller business structure amounts to.”
Until his mural was destroyed, Rivera had generally been pleased with how things had turned out in New York. He had been paid well, had used the money to paint what he pleased-and had shown himself unwilling to bend the knee to capitalism. But now he determined to strike back by recreating his smashed fresco on the wall of the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City (right). Even here controversy dogged him, this time from Communists: a figure of Trotsky had to be painted out under pressure from his former party comrades. But the celebrated-or notorious-mural lives on in its reincarnation.
Despite all his difficulties, the artist retained affection for the United States, and when in 1940 he was invited back to San Francisco to paint a mural for the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island, he happily accepted and spent weeks perched on still another scaffold while gawking fair-goers watched him paint from behind velvet ropes.
His theme was Pan-American unity, and even for Rivera this last American mural (right and following pages) was an enormously ambitious work: nothing less, said the artist, than ”… the fusion of the genius of the South (Mexico) with its religious ardor and its gift for plastic expression and the genius of the North (the United States) with its gift for mechanical expression.” The powerful symbol of this fusion was “a colossal Goddess of Life [next page], half Indian, half machine. She was to the American civilization of my vision what Quetzalcoatl, the great mother of Mexico, was to the Aztec people.”