Category: Diego Rivera

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.

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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