In November 1930, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera traveled to the United States with his wife, artist Frida Kahlo, on a commission to paint one of his famous large frescos for the San Francisco Stock Exchange. The Great Depression was just getting underway, so it was an apt time for the avowed Marxist to bring his politically charged art to the country in the north.
Over the next two years, he would go on to paint an additional fresco in San Francisco, complete a 27-panel project at the Detroit Institute of Arts for Henry Ford, and enjoy the career milestone of a solo retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
As happens with all important and progressive work, Rivera received his fair share of critics. But on the whole, the 44-year-old artist was increasingly celebrated and sought out for his cutting-edge ideas and style.
So, when the reigning industrialist family, the Rockefellers, began speaking with him in New York in 1932—on what was quickly becoming something of a coast-to-coast tour of the U.S.—about a new project, Rivera had no reason to believe that it would be anything other than his latest success.
The project was seemingly simple: In 1933, Rivera was to paint a giant fresco in the lobby of the brand new Rockefeller Center that addressed the rather long-winded theme “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future.”
A notice of Rivera and Kahlo’s arrival in New York appeared in The New York Times on March 21, 1933. Regarding the purpose of their trip, it stated, “The Rockefeller mural will be 63 feet long and 17 feet high… the Rivera work will depict ‘human intelligence in control of the forces of nature.’” Less than two months later, the same paper would be printing defenses of the final product.
Rivera wasn’t John D. Rockefeller’s first choice. The billionaire first approached Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. But when neither was available for the job, he settled on the Mexican muralist.
“As for Rivera, although I do not personally care for much of his work, he seems to have become very popular just now and will probably be a good drawing card,” Rockefeller is reported as saying.
The man in the mural might have been at a crossroads, but so, too, was American society and the rest of the world. It may seem a bit odd that the billionaire businessmen of the day with names like Ford and Rockefeller were supporting the work of artists like Rivera who were actively campaigning for the rights and dignity of the worker. But there was an air of change that encouraged the exploration of new ideas and conversations about the way forward.
Rockefeller, for his part, may not have “personally care[d]” for the Mexican muralist’s work, but he was certainly familiar with it. Rivera had become a famous, if a bit controversial, artist and it was well known that he used his art to explore leftist themes. Plus, Rockefeller’s wife, Abby, was a big fan.
In a statement released on June 3, 1933 after the project would become embroiled in conflict, Rivera stated, “Those who gave me the work at Radio City knew perfectly well my artistic tendencies and my social and political opinions. They did much urging to persuade me to accept the work, which I finally did only on condition that they would give me full liberty.”
Whatever the original agreement, Rivera set to work on his latest masterpiece. What he created was an allegory exploring the different political and social systems, and how they were interacting in the world. Specifically, he positioned capitalism on one side of his leading man and communism on the other as rival political forces.
Reports contend that Abby and her son Nelson had seen and approved sketches for the mural before Rivera began painting it—the mother and son duo were his biggest supporters from the start. But where reports differ is whether he had clued them in on his full plan—specifically his decision to add a portrait of Vladimir Lenin on the communist side—or if that was an addition he snuck in without their approval.
Rivera had been kicked out of the Mexican Communist party in 1929, and some say that his socialist friends were pressuring him to amp up the messaging in this high-profile mural. Wanting to impress them, he added Lenin to the composition.
Either way, when Nelson Rockefeller got wind of the addition, he promptly took action to shut it down. He sent Rivera a letter requesting that he paint Lenin out of the piece. The artist refused to change his artistic vision, but he did offer a compromise: he would paint a portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the capitalist side of the wall-cum-canvas.
But that wasn’t good enough for Rockefeller and the management team of the new building. The mural was unceremoniously covered up with a tarp, Rivera was paid the remainder of the promised commission, and he was sent on his way.
“My interpretation, naturally, portrayed the crossroads with the road to the left as the socialist world, that to the right, the world of capitalism,” Rivera wrote in his statement in June following the uproar. “I could not conceive or represent the figure of the worker-leader as any other than that of Lenin.
“After the Rockefellers had repeatedly expressed their enthusiasm for the work as it developed on the wall, the pretext was advanced by Nelson Rockefeller that the head of Lenin was inacceptable.”
And then the real backlash started. Rivera may have had his critics; there may have been loud voices expressing their displeasure at his socialist agenda. But the one thing you do not do in America is curtail freedom of speech and freedom of artistic expression. The backlash was loud and strong.
“One night, after getting rid of spectators, an incongruously large force of guards and attendants covered the picture,” Rivera continued in his statement. “We are confident that the workers will yet unveil our buried mural, and if it be destroyed or incomplete, they will create out of their own midst the artists of tomorrow who will fulfill our intentions and carry revolutionary art to far greater heights.”
Rivera was wrong in the former assessment. The following year, the mural was quietly chiseled off the wall to make way for a new work to take its place.
But the artistic world of New York soon found out, and they were, indeed, galvanized. After this act of destruction, large protest marches were staged, an art show scheduled to take place in the almost year-old Rockefeller Center was boycotted, and letters to the editor were vehemently written.
While none could save the lost work of art, Rivera had caught a glimpse of the writing on the wall when the controversy started. Before the mural was covered up, never to be seen again, he had one of his assistants snap a few photos of the mural-in-progress.
After he was fired from the Rock Center project, Rivera and Kahlo returned to Mexico City… where he promptly set about painting a replica of the piece at the Palacio de Bellas Artes—albeit one on a much smaller square than the space allotted in New York City’s now iconic building.
In the end, Diego Rivera beat the Rockefellers to the last word.