Category: Diego Rivera

A New Look at Rivera’s “Gloriosa Victoria.”

I published an article on Oct. 5, 2007 titled Diego Rivera: Glorious Victory! It was about the Diego Rivera retrospective then on view at the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) in Mexico City, Mexico. The real treasure in that show was the artist’s 1954 mural, Gloriosa Victoria (Glorious Victory).

"Gloriosa Victoria" (Glorious Victory) - Diego Rivera. Oil on linen. 1954. Collection of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Russia.

"Gloriosa Victoria" (Glorious Victory) - Diego Rivera. Oil on linen. 1954. Collection of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Russia.

Gloriosa Victoria is a large oil on linen “mobile mural” that had been touring Eastern Europe in 1956 when it somehow became lost. It was discovered rolled up and sitting in a store room at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Russia in 2006; Rivera had apparently gifted the mural to the Soviet Union. By special arrangement it was loaned to Mexico by the Russian government for the 2007 Palace of Fine Arts exhibition (click here for a larger view of the mural). A number of developments regarding the mural have since led me to write a fresh perspective on its history.

Gloriosa Victoria depicts the 1954 U.S. government engineered coup d’état against the elected government of Guatemala. The mural’s narrative quality is as powerful as a renaissance altarpiece; its recounting of historic events augmented by a superlative handling of composition, color, and form. There are no subtleties or abstractions in Rivera’s telling of this bleak chapter in human events; he offers no tales of universal suffering or “the human condition.” He strips away the mythic to reveal the common truths found in the chronicles of Latin America.

Detail from Rivera's "Gloriosa Victoria." U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles clutches a bomb that bears the face of U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Detail from Rivera's "Gloriosa Victoria." U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles clutches a bomb that bears the face of U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In the above detail from the mural, the man at left dressed in khaki fatigues is the U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. He clutches a bomb that bears the face of U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The man in the dark suit seen whispering into the ear of John Foster Dulles is his brother Allen Dulles, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA chief wears a messenger bag stuffed with Yankee dollars, and he is passing that money to John Peurifoy, the man behind and to the right of the Secretary of State. Peurifoy is handing out the cash to the traitorous military officers and their goons who overthrew the elected government of Jacobo Árbenz by force of arms.

Standing front and center before this group of coup plotters is Air Force Colonel, Carlos Castillo Armas. The breast pocket of his “Eisenhower jacket” is full of American dollars; he carries a Colt Model 1911 .45ACP pistol in his waist band. Armas, the leader of the CIA backed “rebels,” successfully ousted the government of Árbenz and was named head of the military junta. Weeks later a faux election was held in which Armas won 99.9% of the vote. Along the bottom half of the painting are the bloody, mutilated, bullet-riddled bodies of Guatemalans killed in the coup.

The tall man in black blessing the scene deserves special mention, in Rivera’s overall composition the viewer’s eye naturally travels to him. He is Rivera’s depiction of Guatemala’s arch-conservative Catholic Archbishop, Mariano Rossell Arellano (1909-1983). In the opening days of the coup the CIA distributed leaflets across Guatemala that exhorted the population to support the putsch. One such flyer was a pastoral letter issued under the Archbishop’s name, it read in part:

“The people of Guatemala must rise as one man against this enemy. Our struggle against Communism must be… a crusade of prayer and sacrifice, as well as intensive spreading of the social doctrine of the church and a total rejection of Communist propaganda - for the love of God and Guatemala.”

The pastoral letter was not written by Archbishop Arellano. Though its content was approved by the Archbishop, the letter was actually composed by CIA officials in coordination with conservative Catholic clergy in the United States [1]. Rivera named his painting after a remark made by Secretary of State Dulles, who immediately after the U.S. successfully overthrew the government of Guatemala, proclaimed the act to be a “glorious victory for democracy.”

Detail from Rivera's "Gloriosa Victoria." A heavily armed soldier from the U.S. backed coup, watches indigenous Maya working for the neocolonial American corporation, the United Fruit Company.

Detail from Rivera's "Gloriosa Victoria." A heavily armed soldier from the U.S. backed coup, watches indigenous Maya working for the neocolonial American corporation, the United Fruit Company.

One final note about Rivera’s painting; when it was rediscovered at the Pushkin and examined, a second painting was discovered on the backside of Glorious Victory. It was an unfinished portrait that Rivera started but never finished; it was titled “Portrait of a leader of the Mexican Communist Party, Dionisio Encinas.”

Nearly two months after I published my Glorious Victory! article, the New York Times published a rather disparaging review of the Rivera retrospective that was written by Elisabeth Malkin. Titled Rivera, Fridamania’s Other Half, Gets His Due, it offered the following appraisal:

“The centerpiece of the show was ‘Glorious Victory,’ a mural Rivera painted at the end of his life, after the American-backed coup that brought down the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954. It is pure propaganda, almost caricature…”

As George Orwell once wrote, “all art is propaganda.” I could argue that the contemporary art the NYT tirelessly writes about also falls under that description, but that’s another essay. Malkin’s assertion that Rivera’s Glorious Victory is nothing but “pure propaganda,” precludes a discussion regarding the aesthetics of social realism, preferring instead mockery and contempt in lieu of serious criticism. She recounts the historic fact that an “American-backed coup” destroyed “the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954,” but then condemns Rivera’s artistic depiction of that same reality as “pure propaganda.” How would Malkin like an artist to depict the nettlesome subject in a work of art? My guess would be… not at all.

Detail: "The bloody, mutilated, bullet-riddled bodies of Guatemalans killed in the coup."

Detail: "The bloody, mutilated, bullet-riddled bodies of Guatemalans killed in the coup."

After Glorious Victory was seen by thousands at the Palacio de Bellas Artes retrospective, the mural was moved to the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City. It was displayed there from January through June 2008 before being returned to the Pushkin collection. The Russian government loaned Glorious Victory to Guatemala in 2010, where it was shown at the National Palace of Culture as part of that museum’s ambitious art exhibition, ¡Oh Revolución! 1944-2010: Múltiples visiones (Oh Revolution! 1944-2010: Multiple Visions). That exhibit was proclaimed by Guatemalan officials as the most important art show mounted in the country in six decades.

Museum staff from Guatemala's National Palace of Culture, and experts from Russia's Puskin Museum, uncrate Rivera's painting in preparation for the exhibit "Oh Revolution! 1944-2010 Multiple Visions," held in Guatemala's capital in 2010. Photo by Paulo Raquec for the Government of Guatemala.

Staff from Guatemala's National Palace of Culture, and experts from Russia's Puskin Museum, uncrate Rivera's painting in preparation for the exhibit "Oh Revolution! 1944-2010 Multiple Visions," held in Guatemala's capital in 2010. Photo by Paulo Raquec for the Government of Guatemala.

President Álvaro Colom provided remarks for the Oct 1, 2010 opening ceremonies of ¡Oh Revolución!, but before I comment further, allow me to guide you through some of Guatemala’s recent political history, which makes the showing of Rivera’s mural in Guatemala that much more profound.

In 2003 Colom ran for president as the candidate of the social-democratic National Unity of Hope party. He lost to the oligarch Óscar Berger, who ran as the candidate of the rightist Grand National Alliance party. In 2007 Colom again ran for president on the National Unity of Hope ticket, this time against Otto Pérez Molina and the rightist party he founded, the Patriotic Party. Molina was a retired Army General, trained at the U.S. School of the Americas, who had close ties to the military regimes that ran Guatemala in the early 1980s. He lost the election to Colom, who became the only “left” leaning politician to be elected president in 53 years; the first of course was the ill-fated Árbenz, who was overthrown in the U.S. organized coup d’état.

As previously noted, President Colom led the opening ceremonies of the ¡Oh Revolución! exhibit, which presented Guatemalan history through paintings, drawings, and prints, from the overthrow of Árbenz to the current period. The pièce de résistance in the show was of course Rivera’s Gloriosa Victoria, and President Colom thanked the Russian government for loaning it to his nation. At the time of the exhibit Guatemala was celebrating the anniversary of its Diez años de Primavera (Ten Years of Spring), the period between the people’s 1944 overthrow of dictator Jorge Ubico, and the end of the democracy movement brought about by the 1954 U.S. coup against Árbenz.

While President Colom implemented modest reforms during his term in office (2008- 2012), his most significant act was the Oct. 20, 2011 official apology he made for the government’s role in helping to organize the 1954 coup that crushed democracy. Directing his apology to the family of Jacobo Árbenz and to the people of Guatemala, Colom made the apology at the National Palace, saying of the coup; “That day changed Guatemala and we have not recuperated from it yet. It was a crime to Guatemalan society and it was an act of aggression to a government starting its democratic spring.”

In this 1965 photograph, Rina Lazo paints a replica of the famous Maya murals of Bonampak. Her replica is now housed in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Photographer unknown.

In this 1965 photograph, Rina Lazo paints a replica of the famous Maya murals of Bonampak. Her replica is now housed in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Photographer unknown.

President Colom introduced another special guest at the ¡Oh Revolución! opening, Rina Lazo, the Guatemalan-Mexican painter and muralist.

Lazo assisted Diego Rivera from 1947 to 1957, directly helping him paint a number of his most well known mural works. As a young student she won a scholarship to study art in Mexico, and three months after arriving in Mexico City she met Rivera and became his pupil.

Rivera made her a leading assistant, referring to her as his “right hand,” and asked her in 1947 to help him paint the mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central, then being created in the Hotel del Prado (now the Museo Mural Diego Rivera).

In 1954 Lazo assisted Rivera in painting Glorious Victory. One late afternoon while working on the mural, Rivera asked Lazo if she would like to be included in the painting as a background figure. She agreed to pose, and Rivera told her to bring a red blouse to the studio the next day.

Detail from Rivera's "Gloriosa Victoria." At left, Rina Lazo in her red blouse.

Detail from Rivera's "Gloriosa Victoria." At left, Rina Lazo in her red blouse.

The following morning Rivera provided Lazo with a 9mm carbine, set her in an appropriate pose, and began painting.

In the upper right corner of Glorious Victory a group of armed workers and compesinos take action to defend their elected government from the coup-makers; two agricultural workers brandish machetes while Rina Lazo in her red blouse wields a carbine.

While Rivera was painting Glorious Victory, Lazo was creating her own large canvas titled Venceremos (We Will Win). It linked the U.S. coup in Guatemala with the U.S. war in Korea, which had just concluded with an armistice in 1953. The canvas presented an apocalyptic landscape of Guatemalan jungle and Korean rice paddies, where marauding soldiers massacred Korean and Guatemalan peasants alike.

Venceremos (We Will Win) - Rina Lazo. Oil on canvas 1954.

'Venceremos" (We Will Win) - Rina Lazo. Oil on canvas 1954.

In the tableau one unfortunate man shot full of bullet holes is tied upside down to a tree, recalling the Apostle Peter crucified upside down by soldiers of the Roman Empire. Venceremos was also included in ¡Oh Revolución!, and today it is in the collection of the Museo de Bellas Artes de Toluca, México.

"Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera" - Photo by Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi.

"Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera" - Photo by Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi. 1933.

Through Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Lazo met Arturo García Bustos, her husband to be. Bustos was one of “Los Fridos,” a small circle of young artists who were not only fiercely loyal students of Kahlo, but lived and worked with Rivera and Kahlo for close to ten years.

Bustos was also a founding member of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - Popular Graphic Arts Workshop). Lazo and Bustos married in 1949. At the time of this writing Lazo is 93-years old and Bustos is 90; they continue to live together in Mexico City.

By reason of the malaise and torpor of today’s postmodern art, Lazo and Bustos insist that social realism - as exemplified by Rivera’s Glorious Victory - will one day make a comeback; as an artist infinitely inspired by Mexican Muralism, I share the assessment of Lazo and Bustos.

– // –

REFERENCES:

[1] Spiritual Weapons: The Cold War and the Forging of an American National Religion. T. Jeremy Gunn. Publisher: ABC-CLIO, 2008.

View the flickr page created by the Government of Guatemala, celebrating the 2010 exhibition of Gloriosa Victoria at Guatemala’s National Palace of Culture. The photos at the end of the page feature images of President Álvaro Colom, as well as Rina Lazo and her husband Arturo García Bustos.

ADDENDUM:

There is more to this Guatemalan tale. When President Colom’s term in office ended in 2012, his old rival, the former Army General Otto Pérez Molina became the next elected president; despite accusations of corruption and human rights abuses. Three years into his reign the rightist strongman was exposed for involvement in a major corruption scheme. The scam involved the country’s custom service taking bribes from importers in exchange for illegally reducing custom tarifs; the profits of course going to Molina and members of his administration.

Known as La Linea (The Line), the scam was named after the telephone line importers used to arrange bribes with corrupt officials. Hearing of this outrage the people held mass protests for months, filling the streets with demonstrations, conducting strikes, as well as seizing workplaces and schools. Of the 15 million people who live in Guatemala, over 50% of them live in dire poverty. The protests brought the country to a standstill. President Molina, his Vice President Roxana Baldetti, and dozens of officials from their administration, resigned in disgrace and were arrested. Molina and Baldetti are currently in prison and on trial for corruption.

As if things could not get any worse… or more surreal, in October 2015 a former TV comedian named Jimmy Morales was elected president of Guatemala; Morales was inaugurated on January 14, 2016. With no political experience whatsoever, Morales was elected in the wake of the anti-corruption protests that swept General Molina and his cronies from power. Morales ran as the candidate of the right-wing National Convergence Front, founded in 2008 by retired army officers who played a bloody role in the country’s 1960-1996 genocidal civil war. Already, fifteen colleagues of Morales, mostly members of the National Convergence Front, have been arrested for human rights violations related to the war. By the way, attending the inauguration of Jimmy was none other than U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden. Guatemala’s anguish and despair continues… Glorious Victory indeed.

