Category: Diego Rivera

Diego Rivera: The Making of a Fresco

December 8, 2011 marks the 125th birthday of the Mexican Muralist, Diego Rivera (Dec. 8, 1886 - Nov. 24, 1957). Few artists have had as much influence on me as Rivera, an artist I discovered as a pre-teen while thumbing through art books. Of course in the 1960s Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros (Dec. 29, 1896 - Jan. 6, 1974) and José Clemente Orozco (Nov, 23, 1883 - Sept. 7, 1949), became icons to the growing Chicano arts movement. By 1968 I had not only read Rivera’s autobiography, My Art, My Life, but I considered myself a partisan of Mexican Muralism and social realism in general - a position I still hold as a working artist.

In September of this year I visited San Francisco and photographed a number of WPA era murals, the photos and histories of which I will be sharing with readers in the coming months. Rivera painted four superlative murals in the San Francisco Bay Area, the first being Allegory of California, painted 1930-1931 and located in the city’s downtown financial district Stock Exchange Building. The second, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, was painted from April-June in 1931 at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Still Life and Blossoming Almond Trees was a small mural originally painted at the private residence of the Stern family in the town of Atherton, on the San Francisco Peninsula; the mural is now found in Stern Hall on the University of California, Berkeley campus. Finally, there is the astounding Pan American Unity mural, painted for the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1940 and now located on the campus of the City College of San Francisco. This post concerns Rivera’s Making of a Fresco, and to celebrate the master’s 125th birthday… I am posting some of the photos I took of this remarkable work.

The "Diego Rivera Gallery" at The San Francisco Art Institute. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The "Diego Rivera Gallery" at The San Francisco Art Institute. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) is found in the Russian Hill district of the city, fairly close to the famous landmarks of Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square. The institute relocated to its present address on 800 Chestnut St. in 1926, but as an institution it was established in 1871, making it one of the oldest art schools in the United States.

Located in a hilly area that affords practically no parking, the institute is hard to miss because of its Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. Passing through the Baroque arched entrance door to the campus you’ll find an inviting red-tiled courtyard with trees and a charming concrete and tile octagonal fountain. To the fountain’s immediate left you’ll find the “Diego Rivera Gallery“, a beautiful sunlit hall where the mural was painted. The gallery is open daily from 9 am until 5 pm, and the day I visited and photographed the mural, a small crowd was in the gallery. Speaking English, Spanish, and German, the multi-aged pack of visitors was indicative of the art lovers who continue to visit this most remarkable mural.

Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco is a traditional Buon Fresco, painted directly on fresh lime plaster using water-based tempera pigments. One must be accomplished and fast to create this type of mural… the painted on colors are absorbed by the wet plaster, and as the plaster dries the pigments are permanently set.

Full view of Diego Rivera's The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City at the San Francisco Art Institute. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Full view of Diego Rivera's "The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City" at the San Francisco Art Institute. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

A large mural like The Making of a Fresco is created in sections, with fresh plaster spread over the wall in a given area, a drawing transferred to the wet plaster, and then pigments applied in quick brushstrokes before the plaster dries. Obviously there is little room for mistakes with such a method, and Rivera meticulously worked out his drawings and compositions in exacting detail before beginning such a project. Visually The Making of a Fresco is divided into six sections; while this served a narrative purpose, it also had much to do with the technical aspects of painting such a monumental work.

The artist used painter Viscount John Hastings (left) and sculptor Clifford Wight as models for the mural. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The artist used painter Viscount John Hastings (left) and sculptor Clifford Wight as models for the mural. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

The Making of a Fresco is a trompe l’œil depicting Rivera and assistants on a scaffold painting their fresco mural. While Rivera included a portrait of himself in the work (the central figure with his back to the viewer), the real focus of the fresco is a gigantic worker; an iconic figure representing the entire international working class. In the detail shot above one can see two of Diego’s assistants at work; the artist used painter Viscount John Hastings (left) and sculptor Clifford Wight as models for the mural.

Detail from "The Making of a Fresco". Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Detail from "The Making of a Fresco". Photo/Mark Vallen ©

In the above detail the artist painted a worker operating a forge bellows (left), a sculptor hammering a massive block of stone with a chisel (middle), and a belt-machine operator. For Rivera the depiction of workers in his mural was of paramount importance, since from his Marxist perspective the workers produced all wealth and so should be the masters of society.

