Destroyed By Rockefellers, Mural Trespassed On Political Vision
When Mexican artist Diego Rivera was commissioned in 1932 to do a mural in the middle of Manhattan's Rockefeller Center, some might have wondered whether industrialist tycoon John D. Rockefeller Jr. knew what he was getting into.
In 1934, the legendary artist's work was chiseled off the wall.
Now, in Washington, D.C., the Mexican Cultural Institute has mounted a show that tells what happened to Rivera's mural.
"Man at the Crossroads: Diego Rivera's Mural at Rockefeller Center," is a whodunit tale that also illustrates the tensions between art and politics. Exhibition co-curator Susana Pliego says the Rockefeller family was aware of Rivera's leftist politics when it commissioned the work.
"They tried to have pieces of the best artists at the time," Pliego says. "That was why [they wanted it], because of the artistic and commercial value of his work."
Pliego says Rivera got a three-page contract laying out exactly what management wanted.
Rivera was asked to show a man at the crossroads, looking with uncertainty but with hope and high vision to the choosing of a course leading to a new and better future.
"The theme of Rockefeller Center was 'New Frontiers,' so that was a very spiritual way of looking at development and art," Pliego says. She wonders what made the Rockefellers think that Rivera's vision would be the same as theirs.
A Difference Of Vision
"It was a bad decision for everyone, but it's about politics," co-curator Pablo Ortiz Monasterio says. "When you have to take a position, there is no other way out."
Monasterio says the show illustrates the conflict between the rich, powerful family that hired Rivera and the artist's strong political point of view.
Pliego says the original sketch for the mural — and what Rivera agreed to paint — included three men clasping hands in the middle: a soldier, a worker and peasant. "A spiritual union of all the three elements that Rivera thought man — humanity — was composed of," she says.
"Unfortunately, what he painted was different from the sketch," David Rockefeller Sr. told the Museum of Modern Art in 2012.
The leftist artist was taunted by those who felt he had sold out, Rivera expert Linda Downs says.
"He was really provoked in New York by leftist organizations and various communist groups that challenged him for painting for Rockefeller," she says.
Then, the World Telegram newspaper ran the headline: "Rivera Paints Scenes of Communist Activity and John D. Jr. Foots the Bill." Pliego says Rivera then decided to add a portrait of communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin to the mural.
"He sent his assistants to find a picture of Lenin because, he said, 'If you want communism, I will paint communism,' " Pliego says.
On top of that, according to David Rockefeller Sr., Rivera added a panel that the family felt was an unflattering portrait of his father.
"The picture of Lenin was on the right-hand side, and on the left, a picture of [my] father drinking martinis with a harlot and various other things that were unflattering to the family and clearly inappropriate to have as the center of Rockefeller Center," he said.
"He had these two options," Monasterio says. "He could erase that and solve the problem, but if he didn't, then that would be a scandal; that would be propaganda. So he himself was at the crossroads again."
Rivera had persuaded his patrons to let him paint a fresco — paint on wet plaster instead of on canvas. That meant the work couldn't be moved. After a flurry of letters asking Rivera to replace Lenin and the artist's declaration that he'd rather see the work destroyed than mutilated, Rivera was fired and the work was eventually chiseled off.
A Missing Piece Of History
Downs says the piece would have been stunning had it survived.
"He had this vision of the importance of technology in the future and the hope that there would be a coming together of workers and industrialists and businessmen to further mankind in general," Downs says. "It was a very hopeful mural."
Pliego says the exhibition illustrates a key question: Who owns a work of art?
"For example, like Diego said in a letter," she says, "'If someone buys the Sistine Chapel, does he have the authority to destroy it?' "
The exhibition, "Man at the Crossroads: Diego Rivera's Mural at Rockefeller Center," reconstructs the story of the mural through reproductions of documents, letters, photographs and Rivera's sketches. It will be on display at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C., through May 17.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.