Diego Rivera mural blocked from public view!

"The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City" - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

"The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City" - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011. The mural as it was meant to be seen.

This is an Open Letter to the Students and Faculty of the San Francisco Art Institute.

In September 2011, it was a real pleasure to travel to San Francisco for the express purpose of photographing the Great Depression era murals that exist in the city. I visited the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), where I made photographic studies of Diego Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, located in the campus gallery named after him.

This mural detail shows a monumental worker representing the working class - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

This mural detail shows a monumental worker representing the working class - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

Rivera’s mural is a brilliant tromp-l’oeil, showing us a mural within a mural, with Rivera and assistants on a scaffold as they paint a monumental worker representing the working class; in the artist’s words, a “Gigantic worker, his gaze fixed firmly forward.”

A number of foreign visitors were among the U.S. tourists in the gallery that day; I was impressed by their silent contemplation of the mural. Indeed, the painting is a major destination for cultural tourism, and many travel guides for San Francisco suggest a visit to the SFAI for a look at Rivera’s mural.

Wanting to share my passion for Rivera’s work, I uploaded a few of my photos of his SFAI mural to my web log in 2011, along with some of the history behind the making of the fresco. I might add that I traveled to the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) in May of 2015, not just to see that museum’s Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit exhibit, but to study and photograph Rivera’s magnificent Detroit Industry mural cycle painted in an internal courtyard of the DIA. Throngs of people jammed the museum for the Rivera and Kahlo exhibit, which by the end of its run was seen by well over 153,000 people, making it one of the biggest shows in the DIA’s history.

As a working painter and printmaker in Los Angeles, I write this open letter on the subject of Change the World or Go Home, an installation of scaffolding and fluorescent lighting by Mexico City-based artist Alejandro Almanza Pereda, now on exhibit in the SFAI’s Diego Rivera Gallery. I write to express my dismay that Mr. Pereda’s installation unnecessarily blocks public viewing of Diego Rivera’s 1931 mural, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City. I also have misgivings about Pereda’s installation being placed so close to Rivera’s delicate fresco mural; I believe it poses a threat to the mural’s preservation. More to the point, I hope to explain why I believe that Pereda and the SFAI have denigrated the legacy of Rivera and his fresco mural.

Alejandro Almanza Pereda's scaffold shown during its construction. Screen grab from the SFIA short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

Alejandro Almanza Pereda's scaffold shown during its construction. Screen grab from the SFAI short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

Mr. Pereda is an artist in residence at the SFAI, and so was given a solo exhibit in the Diego Rivera Gallery. Pereda has constructed 24-foot-high scaffold, with a jumble of functioning fluorescent light tubes replacing the scaffold’s wood or steel planks. In the SFAI’s promotional material for Pereda’s scaffold, the school writes some typical postmodern gobbledygook that the fluorescent light tubes are meant to “contend with and complicate the legacy and monumentality of Diego Rivera’s fresco.” But what art institution does not know that light, even in limited amounts, can cause cumulative and irreversible damage to works of art?

Art conservators should be apprehensive that Rivera’s fresco is now exposed to light thrown from Pereda’s giant fluorescent light fixture. Fluorescent light contains high levels of UV radiation, and museums use strict guidelines to prevent artworks in their collections from being unnecessarily exposed to the dangers of UV light.

A short film made under the auspices of the SFAI, shows Pereda’s scaffold and fluorescent light fixture being built with the help of young assistants. Black construction netting was initially erected, supposedly to protect the mural while the scaffold was built. A heavy mechanical lift was used in the construction process, and upon completion the scaffold was improbably secured in place with wires anchored to the walls of the gallery. There appear to be no professional technicians involved in the work, nor art conservators to condition-check the mural. The finished scaffold looks flimsy. With San Francisco sitting on the San Andreas Fault and six other significant earthquake fault zones, there is good reason to be anxious.

I am appalled that the SFAI allowed Pereda’s scaffold to be placed so close to a priceless art treasure, not to mention exposing it to UV light. I can think of no other legitimate art institution that would so recklessly endanger an important internationally recognized work in their collection. I cannot imagine the Detroit Institute of the Arts allowing such a cheap stunt to be pulled off anywhere near their Detroit Industry murals.

Pereda apparently believes that the art and legacy of Diego Rivera is a “limiting screen,” a curtain that restrains Mexican art and confines Mexican artists. Pereda envisions his scaffold as a different sort of screen with which to see the world through. The luminous glow from the fluorescent bulbs makes it impossible to view or photograph Rivera’s fresco! The scaffold itself, even with its lights turned off, impairs a clear view of Rivera’s mural. Evidently the SFAI is titillated by Pereda’s art prank masquerading as profound artistic exploration. In the aforementioned film, Pereda attempted to explain the meaning of his scaffold installation:

“I always had kind of trouble with Mexican Muralism. The Mexican government supported Mexican Muralism, and so that more or less it became a type of propaganda. So when I see the murals, sometimes, you know, like the one here… it’s about progress, the scaffolding symbolizes progress. But a different progress, like destruction, you create something new, like a new condo over a really nice house. And that’s changing the face of the cities, so sometimes it’s terrifying to see scaffolding.”

In the quote above Mr. Pereda spouts utter nonsense. He implies that Diego Rivera and his fellow muralists, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, et al., were propagandists for the Mexican government, which could not be further from the truth. The majority of the muralistas were political radicals, and they often publicly clashed with the government over a variety of issues. In 1922 Rivera and other important artists founded the Union of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors, a group dedicated to creating revolutionary art. David Alfaro Siqueiros wrote the group’s manifesto.

That same year, Rivera, Siqueiros, and many other artists joined the Mexican Communist Party (Frida Kahlo would join in 1928). Rivera’s membership in the party put him in direct odds with the government, which banned the party and its activities in 1925; the outright ban continued until the left-leaning Lázaro Cárdenas was elected president of Mexico in 1934. Anyone with even a cursory familiarity with the history of the Mexican Muralist Movement should know these facts. Perhaps Mr Pereda should go back to art school, oh wait… he is an artist in residence at the SFAI.

It seems that Mr. Pereda’s logorrheic style of babbling was a bit thin as an artist’s statement, so the SFAI graciously assisted with some of its own postmodern prose. The school’s promotional material for Pereda describes Rivera’s mural in the following words:

“Meanwhile, in SFAI’s Diego Rivera Gallery, we have been looking at Diego Rivera’s ass for 84 years. Of course, this was the artist’s intention. Rivera’s iconic work The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City (1931) offers an epic image of the reconstruction of San Francisco, depicting laborers and fresco painters alongside the patron, on the scaffold, and closest to our eye: the artist’s high-waisted rear.”

Looking at Rivera’s ass for 84 years? It was Rivera’s intention to show his “high-waisted rear” to the public? Excuse the Pop culture reference, but the SFAI’s brassy remarks remind me of an aside from British comedian John Cleese; “It’s all about backsides with you Americans, isn’t it.”

It is interesting that the SFAI’s mocking reference to “Rivera’s ass,” is the same type of derisive scorn heaped upon Rivera and his mural by critics in 1931. In his book, Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics, and San Francisco’s Public Murals, author Anthony W. Lee mentioned how reactionaries bashed the mural by accusing Rivera of having painted a portrait of himself defecating on his patrons! A less vulgar “critique,” but one no less spiteful, was made at the time by Kenneth Callahan, the painter from the state of Washington. Castigating the mural, he mentioned Rivera’s “flat rear, hanging over the scaffolding in the center. Many San Franciscans chose to see in this gesture a direct insult, premeditated, as indeed it appears to be. If it is a joke, it is a rather amusing one, but in bad taste.”

The only “ass” to be found in this story is the one who seeks to poke Rivera’s legacy full of holes.

Rivera intended his murals to be accessible to the public; that was the central tenet of the Mexican Muralist Movement to which he belonged. Many San Francisco Bay Area artists met and worked with him when he visited San Francisco, and it is because of his influence that San Francisco became a city full of murals. The evidence is everywhere, from the 1934 Chapel Mural painted at the Presidio by Victor Arnautoff, to the magnificent 1934 Coit Tower frescos at Telegraph Hill. From the 1936 San Francisco Life frescos by Lucien Ladaudt at the Beach Chalet restaurant, to the 1941-1948 History of California murals by Anton Refregier at the Rincon Center. Rivera made enormous contributions to art, and his legacy is not a “screen” that oppresses anyone.

Pereda's installation of scaffolding and fluorescent lighting is inches away from Diego Rivera's mural, hidden on the left by black construction netting. In this Screen grab from the SFIA short film, Change the World or Go Home, an assistant of Pereda's adjusts the fluorescent lights.

Pereda's installation of scaffolding and fluorescent lighting is inches away from Diego Rivera's mural, hidden on the left by black construction netting. In this Screen grab from the SFAI short film, "Change the World or Go Home," an assistant of Pereda's adjusts the fluorescent lights.

While the San Francisco Art Institute does not publish Diego Rivera’s own words regarding the true intentions of his mural, I will happily do so. In his autobiography My Art, My Life, Rivera described the intent behind his 23-by-30-foot mural. Rivera wrote that he wanted:

“to present a dynamic concerto of construction - technicians, planners, and artists working together to create a modern building (….). I showed how a mural is actually painted: the tiered scaffold, the assistants plastering, sketching, and painting; myself resting at midpoint; and the actual mural subject, a worker whose hand is turning a valve so placed as to seem part of a mechanism of the building.

Since I was facing and leaning toward my work, the portrait of myself was a rear view with my buttocks protruding over the edge of the scaffold. Some persons took this as a deliberate expression of contempt for my American hosts and raised a clamor. However, I insisted that my painting meant nothing else than what it pictured. I would never think of insulting the people of a city I had come to love and in which I had been continuously happy.”

If you type in the title of Rivera’s mural on Google - The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City - you will find that the SFAI web page on the painting is the first item to come up, but my 2011 web log article on the mural is the second. Over the years thousands of people from around the world have read my article on Rivera’s mural. It would be an understatement to say that I would have been upset if I had journeyed to the SFAI to study and photograph Rivera’s fresco, only to find the school had blocked the mural from public view by installing a scaffold made of fluorescent light bulbs in front of it. The annoyance would have been made all the worse with the SFAI promoting the installation on an equal footing with Rivera’s mural.

One arts professional that balked at the way the SFAI has treated the Rivera mural was Sarah Lowndes, a writer, curator, and lecturer at the Glasgow School of Art in Glasgow, Scotland. Having traveled all the way from Scotland to view Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco, Ms. Lowndes was aghast at finding Pereda’s scaffolding blocking the mural. She also wrote an open letter to the SFAI to express her disappointment. Since Pereda’s scaffold will block the view of Rivera’s mural until December 3, 2015, there will be many people who are going to be angry over being denied the pleasure of contemplating one of San Francisco’s greatest mural works.

You may choose to call the deliberate blocking of someone’s view of an artwork a clever act of “art intervention” or a means to “contend with and complicate the legacy and monumentality” of the artwork… but an honest person would call it censorship.

There is a larger cautionary tale to be told here regarding Rivera’s mural, one that has it roots in the history of the SFAI, but also in the chronicles of U.S. art and politics.

In 1931 Diego Rivera painted his mural at the SFAI, then known as the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA). Douglas McAgy was the school’s director from 1945 to 1950, and he transformed the institution into a center for the non-objective school of abstract art. McAgy hired abstract artists like Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and Richard Diebenkorn as instructors, and tirelessly promoted abstract art through exhibitions and forums. To McAgy, figurative realism in art was passé and on its way out.

The “enlightened” McAgy was so offended by Rivera’s social realist mural that in 1945 he had a wall constructed over the fresco to prevent the public from ever seeing it [1]. While history has noted the total destruction of Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads mural at New York’s Rockefeller Center by the order of Nelson Rockefeller in 1934, the censorship of Rivera’s mural at the CSFA is barely known or acknowledged. In retrospect the suppression of the mural by McAgy has been forgiven by those who simply think the school director acted as an overzealous apostle of abstract art. As if that is an excuse for his blatant act of censorship.

But here is the delightful irony in this whole messy affair. Just as the director of the CSFA revamped the school into a citadel of abstract art on the West coast, putting the kibosh on figurative realism in the process, so too has the current leadership of the SFAI turned the school into a bulwark for today’s oh so fashionable postmodern art. As Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.” Douglas McAgy covered Rivera’s mural in an open act of censorship; the SFAI covers Rivera’s mural and justifies it in the name of “ambitious new works.”

"Pereda thinks his scaffold provides a different screen with which to see the world through. The luminous glow from the fluorescent bulbs makes it impossible to view or photograph Rivera's fresco!" Screen grab from the SFIA short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

"Pereda thinks his scaffold provides a different screen with which to see the world through. The luminous glow from the fluorescent bulbs makes it impossible to view or photograph Rivera's fresco!" Screen grab from the SFAI short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

But I do not believe for a moment that McAgy’s censorship of Rivera’s mural was an act solely based on an extreme bias against realism in art. McAgy acted in full accord with the “Red Scare” that had seized control of U.S. national politics.

