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Mexican exhibit in D.C. tells story
Behind Rivera’s famous mural


by Audrey Hoffer

Imagine the surprise of staffers at Mexico City’s Frida Kahlo Museum — also known as Casa Azul — when they found a walled-off room they hadn’t known existed… and then discovering a trove of 1930s pictures, drawings and correspondence about Diego Rivera’s endeavors at Rockefeller Center.
 
It was a revealing window into the relationship more than 80 years ago in New York City between a Mexican artist and a wealthy American.
 

From left, Ambassador Eduardo Medina Mora of Mexico; Hilda Trujillo; the director of Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli and Museo Frida Kahlo; and Allen Blevins, senior vice president of global social responsibility at Bank of America, cut the ribbon on the
"Man at the Crossroads" exhibition.
Photo: Sergio Ochoa


In nine rooms throughout Washington’s Mexican Cultural Institute fronting Sixteenth Street, a new exhibit tells the story of creation and dissolution of the epic mural ‘Man at the Crossroads’.

“The exhibit brings to life an interesting moment in our shared history,” said Gustavo Morales, the institute’s deputy director. “Culture helps to build bridges between both our countries strengthening the bilateral relationship.”
 
The story began with a master plan for construction of the Rockefeller Center’s 14 buildings that included an art plan for sculptures, reliefs, mosaics, photomurals and paintings.
 

At Mexico City’s Frida Kahlo Museum — also known as Casa Azul — staffers found a walled-off room they hadn’t known existed.Photo: Larry Luxner

The proposed subject for this art was ‘New Frontiers’ — depicting the progress of humanity illustrated with elements of Greek and Roman mythology.
 
Rivera hired Frances Flynn Paine to negotiate a contract on his behalf with the Rockefellers to paint in the lobby of the RCA building. That’s how he landed the commission to paint ‘Man at the Crossroads.’
 
That contract, plus other documents, offer fascinating insights into the thoughts of Rockefeller the financier and Rivera the artist, as both strived to implement their vision.
 


Rivera returned to one of his favorite themes for subject matter: the technological and scientific advances of the United States at the time. Indeed, many of his internationally recognized pieces portray factories, furnaces, conveyor belts, workers and industrial elements like glass, steel and concrete.
 
The approved sketch for the Rockefeller lobby, dated Nov. 7, 1932, depicted technological and scientific advances in somber black, white, gray and brown and touches of blue.
 
But battles soon emerged between Rivera and his sponsor.
 
First, Rivera asked to paint the mural directly on the wall as a fresco rather than as a painting on canvas, as stipulated in his contract.
 
Second, he painted Lenin’s face on one man in the scene.  Rockefeller immediately called the image “unacceptable” and asked Rivera to replace it with an unrecognizable visage. Rivera countered that he “would rather destroy the concept in its entirety.”
 
So here were two resolute men locked in confrontation, as documented in letters with fighting words. Rivera did not win. On May 9, 1933, Rockefeller’s architect came to the mural site, handed Rivera a $14,000 check and forcibly escorted him out of the building.
 
The mural was covered with a sheet, not to be seen in this spot again — but not before Rivera’s colleague Lucienne Block snuck in with a camera and shot the only existing photos before its destruction by hammer and chisel.
 
These 1933 black-and-white pictures of Rivera’s original masterpiece in situ are the exhibit’s highlight.
 
Sketches show that Rivera didn’t paint any part of the mural precisely as it was in the approved drawing, a violation of his contract.  But what probably irked Rockefeller more was Rivera’s portrayal of “communist propaganda” and a denunciation of capitalism.
 
“He [Rivera] believed the future was in the hands of the workers,” reads wall the text.
 
One can only imagine the anger Rockefeller — the leading American industrialist and capitalist of the early 20th century — must have felt on seeing the wall images when he walked into the lobby of his new complex.
 
After Rivera, departed bitter renunciations ensued. A scandal replete with pickets for and against Rivera erupted, and on Feb. 25, 1934, the New York Times printed a double-paged spread of Rivera’s work and the news story, “Can art be propaganda and still be art?” 
 
Rivera eventually asked the Mexican government for space to reproduce the mural, which is now displayed in Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes.  It’s not as imposing as the Rockefeller Center location, but it is a world-class Rivera legacy.
 
“Man at the Crossroads: Diego Rivera’s Mural at Rockefeller Center”
Mexican Cultural Institute, 2829 16th Street, NW, Washington
Instituteofmexicodc.org
On view till Mar. 15, 2013, Mon-Fri 10:00-6:00, Sat 12:00-4:00. Free.


Audrey Hoffer is a contributing writer for the Diplomatic Pouch.

 
 

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