Artist of the Month

November 2020

DIEGO RIVERA

(1886-1957)

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Man at the Crossroads, Diego Rivera, 

One of the greatest painters of murals, Diego Rivera’s work is memorable for its content and size. He selected themes appropriate to murals: social inequality; the relationship between nature, industry, and technology; and the history and fate of Mexico. For Rivera, art was for everyone and his choice of public spaces for his work reflects his desire to take art out from the art museums and the hands of private collectors.

Man at the Crossroads

Originally this mural by Diego Rivera was to be displayed in the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the main building of the new Rockefeller Centre. Man at the Crossroads (1933) showed aspects of contemporary social and scientific culture. As originally installed, it was a three-panelled artwork. A central panel depicted a worker controlling machinery. The central panel was flanked by two other panels; The Frontier of Material Development and The Frontier of Ethical Evolution and, which respectively represented capitalism and socialism.

 

The Rockefeller family approved of the mural's idea: showing the contrast of capitalism as opposed to communism.  

 

Problems arose when Rockefeller discovered that Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution, was given a central role in the composition. Riveria was asked by Rockefeller to take him out but Riveria refused. As a result the mural was destroyed by the building's owners. 

The version shown above was commissioned by the Mexican government. This mural is smaller but a nearly identical recreation of Man at the Crossroads.

As its title indicates, the painting is a powerful representation of the human race "at the crossroads" of reinforcing or competing forces and ideologies: science, industrialization, socialism, and capitalism.

At the top of the capitalist side (our left, the central figure's right) the brutalities of World War I are on display. Rivera underscores how capitalist nations use technology (poison gas, machine guns, and warplanes) as destructive forces.

 

By contrast, the top of the socialist side (our right) highlights the successes of the Russian Revolution, whose momentum overflows into the lower part of the composition.

 

On this side, key figures in the worker’s movement (León Trotsky, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx) stand at the foot of a headless classical sculpture brandishing a swastika. As our gaze moves to the lower right, we realize workers are seated on the sculpture’s decapitated head. Through this symbolic beheading, socialists had replaced the dominant ideology in Europe with a new way of thinking.

On the other side of the composition, Rivera places another classical sculpture with a Christian cross). Though the figure lacks hands, his face and lightning bolt reveal him as Zeus, the supreme Greek god.

 

By defacing these classical sculptures, Rivera critiques traditional art history (and its rarefied tastes) as well as the political elite (from the empires of Antiquity to the Catholic Church and Fascists) that—in his view—had repressed the popular masses throughout human history.

 

Though the statue on the capitalism side holds a ray of lightning, his handless state renders him powerless amidst the turmoil in capitalist countries: behind the sculpture’s base workers in New York City fight against the police while the wealthy (whose ranks include a bespectacled Nelson Rockefeller) indulge in debauchery between the magnifying glass on the left and the central worker. Vladimir Lenin holds the hands of workers of distinct races.

 

Despite being a small fragment of the mural, this tableau is at the heart of the controversy Rivera faced in the United States.

Detriot Industry Murals

Frozen Assets

Frozen Assets, Diego Rivera

In 1931 the Museum of Modern Art in New York City organised a retrospective exhibition of Rivera’s work, for which the painter executed seven portable panels, including Frozen Assets. On it, Rivera represented life in New York during the Great Depression, which followed the economic crisis in 1929.

The panel's top section features the masses trudging to work in front of a dramatic skyline of largely recognisable skyscrapers, mostly completed a few years before Rivera's arrival in New York.

 

In the middle section, a steel-and-glass shed serves as a shelter for rows of sleeping men, pointing to the dispossessed labour that made such extraordinary growth possible during a period of economic turmoil.

 

Below, a bank's waiting room accommodates a guard, a clerk, and a trio of figures eager to inspect their mounting assets in the vault beyond.

 

Rivera's provides a jarring vision of the city in the midst of the Great Depression. 

 

The painting demonstrated a shrewd insight into the reality of New York: the city is never merely what can be seen. The taut composition suggests a city imprisoned by the inevitability of history.

 

The painting was labelled Frozen Assets by a visiting journalist and it has retained that title since then.

About Diego Rivera

Diego Rivera painted during the 50 years from 1907 to 1957.

 

Mexican by birth, Rivera spent a good portion of his adult life in Europe and the United States as well as in his home in Mexico City.

 

Early in his career, he dabbled in Cubism and later embraced Post-Impressionism, but his unique style and perspective are immediately recognisable.

 

He was involved in the world of politics as a dedicated Marxist and joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1922. He hosted Russian exile Leon Trotsky and his wife at his home in Mexico City in the 1930s.

In recent years his fame has been overshadowed by his partner, Frida Khalo, with whom he had a turbulent relationship.

 

He lived in unsettled times and led a turbulent life. Rivera, widely known for his Marxist leanings, along with Marxism Revolutionary Che Guevara and a small band of contemporary figures, have become a countercultural symbol of the 20th century and created a legacy in art that continues to inspire the imagination and mind.

 

 

Film from Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA)

In 1932 Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo headed to the Detroit Institute of Arts. There he produced 27 panels collectively known as the "Detroit Industry Murals," depicting the evolution of the Ford Motor Company.

Edsel Ford, the son of Henry Ford and president of the car company that bears the family name, and William Valentiner, the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, had commissioned Rivera to paint two murals for the museum's Garden Court. The only rule was the work must relate to the history of Detroit and the development of industry.

 

The factory so fascinated and inspired Rivera that he soon suggested painting all four walls of the Garden Court. Ford and Valentier agreed and soon Rivera's commission was expanded.

Rivera considered this series, which he completed in 1933 with the help of assistants, to be one of his most successful projects. 

The images are iconic.

 

Assembly workers with tools raised in a frozen moment of manufacturing; doctors and scientists stand near a child in a nativity scene that pays tribute to medicine; secretaries and accountants, heads bowed, fingers on typewriters and adding machines.

 

One panel shows Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, seeming to watch a collection of unseen workers below him.

 

The meaning of these images is complex, a view of industry that challenges ideas about its role in society and raises issues of class and politics.

The murals were completed in March 1933. Besides images of the assembly lines made famous by Ford, the murals also depict office workers and planes, boats and agriculture as well as Detroit's other industries at the time — medical, pharmaceutical, and chemical. They also show images of nudes representing fertility and a panel depicting vaccination.

Some people objected to Rivera's work when it was unveiled to the public. He painted workers of different races – white, black and brown, working side by side.

 

The nudes in the mural were called pornographic, and one panel was labelled blasphemous by some members of the religious community (bottom right). The section depicts a nativity scene where a baby is receiving a vaccination from a doctor and scientists from different countries took the place of the wise men.

Detail, Detroit Murals, Rivera. DIA.

Detail, Detroit Murals, Rivera, DIA.

Detail, Detroit Murals, Rivera, DIA.

Detail, Detroit Murals, Rivera, DIA.