In 1938 the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) attacked Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration (WPA). Specifically, HUAC went after the WPA’s Federal Theater Project, a government effort to provide work for unemployed theater professionals in the midst of the Great Depression. HUAC concluded the project was dominated by communists and demanded Roosevelt fire the project’s leadership because they had “associates who were Socialists, Communists, and crackpots.” Roosevelt refused to fire the leaders but HUAC convinced the U.S. Congress to cancel funding to the project on June 30, 1939.

In 1945 HUAC became a permanent Congressional committee that launched investigations into “subversive” activities in the U.S. It undertook an anti-Communist witch hunt in Hollywood in 1947 that placed over 320 actors, directors, and writers on a blacklist forbidding them work. In the same timeframe Joe McCarthy, Senator from the state of Wisconsin, led his own crusade against the hundreds of communists he alleged had infiltrated the U.S. government. The manic anti-Communism that gripped America in that period became known as “McCarthyism” due to the pathological anti-communism of Senator McCarthy and his political allies in official circles.

HUAC repression in Hollywood destroyed careers and purged the entertainment industry of those perceived to be “un-American.” Ten prominent screenwriters and directors who refused to cooperate with HUAC were found in contempt of Congress and each was sentenced to a year in prison; after their release they were blacklisted like all the rest. Government bullying not only purged Hollywood of the left, it ushered in an era of political submissiveness and conformity in U.S. cinema; The Red Menace from Republic Pictures is a perfect example [2].

McCarthyism impacted all facets of cultural life in the U.S., it was not just the entertainment professionals in Hollywood who suffered; visual artists were also targeted. It is beyond the scope of this article to list all of the painters and printmakers who were persecuted by McCarthyism, but Irving Norman, the painter of social surrealist images comes to mind. U.S. artists would do well to remember the reactionary assault on art during the McCarthy years led by Michigan Republican Congressman, George A. Dondero. On August 16, 1949, Rep. Dondero gave a speech before the U.S. Congress titled, Modern Art Shackled to Communism [3]. He spoke of the “isms” that he said were promoted by communists:

“Cubism aims to destroy by designed disorder. Futurism aims to destroy by the machine myth. Dadaism aims to destroy by ridicule. Expressionism aims to destroy by aping the primitive and insane. Abstractionism aims to destroy by the creation of brainstorms. Surrealism aims to destroy by the denial of reason. All these isms are of foreign origin, and truly should have no place in American art. While not all are media of social or political protest, all are instruments and weapons of destruction.

We are now face to face with the intolerable situation, where public schools, colleges and universities, art and technical schools, invaded by a horde of foreign art manglers, are selling to our young men and women a subversive doctrine of “isms,” Communist-inspired and Communist-connected, which have one common, boasted goal - the destruction that awaits if this Marxist trail is not abandoned.”

Today Congressman Dondero’s words may sound utterly ridiculous, but between the years 1946 and 1956 this was a deadly serious matter. Congress never rebuffed Dondero’s claims; he had very powerful friends and allies. Together they condemned and suppressed modern art exhibits while leading campaigns to censor and destroy “communist” WPA murals located in government buildings. In 1953, acting as the chairman of the House Committee on Public Works during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Dondero was involved in a congressional push to destroy the murals of Anton Refregier that were painted in San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office.

While Congressman Dondero and his supporters were attacking abstract art for being “communist because it is distorted and ugly, because it does not glorify our beautiful country, our cheerful and smiling people, and our material progress,” a few powerful opponents of Dondero both in and out of government were defending abstract art as anti-communist.

The advisory director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Alfred Barr, wrote an essay titled Is Modern Art Communist? for the New York Times in 1952. Barr proclaimed abstract art to be anti-communist and an expression of American freedom and individualism! [4] Here I must remind the reader that Nelson Rockefeller, a major proponent of abstract art, was the president of MoMA in the 1940s and 1950s, and that he initially approved of, but then ordered the destruction of, Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads mural in 1934.

For twelve years Rivera’s mural would remain hidden behind McAgy’s wall until after Rivera’s untimely death in 1957. That same year McCarthyism and Abstract art began to ebb; the CSFA decided it was safe to take down the wall that hid the fresco mural and rededicate The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City.

As conservative anti-communists and liberal anti-communists fought over how to defeat communism in the arts, as well as how to combat it with the arts, there stood Diego Rivera in the midst of the clamor, painting his mural at the California School of Fine Arts. It is little wonder why Rivera’s fresco was targeted for censorship in 1945. Douglas McAgy’s decision to wall off Rivera’s mural was undoubtedly motivated by the “liberal” anti-communist view, coupled with his being an exponent of abstract art.

In this mural detail Diego Rivera depicted steel workers constructing a modern skyscraper. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

In this mural detail Diego Rivera depicted steel workers constructing a modern skyscraper. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

What may astonish the reader is that the CSFA, renamed the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in 1961, makes absolutely no acknowledgment online of CSFA director Douglas McAgy being responsible for building a wall over Rivera’s mural and keeping it covered for a dozen years. Mention of McAgy’s censorship is not even broached on the SFAI website page that supposedly presents the institution’s history.

I have a few rhetorical questions for the students and faculty of the San Francisco Art Institute, as well as for the larger arts community in the U.S. and beyond.

Mexico is in deep crisis, it is in a political, economic, and moral tailspin; since 2007 over 164,000 Mexicans have been killed in the so-called drug war; 10,000 Mexicans have been kidnapped and “disappeared” by death squads since 2012; over 41 Mexican journalists have been assassinated since 2010 for seeking the truth.

I write this on the one year anniversary of the kidnapping and forced disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Guerrero, Mexico, who were seized by corrupt police officers and their drug gang accomplices. Ayotzinapa has become a dagger in the heart of the Mexican people, and millions of them know who is responsible for conspiring against them.

My questions are - do you really prefer Alejandro Almanza Pereda and his fluorescent light scaffolding over Diego Rivera and his socially conscious mural? Do you actually think Pereda’s is the appropriate artistic response to a Mexico awash in blood and corruption? Do you genuinely believe that art and artists are above the fray, and need not dirty their hands with real world issues? And, faced with all of the inequality and barbarity of this world, do you regard it as apropos to “contend with and complicate the legacy” of these conditions by attacking Rivera?

If you answered “yes” to any of my questions, then I think it safe to say that the arts community is in its own moral tailspin.

– // –

ADDENDUM:

[1] Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University. Howard Singerman. University of California Press. 1999.

[2] The Red Menace - Director, R.G. Springsteen. Republic Pictures 1949. The film offered an over the top fictional account of how the Communist Party USA supposedly operated in the city of Los Angeles, using deceit and thuggery to recruit the weak minded. The film is narrated by Lloyd G. Davies, a member of the Los Angeles City Council. One of the film’s villainous communists was played by actress Betty Lou Gerson, who would be the voice actress for Cruella De Vil in Disney’s 1961 animated feature, 101 Dalmatians.

[3] Law, Ethics, and the Visual Arts - John Henry Merryman, Albert Edward, Elsen, Stephen K. Urice. Published by Kluwer Law International, 2007.

[4] The Rise and Fall of American Art, 1940s-1980s: A Geopolitics of Western Art Worlds - Assoc Prof Catherine Dossin. Ashgate Publishing. 2015.

May Day with Diego & Frida

Night time in Motor City. I am standing before a backlight banner at the Detroit Institute of Arts, May 1st 2015. Photo by Jeaninne Thorpe ©.

The Motor City, May 1st 2015. I am standing before a backlit banner at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

When I first got the news that the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) in Detroit, Michigan would be presenting a special exhibition of works by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, I knew I would be making a trip to the Motor City. My wife and I flew from Los Angeles to arrive at the DIA on May Day, the most appropriate day to visit with my old mentors Rivera and Kahlo.

I had never been to Detroit, let alone the DIA, and found the entire experience eye-opening and inspiring. The DIA is an amazing world class museum with a truly impressive collection. My only regret was that I did not have more time to peruse through every wing of the institution.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit opened at the DIA on March 15th and will run until July 12, 2015. The exhibit features some 70 works from the couple, most of which were done while visiting Detroit from 1932 to 1933 during the Great Depression. The show features 23 paintings, prints, and drawings by Kahlo, with the remaining works having been created by Rivera.

As of this writing I am still working on a review of the exhibit; as a working artist profoundly influenced by the Mexican school of social realism that Rivera and Kahlo were part of, there is so much to cover.

Partial view of Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals located in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The photo also shows the laminated glass skylight that illuminates the court.

Partial view of Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals located in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The photo also shows the laminated glass skylight that illuminates the court.

Art critics and reviewers have written positive appraisals of the DIA exhibit, but they have done so with little understanding of Mexican history, and absolutely no sympathy for the politics embraced by Rivera and Kahlo. As an artist that has been involved with Chicano art and politics in Los Angeles since the late 1960s, I have a different take on Rivera and Kahlo.

I view them, not as superstars or interesting figures frozen in a not-so-distant past, but as standard bearers for the type of art so desperately needed today. That is especially so for Diego Rivera.

My overall impressions of the exhibit are overwhelmingly positive, and I suggest that everyone who can should make an attempt to see it. However, my praise for the show does not preclude criticism… but you will read all of that in my forthcoming appraisal of the show.

This essay will be the first installment of multiple observations I will make regarding my visit to the DIA; surprisingly enough, this opening assessment does not focus on the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit exhibition, but with my photographs of Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco murals found in the DIA’s gorgeous Rivera Court.

In 1932 Rivera was commissioned to create the murals by then president of the Ford Motor Company, Edsel Ford. The mural project was encouraged by the DIA’s director at the time, William Valentiner, with the museum providing the wall space for the monumental murals in an interior garden courtyard. Obviously, it was the creation of the murals that brought the couple to Detroit by train in ‘32. Seeing as how Rivera’s monumental sketches for his murals were on display in the special exhibit Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, the murals and the special exhibit can be seen as one organic whole.

My objective in presenting photos of Rivera’s paintings, is to spotlight the craft of his works and to show the artist’s hand in making them. Rather than present a typical photograph that crams as many figures into the shot as possible, I have chosen instead to zero in on extreme, detailed close-ups. My photos give insight into the physicality of Rivera’s frescos, revealing layered washes and underlying charcoal drawings, as well as showing textures and the absorbent nature of the walls Rivera painted upon.

While fresco was practiced in ancient Crete, Greece, and Rome, it is mostly associated with European art of the late Medieval and Renaissance periods. The technique entails painting upon freshly-laid wet plaster with water-based pigments. The plaster absorbs the pigment, and as the two dry they bind, becoming inseparable. It is an unforgiving medium, and with fresco murals as large as the ones painted at the DIA, only so much wet plaster could be trowelled on the walls and painted before the plaster dried, which means that the entire mural cycle had to be painted in small sections.

In 1920 Rivera learned how to create frescos when traveling and studying in Italy, but as an amateur archaeologist well familiar with the ancient fresco paintings of the indigenous Toltec artisans at Tula and the frescos from craftsmen at ancient Teotihuacan, Rivera was inspired to create a new muralism that sprang from Mexico’s own history.

I am standing at the south wall of "Detroit Industry." One of the monochromatic predella panels is shown directly behind me. Photo by Jeaninne Thorpe ©.

I am standing at the south wall of "Detroit Industry." One of the monochromatic predella panels is shown directly behind me.

In this, my first illustrated essay on Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals, I am going to set my sights on a certain design aspect of the artist’s frescos, his use of the “predella panel” in buttressing his mural’s overall message.

In European religious altarpiece paintings from the late medieval and Renaissance period, a central figure or depiction would be augmented by a series of small panel paintings, the predella, images that added to or reinforced the overall narrative.

Rivera’s predella panels were painted like traditional grisaille paintings. As a technique, grisaille (pronounced greeze-eye) goes back as far as the late Middle Ages, but it continues to be used today; I use the technique on some of my own oil paintings. Basically it means to paint monochromatically in shades of grey (sometimes in burnt umber), the name for the method coming from “gris,” the French word for grey.

Grisaille can be a monochromatic painting completed in one color, or treated as an underpainting painted over with glazes of color, the technique I choose. Rivera’s grisaille predella panels give the illusion of sculptural friezes.

In painting his grisaille predella panels, Rivera was no doubt also thinking of the Mexican folk art art known as “retablos,” small devotional paintings of Saints or other religious figures that are created on tin, copper, or wood. Many people in the Southwest of the U.S., especially those of Mexican heritage, are familiar with retablos… I have a few in my own house.

But Rivera was not thinking of Catholic saints when he painted Detroit Industry, we was extolling the working class. Rivera’s predella panels were painted monochromatically in tones of blue and grey, each surrounded by a fresco tromp l’oeil frame of bolted green steel. Each predella depicted the workers daily life at an auto plant and the labor associated with automobile manufacturing.

To wrap up this intro, the DIA allows photography of the Detroit Industry murals in Rivera Court, provided you do not use a tripod. I used my Canon Rebel T2i camera with a 17-55mm zoom lens for paintings at eye-level, and a 70-300mm telephoto lens for extreme close-ups and shots of figures placed high up in the mural. Considering the ceiling at the Rivera Court consists of a magnificent laminated glass skylight, I used nothing but natural light for my photos. All quotes by Rivera that appear in my essay come from his personal history, Diego Rivera - My Art, My Life: An Autobiography.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, Rivera showed tired auto workers taking a quick lunch break.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, Rivera showed tired auto workers taking a quick lunch break.

In 1932 the workers at Ford labored under deplorable conditions. They had no union to protect their rights, and Ford liked it that way. What makes this painting so poignant is that at the time workers were forced to work one long grueling shift with only a brief respite for lunch. They would not win the right to two fifteen-minute rest periods per shift, amongst other basic rights, until 1941.

