- Historic Sites
Who Was This Man-and Why Did He Paint Such Terrible Things About Us?
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
The size of the completed mural, too, was grandiose-so large, in fact, that when the fair closed the following year, no room large enough to house it could be found in all San Francisco. The fresco panels languished in storage for twenty years (suffering considerable damage in the process), until a suitable home could be designed and built for them in the lobby of the Arts Auditorium of the San Francisco City College.
Despite the color and energy of Rivera’s American work, as Bertram Wolfe has written, “the entire fruit” of Rivera’s “invasions of the United States … added little to his enduring work as a painter.” Rivera’s best work already lay behind him when he came to the U.S. in 1931. Partly this was because, like all artists, he worked best when he fully understood his subject-as he did when glorifying the Mexican past. Rivera “really did not understand, nor feel, the color, form and meaning of the civilization of the United States as he did that of his own country.”
Moreover, politics too often got in the way of his American painting. “One result of Rivera’s simple-minded partisan commitment,” wrote critic Frank Getlein, “is that the American murals constitute a seemingly endless series of portrait heads. The work is a freight train; the only aesthetic problem is to count the cars.”
Nonetheless, his work—and his well-publicized struggles for self-expression—had a considerable impact on American art, helping to inspire a whole generation of Depression-era muralists to create their own indigenous “art for the masses.”
Although he continued to paint for seventeen years after returning to Mexico, the rest of Rivera’s career was largely anticlimactic. His battle with the Rockefellers had not won back the admiration of the Communists; they continued to denounce him as “the painter for millionaires.” Conservatives still derided his “uglyism” and scorned his squat, sturdy peasants as “monkeys.” He feuded with his fellow painters and, worst of all, the government grew wary of offering him walls for fear of sparking the controversy that always seemed to follow in his wake.
One of his last major works was “held in custody” by nervous officials; another had to be repainted when the clergy objected to its treatment of the Madonna. Still another, painted for a hotel dining room, was kept hidden from the guests by a screen because a placard in it proclaimed that “God Does Not Exist.”
In 1952, Rivera sought readmittance to the Communist party by creating a giant mural honoring Mao and Stalin (whom the artist had once excoriated as “the undertaker of the revolution”). Unforgiving party bureaucrats continued to block Rivera’s re-admission, but when news of the painting reached the Detroit newspapers, the old controversy over his museum murals was reignited. Politicians and churchmen again demanded that the offending works be removed. Although this was the height of the McCarthy era, the Detroit Arts Commission would not hear of it. Its members, who included K. T. Keller, chairman of the Chrysler Corporation, and Mrs. Edsel Ford, the widow of Rivera’s first Detroit champion, concluded: “We regret that Rivera’s present behavior has revived the old controversy. There is no question that Rivera enjoys making trouble.… But this man, who often behaves like a child, is one of the outstanding talents of the Western Hemisphere.… We recommend that the paintings remain on exhibition.”
Rivera was finally readmitted to the party in 1955 (membership was declining, and it was evidently hoped that his name would attract new members), and almost immediately he undertook a pilgrimage to Moscow. But while there, this maddeningly individualistic man resolved to rejoin the church. Upon his return to Mexico, he ceremoniously painted out the “God Does Not Exist” slogan from his hotel mural.
In 1957, Rivera died of cancer. His family opposed his wish to be cremated, insisting on a religious burial, but at the huge public funeral that preceded entombment in Mexico’s Rotunda of Illustrious Sons, Communist marchers stole the limelight, holding red banners in front of the casket while pictures were taken.
It was a fittingly clamorous end to what Bertram Wolfe called “the huge, fantastic, colorful fresco, perpetually overflowing with invention and adventure, which was Rivera’s own life.”