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

July 2024
16min read

The man was Diego Rivera, seen from the rear on his scaffold in an uncharacteristically modest self-portrait at left, and what he was doing in America was expressing his gargantuan contempt for capitalism and its precepts. He was Mexico’s most celebrated muralist, and if his disdain for our system seemed larger than life, so did everything else about him: his girth (he weighed more than three hundred pounds); his energy (by the time of his death in 1957 he had painted the equivalent of a yard-high fresco that would have stretched more than two and a half miles); and his ego (he truly believed his crowded, angry “art for the masses” would change the world).

But perhaps greater than all of these was his gall. Pledged to help overthrow capitalism, he nonetheless came to the United States in 1931 and for two turbulent years accepted commissions from some of that system’s most illustrious captains-Fords, Rockefellers, the directors of General Motors.

Ideological consistency was never Rivera’s strong point; he was always his own man. He was born at Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1886, the son of a school inspector. He walked, talked, and drew early. At five, he renounced religion; at ten, he entered art school; at twenty-one, he was one of the most fashionable young artists in Mexico. During a decade spent in Paris he became a prolific cubist and an ardent bohemian. (His private life was always exuberantly unconventional: he was married four times, tempestuously, and enjoyed countless mistresses.)

In Paris, too, he found in Marxism an answer to the plight of Mexico’s peasant poor-and the ideological basis for a new way of painting. Art was a “weapon,” he came to believe. Easel painting and all forms of modernism were frivolous and “unnatural.” Only the mural-big, brightly colored, accessible to all the people-was worthwhile. Returning to Mexico in 1921, Rivera found the reformist government of President Alvaro Obreg’f6n eager to cooperate with an artist whose work could help win peasant support. The walls of public buildings were made available to him-and to such colleagues as José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Rivera’s finest murals swarm with allegorical figures and political preachment, but they are saved from the dull predictability of most “official” art by bold color and brilliant drawing—based partly on the art of the Aztecs. For generations, Mexicans were taught to be ashamed of their Indian ancestry; Rivera taught them to glory in it.

Rivera was a founder of Mexico’s Communist party, but he was too rebellious to toe the party line. During a 1927 visit to Russia, he criticized the dreary socialist realism then in favor. Two years later he was drummed from the party; eventually he offered his home to Soviet exile Leon Trotsky. Conservative critics already hated Rivera. Now, leftists, too, attacked him.



By 1931, word of the new Mexican muralists and their most flamboyant representative had spread northward, and in that year Rivera accepted his first commissions in the United States: murals for the California School of Fine Arts and the San Francisco Stock Exchange Club. There could have been no mistaking his revolutionary viewpoint. Back in Mexico, his compositions were filled with political tableaux: bloated priests fondling whores; peasants cowering under the overseer’s lash; Yankee businessmen sipping cocktails while workers toiled. The U.S. government certainly understood what Rivera was up to: it took influential friends a year to persuade the State Department to grant him a residency permit.

Thus there remains a certain mystery about his sudden popularity with the U.S. art establishment. Perhaps old-fashioned American pragmatism provides the answer: “We want the best,” his patrons may have reasoned, “and if Rivera is the best muralist going, then let’s have him and worry about his politics later.” Maybe he could be persuaded to leave out his radical beliefs just this once.

Rivera promised nothing of the kind, of course, but he did admit later that “in order to get here I had to do as a man does in war. Sometimes in times of war a man disguises himself as a tree. My paintings in this country [became] increasingly and gradually clearer.”

Not everyone welcomed him. Said Maynard Dixon, a disgruntled painter of western landscapes: “The Stock Exchange could look the world over without finding a man more inappropriate for the part than Rivera. ” But San Francisco society instantly took to the exotic revolutionary and his charming wife Frida Kahlo; he provided colorful copy for the local press, and his San Francisco murals were remarkably free of politics. The School of Fine Arts fresco (from which the detail on pages 14-15 was taken) was a witty trompe-l’oeil called The Making of a Fresco . The mural for the Stock Exchange Club (left) was a tribute to the glories of the Golden State, dominated by clothed and unclothed images of tennis star Helen Wills, whom Rivera had met at a party and decided to immortalize.

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:

“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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”


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