Rivera’s works were actually based upon his observations of workers at Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant. As the artist noted:

“I studied industrial scenes by night as well as by day, making literally thousands of sketches of towering blast furnaces, serpentine conveyor belts, impressive scientific laboratories, busy assembling rooms; also of precision instruments, some of them massive yet delicate; and of the men who worked them all. I walked for miles through the immense workshops of the Ford, Chrysler, Edison, Michigan Alkali, and Parke-Davis plants. I was afire with enthusiasm.”

Rivera said that Edsel Ford placed only one condition on the creation of the murals, “that in representing the industry of Detroit, I should not limit myself to steel and automobiles but take in chemicals and pharmaceuticals, which were also important in the economy of the city. He wanted to have a full tableau of the industrial life of Detroit.” Close examination of the Detroit Industry mural cycle reveals that Rivera also depicted workers involved with the pharmaceutical, chemical, transport, weapons, steel, and medical industries, all of which were dynamic in Detroit at the time.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown cutting and stacking steal bars.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown cutting and stacking steal bars.

When Rivera and Kahlo arrived in Detroit the Great Depression was strangling the city as well as the rest of the country. Thousand of workers at Detroit’s great auto plants had been laid-off and those that remained had their wages severely cut. Auto workers labored long hours for an annual salary of $757. The workers had no union and enjoyed no company benefits. There was no such thing as unemployment insurance or social security. The banks had collapsed and workers became impoverished. The Detroit working class was suffering joblessness, poverty, homelessness, and utter despair.

Eventually the workers decided to march on the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant on March 7, 1932 in what they called The Ford Hunger March. The workers rallied behind a set of demands; jobs for all laid off Ford workers, the right to organized a union, a seven-hour work day without a reduction in pay, free health care for all Ford workers whether employed and unemployed, no discrimination against blacks and an end to racist hiring practices, no speed-ups, two fifteen-minute rest periods per shift, no foreclosures on the homes of Ford workers, and the abolishment of company spies and armed thugs.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown lining up to punch a time clock.

In this detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown lining up to punch a time clock.

All of the demands from The Ford Hunger March were equally important, but I have to elaborate on the demand regarding the use of armed thugs at the Ford River Rouge Plant. Henry Ford was fiercely anti-union, he hired the notorious Pinkerton Detective Agency, known for its brutality, to physically keep the workforce in line and free of union organizers.

Ford also organized an internal “Service Department,” a private security army of armed thugs that was used to defeat the workers’ union movement. Ford appointed a pugnacious ex-navy boxer named Harry Bennett to lead the force of over 8,000 men that used blackjacks, brass knuckles, clubs, whips, and guns to intimidate the workers in every Ford plant; Bennett quickly became Ford’s most trusted underling. Quoting the Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-class History, Volume 1 by Eric Arnesen, in the 1930s the Ford Service Department was “the world’s largest private army, whose purpose was to disrupt union organizing efforts using espionage, physical intimidation, and violence.”

detail from the north wall fresco, workers are shown lining up to punch a time clock

Extreme detail from the fresco showing workers punching a time clock.

Through Ford’s connections, Harry Bennett was appointed to the Michigan Parole Board. Arnesen wrote that Bennett used that position to have “men who had been convicted of violent crimes released so they could enter his service.”

Service Department thugs regularly attacked union organizers attempting to distribute flyers to the workforce.

Arnesen wrote that the United Auto Workers, then struggling to be recognized by the Ford Motor Company, “compared Ford’s repressive methods to those of European fascism, and branded the Service Department, ‘Ford’s Gestapo.’”

Some of the men recruited into the Ford Service Department were no doubt fanatics from the extreme right-wing terror organization, The Black Legion, a group I wrote about extensively in my January 2013 article, Maurice Merlin & the Black Legion. Based in Michigan, the Black Legion was a white supremacist gang that targeted African Americans, Jews, union organizers, and leftists.

Auto worker union activists were convinced that members of the shadowy Black Legion terror group were employed by the Ford Service Department, the goons of which were to play a loathsome role in attempts to squelch the labor movement.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, workers line up to receive their pay.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, workers line up to receive their pay.

Braving bitter cold and snow some 5,000 workers and their families participated in The Ford Hunger March. They carried banners that read, “Give Us Work,” “We Want Bread Not Crumbs!” “Don’t starve to death in the richest land on earth,” “Negro, White, Unite!” “Fight Evictions!” and “Tax the Rich and Feed the Poor.” When the workers finally made it to the Rouge Plant, they were attacked by the Police and the Ford Service Department, who together fired volleys of live ammo at the unarmed protesters, even using machine guns.

Four workers were killed and fifty more were injured. What had been organized as The Ford Hunger March, turned out to be The Ford Massacre.

In the massacre’s aftermath the repression continued; hundreds of workers were fired at Ford plants for having leftwing literature, those who were hospitalized from police violence at the Hunger March were arrested in their hospital beds, some were even handcuffed to their beds! Labor organizations and offices of the Communist Party were raided and their members arrested. The press churned out lies, for instance, the Detroit Free Press reported that “professional Communists” were responsible for “the assaults and killings which took place before the Ford plant.” Despite the propaganda the workers and the burgeoning labor movement held strong. On March 12, 1932, over 80,000 workers held a funeral procession for the four slain workers, who were buried at the Woodmere Cemetery.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, workers produce parts that will be used to repair factory machinery.

Detail from the south wall fresco, workers produce parts that will be used to repair factory machinery.

A month after the March 12th procession for the martyred workers, Curtis Williams, a committed African American auto worker activist who suffered a vicious police clubbing and inhalation of tear gas at the Ford Massacre, died of his wounds at Ypsilanti State Hospital. The Woodmere Cemetery refused to bury him because he was black. The Communist Party U.S.A. released a statement that in part read:

“At the direct orders of Ford, with the understanding and consent of Mayor Murphy and his police department, the board of directors of the Woodmere Cemetery uncovered their hidden policy of segregation, Jim Crowism, and race discrimination and white chauvinism, by bluntly refusing to permit us to bury the body of Curtis Williams beside that of the rest of our dead. Comrades Joe York, Joe Bussell, Joe DiBlassio, and Coleman Leny, the first victims of the bloody Ford Massacre. This is another attempt by the boss class to split the growing unity of Negro and white workers.”

Mass protests and complaints eventually forced the Woodmere Cemetery to compromise. Williams was admitted to the the cemetery for cremation, but the facility would still not allow a burial. The workers’ movement responded by hiring a plane and scattering the remains of Williams over the cemetery and the Ford River Rouge Plant.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, by-products from coke ovens are made into fertilizer. Iron ore was smelted with limestone and coke in giant blast furnaces to produce steel at the Ford plant.

In this detail from the south wall fresco, by-products from coke ovens are made into fertilizer. Iron ore was smelted with limestone and coke in giant blast furnaces to produce steel at the Ford plant.

This rare silent footage titled Ford Massacre, is the only known film of The Ford Hunger March, the company/state violence that stopped it, and the resulting militant workers funeral march for the slain. It was produced by the Detroit and New York branches of the Film and Photo League, a national collective of filmmakers, photographers, projectionists, writers, and artists dedicated to using film and the photographic arts to bring about radical social change. While a good number of the members were oriented towards Marxism, the league operated independently from the Communist Party U.S.A.

The despair of the Great Depression and the terror of the Ford Massacre describes the political atmosphere of Detroit when Rivera and Kahlo arrived. One cannot truly understand or appreciate the Detroit Industry murals without knowing this history.

This fresco predella depicts Henry Ford giving a lecture on the V8 engine to workers.

This fresco predella depicts Henry Ford giving a lecture on the V8 engine to workers.

I think the predella panel that shows Henry Ford giving a lecture to the workers is the most interesting panel in the series; it certainly illustrates Rivera’s sense of humor. Knowing that Rivera reviled capitalism, the panel is also a swipe at Henry Ford. To me the painting has religious overtones and contains a veiled critique of capitalism as a theology.

The tableau of the godlike Henry Ford, his finger pointed to the heavens as he lectures the workers, is somewhat evocative of The Creation of Adam, the most well-known panel from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel mural series - which was also done as a fresco. But instead of being surrounded by angels as in Michelangelo’s depiction of the Lord, Henry Ford stands before a backdrop of slavish laborers too hard-pressed to look up from their drudgery for even a moment.

A close-up view of Henry Ford reveals how quickly Rivera worked on these panels. Beneath the deftly applied washes of water-based pigments one can see the charcoal outlines of the original sketch on wet plaster.

Close-up view of Ford reveals how quickly Rivera worked on these panels. Beneath the deftly applied washes of water-based pigments one can see the charcoal outlines of the original sketch on wet plaster.

The reference to religion in this image continues to strike me. In Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, the apostle Thomas was painted with his finger pointing to heaven, likewise, Leonardo painted St. John the baptist in the same manner.

In 1921 German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote an unfinished essay titled, Capitalism as Religion. If Rivera had not read Benjamin’s tract, he certainly understood the concept as presented by a fellow Marxist. Benjamin wrote:

“One can behold in capitalism a religion, that is to say, capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion.” Benjamin went on to write, “First, capitalism is a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was. Within it everything only has meaning in relation to the cult: it has no special dogma, no theology. From this standpoint, utilitarianism gains its religious coloring.”

Being a Jewish leftist, Benjamin fled Germany for Paris in 1933 when the Nazis took power - the same year Rivera finished his Detroit Industry murals. Benjamin beat a hasty retreat from Paris when the Nazis seized it in 1940, he eventually wound up on the French-Spanish border that same year where he committed suicide at the age of 48 to avoid capture by the fascists.

A close-up view of workers in the Henry Ford panel.

A close-up view of workers in the Henry Ford panel.

Unlike Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam Sistine Chapel painting, Ford is not face to face with Adam, a creation made of dust into which the Lord blew “the breath of life.” Ford stands before a group of workers, who by the looks on their faces have sized up their boss and concluded that they can run the factory just as well without him.

Some have noticed that the V8 engine near Ford resembles a pre-Conquest sculpture of a small, hairless Mexican dog. It is commonly known that the indigenous people of Mexico used the diminutive dogs as a food source, but the spiritual and ritualistic symbology of the dog is not so well known outside of Mexico. As an amateur archaeologist and avid collector of pre-Conquest indigenous art, Rivera knew a thing or two about these dogs.

A close-up view of the zoomorphic V8 engine from the Henry Ford panel.

A close-up view of the zoomorphic V8 engine from the Henry Ford panel.

In ancient Mexico it was thought that a dog accompanied a person’s soul to the underworld. On the famous Mexica-Aztec calendar stone there is a glyph of a dog named Itzcuintli (Eeetz-kween-tlee). He was one of 20 day-sign glyphs that surrounded the depiction of the sun god appearing at the center of the stone. Itzcuintli represented a period of 13 days ruled by Xipe Totec (Our Lord of the Flayed Skin), deity of spring and agricultural renewal.

The Mexica-Aztec people used the hairless dogs in prayer rituals to Tlaloc, Lord of rain and water. The dogs were sacrificed to Tlaloc, one of the most important Aztec deities, and their bodies were then eaten in ritual feasts. Rivera gave a zoomorphic treatment to the V8 by turning the engine into a dog, but he also gave that dog the iconic face of Tlaloc!

Partial view of Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals located in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Partial view of Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals located in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

In late 1933, as Rivera was finishing up work on his murals, a group of some 200 workers marched into the center of the courtyard, the leader shouting “We want Diego Rivera to come here!” The artist descended from his scaffold and walked up to the burly worker who had called for him. One of Rivera’s painting assistants, Cliff Wight, served as a translator, delivering the extraordinary message from the American auto workers to the Mexican artist. Rivera described what the lead worker told him:

“Waiving all ordinary social preliminaries, he acknowledged my presence with a nod of his head. ‘We are Detroit workers from different factories and belonging to different political parties. Some of us are Communists, some are Trotskyites, others are plain Democrats and Republicans, and still others belong to no party at all.

You’re said to be a man of the left opposition, though not a Trotskyite. In any case, you’re reported to have said that, as long as the working class does not hold power, a proletarian art is impossible. You have further qualified this by saying that a proletarian art is feasible only so long as the class in power imposes such an art upon the general population. So you have implied that only in a revolutionary society can a true revolutionary art exist. All right! But can you show me, in all these paintings of yours, a square inch of surface which does not contain a proletarian character, subject, or feeling?

If you can do this, I will immediately join the left opposition myself. If you cannot, you must admit before all these men, that here stands a classic example of proletarian art created exclusively by you for the pleasure of the workers of this city.’”

Rivera was overwhelmed, and agreed with the workers assessment of his mural. He would write later that he “was deeply touched by this tribute from a representative of the working class of the industrial city I wanted so much to impress.” The group of workers also informed the artist that they were well aware of “much talk against your frescoes, and there have been rumors that hoodlums may come here to destroy them. We have therefore organized a guard to protect your work. Eight thousand men have already volunteered.”

The following Sunday Rivera had completed his fresco murals, and they were put on view for the general public to see for the very first time. As promised, the auto worker’s volunteer guardians were there in force. They checked each person that entered the DIA, having each sign their name and address in a registration book. In order to accommodate the massive crowds on that premiere day, the DIA stayed open until half past one on Monday morning. When the museum finally closed its doors on the first day of the exhibit… there were eighty-six thousand signatures in the registration book.

In 1941 the workers movement finally won union recognition and forced the Ford Motor Company to enter a collective bargaining agreement with the United Automobile Workers (UAW).