Detail from Rivera's "The Making of a Fresco." Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Detail from Rivera's "The Making of a Fresco." Photo/Mark Vallen ©

In the above detail taken from the lower center portion of the mural, Rivera portrayed Timothy Pfleuger (left), who was responsible for designing the San Francisco Stock Exchange; William Gerstle (center), a banker, philanthropist, and president of the San Francisco Art Association, and Arthur Brown, the architect who designed Coit Tower, The San Francisco Opera House, and San Francisco City Hall. Again, it must be noted that looming over these three very powerful individuals is the colossal proletarian, Rivera’s not so subtle message that the working class will one day prevail over capitalist elites.

Rivera's portrait of artist Marion Simpson, a detail from Rivera's "The Making of a Fresco". Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Rivera's portrait of artist Marion Simpson, detail from Rivera's "The Making of a Fresco". Photo/Vallen ©

In this detail Rivera painted the portrait of artist Marion Simpson, who was a mosaic artist in Berkeley of some renown (you can see two beautiful mosaics she designed for the Alameda County courthouse here). Rivera painted Ms. Simpson as an architect working in an Architecture and Engineering office, he depicted her standing next to real life architect Michael Baltekal-Goodman (not pictured). For Rivera there was little distinction between those engaged in “manual labor” and those involved in intellectual work; both were exploited by bosses, and in the future both would give their productive energies to the service of humanity rather than profit.

Artist Marion Simpson, a detail from Rivera's "The Making of a Fresco". Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Marion Simpson, a detail from Rivera's "The Making of a Fresco". Photo/Mark Vallen ©

In the above detail of the portrait Rivera created of artist Marion Simpson, one can see the qualities of a traditional fresco. Having an almost marker pen characteristic, one can see how the water-based pigments were soaked up by the plaster. The artist painted with a quick but assured hand, using each brushstroke to indicate form… but in an almost shorthand style.

Viewing Rivera’s frescos up close is a marvelous experience; one is immediately impressed by the textures, brushstrokes, scale, and luminosity lost in photographs. What truly astounded me was seeing Rivera’s preliminary charcoal drawings beneath the layers of paint! While most of the groundwork drawings were covered with vibrant pigment, the artist allowed some of the outlines to show through.

In keeping with the celebration of Rivera’s 125th birthday, I have to mention the currently running exhibition at New York’s MoMA, Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art. Running from Nov. 13, 2011 to May 14, 2012, the exhibit displays eight portable mural panels the artist painted for his historic retrospective at the museum in 1931.

Since it was to be painted in an art school, Rivera decided that his mural would show the actual process of creating a fresco mural. In this detail he depicted himself sitting next to an assistant, who is covering the wall with fresh limestone plaster for the artist to paint. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

Since it was to be painted in an art school, Rivera decided that his mural would show the actual process of creating a fresco mural. In this detail he depicted himself sitting next to an assistant, who is covering the wall with fresh limestone plaster for the artist to paint. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

This detail from Rivera's mural depicts a sculptor at work. In reality the painting was a portrait of Ralph Stackpole (1885-1973), Rivera's friend and associate. Stackpole was not only a leading American social realist painter, printmaker, muralist, and sculptor; he was one of San Francisco's leading artists. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

This detail from Rivera's mural depicts a sculptor at work. In reality the painting was a portrait of Ralph Stackpole (1885-1973), Rivera's friend and associate. Stackpole was not only a leading American social realist painter, printmaker, muralist, and sculptor; he was one of San Francisco's leading artists. Photo/Mark Vallen ©


Coit Tower Crisis
Arnautoff & the Chapel at the Presidio
Diego Rivera: Pan American Unity

The Death of Motor City

In 1932 the Mexican Muralist Diego Rivera began painting a series of 27 fresco mural panels at the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit, Michigan. Titled, Detroit Industry, the monumental paintings had been commissioned by the president of the Ford Motor Company, Edsel Ford (son of Henry Ford), and the director of the D.I.A., William Valentiner. The theme of Rivera’s murals was inordinately simple; the portrayal of U.S. auto workers on the factory floor utilizing the technology that made their tremendous productive capacity possible.


Detail of Detroit Industry - Diego Rivera, 1933. Fresco mural. Detroit Institute of Arts.

From Ford’s perspective the murals sang the praises of American industrial capitalism, from Rivera’s point of view they illustrated the boundless ability of the proletariat to change material reality for social good. Seventy-seven years later Rivera’s murals are still an awe inspiring wonder beyond compare – but the same cannot be said of America’s car companies.

