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The Man at the Crossroads: Diego Rivera’s Murals for MoMA

The past few years have thrown America into economic turmoil. The stock market crash of 2008, the housing crisis, and the lack of jobs have placed America in a place of financial instability. The difficulty the country is experiencing now has often been compared to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Perhaps then it is appropriate that the murals Diego Rivera painted in 1931 for the Museum of Modern Art are currently on display at the MoMa, eighty years later. Eighty years ago, the MoMA commissioned Rivera to create five murals about Mexican history just six weeks before the show’s opening. The show was wildly popular, and MoMA then asked Rivera to create three more frescos of New York scenes, creating an odd juxtaposition of an immigrant’s past history and his current views of New York.


Rivera was a Mexican born artist and a member of the Mexican Communist Party. His homage to the Communists can often be seen in the symbolism in his artwork; his wife, Frida Kahlo, had an affair with Trotsky. Rivera’s partnership with Kahlo was tortured: they married; they divorced; they remarried. Twenty years his junior, Kahlo is one of the most famous female artists of the 21st century and is renowned for her self-portraits. She killed herself in 1954, writing a final note in her diary, "I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to return — Frida.” Kahlo’s and Rivera’s strange connection is perhaps best summed up in Frida’s Diego and I, a self-portrait in which she paints him on her forehead.


Kahlo once said, “I cannot speak of Diego as my husband because that term, when applied to him, is an absurdity. He never has been, nor will he ever be, anybody’s husband.” The severed connection between Rivera and Kahlo is exemplified in the space of the exhibition: the viewer walks through Rivera’s exhibition knowing that Frida’s self portraits are displayed in the upper galleries of the museum. The walls of the museum and time separate the couple’s art. Although Kahlo makes appearances in photographs in Rivera’s exhibition and although her influence is seen in the murals, her spirit and artwork are disconnected from Rivera.


Yet Rivera’s art itself is interesting in its own right. Images like Indian Warrior draw on the Spanish conquest of the early 16th century and the isolation of the warrior. In this fresco, an Aztec warrior clothed in a jaguar costume with demonic, bloodshot eyes stabs an armored conquistador with a stone knife. The white hand of the conquistador contrasts with the maroon, dark legs of legs of other warriors, highlighting the racial tension between the Indians and Spaniards. The theme of self-disguise permeates Rivera’s work; he often depicts himself in his murals and uses himself as a model, but he cloaks himself in other costumes and other skins. In many ways, Rivera is on a conquest as an artist with a thesis and mission with which he attempts to pierce his audience, the others with different colored skin and different backgrounds. Sometimes he embraces these others; sometimes he shuns them.


Rivera’s depictions of women vary between empowering them and showing them as subservient. The many different women depicted throughout the murals may attest to Rivera’s various affairs and his disloyalty to Kahlo. In The Rivals, he paints a fiesta, where suitors stare at women adorned in bright colors. The eyes are missing from the figures, and two men stare at each other, almost as if Rivera is staring at himself and contemplating his own image in relation to the hoards of women.


In The Uprising, some men have fallen in strife, while a woman is the focal point of the painting, taking charge even while holding a child. The men and women are clothed in modern garb, suggesting a contemporary resurgence of the age-old conflict between workers and their superiors. Behind the woman’s head, a fist is raised in strike in the background. Yet in Market Scene, the female submits, and a woman and child offer fruit and fish to a Mexican conqueror.


The alliance between man and woman is torn and tattered, but the alliance between man and mahcine is very much alive. Rivera described New York as “a truly industrial country such as I had originally envisioned as the ideal place for modern mural art.” And in Electric Power, industrial workers gripping construction tools are placed against the New York skyline. The figures’ faces turn away, laboring heavily to create an ideal and imagined city with the worker at its center. Pneumatic Drilling furthers the theme of drilling towards an ideal. In what I find to be Rivera’s most poetic mural, six men labor into the earth, their backs highlighted by an almost divine light. An entirely black figure in the background seems to either command the entire enterprise or throw his hands up in despair. Yet even this figure seems out of control, surrendering to a higher power allowing him and the others to continue their difficult labor. A similar silhouette to this figure stands on one of the skyscrapers, overlooking the entire procedure. Rivera seems to have placed himself as the rotund, manual labor in the foreground, as the darkened shadow in the background, and as the silhouette that objectively views the entire scene. It is Rivera’s richness of perspective that allowed him to view New York in so many different lights, creating murals that depict New York in ways no one else had previously conceived.


Rivera’s eye continued to pick up on the industrialization of America and its decline with the economic crash in the 1930s. While living on the edge of Central Park with Kahlo, he embarked on sketching excursions throughout the city to paint Frozen Assets, a foreigner’s perspective on the Great Depression. In the multi-layer building in the foreground, everyone is alone except two well dressed women who converse. Interestingly, the buildings in the background are a composite of recently completed skyscrapers such as the Daily News Building, the McGraw Hill Building and the Rockefeller Center complex, all designed by architect Raymond Hood. Rivera’s awe for these massive skyscrapers is literally contrasted with the loneliness and economic depravity he feels as one of New York’s citizens.


All of the murals are coated in a light fine dust that makes them sparkle, in what appears to be the dust and grime of the city. The portable frescos were backed with cement and steel, which allowed them to be removed from the wall. But they were still difficult to transport, some weighing close to a thousand pounds. An x-ray of one of the murals is also displayed, showing where its backing used to be. The backs of the murals are sometimes exposed through holes in the exhibition walls, revealing the cement and mortar. Rivera murals aren’t just industrial in imagery but in construct. As Rivera told The New York Herald in 1933, “I am a worker. I am painting for my class—the working class.”


The sketch that delves into the issues of the workingman, Man at the Crossroads, Rivera submitted for a mural for the lobby of the RCA building of the Rockefeller Center. Although Picasso and Matisse were also asked to submit designs, Matisse declined, Picasso never responded, and so Rivera took charge. The mural was never completed for the RCA building of the Rockefeller center. Rockefeller confronted Rivera after discovering that Rivera had painted an image of Vladimir Lenin in the mural as well as an image of the Baptist, prohibition-supporting Rockefeller Jr. at a nightclub. Rockefeller then wrote to Rivera in 1933:

The piece is beautifully painted, but it seems to me that [Lenin’s] portrait, appearing in this mural, might seriously offend a great many people. If it were in a private house it would be one thing, but this mural is in a public building and the situation is therefore quite different. As much as I dislike to do so, I am afraid we must ask you to substitute the face of some unknown man where Lenin's face now appears.

Yet Rivera refused to remove Lenin from the image despite Rockefeller’s request. The mural was covered up, Rivera was paid and then dismissed, yet protests and demonstrations by workers and artists about the covering up of the mural arose until the mural was cut out of the wall.


In many ways, Rivera is the man at the crossroads, cut out from society for his differences and artistic stubbornness. Much as he often models figures in his murals after himself, the man at the crossroad is Rivera himself, caught between American and Mexican culture, between staying true to the commissioner’s desires and expressing himself as an artist, between staying faithful to his wife and engaging in adulterous affairs. His murals view New York through the eyes of a foreigner, and Mexican culture and history through the eyes of a New Yorker. This dialectic of perspective makes Rivera’s murals accessible to every viewer, because the man at the crossroads is everyman, constantly at a crossroads between two decisions or two conflicting identities.


Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art is on display at MoMA through May 14. Admission is $14 for students, and the museum is free on Friday nights from 4PM—8PM. Noteworthy exhibitions openings later in February are Cindy Sherman and Print/Out.