El Retrato de Linda Christian

"El Retrato de Linda Christian" (Portrait of Linda Christian) - Diego Rivera, oil on canvas, 1947. 44 x 35 5/8 in.

"El Retrato de Linda Christian" (Portrait of Linda Christian) - Diego Rivera, oil on canvas, 1947. 44 x 35 5/8 in.

El Retrato de Linda Christian (Portrait of Linda Christian) has until recently been an oil painting by Diego Rivera that was virtually unknown to the general public, especially outside of Mexico.

On Nov. 20, 2012, the painting was exhibited for the first time at Christie’s auction house in New York City. But who was Linda Christian, and how did Rivera come to paint her portrait? Let me begin with a few biographical details on Christian.

In 1923 Blanca Rosa Welter was born in Tampico, a port city in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico. As fate would have it, just after she graduated from high school she met the Australian-American actor Errol Flynn, who was filming in Acapulco. Flynn became the young woman’s lover and persuaded her to come to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. Not long after her arrival in Tinsel Town, Louis B. Mayer’s MGM studio gave her a seven-year contract.

Mr. Flynn suggested a stage name for her; in 1933 he had played the character of Fletcher Christian in an Australian cinematic version of Mutiny on the Bounty, so Señorita Blanca Rosa Welter became Linda Christian. Thus began Blanca’s wild Gringolandia adventures.

Linda Christian made her U.S. film debut in the 1944 musical comedy Up in Arms, starring Danny Kaye and Dinah Shore. She played minor, decorative roles in other films, like the 1947 Green Dolphin Street starring Lana Turner, where she played a maid to Turner’s character. In 1947 Christian took a starring role in the film Tarzan and the Mermaids, the last of 12 Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller. The film was shot in Acapulco, and it was during this time that Rivera met the young star and painted her portrait.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

Lana Turner was romantically involved with the popular American actor Tyrone Power, who as fate would have it, met and had his heart stolen by Linda Christian instead while visiting Rome in 1948.  Power, the 35-year old “handsome leading man,” married the lovely 26-year old starlet Linda Christian in a church in Rome, Italy on Jan. 27, 1949; the ceremony was attended by some 10,000 adoring fans. The press called it the “marriage of the century.”

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

Christian’s last claim to acting fame was her role as the very first “Bond Girl,” appearing as “Valerie Mathis” in a 1954 TV adaptation of Ian Fleming’s James Bond story Casino Royale. Eight years later Swiss actress Ursula Andress was inaccurately proclaimed to be the first Bond Girl for her role as “Honey Ryder” in Dr. No (starring Sean Connery). In 1959 the Celebrity Register summed up Christian’s acting career with the following: “With a sixth sense for publicity, she parlayed a small talent for acting into an international reputation as a femme fatale.”

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

In ‘47 Rivera painted the young actress as a nude figure, but Christian’s mother objected, insisting that the artist cover up her daughter’s bare breasts. A compromise was reached when Rivera painted a delicate but highly transparent lace blouse on the young woman’s torso. Honestly, I cannot imagine the alteration satisfying the mother one bit; it only heightened the eroticism of the portrait.

Talking heads and so-called art world “experts” have commented that Rivera’s use of the “kissing” hummingbirds was a sexual metaphor.  The depiction of the birds supposedly “exploring the internal cavities of flowers,” is said to be a subtle sexual reference.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

As an avid bird watcher I would like to point out that the pair of Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds shown are both males, and that they are not probing the internal cavities of flowers, but rather are displaying the typical male fighting posture of the aggressive and supremely territorial hummingbird.

There is another aspect to Rivera’s hummingbirds that escapes non-Mexican viewers of the painting. Rivera’s love of indigenous Mexico is well known, and he inserted pre-Columbian symbols and legends into his works at every opportunity. One of two supreme deities worshipped by the Aztecs was the war god named Huitzilopochtli (in English, Hummingbird on the left). If you have ever seen male hummingbirds ferociously clashing to protect their territory, you will understand why the Aztecs adopted the diminutive bird as the emblem for their war god.

In the Aztec pantheon of gods, Huitzilopochtli was represented by the image of a hummingbird. The Aztecs made no stone, clay, or wood artifacts of the god, making 3D ritual objects of him only from corn, amaranth, and seed paste. However, hummingbird representations of the deity survived the ages in Aztec mosaics, paintings, and murals. The Aztecs believed the soul of a warrior who died honorably in battle would be reborn as a hummingbird to enjoy eternal bliss. You could say that the birds in Rivera’s painting are two such souls in paradise, or that they were fighting over the enchantress, or both.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

"Portrait of Linda Christian" (Detail) Diego Rivera, 1947.

Ms. Christian commissioned the painting from Rivera, and thus was the original owner of the portrait. It was never exhibited to the public and only seen outside of Christian’s home when she reproduced it as the cover art for her 1962 autobiography, Linda, my own story.

I do not know how or why, but the painting eventually became the property of Baron Enrico di Portanova, a rich playboy jet-setter that attained his vast fortune through an oil inheritance. Portanova maintained an enormous villa in Acapulco he named Arabesque, the château had 28 bedrooms, 4 swimming pools, indoor waterfalls, a nightclub, and more, including a guard tower with machine-gun toting thugs.

At Arabesque the Baron regaled his coterie of celebrity stars, moneybags, and assorted politicians with endless galas and banquets… even fêting the ignoble Henry Kissinger with Champagne and caviar.  It is distressing to imagine that El retrato de Linda Christian might have watched such dirty dealings from a prominent wall in the lavish mansion. Oh pobrecito Diego, this is why Siqueiros berated easel painting!

 "El Retrato de Linda Christian" (Portrait of Linda Christian) - Diego Rivera, 1947.

"El Retrato de Linda Christian" (Portrait of Linda Christian) - Diego Rivera, 1947.

The Baron died of cancer in March 2000 at the age of 66. Linda Christian died from cancer on July 2011 at the age of 87.

In November 2012 the di Portanova estate put Portrait of Linda Christian up for sale at Christie’s, where it was briefly exhibited at the auction house’s showing of Latin American art before it went under the gavel. The painting sold to an unidentified Mexican buyer for $578,500. If there was any justice in the world, that buyer would loan or donate the painting to the new Casa de los Vientos Diego Rivera cultural center planned for Acapulco, Mexico, where it could be adored by the viewing public forevermore.

As it stands, the painting has once again disappeared from public view, slipping back into obscurity as an expensive trophy in a private collection. Oh pobrecito Diego. ¡Oh pobres de nosotros!

A National Historic Landmark?

Detail from Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" mural at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

Detail from Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" mural at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

On April 23, 2014, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, and the Director of the National Park Service (NPS), Jonathan B. Jarvis, announced four new “National Historic Landmarks” for the United States. The Detroit Industry murals painted by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) in Detroit, Michigan were among the new landmarks.

Detroit Industry joins 2,540 sites across the U.S. now recognized by the government as possessing “exceptional value and quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.”

In part, the dual press release from the U.S. Department of the Interior and the NPS, read: “Considered by many scholars to be Rivera’s greatest extant work in the United States, Detroit Industry is an exemplary representation of the introduction and emergence of mural art in the United States between the Depression and World War II.”

Killing the Detroit Institute of the Arts was an article I wrote in May of 2013. It detailed a bit of Detroit’s history, its economic crisis during the Great Depression when Rivera painted his Detroit Industry mural, the city’s current bankruptcy crisis, and attempts by creditors and government forces to seize and sell-off the world class art collection of the DIA in order to pay down Detroit’s $18 billion debt.

My article also celebrated the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service declaring the 1930s mural, The Epic of American Civilization, as a National Historic Landmark. Painted by José Clemente Orozco at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, the mural was so recognized in March of 2013. I questioned why Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals could not also be recognized as a National Historic Landmark.

Has Obama been reading this web log?  For the first time in my life, the US government has actually done something I wanted them to do…. but I am still not satisfied.

No doubt the DIA must be pleased by the federal designation. Arts professionals and art lovers around the globe, myself included, have a small victory of sorts to take delight in. But let us be clear, it is only a symbolic triumph. The announcement that the government recognizes the Detroit Industry murals as a National Historic Landmark has absolutely no bearing on the powerful creditors that are still pressing to vandalize and auction off the DIA’s art treasures - Rivera’s murals included. The historic landmark designation does not provide a site with protection or guarantee of legal rights.

The National Park Service website says as much in their National Register of Historic Places Program document under “Listing and Ownership.” The NPS explicitly states that: “National Register listing places no obligations on private property owners. There are no restrictions on the use, treatment, transfer, or disposition of private property.” What that means is, since the City of Detroit claims to “own” the collection of the DIA, the historic landmark designation does nothing to shield the “private property” from being auctioned off by the city.

The Wall Street Journal wrote that there are “more than 100,000 creditors considering a debt-cutting plan” for Detroit, a plan that will impose drastic cuts in the health benefits, pensions, and jobs of city workers, who have been sold down the river by obsequious and corrupt unions. There are enormously powerful financial interests that are baying for the seizure of DIA artworks, banks and insurers like the U.S. Bank National Association (the fifth largest bank in the U.S. with assets around $364 billion), and MBIA Insurance (the largest bond insurer with assets of some $32 billion.

On April 9, 2014, the Detroit Free Press reported that insurance giant Financial Guaranty Insurance Co. (FGIC), announced it had a coalition of big investors ready to bid over $2 billion dollars for the DIA’s entire collection. The vultures include the allied Catalyst Acquisitions and Bell Capital Partners, who have offered $1.75 billion for all of the DIA’s property. Beijing Poly International Auction Co., Ltd are willing to bid up to $1 billion for the DIA’s collection of Chinese art. Though unnamed in the article, Ambac Assurance, Hypothekenbank Frankfurt AG, and the Wilmington Trust Company are also in on the potential looting. So to is the huge bond insurer, Syncora, described in a different report from the Detroit Free Press as “among the most strident creditors seeking the sale of DIA assets to reduce losses to the city’s creditors.”

The Detroit Free Press also noted that plans to sell the DIA collection have the full support of at least one union, the American Federation of State, City and Municipal Employees Council 25 (AFSCME). The union has joined the FGIC coalition in mounting a legal action to compel the city to sell the DIA’s collection. The union’s website says nothing about their role in forcing the DIA to sell its collection, but the AFSCME local joined in filing a motion to do just that. The “progressive” Obama-supporting leadership of the union apparently thinks that art and culture has nothing to do with bettering the lives of workers!  The life and work of Diego Rivera was entirely dedicated to making art accessible, understandable, and inspirational to every individual who views it  - wherever in his homeland of Mexico, or the murals he created north of the border.  It is with tragic short-sightedness, that any worker’s union would choose to sell out that legacy, and potentially lose the national treasure that they are lucky enough to have in their midst.

The Mexican Museum & Diego Rivera

December 8, 2013 marks the 127th birthday of the great social realist painter, Diego Rivera (Dec. 8, 1886 - Nov. 24, 1957).

As a member of the Arts and Letters Council of the Mexican Museum of San Francisco, I am pleased to announce that a free tour of Rivera’s famed Pan American Unity mural located in the Diego Rivera Theater at City College of San Francisco, will be conducted by The Mexican Museum in association with the Smithsonian Institution. The tour will be led by curator and coordinator of The Diego Rivera Mural Project, William Maynez, who will share his expertise with event attendees while regaling them with stories regarding the creation, meaning, and impact of Rivera’s mural.

The mural tour will take place on Saturday, November 23, 2013 at 11 am, in the Diego Rivera Theater on the campus of City College of San Francisco. Please RSVP for the event by sending an e-mail to: info@mexicanmuseum.org - with “Diego Rivera Mural Tour” in the subject head.

If you are anywhere near San Francisco, you will want to take advantage of the opportunity to see Rivera’s mural while listening to Mr. Maynez talk about its finer points. For those unable to attend, I offer the following photographs of the mural, which I took in 2011. Part of an ongoing presentation of my photos of the Pan American Unity mural, the following images are close-up details from the mural’s leftmost portion, a series of five panels Rivera titled, The Creative Genius of the South Growing from Religious Fervor and a Native Talent for Plastic Expression. The photos presented here are actually details from the outermost Panel 1, which presented the indigenous people of Mexico before the Spanish invasion.

Detail of Pan American Unity Mural by Diego Rivera

"A Toltec craftsman using a primitive hand-drill." Detail of the 1940 "Pan American Unity" mural by Diego Rivera. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Panel 1 of Rivera’s mural shows Olmec, Maya, Toltec, Mixtec, Yaqui, and Aztec people involved in activities throughout the ages that range from religious ritual to holding high council. The emphasis however is upon indigenous artisans and their craft production. In the above close-up detail, Rivera depicted a Toltec craftsman using a primitive hand-drill powered by a bow to cut a stone statue, part of a group of Toltec artisans sculpting stone statuary. Rivera based the features of the man’s portrait upon the stylized way in which the Toltec people portrayed themselves. The Toltec flourished in central Mexico from around 1200 BC to 400 BC. The Aztecs considered the Toltecs to be their forerunners, and regarded them as the very embodiment of a refined culture; in fact in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, Tōltēcah meant “artisan.”

