We have another tantalizing piece of Diego Rivera’s Hollywood puzzle thanks to Lewis Sykes, a member of the Foundation of City College’s Auxiliary. Rivera’s 1943 portrait of Hermes Pan is up for sale and Lewis sent me a postcard with the image, new to me. Pan was Fred Astaire’s choreographic collaborator for many of his films (including 1937’s Shall We Dance, George Gershwin’s last work). He tutored Paulette Goddard for five weeks for her dancing role opposite Astaire in the 1940 Second Chorus. Shooting started not long after she and Rivera returned from Mexico. (The movie’s co-star, Burgess Meredith, became Goddard’s third husband.) According to Hermes Pan: The Man Who Danced with Fred Astaire by John Franceschina, Hermes had a break from movie work and took the train to San Francisco to stay at the Palace Hotel. By accident he ran into Paulette, who was staying there on one of her visits (in late September or mid-November 1940). She introduced him to Rivera. In 1943 Pan posed in Mexico, while Rivera experimented with depicting motion in a portrait. This is a neat parallel to George Gershwin’s 1937 suggestion that Paulette get her portrait painted by Rivera. She finally got there three years later.
The lower part of Panel 4 is the “Movie Panel.” Rivera’s love for film is represented by scenes from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and a scene from Confessions of a Nazi Spy, starring his friend, art collector Edward G. Robinson and Francis Lederer, both Europeans. Rivera referred to movies as “moving frescoes”, a term which may have come from Russian film maker Sergei Eisenstein according to Anita Brenner. (Panel 2 contains cannons, references to Eisenstein’s epic Battleship Potemkin.) In January-February 1941 as Rivera worked his way back to Mexico he stayed in Santa Barbara and visited Hollywood. Newspapers mentioned his meeting with actor Oskar Homolka and other émigré European movie makers, many of whom were Jewish and had fled Hitler. In 2015 the Skirball Museum exhibited Light and Noir, Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 in which Confessions of a Nazi Spy was highlighted.
In the Panel 4 polemic, a large arm draped in the US flag restrains a swastika tattooed hand with dagger. Rivera implored the US to get into the war against the Nazis. Since the Stalinist USSR and Nazi Germany were allied by a non-Aggression Pact, no other communist was advocating this. The Mexican artist did this at his peril according to the FBI. Despite being a Mexican and a communist, Rivera found, ironically, that his natural ally was the U.S.
John Lukacs in Five Days in London, May 1940 (1999) states a rationale to which Rivera must have subscribed:
“Churchill understood something that not many people understand even now. The greatest threat to Western civilization was not communism. It was National Socialism. The greatest and most dynamic power in the world was not Soviet Russia. It was the Third Reich of Germany. The greatest revolutionary of the twentieth century was not Lenin or Stalin. It was Hitler.”
In calling for Pan American unity Rivera understood what the isolationist “America Firsters” didn’t. In a world war, there is no place to hide. (Many America Firsters, like Ford and Lindbergh, were anti-Semitic admirers of Hitler, which drove their agenda in demanding American neutrality.)
To keep my dance thread going: choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who is in town working with the San Francisco Ballet (Unbound: C) visited the mural. In 2016 she created a 45 minute dazzling ballet about Frida called Broken Wings for the English National Ballet and she will create a 2 hour full length narrative about Frida in 2020 at the Dutch National Ballet. We talked…about Frida. Our mutual friend Celia Fushille, artistic director of the Smuin Ballet, connected us. I’m planning a 2020 trip to Amsterdam for the premiere.
The DeYoung’s Cult of the Machine is about the Precisionist school of art. Among the exhibition’s featured painters and photographers is Charles Sheeler, whose 1927 photo (not in show) of a Ford stamping machine Diego Rivera appropriated for our center icon’s right side. A highlight of the show is the gleaming Cord automobile; it goes fast while stationary.
A donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, has forwarded this lovely photo of Mona and Lynn Hofmann, both figures in our 1940 mural. The late Lynn generously donated all her mother’s artifacts to the CCSF Rivera Collection.
Our friend, Bay area homie, and Mexico City’s Musical Ambassador, flautist Elena Duran, will be leading a musical tour to Cuba, Oct. 31 to November 5, 2018.
Emmy Lou Packard’s son Don Cairns, the little t-shirt clad boy in our mural, escorted an early March mural tour from his church. (Kathé Cairns organized the event. Over the years the couple has been generous to our Project in many ways.)
The Auxiliary of the Foundation of City College led by Debra Dooley came for a mural tour followed by lunch at CCSF’s Chef’s Table. A tour I gave for them a decade ago led to my fruitful connection with the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust.
On April 21 at 11:30 am, I will be hosting a California Historical Society members-only Tour.
Went to the CHS opening artists’ reception for ¡Murales Rebeldes! and met L.A. muralists Barbara Carrasco and Yreina D. Cervántez (who both came to see the mural). Got to chat with local legends Juana Alicia and Miranda Bergman, who are trying by April 20 to fund a book about their Women’s Building mural.
As part of the S.F. Mexican Consulate’s Mex Am Festival on May 3-4, I will be conducting two Rivera mural bus tours; including the City Club, the S.F. Art Institute, and CCSF.
On June 26 at 7:30 I will present Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, & San Francisco: A Love Affair for the San Francisco History Association at Congregation Sherith Israel.
There’s a blurb on our SFMOMA deal in the Living New Deal newsletter.
Diego Rivera’s painting The Rivals is part of The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller coming up for auction at Christies. There are catalog essays by Luis-Martin Lozano, our 2000 Fulbright scholar, and by James Oles, co-curator of Rivera’s America, the 2020 SFMOMA show featuring our mural. (The Rivals will be part of this show, as well.) Work on the mural loan for the show continues. Extricating the 20 ton masterpiece from the Diego Rivera Theatre will require prestidigitation. We recently had a meeting with the “magicians” tasked with the move, as we scheduled next steps. (Christie’s article on Abby Aldrich Rockefeller is illuminating. Her advocacy for Rivera’s 1931 one-man MoMA show was a game changer in his career. Only Matisse got a solo show ahead of him.)
My late Rivera partner librarian Julia Bergman and I always agreed that the most important part of our work was saving the stories. These ephemeral pieces of lore are in jeopardy as the eye witnesses leave us. Recently, I was pleased to come across art that was saved; the Leonard Bernstein and New York Philharmonic’s televised Young People’s Concerts from 1960.
It was at a 1937 party hosted by Edward G. Robinson for composer Igor Stravinsky that George Gershwin met Paulette Goddard and dramatically changed the trajectory of Diego and Frida’s lives. Here is Stravinsky conducting pieces from his Firebird.
Aaron Copland was a great compadre to Mexican composer and Rivera collaborator Carlos Chavez, a character in my Gershwin play. Both Copland and Gershwin were Russian Jews born near each other in Brooklyn, who chose different roads to compose American music. Here is Copland conducting his El Salón México.
These are great. Enjoy!