What could be more timely in New York City, as the Occupy Wall Street movement grows and expands, than an exhibition of the murals of Diego Rivera, a Mexican leftist of the 1930s, who was obsessed with the oppression of peasants and working people by those in power, from the bankers of Wall Street to the landowners and rulers of Mexico.
MoMA has resurrected a little-know drama from its adventurous past—a moment, in 1931, when the Museum, in existence for two years, mounted a major exhibition by Rivera, Mexico’s foremost muralist and well-known Communist. He was only the second artist to be offered a one-person retrospective. The first artist was Matisse.
Rivera solved the problem of how to move his mural works to New York by inventing “portable murals.” In 1931, the fresco materials were shipped north—including a freestanding steel frame—and six weeks before the show opened, Rivera, working around the clock in New York with three assistants, completed five “portable murals.”
1931, when the show opened, was the worst year of the Depression; 25 percent of Americans were unemployed. Understandably, Rivera’s work resonated deeply and the exhibition was a huge success. His work, in fact, was so favorably received that Rivera, buoyed by its reception, created three more murals after the opening, and added them to the exhibition.
Interestingly, Abby Rockefeller, on the Board of the Museum, not only was instrumental in inviting Rivera to exhibit his work but purchased one of his murals, which provided him with enough funds to make the journey.
Now, eighty years later, organized by curator Leah Dickerman, MoMA has reunited five of the eight portable murals—plus other relevant material—and unveiled a show that is incredibly relevant to our civic and national life, especially to New Yorkers, many of whom are “mad as hell” at bankers, facing inequities of wealth greater than at any time since the 1930s, struggling to emerge from the Great Recession, and reviving leftist alliances and rhetoric.
Nowhere are New York City’s glaring inequities more passionately depicted than in Rivera’s 80-year-old mural, Frozen Assets, below.
In the top part of his fresco Rivera lovingly captured skyscraper New York, its spires and the unique visual energy they created. But beneath the splendors of the city, he showed a field of homeless men sleeping (almost like corpses lined up in a battlefield), and below them, almost the foundation upon which the city is built, a bank, including a woman examining her jewels in a guarded vault. It’s my guess that these layers will resonate with today’s viewers as much as they did with viewers 80 years ago.
Yet, much has changed since those days. For, amazingly enough, there is a cover of Henry Luce’s Fortune Magazine, with a Diego Rivera illustration, one that salutes the Russian Communist Party. Those were pre-McCarthy days when collective social values and the public artists who embraced them, were not reviled but respected. In fact, it was Rivera’s murals that, in part, inspired Roosevelt to launch the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which employed many great muralists, writers and photographers, to record the struggles of ordinary Americans.
Rivera’s other murals in this exhibition deal with Mexico’s revolution and, as in Frozen Assets, depict hierarchies of power.
This is a rich little show. Even for those aware of the subsequently tumultuous relationship between the Rockefellers, who commissioned Rivera to create a monumental fresco for Rockefeller Center, only to destroy it when they saw its content, there are fresh insights. According to Curator Dickerman, it was less the image of Lenin on the mural, than its depiction of John D. Rockefeller, martini in hand at a nightclub, that was the last straw for this teetotaling, Baptist family. Whatever the truth of the matter, it’s clear that Diego Rivera, charming, charismatic and a performance artist as he worked, had a habit of sticking it to the rich, even if they happened to be his most devoted patrons.
Diego Rivera Murals
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street