Detail of Pan American Unity Mural by Diego Rivera

"Rivera painted this grouping of Olmec artisans at work" Detail of the 1940 "Pan American Unity" mural by Diego Rivera. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

In Panel 1 Rivera also painted the above grouping of Olmec artisans at work. The woman at top left is fashioning a ceramic vase, at foreground left a man is designing a mosaic of turquoise and shell, at center another is painting a pictographic scroll, while the man at right is creating a statue of a male figure. The Olmec were the first great civilization of Mexico (2000 BC - 400 BC), though less is known about them compared to more recent cultures like the Maya and Toltec. For example, we do not even know how they referred to themselves; the Aztecs called them “Olmecatl,” which in Nahuatl was the equivalent of “rubber people,” since the Olmec were the first to extract latex from rubber trees, using it for practical, religious, and artistic purposes. The Olmec are perhaps best known for having created colossal human heads sculpted from basalt boulders, but overall their sculptures in basalt, jadeite, greenstone, serpentine, granite, and wood are superlative, and provide much of what we do know about the “rubber people.”

In the extreme close-up detail from Panel 1 shown below, Rivera painted a portrait of the Aztec Emperor, Nezahualcoyotl (1402-1472), whose name meant “Hungry Coyote” in the Nahuatl language. While he was the ruler of the mighty Aztec Empire, a realm that encompassed all of central Mexico between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, Nezahualcoyotl was originally the King of Texcoco. That impressive megalopolis was located on the north shore of Lake Texcoco, and was part of the tri-city-state alliance of Tenochtitlán, Texcoco, and Tlacopan that actually comprised the empire. Ultimately Tenochtitlán became the most powerful city and the nucleus of the empire, but Nezahualcoyotl remained attached to his native Texcoco, which he transformed into a wellspring for Aztec art and culture.

Detail of Pan American Unity Mural by Diego Rivera

"Rivera painted a portrait of the Aztec Emperor, Nezahualcoyotl (1402-1472)." Detail of the 1940 "Pan American Unity" mural by Diego Rivera. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Known as the “philosopher king,” Nezahualcoyotl was also a celebrated architect, engineer, and city planner. He designed a dike that separated the fresh and brackish waters of Lake Texcoco, a system vital to the floating city of Tenochtitlán, which would come to have a population of some 300,000 inhabitants. He also implemented a massive aqueduct system to bring fresh water into the city-state of Texcoco. Nezahualcoyotl established cultural institutions; an academy of music, a zoological garden and arboretum, a vast library of pictographic books (later destroyed by the invading Spanish conquistadors). He also created a sophisticated code of laws that strictly governed civic and public life. But Hungry Coyote is perhaps best remembered for his poetry, which continued to profoundly move people generations after his death.

Rivera’s portrait of Nezahualcoyotl is pure conjecture, since accurate depictions of the emperor were not made during his reign. He was certainly portrayed by Aztec artists, but only in highly stylized ways. Likewise, he was illustrated in pictographs, but in the blunt, rather non-descript portrait style of Aztec artisans. All the same, Rivera painted the Aztec ruler in Kingly attire, resplendent with a crown of gold, a golden nose-plug and earrings, and a royal cape made of bird feathers and held in place by a golden cloak clasp inset with turquoise and sea shell.

Diego Rivera: Pan American Unity

In 1940 Diego Rivera painted the huge fresco mural Pan American Unity for the Golden Gate International Exposition, which was held in 1939 and 1940 on California’s Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay. Tens of thousands of visitors and tourists attended the exposition, which included the special showcase, Art in Action. People visiting the showcase could watch artists, such as Rivera - creating murals, lithographs, mosaics, sculptures, and other types of artworks.

Unbelievably, Rivera’s mural was disassembled at the closing of the fair and put in storage for twenty-one years. It would not be until 1961 that the mural was finally given a home in the then newly built theater of performing arts at City College of San Francisco - renamed The Diego Rivera Theater.

I took the following photographs of Rivera’s Pan American Unity during a 2011 trip I made to San Francisco. The presentation of these photos is another installment in a series of posts that document the murals created in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1930s and 1940s. My intention is to provide high-quality, close-up photographic images of such murals; I especially want to give an artist’s view of the fresco murals, showing the painterly details usually missed in other online photographs.

This photo captures the immensity of Rivera's Pan American Unity mural, but the perspective still does not show the entire work. Measuring 22 feet high by 74 feet long, the fresco mural is painted on 10 steel-framed panels that were bolted together, allowing the entire painting to be dismantled and moved. Altogether the massive painting weighs 23 tons. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

This photo captures the immensity of Rivera's "Pan American Unity" mural, but the perspective still does not show the entire work. Measuring 22 feet high by 74 feet long, the fresco mural is painted on 10 steel-framed panels that were bolted together, allowing the entire painting to be dismantled and moved. Altogether the massive painting weighs 23 tons. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

My presentation focuses on details found in the section of the mural that is titled, Elements from Past and Present, seen below in a cropped overview. Compositionally, the upper portion of the mural segment portrays the “present” of San Francisco as it appeared in 1940 (that portion of the mural is not shown here). The lower portion of the mural that I put on view here, depicts political leaders and artisans from the yesteryears of the Americas.

The "Elements from Past and Present" portion of Rivera's "Pan American Unity" mural at City College of San Francisco. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

The "Elements from Past and Present" portion of Rivera's "Pan American Unity" mural at City College of San Francisco. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Rivera inserted a portrait of himself into the tableau. Dressed in blue and with his back to the viewer, he depicted himself engaged in the act of painting. Surrounded by indigenous artisans, makers of sculpture, folk art, woven basketry, and ceramics, he portrayed himself as a descendant of humble craftspersons. To his right stand several revolutionaries from the turbulent history of the Americas. Commenting that art and culture are inseparable from politics, he pictured himself painting the “Tree of Liberty” that weds him to the revolutionary patriots of the Americas.

To Rivera’s immediate right stands Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), known as “The Liberator” for uniting the people of Venezuela (his birthplace), Columbia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, and leading them to independence against the Spanish Empire. Next to Bolivar stands Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla (1753-1811), the Mexican Roman Catholic priest who on September 16, 1810, rang the bells of his church in the small town of Dolores that declared the beginning of the revolution against the Spanish Empire. Hidalgo was eventually captured and executed by Spanish colonial authorities, but today his Grito de Dolores (Cry of Dolores) is celebrated every Sept. 16th as the beginning of Mexico’s successful War of Independence against Spain.

To the right of Hidalgo stands fellow Mexican revolutionary and Roman Catholic priest, José María Morelos y Pavón (1765-1815). Morelos assumed the leadership of the War of Independence after Hidalgo was executed by the Spanish, and was himself captured and executed by the Spanish on December 22, 1815. For the revolutionaries, victory was certain, and on the 21st of September, 1821, the Independentistas finally won their country’s liberation from Spain.

Following this pantheon of Latin American heroes, Rivera painted the portraits of George Washington (1732-1799), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), and Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). Rivera paid homage to these U.S. patriots as world-historical figures that helped to advance the liberation of humanity. Washington and Jefferson of course were leaders of the world’s first anti-colonial revolution, a fact not lost on the anti-Imperialist Rivera. He painted Jefferson unfurling a parchment scroll upon which were written his famous words written in a 1787 letter to fellow patriot William Stephens Smith:

“What country ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”

A portrait of John Brown. Detail from "Pan American Unity". Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

A portrait of John Brown. Detail from "Pan American Unity". Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

With Jefferson’s “Tree of Liberty” quote as the backdrop, Rivera painted a portrait of radical abolitionist John Brown, who on October 16, 1859, led 18 followers on an armed raid against the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia. Believing that armed struggle was the only recourse left to abolish slavery, Brown seized Harper’s Ferry in the hope the raid would spark a massive slave rebellion that would topple the slave system and purge slavery from the land. The raid failed when on October 18, U.S. Marines stormed the armory, captured Brown and killed or apprehended his men. A trial found Brown guilty of “treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia” and he was hanged on December 2, 1859. It could be said that Brown’s daring raid on Harper’s Ferry was the opening salvo of the U.S. Civil War.

This is one of the anonymous indigenous artists that appears in the lower left of the mural segment; the figure weaves a basket and appears directly below Rivera's self-portrait. The female figure wears earrings of silver and a necklace of jade and coral. This close-up view shows how quickly and loosely Rivera and his assistants painted the fresco. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

This is one of the anonymous indigenous artists that appears in the lower left of the mural segment; the figure weaves a basket and appears directly below Rivera's self-portrait. The female figure wears earrings of silver and a necklace of jade and coral. This close-up view shows how quickly and loosely Rivera and his assistants painted the fresco. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

These hands belong to the indigenous basket weaver that sits next to the figure described in the above. Rivera's mural contains thousands of engaging details both diminutive and sizeable; this is one of my favorite small details. Here Rivera utilized a spare realism, but imbued it with a sense of motion; one can almost hear the sound of rattan being manipulated by the agile hands of the basket weaver. The background to the sensitively painted hands is marvelously painted in greens and purple, and one can see how thinly and rapidly Rivera painted. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

These hands belong to the indigenous basket weaver that sits next to the figure described in the above. Rivera's mural contains thousands of engaging details both diminutive and sizeable; this is one of my favorite small details. Here Rivera utilized a spare realism, but imbued it with a sense of motion; one can almost hear the sound of rattan being manipulated by the agile hands of the basket weaver. The background to the sensitively painted hands is marvelously painted in greens and purple, and one can see how thinly and rapidly Rivera painted. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Anonymous couple. Detail from "Pan American Unity". Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Anonymous couple. Detail from "Pan American Unity". Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Rivera painted a crowd of people paying rapt attention to the oratory of the fiery abolitionist, John Brown. These two faces in the crowd are situated beneath the portrait of Simón Bolívar. Painted in profile, the couple received only the barest attention from Rivera, they were painted with extreme rapidity - yet, their faces are complete. The portraits reveal much about the process of fresco painting. They are painted in the thinnest of washes, the overall effect looking much like something drawn with a magic marker. If you look closely at the eyebrows, noses, and hairlines of both figures, you will see a number of tiny dots, those are the original outlines of the drawing before it was painted.

Fresco entails the use of water-based pigments that are painted directly onto wet plaster. To begin painting an artist first places a “cartoon” on the fresh plaster. The cartoon is a preparatory drawing on paper, the drawn lines of which are perforated with pin prick holes. The artist then “pounces” the cartoon, that is, a small cloth bag filled with powdered pigment is lightly tapped all along the perforated drawing - transferring the sketch to the wet plaster. At that point the actual painting may start. Absorbed by the lime plaster as it dries, water-based pigments become fixed to the plaster. This photo shows the original pounced pigment outlines on the faces of Rivera’s subjects.

Campesinos creating ceramic folk art. Detail from "Pan American Unity". Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Campesinos creating folk art. Detail from "Pan American Unity". Photo by Mark Vallen ©

This large detail from the mural could stand alone as a successful easel painting. Its subject is an elderly campesino couple at work creating ceramic folk art; the old man uses a small brush to paint a face upon a clay female figurine. In Mexico the production of earthenware utensils and painted sculptural objects can be traced back to 2300 B.C., and over the centuries the art passed through the hands of Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, Aztec, and many other indigenous cultures. The Spanish invaders brought their own influences; the potter’s wheel, enclosed kilns, new pigments and lead glazes. As the indigenous and Spanish merged, new traditions evolved that transformed Mexico’s already unique earthenware art into some of the world’s most sophisticated ceramics; no doubt Rivera had this history in mind when he painted this scene.

Woman of Tehuantepec. Detail from "Pan American Unity". Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Woman of Tehuantepec. Detail from "Pan American Unity". Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

In the lower right corner of his composition, Rivera painted this beautiful portrait of a woman of Tehuantepec as she shapes a wet clay statue with a pottery knife. Though Rivera used a minimalist style in his fresco murals to conform with the quick drying quality of the medium, his representation of the Tehuana is highly finished and lovingly painted. Note how he used the sharp end of a paintbrush to scratch highlights into the women’s chin and jaw line.

War. Detail from "Pan American Unity". Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

War. Detail from "Pan American Unity". Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Rivera interspersed images of war throughout his mural to make plain that conflict sometimes cannot be avoided; Latin America won its independence from colonial Spain using revolutionary violence; Washington and Jefferson helped to win America’s independence from Britain by means of war; President Lincoln preserved the union and eventually ended chattel slavery by way of warfare. Rivera was stating that selecting peace was not always the same as choosing liberty.

At the time of creating his painting in 1940, World War II (1939-1945) was already in full swing; WWII actually began in 1936 when General Francisco Franco and his fascist army attempted to overthrow the Spanish Republic. In 1936 Rivera and Frida Kahlo worked to raise funds in support of the beleaguered Spanish Republicans, so there is no doubt Rivera viewed the Spanish Civil War as the beginning of a world-wide conflagration. While the Elements from Past and Present section of Rivera’s mural did not deal specifically with the issue of WWII, he did address it unambiguously in panel 4 of his mural (images from which I will post at a later date).

In the Elements from Past and Present mural panel, a small passage in the upper right-hand corner of the composition dealt with the looming tragedy of the Second World War. The scene has no particular focus, but it acts as a reminder of realities masked by calm panoramas. One must think of the tens of thousands of people who stood before Rivera’s mural in 1940 during the Golden Gate International Exposition, and what they must have thought about what Rivera portrayed; world war was the furthest thing from the minds of a good number of Americans. The U.S. would not enter WWII until December 8, 1941 (the day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor).

In this section of the mural Rivera painted fire licking the turret of the cannons pointed at the viewer, bayonets raised in anger, a woman carrying a dead child with shrapnel wounds in its head, a fist punching the air. It could have been a depiction of any number of events that occurred in the Americas over many decades - revolutions and counter-revolutions. But Rivera also included in the scene the fasces symbol of ancient Rome, used by Benito Mussolini’s regime as the symbol of Italian fascism. Rivera was clearly warning viewers about European fascism, which he correctly believed could only be toppled by force of arms.