Once the heart of the American automobile industry, the state of Michigan now leads the U.S. in unemployment at 14.1 percent. Detroit, the “Motor City”, is a wasteland and the state of Michigan is in near total collapse, a tragedy that hardly registers in the corporate media, but it is still a fact nevertheless. The Democratic Governor, Jennifer Granholm, has ordered $304 million in state budget cuts, from drastic reductions in higher education to deep cuts in social services to seniors and low-income residents. It has even been proposed that prisons be closed and state police laid-off; Granholm has already eliminated all arts funding for the state’s 2010 budget.

Photo by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Fisher Body 21 Plant – Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre are photographers who have artfully documented the decline of Motor City through their photo essay, The Ruins of Detroit. This photo shows a derelict factory once operated by Fisher Body, which built car bodies for the industry. Founded in 1908, the company became a division of GM in 1926.

It is beyond the scope of this web log to explain in detail the complexities behind the downfall of Detroit’s Motor City, suffice it to say, it is the result of a very long decline. Contributing to the dilemma is the intentional de-capitalization of U.S. industrial capacity - Wall Street’s transforming the U.S. economy from one based on production to one based on financial speculation; the process of capitalist globalization that allows U.S. companies to close factories in America and re-open them elsewhere. Here it must be noted that although GM’s U.S. auto plants will be downsized and closed, its factories in China will be expanded. The Wall Street Journal reported that GM plans to build another plant in China, and to “double sales in China to more than two million vehicles and introduce more than 30 new or updated models over the next five years.”

While President Obama bailed out Wall Street bankers with hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer monies, he refused to do the same for GM and Chrysler; his failure to do so in essence pushed the two automakers into bankruptcy “reorganizations” – what Obama and his Auto Industry Task Force have referred to as a “new path to viability.” That path includes plant closures, a major downsizing of the workforce, the cutting of wages and benefits for workers, and the elimination of company supplied health care coverage and pension plans. The Obama plan even forced Chrysler to merge with the Italian automaker, Fiat, which assumed control of Chrysler on June 10, 2009.

Detail of Detroit Industry - Diego Rivera, 1933. Fresco mural. Detroit Institute of Arts.

Detail of Detroit Industry - Diego Rivera, 1933. Fresco mural. Detroit Institute of Arts.

Tens of thousands of auto workers are losing their jobs and hundreds of thousands of others will be affected as auto manufacturing related jobs dry up. We have been told that a revitalized American auto industry will eventually rise Phoenix-like out of this wreckage, but I seriously doubt it. The U.S. auto industry has existed for nearly a century, and it has literally changed the face of the nation, so it is disconcerting that more Americans do not seem upset by its demise. The issue of missed opportunities persists. Why did the Obama administration not invest billions into retooling ailing auto companies so that they could produce light rail public transport systems for the nation along with small fuel-efficient cars? Such a project would have kept factories open and hundreds of thousands of workers fully employed.

The question for readers of this web log is; why has there been so little response from the U.S. arts community to this current sweeping economic collapse? Save for the populist song They’re Shutting Detroit Down by country western singer John Rich, American artists have avoided the subject altogether. Social realism has deep roots in U.S. art and culture, and throughout the twentieth-century conscience-stirring works have left their mark on the nation’s psyche. After a long interruption of incomprehensible postmodernist babbling – it is time for American artists to recapture the spirit of social realism. In this context a reconsideration of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry mural series is in order, as the monumental works are an appropriate starting point where artists can begin to formulate suitable responses to the present crisis.

The next best thing to visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts to contemplate the significance and relevance of Rivera’s mural series is to go see the Synthescape website’s virtual presentation of those murals. Working with galleries and museums, Synthescape digitizes art collections and exhibitions, transforming them into 3-dimensional landscapes that a user can walk through using a web browser. Synthescape has created such a panorama of Rivera’s Detroit murals – and it is a breathtaking thing to behold. One can zoom in on the murals to examine the slightest details, from brush strokes to color nuances; or zoom out to study Rivera’s overall dynamic composition, which can be seen as the artist intended it – from multiple vantage points.

Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals were painted between the depression era years of 1932 and 1933, a period of great turmoil and organized labor resistance, but also a peak period for the American social realist movement in art. Rivera based his murals on sketches and photographs he made at the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant, which at the time was the largest factory in the world, employing over 100,000 workers. His intent was to exalt the strength and promise of the working class, and his depictions of American auto workers brimmed over with humanist compassion and solidarity. Under the nose of management, the dignified men represented in the murals did not appear grim or downtrodden; instead, they seemed like the ones in actual command, their hands controlling the machines that would help shape the development of humankind. But Rivera’s murals were also a response to the social realities swirling around him.

