Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art, New York

After 80 years of separation, five Diego Rivera murals have got back together at the Museum of Modern Art in a celebratory reunion that recalls the institution’s early days. With their Renaissance poise and glowing stillness, their graphic intensity that withers in reproduction but hits you at architectural scale, these huge panoramas of Mexican history and New York life have the same vividness and power that they did in 1931. The newly minted MoMA devoted its first one-man show to Matisse that year, but its second – a mid-career Rivera retrospective – was the bigger sensation. And it only materialised because of the strange three-way symbiosis among connoisseurs of modern art, a family of oil tycoons and a roving Mexican leftist.

The story goes back to 1927, when the Mexican Communist party sent Rivera to Moscow for the 10th anniversary of the Russian revolution. Alfred Barr, MoMA’s founding director, also happened to be in Moscow, where he was on the look-out for the latest trends. He was determined to meet Rivera, whose murals he knew only by reputation. It was an auspicious encounter. Barr described Rivera as “a large, hearty, rather Rabelaisian character”. He hinted at a future retrospective, which was a bit of a stretch, as MoMA didn’t yet exist. But at that Moscow rendezvous, the communist artist flirted with establishment affluence, and both were smitten.

Rivera was then working on a mural for the reception room of the Red Army High Command, and he filled a notebook with 45 preparatory drawings, brimming with red banners, flags, muscular workers and babushka-sporting matrons. This flipbook of Soviet propaganda was among the many Rivera works that wound up in the possession of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, in exchange for funding the MoMA retrospective. In the current reprise, curator Leah Dickerman tackles, with great subtlety, the set of labyrinthine relationships that solidified his reputation – the weird incongruities of politics and art, subversiveness and money, personal standing and institutional power.

Rivera was already a worldwide celebrity in 1931, but few Americans had seen the epics he had painted on the walls of Mexican buildings. So MoMA used Rockefeller’s largesse to import the artist himself, install him in a disused set of rooms atop its first headquarters at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, and set him to work making “portable murals”. With the help of two assistants, he painted eight multi-ton frescoes on steel-framed cement slabs. Five were ingeniously adapted from larger works in Mexico City, while the other three brooded on Depression-era
New York. The show offered an overview of the monumental projects he had completed elsewhere, complemented by fierce new observations of economic injustice.

The Mexican scenes justified war, revolution, peasant martyrdom and worker uprising, but it was Rivera’s censorious take on New York that advertised his ideology. The most ambitious of these presented US social hierarchies as a stack of horizontal layers.

“At the top loomed skyscrapers like mausoleums reaching up into the cold night,” he later wrote. “Underneath them were people going home, miserably crushed together in the subway trains. In the centre 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.”

The huge, feisty fresco commands the MoMA gallery where it is on display. Even with its subdued palette of grey and beige, it hums vibrantly on the wall. Reviewers at the city’s newspapers found the foreigner’s appraisal of New York-style capitalism offensive. But his patrons weren’t turned off in the leastby his sour take on America. After the show came down, the museum kept the most perfect painting, “Agrarian Leader Zapata”, an ode to the revolutionary hero. (The rest scattered to museums across the US and Mexico.) And MoMA’s first family rewarded Rivera with a commission to decorate Rockefeller Center.

As Dickerman explains in her compelling catalogue essay, the Rock Center murals and the 1931 show were interlaced: discussions of a mural commission began while Rivera was holed up in his museum studio and both projects shared the patronage of the Rockefeller family. The donors didn’t dwell too much on Rivera’s politics, at least until he threw down one gauntlet too many.

The offence was not the likeness of Lenin that he slipped into his opus. Lucienne Bloch, a family friend and assistant on the project, recorded her surprise at the family’s tolerance of this provocation: “I expected some commotion about this new turn, but Frieda [Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo] tells me that Mrs Rockefeller visited him and climbed the scaffold to watch him work and said that it was the finest part of the mural yet. When I showed surprise, Frieda told me that Mrs R. has a radical taste.”

The final insult arrived in the form of a tiny detail. Nestled in a turbine, half-hidden behind a propeller, Rivera inserted a small portrait of John D. Rockefeller, junior, schmoozing with loose women and sipping cocktails. This was too much for the devout Baptist and teetotal clan. The Rockefellers could tolerate Rivera’s provocative ideas, but not a personal slight. In 1933 he was dismissed. The next year workmen chiselled the murals off the wall.

The end of the story remains as mysterious as the beginning. In Mexico Rivera worked, at least in principle, for the people, decorating state buildings in return for government pesos. His New York venture, on the other hand, was financed by US plutocrats who happily forked over dollars to promote communist propaganda. So why did Rivera nip at the hand filled with the golden treat? The surviving murals don’t reveal whether he alienated the people who underwrote his livelihood out of a sense of political purity or whether he was just a garden-variety self-destructive jerk.

Runs until May 14, www.moma.org.

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