The artist's self-portrait. Detail from "Pan American Unity". Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

The artist's self-portrait. Detail from "Pan American Unity". Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

El Maestro at work. Rivera depicted himself in a bright cerulean blue work shirt, holding a brush as he paints. This detail allows one to see the technique employed by Rivera in painting his fresco. The painting of the shirt was created in layers, first an underpainting wash of diluted blue, over which the darker and more vibrant cerulean was painted. The brushwork is rapid and its touch light; the artist does not linger for very long on any aspect of the work.

Along with his fellow Mexican Muralists, Rivera was an advocate of muralism as a “people’s art”. Yes, his murals were “public works of art,” but not in the sense of today’s superficial public works. His interest was not in richly festooning city walls, or painting over the cracks of a flawed society - he had deep social concerns, and believed art could play a key role in creating a better world. As he once put it: “It is said that revolution doesn’t need art, but that art needs revolution - that is not true. Revolution needs a revolutionary art.” (Amazingly enough, that quote, along with a self-portrait of Rivera, appears on the 500 Pesos Bill issued by the Bank of Mexico in 2010).

A prime example of that revolutionary art can be seen at the City College of San Francisco. In Rivera’s vision of Pan-American unity, the artist gifted us with powerful depictions of U.S. historical events and figures. It would be an outrageous scandal of the highest order if Rivera’s mural were to be disassembled and put in storage once again.

– // –

POSTS IN THIS CONTINUING SERIES:

Coit Tower Crisis

Arnautoff & the Chapel at the Presidio

Diego Rivera: The Making of a Fresco

Arnautoff & the Chapel at the Presidio

Sitting atop a hill and surrounded by a grove of Eucalyptus trees, the Chapel at the Presidio affords a fine view of the San Francisco Bay area. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Sitting atop a hill and surrounded by a grove of Eucalyptus trees, the Chapel at the Presidio affords a fine view of the San Francisco Bay area. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Nestled in the middle of the Presidio of San Francisco, California, is a small Spanish Colonial style Chapel surrounded by a grove of Eucalyptus trees.

The Chapel at the Presidio houses an impressive but little known Great Depression era mural by Victor Arnautoff (1896-1979). I visited and photographed the mural in late 2011, and will here share my observations.

Sitting atop a hill, the Chapel affords a fine view of the San Francisco Bay area. Within the grounds of the Presidio and not far from the Chapel you will find the San Francisco National Cemetery, where 30,000 American war dead from the late 1800s to the present are interned.

A Robin visits some of the 30,000 American war dead interned at the National Cemetery located on the grounds of the Presidio. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

A Robin visits some of the 30,000 American war dead interned at the National Cemetery located on the grounds of the Presidio. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In 1931 the U.S. Congress gave the U.S. Army $40,000 to build the Chapel; it was constructed in Spanish Colonial Revival style architecture, and with its heavily stuccoed walls, stained glass windows and bell tower, it was - and still is - quite a sight to behold.

In Feb. of 2009 I wrote a review in praise of Arnautoff, whose works were on display at an exhibit of California Modernist Paintings at the Spencer Jon Helfen gallery in Beverly Hills, California. The article examined the life story of the artist in some detail. Despite my high opinion of Arnautoff, it was the most I had ever written about the artist - until now.

The Russian born Victor Arnautoff looms large in my pantheon of great artists, though most other Americans long ago forgot his name. As a young man he was a Cavalry Officer in the Tsarist Imperial Army, and so fled Russia sometime after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. He traveled to China and Mexico before finally coming to the U.S. and settling down in the city of San Francisco in 1925. Arnautoff eventually became allied to the communist Mexican Muralist Diego Rivera, both aesthetically and politically, and from 1929 to 1931 Arnautoff lived in Mexico as a student and assistant of Rivera.

When Rivera left Mexico City to visit San Francisco in 1930-31, he left the painting of his National Palace frescos depicting Mexico’s history in Arnautoff’s capable hands. Arnautoff joined Rivera in San Francisco in 1931 to help paint The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City at the San Francisco Art Institute. Arnautoff is best remembered for City Life, his 1934 mural in San Francisco’s Coit Tower, that, and his being the technical director of the Coit Tower mural project. Arnautoff had come full circle from his early years as a Tsarist officer to his participating in the left-wing artistic circles of the U.S.

After completing work on the stunning murals at Coit Tower in 1934, Arnautoff was given a commission in December of that year to create a fresco mural on the east wall of the Chapel at the Presidio of San Francisco, then one of the most important U.S. military installations in all of the United States. The commission was for a mural that depicted the peacetime activities of the U.S. Army, but the mural would also include the history of the land and its people upon which the Presidio was established.

Measuring 13 x 34 feet, Arnautoff’s mural was originally located on the outside east wall of the Chapel, greeting those who entered from the side entrance. With time it was decided to enclose the area where the mural stood, creating a hall between the side entry and the Chapel wall where the fresco mural is painted. This narrow vestibule protects the fresco mural and serves as an information and greeting area for those tourists who visit the Chapel. However, the limited width of the antechamber prevents one from standing back far enough to view the mural in its entirety, for the same reason it is extremely difficult to photograph the complete mural. Given these limitations, I was only able to photograph specific details of Arnautoff’s splendid painting.

The mural was sponsored by the officers of the 30th U.S. Infantry, however, it was funded by California’s State Emergency Relief Administration (SERA); a state agency financed by President Roosevelt’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). Arnautoff’s Coit Tower mural had been funded by Roosevelt’s Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). These and other “New Deal” programs provided work to 40,000 artists, helping to ease the ravages of the Great Depression. Arnautoff pulled together a team of artists to paint the mural; A plaque painted into the lower left corner of the mural includes Arnautoff’s name as well as those of his assistants; Suzanne Scheuer, B. Cunningham, Edward Terada, Richard Ayer, M. Hardy, P. Hall, P. Vinson, G. Serrano, M. Cohen, P. Zoloth, T. Mead, and W. Mannex. In 1935 the crew completed the mural in 42 days.

The Spanish first erected their San Francisco Presidio in 1776, when Spain ruled over Nueva España (New Spain) - colonial holdings that contained most of what is now the Southwest of the U.S., all of Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and large areas of South America. When Mexico won its war of independence against Spain in 1821, the Presidio passed into Mexican hands. Territorial expansion by the U.S. led to its 1846 invasion of Mexico. After the U.S. Army seized Mexico City, the Mexican government had no choice but to sign the “Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo”, which ended the war but ceded to the U.S. lands that included California, Nevada, Utah, much of Arizona, half of New Mexico, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

As a political radical Arnautoff was certainly aware of the Presidio’s long history as delineated in the above. He had come under enormous criticism from the U.S. right-wing for his directorship of  the 1934 Coit Tower mural project; San Francisco’s right excoriated the murals as “communist propaganda”, and the press demanded the murals be altered or obliterated. Consequently Arnautoff seemingly avoided a confrontational examination of the Presidio, this was after all a mural commissioned by the U.S. military to be housed on a major U.S. military installation. Still, Arnautoff did manage to include certain understated narratives in his fresco that were quite bold given the political circumstances in the U.S. at the time.

Detail of Arnautoff's portrait of Maria de la Concepción Marcela Argüello, her father Don José Darío Argüello (pictured dressed in a red uniform), and the Russian chamberlain to Czar Alexander I, Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov (in a blue uniform). Photo courtesy of the National Parks Service ©.

Detail of Arnautoff's portrait of Maria de la Concepción Marcela Argüello, her father Don José Darío Argüello (pictured dressed in a red uniform), and the Russian chamberlain to Czar Alexander I, Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov (in a blue uniform). Photo courtesy of the National Parks Service ©.

Arnautoff painted an interesting trio in the upper left portion of his mural; Maria de la Concepción Marcela Argüello, her father Don José Darío Argüello (pictured dressed in a red uniform and standing behind his daughter in the mural), and the Russian chamberlain to Tsar Alexander I, Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov - all historic figures from late 1700s San Francisco,  California.

When the story of Concepción Argüello and Nikolai Rezanov is remembered at all, it us usually framed as “California’s oldest and saddest romance“. Beneath the supposed ardent love affair was the machinery of imperialism and colonial conquest, and though I have no proof, I am convinced that was the actual narrative Arnautoff meant to subtly provide viewers of his mural.

On Sept. 4, 1781, Don José Darío Argüello founded El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles (the Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels), in the Las Californias sector of New Spain; The Pueblo de los Ángeles would of course become Los Angeles, the megalopolis we know today and coincidentally the city of my birth. In 1787 Argüello was appointed Comandante of the Presidio of San Francisco, and his daughter, Concepción Argüello, was born in the Presidio in 1791. Rezanov was a high-level official in the Tsarist regime and a supporter of Russian imperialism; he strove to transform Russia into a dominant power in the Pacific by establishing commercial and military outposts from Alaska to California.

Detail of Victor Arnautoff's 1935 fresco mural at the Main Post Chapel at the Presidio of San Francisco. A panoramic history of the land where the Presidio was established. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail of Arnautoff's 1935 fresco mural at the Chapel at the Presidio of San Francisco. A panoramic history of the land where the Presidio was established. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

As part of his imperial mission the 42-year-old Rezanov sailed to San Francisco in 1806, where he was feted by Don Argüello at the Presidio. It was at the Spanish military outpost that Rezanov met the 15-year-old Concepción Argüello, and according to the myth, the two supposedly fell in love and became engaged that same year. Since the laws of Spain prohibited its colonies from trading with foreign powers, maybe Rezanov’s motivation in wanting to marry Concepción had more to do with profitable colonial ambitions than actual romance.

Arnautoff's mural depicting a Spanish soldier and priest from the earliest years of the Presidio's founding. Does the priest's gesture welcome or bar the indigenous Ohlone warrior? Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Arnautoff's mural depicts a Spanish soldier and priest from the earliest years of the Presidio. Does the priest's gesture welcome or bar the indigenous Ohlone warrior? Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

At any rate, the Spanish Catholic priests refused to bless Concepción’s marriage to Rezanov, who was Russian Orthodox. Six weeks after arriving at the Presidio, Rezanov began a return trip to Russia, he intended to send entreaties to the King of Spain for royal consent to marry Concepción Argüello. Perhaps he considered it even more important to appeal for a trade agreement between Spain and Tsarist Russia. Whatever the case, Rezanov died of fever in 1807 before reaching home, and the young Concepción “renounced the world” to become a nun. She died in 1857 as Sister Mary Dominica Argüello of the Dominican order in Monterey, California.

Arnautoff's vision of the Ohlone people, the indigenous tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area. The artist no doubt studied the paintings, drawing, and lithographs of Louis Choris, who first depicted the Ohlone in his 1816 artworks. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Arnautoff's vision of the Ohlone people, the indigenous tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area. The artist no doubt studied the paintings, drawing, and lithographs of Louis Choris, who first depicted the Ohlone in his 1816 artworks. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

As a sidebar to the 1806 Rezanov-Argüello story, in 1816 another Russian sailing ship named the Rurik landed at the Presidio. Among its 30 man crew was Louis Choris (1795-1828), a talented 21-year-old Russian/Ukrainian artist. Choris was the expedition’s official artist and during the month the Rurik was anchored in San Francisco Bay, Choris created the earliest depictions of the region’s indigenous Ohlone tribe. He made stunning watercolor paintings portraying individuals and groups of people going about their daily routines.

In this detail Arnautoff depicted an Ohlone woman at work weaving baskets from tule reeds. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In this detail Arnautoff depicted an Ohlone woman at work weaving baskets from tule reeds. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

After his Rurik journey Choris traveled to Paris in 1819 where he produced portfolios of hand-colored lithographs that illustrated his encounters with the Ohlone nation. In terms of ethnographic study, Choris’ artworks provide in-depth and accurate observations of a way of life now vanished.

The Ohlone lived in over fifty different villages and tribal groups throughout the San Francisco bay area and beyond to the shores of Monterey Bay and the Salinas Valley. They were hunters and gatherers that lived off the bounty of the land. They believed an enormous flood had once engulfed the earth, leaving only two small islands to be inhabited by only three survivors… Coyote, Eagle, and Hummingbird, who together created the human race. The Ohlone said that Hummingbird brought fire to the people.

Tule reed was used to make Ohlone homes, clothes, baskets, mats, and boats. The people fished in salt and fresh water catching all types of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans. They gathered endless varieties of nuts, seeds, bulbs, tubers, acorns, mushrooms, greens, and berries. Rabbits, deer, antelope, and elk were hunted, as well as a sizeable array of birds. Many other creatures large and small were a part of the Ohlone diet, grasshoppers, grubs, lizards, snakes, squirrels, even an occasional beached whale.

Detail of an Ohlone warrior's hands as he makes fire using a "fire drill" made of soft wood. The Ohlone believed Hummingbird spirit was the bringer of fire to humanity. In this detail one can see how a fresco mural looks up-close. Since water-based pigment is quickly painted onto wet plaster before either can dry, the effect can look somewhat like "magic marker". Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail of an Ohlone warrior's hands as he makes fire using a "fire drill" made of soft wood. The Ohlone believed Hummingbird spirit was the bringer of fire to humanity. In this detail one can see how a fresco mural looks up-close. Since water-based pigment is quickly painted onto wet plaster before either can dry, the effect can look somewhat like "magic marker". Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

I consider the principal focus of Arnautoff’s mural to be his depiction of the Ohlone tribe. Compositionally the mural’s central motif is a religious one that depicts a monument to St. Francis. Franciscan Friars not only founded and named the first Catholic Church in San Francisco in 1776, they named the mission church and the entire region after their patron saint, Saint Francis of Assisi. Be that as it may, the first people to inhabit “San Francisco” were not Spanish Catholics but the shamanistic Ohlone, and they settled the region some 5,000 years ago.