Detail of Detroit Industry - Diego Rivera, 1933. Fresco mural. Detroit Institute of Arts.

Detail of Detroit Industry - Diego Rivera, 1933. Fresco mural. Detroit Institute of Arts.

U.S. auto sales were down and manufacturers responded by firing workers and cutting back operations. When Rivera started painting his homage to American auto workers, the unemployment rate in Detroit was 30%. On March 7 some 3,000 of these unemployed workers organized the “Ford Hunger March”, walking to the very factory that inspired Rivera’s mural series - the River Rouge plant. The workers attempted to deliver a petition to the company that demanded relief assistance and work. As protestors reached Gate 3 of the Ford plant, police attacked the demonstrators with tear gas and fire hoses, eventually firing live rounds at the unarmed workers, killing five and seriously injuring dozens more. Days after the massacre 60,000 citizens attended a mass funeral march to honor the slain workers.

In the aftermath of the Ford Hunger March, a series of massive labor strikes took place all across the U.S., none perhaps as relevant to Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals as the 1936-’37 Flint Sit-Down strike carried out by auto workers against General Motors factories in Flint, Michigan. Tens of thousands of workers went on strike, occupying factories and effectively shutting down GM operations until the strike was won. Flint was not only one of the greatest victories of the American labor movement; it established the strength and prominence of the United Automobile Workers (UAW), and led to the unionization of the U.S. auto industry.

In 1932 Diego Rivera wrote an essay on art for Modern Quarterly titled; The Revolutionary Spirit in Modern Art. While he did not specifically address the issues presented in his Detroit Industry mural series, his words do explain his position on the importance of a didactic art that sides with the exploited. The following excerpt from the essay explains much about his Detroit murals:

“All painters have been propagandists or else they have not been painters. Giotto was a propagandist of the spirit of Christian charity, the weapon of the Franciscan monks of his time against feudal oppression. Breughel was a propagandist of the struggle of the Dutch artisan petty bourgeois against feudal oppression. Every artist who has been worth anything in art has been such a propagandist.

The familiar accusation that propaganda ruins art finds its source in bourgeois prejudice. Naturally enough the bourgeoisie does not want art employed for the sake of revolution. It does not want ideals in art because its own ideals cannot any longer serve as artistic inspiration. It does not want feelings because its own feelings cannot any longer serve as artistic inspiration. Art and thought and feeling must be hostile to the bourgeoisie today. Every strong artist has a head and a heart. Every strong artist has been a propagandist. I want to be a propagandist and I want to be nothing else. (….) I want to use my art as a weapon.”

This article is not an appeal for artists to replicate the past, nor is it a statement made out of a sense of nostalgia. Artists today are faced with extraordinary circumstances, and the possibilities for a new contentious art are endless. It is a mistake to think of social realism as a dead art movement, rooted in the past and of no consequence to our present. The genre is no more irrelevant to contemporary society than are protests and demonstrations organized by activist citizens – in fact, both are vital and necessary if democracy is to flourish.

Diego Rivera: Glorious Victory!

Fifty years after the death of Diego Rivera, the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) in Mexico City has launched a major exhibition to celebrate the famed Mexican Muralist. Having opened on September 28th, 2007, the important exhibit titled, Diego Rivera: Epopeya Mural (Diego Rivera: Epic Mural), presents 170 works of art by the radical Mexican artist, including 23 monumental wall paintings, as well as dozens of drawings and studies associated with the painter’s internationally renowned murals.

It was of course Rivera, along with his compatriots David Alfaro Siquieros and José Clemente Orozco, who broke the dependent links to European culture, helping to create authentic visual aesthetics for Mexico and establishing the profoundly influential, socially conscious Mexican Mural School in the process. I traveled to Mexico City in 1994 and marveled at the works of Rivera, Siquieros, and Orozco that are housed at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. No other group of artists has had such a profound effect upon me, and I’d give my eye teeth to see this tribute to Diego Rivera.

Ending December 16th, 2007, the two-month long show is mounted in eight halls of the museum, and comes on the heels of that institution having presented the largest body of Frida Kahlo’s artworks to ever be put on display - a just completed exhibition that commemorated Kahlo’s 100th birthday. The focus of Epopeya Mural is Rivera’s large transportable mural, Glorious Victory, a long missing work thought lost, but recently returned to Mexico by Russia’s Puskin Museum of Moscow, where it had been in storage for nearly half a century.

