Diego Rivera’s Mural of Resistance
What is the ownership of a work of art? Who has the rights to build–and/or destroy–art that is deemed disruptive? Who decides what story gets told?
If you were alive in the 1930s, you knew Diego Rivera’s work. Known for his communism, his short temper, and his extremely detailed depictions of social and cultural life, he is regarded as one of the best visual artists of all time, and a shaper of the Mexican mural movement.
In 1932, Nelson D. Rockefeller commissioned Diego Rivera to make a giant mural for the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Center. Although Rockefeller didn’t agree with Rivera’s politics, he was an acclaimed art collector and wanted to have work from the best artists of the day. River was undeniably on that list.
Rockefeller paid Rivera $21,000 (or $361,362 in 2019!) to paint a 63-foot-long mural around the theme of “Man at the Crossroads looking with hope and high vision to the choosing of a new and better future.” Rockefeller and the building management presented Rivera with a 3-page contract detailing exactly what was expected from the piece. Rivera presented a sketch that Rockefeller approved; it seemed to embody “American” ideals of progress, scientific advancement, and high society.
Meanwhile, Rivera received pushback from leftist organizations who criticized him for taking this commission. By painting for the Rockefeller’s, they thought, he was supporting the exact capitalist group he was was morally and politically opposed to. He was in a moral conundrum: either he could paint propaganda, or he could create a scandal.
In 1933, Rivera began painting the wall. He painted directly on the plaster, instead of on canvas, so the piece could not be moved. As he painted, he slowly incorporated more socially and politically-charged images that were not in his initial proposal–Vladmir Lenin walking with a racially-diverse group of liberated workers, a headless statue of Caesar, a “workers of the world unite” banner, police inflicting violence on protesters, women drinking and smoking, soldiers in gas masks, as well as an “unflattering” portrait of John D. Rockefeller drinking martinis–and there was backlash from the building management. Rivera wanted a mural photographed as a work-in-progress, and the building refused. Anticipating conflict, he asked his assistant Lucienne Bloch to take quick, informal photographs instead.
The building’s management was furious. Even so, Rivera refused to compromise his creative vision to appease the people in power. He was fired from the job before he could complete it. Rivera was paid in full and dismissed from the site later that year. The Rockefellers immediately covered the unfinished mural with drapes. There were MoMA, but in February 1934, workmen went into Rockefeller Center in secret, destroying the mural with axes and chisels.
The mural in the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Center today is the artwork that replaced Rivera’s mural, titled “American Progress” by Jose Maria Sert. After this public and contentious dispute, Diego Rivera would never work in the United States again.
But the mural has been revived in recent years, on a wall of Diego, an upscale bar inside the Public Hotel on Chrystie Street. Ian Schrager, hotelier known for Boutique Hotels, bought the rights to the mural image from the Diego Rivera Foundation, getting it recreated on a smaller scale as the backdrop for the hotel bar.
Had the mural survived, it would have told a story of collaboration, technological advancement, and ultimately hope for decades to come. Today, it has been repurposed, but it’s unlikely that hotel guests drinking craft cocktails are aware of the image’s turbulent history.
If Rivera were alive, would he appreciate his work in this new context? Would he rather it stay hidden, and therefore forgetting, entirely? What is the important of these tory and context in understanding a work of art? How does history help us to appreciate art?