Detail of Ohlone hunter dressing a slain deer. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail of Ohlone hunter dressing a slain deer. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Given the short shrift indigenous people have received in both American history and cultural representation, Arnautoff’s focus on the Ohlone was a remarkably subversive gesture for 1935. His well researched portrayal of the indigenous population was no doubt facilitated by the drawings, paintings, and lithographs of Louis Choris.

I would like to re-emphasize to the reader the impact Diego Rivera had upon Arnatauff. As with most other Mexican artists of his time, Rivera sought to create a national art that was independent from Europe. This was accomplished in large part by establishing Mexican art on the foundational bedrock of aesthetics developed by the prehispanic indigenous Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations. When viewing Rivera’s portraits of everyday Mexicanos, it is not the classical beauty of Europe that one sees reflected, but the grandeur of indigenous Palenque and Tenochtitlán. I am sure Arnautoff valued the reasons behind Rivera’s glorification of the Western Hemisphere’s first inhabitants, and so included the Ohlone in his Presidio mural on the same grounds.

If the left-side of Arnautoff’s mural portrays the early history of the Presidio, then the right-side of the fresco depicts the U.S. Army carrying out projects at the Presidio during the 20th century. The two scenes I will focus on from that portion of the painting have to do with General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing, as well as the role the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers played in building the Panama Canal.

General Pershing had, let us say, an “interesting” career in the military. As a graduate of West Point in 1886 he was assigned to the 6th U.S. Cavalry, where he fought the Apache nation in the so-called “Apache Wars”; Pershing took part in military operations to force the Apache onto reservations and keep them there. In 1890 Pershing and the 6th Cavalry were sent to South Dakota to crush the Lakota Nation, then engaged in their last uprising that would culminate in the U.S. Army massacre of some 300 unarmed Lakota at Wounded Knee (Pershing was not directly involved). In 1892 Pershing became a first lieutenant assigned to the 10th Cavalry “Buffalo Soldier” regiment of African-Americans (earning the nickname, “Black Jack”). He fought in the Spanish-American War (1898) as a major with the 10th Cavalry in operations at San Juan Hill. As a Departmental Adjutant General, Pershing fought against the Moro uprising in the Philippines from 1899 to 1903.

In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt promoted Pershing to Brigadier General, but it was President Woodrow Wilson, a “progressive”, that sent Pershing into Mexico in 1916 on a “punitive expedition” to kill or capture the Mexican revolutionary Francisco Pancho Villa. Commanding the U.S. Army 8th Brigade and a force of 11,000 soldiers, Pershing failed to crush Villa and his guerilla army, but the mission was not without its successes. The operation employed the 1st Aero Squadron of eight Curtiss JN-3 “Jenny” biplanes for aerial observation and intelligence gathering, the very first time the U.S. Army made use of airplanes in combat; the application of airpower foreshadowed the mechanized slaughter that would come but a year later. In April 1917, the U.S. entered World War I, and President Wilson promoted Pershing to General in charge of the American Expeditionary Force to Europe.

Arnautoff had to be aware of Pershing’s war record, and as a man of the left he must have viewed Black Jack unfavorably. Arnautoff and his circle of artists, being sympathetic to radical ideas, were alarmed by the rise of fascism in Europe and the growing threat of war. They were no doubt familiar with the speeches and writings of retired Major General Smedley Butler of the U.S. Marine Corps, who in 1935 was the most decorated Marine in U.S. history. He was also a spokesman for the American League Against War and Fascism, and had been engaged in a nationwide tour to deliver his speech “War is a Racket. Butler addressed how oligarchs made soaring profits from the blood and suffering of soldiers. In 1935 he published a longer version of his speech as a small book, also titled War is a Racket. To get an idea of how widely distributed and influential Butler’s work was, Reader’s Digest condensed it as a book supplement.

Detail of Arnautoff's mural depicting the August 27, 1915 fire at the Presidio that killed the wife and children of General John "Black Jack" Pershing. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail of Arnautoff's mural depicting the August 27, 1915 fire at the Presidio that killed the wife and children of General John "Black Jack" Pershing. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In his mural Arnautoff did not directly portray General Pershing, in fact the artist could hardly have been said to paint Pershing’s portrait at all. What Arnautoff did was to paint a high-ranking military man with his back towards the viewer while commanding volunteers in putting out a raging fire; I think the artist was alluding to a terrible tragedy that struck ol’ Black Jack. Just prior to the “punitive expedition” in Mexico, Pershing received a blow he never recovered from. On August 27, 1915, while at the “Fort Bliss” military encampment near El Paso, Texas (the base from which Mexico would be invaded), Pershing received a telegram concerning his home at the Presidio in San Francisco. A fire had burned his multi-storied, wooden Victorian mansion to the ground. Worse still, the inferno had almost consumed his entire family - his beloved wife and three of his four children. One could take this panel as a portrait of a very powerful man laid low by forces beyond his control.

The final tableau in Arnautoff’s mural had to do with the role of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in building the Panama Canal. The mural depicts the USACE construction the Gatun Lock Gate, one of three enormous lock systems that lift and lower water levels making navigation of the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean possible. Ironically, this segment of the painting reveals both the artist’s left-wing ideology as much as it does some apparent contradictions.

Arnautoff's mural depicts the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Presidio planning to build the Panama Canal. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Arnautoff's mural depicts the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Presidio planning to build the Panama Canal. The Gatun Lock Gate can be seen in the upper right of the painting. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Panamanian separatists broke free of Columbia with U.S. military assistance in 1903 and immediate formal recognition of the Republic of Panama came from U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt that same year. The U.S. Secretary of State John Hay signed the so-called “Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty” of 1903 with the French engineer and soldier Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, giving control of the Panama Canal to the United States - even though not a single Panamanian signed the treaty. That detail alone would have been important to an anti-imperialist like Arnautoff, but how did he represent the history of the Panama Canal vis-à-vis its relationship to the U.S.?

The artist no doubt thought the U.S. was meddling in Panama, but refrained from criticizing U.S. policy, preferring instead to focus on men having achieved one of the world’s great engineering feats. Arnautoff’s mural glorifies what workers can achieve through the miracles of science and technology; given his benefactors, he could hardly have said more. Thematically, the Gatun Lock portion of Arnautoff’s mural is similar to Diego Rivera’s Allegory of California mural painted at the San Francisco Stock Exchange Tower in 1931.

Detail of Arnautoff's tableau depicting one of the workers that actually built the Panama Canal. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail of Arnautoff's tableau depicting one of the workers that actually built the Panama Canal. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

While portraying agricultural richness, scientific innovation, and technological advancement, Rivera’s Allegory of California mural was not a celebration of capitalism, rather, it was a depiction of the working class, its capabilities and its future potential. These views were entirely in keeping with the pro-socialist sympathies of many artists at the time; one should be reminded that in 1934 the Soviet Union was considered a symbol of hope and progress by many, the crimes of Stalinism had yet to occur, and that the U.S. and the Soviets would soon become allies in the war against Fascism.

On a misty San Francisco morning, the Golden Gate Bridge looms above Fort Hood. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

On a misty San Francisco morning, the Golden Gate Bridge looms above Fort Hood. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

It is also interesting to note that the U.S. Army staff in the lower portion of the scene are examining plans to build the Golden Gate Bridge. Construction of the now world-famous suspension bridge began on January 5, 1933, just prior to Arnautoff and his assistants working on their Presidio mural. Arnautoff portrayed American engineer Joseph Strauss, the designer of the bridge, pointing at a model bridge while conferring with army officers.

Although the army did not play a direct role in the bridge’s physical construction, the U.S. Department of War was consulted since its Civil War era Fort Point apparently stood in the way of the bridge’s construction.

Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge would be completed by April of 1937, two years after the completion of Arnautoff’s mural.

I might add that historic Fort Point remained untouched during the bridge’s building; the fortress is a must see tourist destination in its own right, being one of the best preserved all brick U.S. military fortifications in the entire U.S.

The mural located at the Chapel at the Presidio is a little known painting by the underappreciated Victor Arnautoff. While relatively obscure, the work is a gem from the WPA era of American mural painting, in actuality it is a foundational stone of contemporary muralism. Considering the state of the art world and of society in general, it is no surprise Arnautoff’s mural is left unrecognized and uncelebrated. However, its aesthetics, brilliant execution, historical and political insights, and geographical setting make it a “must see” destination for anyone traveling to San Francisco.

POSTS IN THIS CONTINUING SERIES:

Coit Tower Crisis
Diego Rivera: The Making of a Fresco
Diego Rivera: Pan American Unity

Coit Tower Crisis

View of Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

View of Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

I visited San Francisco, California in late 2011, for the most part to photograph the impressive murals in the Bay Area that were painted in the 1930s and 1940s. A few of the murals are still well known, especially to those living in San Francisco, but by and large the great majority of these public works have long been forgotten - even by arts professionals. Furthermore, nearly all of the artists that painted the murals have largely fallen into obscurity, and very few people today can recall their names.

In months to come I will publish on this web log my photographs of a number of the murals, along with biographical information on those artists responsible for their creation. I have long been perplexed by the small number of high-quality, close-up photos of the murals to be found online, something I hope to correct to some small degree with this series of posts. More importantly, my upcoming illustrated essays will offer insights into how the murals were actually produced, providing a unique artist’s viewpoint of the historic paintings.

The plaque affixed to Coit Tower. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

The plaque affixed to Coit Tower. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Constructed in 1933, Coit Tower is unquestionably the most well known locale for some of the best 1930s era murals; currently around 200,000 people, mainly tourists, visit the historic landmark each year. In all likelihood the majority of tourists visit because the tower affords the most remarkable view of San Francisco and the entire Bay Area. On any given day one can see hundreds of vacationers disembarking from sightseeing buses to view the famous building that sits atop Telegraph Hill. But all is not well for one of the city’s best known tourist attractions.

Since their creation in 1934, the Coit Tower murals have undergone several restorations. Photos from 1960 show the murals so disfigured by graffiti that the city sealed the paintings off from public view in order to conduct an extensive restoration that lasted from 1987 to 1990. Today the murals are again in poor shape, mostly from water and salt damage due to San Francisco’s well-known fog. During my visit to the tower I was shocked at the level of disrepair; chips and scratches have certainly taken their toll, and water damage is apparent everywhere; the walls and ceiling are peeling, and salt build-up has caused streaks on a number of paintings.

Detail from the Coit Tower mural, "Animal Force", by artist Ray Boynton. The artist painted the celestial eyes over an  elevator doorway on the building's first floor. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail from the Coit Tower mural, "Animal Force", by artist Ray Boynton. The artist painted the celestial eyes over an elevator doorway on the building's first floor. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

An October 2011 article titled Depression-era Coit Tower murals need touch-up published by the San Francisco Chronicle details some of the problems. A January 2012 PBS NewsHour ran a special segment about the Coit Tower murals that detailed the state of disrepair of the historic wall paintings as well as efforts to preserve the murals.

It was Diego Rivera’s 1930-31 visit to San Francisco that truly began the explosion of mural painting in the Bay Area, which I noted in the first essay of this series, Diego Rivera: The Making of a Fresco. At the time many Bay Area artists were involved in the school of American social realism, and more than a few of them traveled to Mexico in order to encounter first hand the masters of the Mexican Muralist School. Bernard Baruch Zakheim comes to mind; having made the trek to Mexico City to meet and work with Diego Rivera in 1930, Zakheim and fellow artist Ralph Stackpole successfully lobbied the U.S. government for a commission allowing artists to paint murals on interior walls of San Francisco’s newly constructed Coit Tower.

Upcoming posts will include close-up views of the Coit Tower murals by Zakheim and Stackpole, but also extreme close-up shots of mural paintings by John Langley Howard, William Hesthal, Clifford Wight, Maxine Albro, Suzanne Scheuer, George Harris, Frede Vidar, Ray Boynton, Victor Arnautoff, Otis Oldfield, Jose Moya del Pino, Rinaldo Cuneo, and other notable masters of American social realism.

The Teaching American History Project of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), a project funded by the U.S. Department of Education in partnership with the University of California, Berkeley, and the Oakland Museum, provides an overview of the Coit Tower Murals titled “A Social Narrative Depicting ‘Aspects of California Life’ in 1934” (click here for the .pdf document). The online teaching guide quotes extensively from this writer regarding some of the finer details and controversies around the Coit Tower mural project. The document also presents some reasonably sized, clear photos of the Coit murals.

Homeless Woman at Coit Tower. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

"Homeless Woman at Coit Tower". Photograph by Mark Vallen ©.

When I visited the historic landmark that is Coit Tower, I found a destitute woman sleeping near the building entrance; her worldly possessions were held in a small pushcart adorned by the American flag.

It is no small irony that the depression era realities depicted in the Coit Tower murals are today seen on the streets of the U.S. during the reign of the Obama administration. One difference between the mid-30s and the present is that contemporary artists have yet to challenge the systemic failures that give rise to economic collapse, mass poverty, and war.

POSTS IN THIS CONTINUING SERIES:

Arnautoff & the Chapel at the Presidio
Diego Rivera: The Making of a Fresco
Diego Rivera: Pan American Unity