Painted in 1954, the mockingly titled Glorious Victory has as its subject the infamous CIA coup of the same year that overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected government. At the center of the mural, CIA Director John Foster Dulles can be seen shaking hands with the leader of the coup d’état, Colonel Castillo Armas. Sitting at their feet is an anthropomorphized bomb bearing the smiling face of U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower - who gave orders to launch the military coup. In the background, a priest can be seen officiating over the massacre of workers, many of which can be seen lying slaughtered in the painting’s foreground.

The head of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time of the coup, Allen Dulles, and the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala during the coup, John Peurifoy, are depicted handing out money to various Guatemalan military commanders and fascist junta officials, as indigenous Mayan workers slave away at loading bananas onto a United Fruit Company ship. I might add that Allen Dulles was on the board of directors of the United Fruit Company when the U.S. overthrew the government of Guatemala.

Detail of mural by Diego Rivera

Detail: Glorious Victory - Diego Rivera 1954. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower is portrayed as a bomb, and a Guatemalan stooge shakes hands with his CIA puppet master as U.S. dollars are spread all around.

Epopeya Mural will be the first time Glorious Victory has been exhibited in Mexico. Rivera painted the mural on linen, and donated it to the workers of the then Soviet Union. The mural was shipped to Warsaw, Poland, in 1956 for an exhibition that was to travel Eastern European countries. At the end of the traveling exhibit the painting was missing. As it turned out, the mural ended up in a storeroom at the Puskin Museum, where it has been sitting since 1958. Because the painting had been sequestered away in a darkened room for safekeeping, its bright, lustrous colors are in perfect condition. Glorious Victory is apparently a two-sided painting, as museum conservators say an unfinished section on the mural’s backside depicts the exploitation of workers in U.S. factories.

The U.S. overthrew the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán through a covert CIA operation dubbed Operation PBSUCCESS. Guzmán had implemented an agrarian reform program to alleviate the suffering of Guatemala’s poor Indian peasants, who comprised (and still do), the overwhelming majority of the country’s population. To Guatemala’s privileged elites and their military allies, as well as dominant U.S. corporations like the United Fruit Company (Guatemala’s biggest landowner at the time), Guzmán’s reforms smacked of communism. CIA records referred to Guatemala’s socio-economic improvements as; “an intensely nationalistic program of progress colored by the touchy, anti-foreign inferiority complex of the ‘Banana Republic.’”

In May of 1997, The CIA released several hundred declassified documents relating to Operation PBSUCCESS, some of which detailed the spy agency having compiled lists of Guatemalans in the Guzmán government, “to eliminate immediately in event of a successful anti-Communist coup.” Declassified documents also contained a 19-page manual titled, “Study of Assassination”, a how-to guide book that instructed, “The simplest local tools are often much the most efficient means of assassination. A hammer, axe, wrench, screw driver, fire poker, kitchen knife, lamp stand, or anything hard, heavy and handy will suffice.” If you are interested in reading some of these revealing documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, they are available at the website of the National Security Archive at The George Washington University.

Included in the exhibit at the Palacio de Bellas Artes are sketches, notes and preparatory works Rivera made for the murals he created at Mexico’s National Palace, Secretariat of Public Education, the Theater of the Insurgents, and other notable public buildings. Also on display are Rivera’s drawings and preliminary sketches for murals painted in the United States, like the monumental frescos at the Detroit Institute of the Arts that portray American workers laboring in an automobile factory. The sketches for Rivera’s huge 1934 mural at Rockefeller Center in New York City, Man at the Crossroads, will be on exhibit as well. After John D. Rockefeller, Jr., had the masterpiece destroyed because it contained a portrait of Soviet leader, Vladimir Lenin, Rivera recreated the massive fresco at the Palacio de Ballas Artes, but included in it a portrait of Rockefeller with syphilis bacteria floating above his head. Of course, the recreated Man at the Crossroads is part of the Epopeya Mural exhibit.

It is important to recall that in 1954 Frida Kahlo’s last public act was to participate in a demonstration opposed to the U.S. intervention in Guatemala as it was occurring. Kahlo did so from a wheelchair and against her doctor’s orders - and she passed away two weeks later. Rivera painted his Glorious Victory in the same timeframe, passing away in 1957.

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A New Look at Rivera’s “Gloriosa Victoria is a major update that I published Feb. 2016. The article contains new information, as well as beautiful details from Rivera’s mural.