Dear Friends of Diego,
Early in August Julia Bergman and I made our long-awaited research trip to see the draft notes for Diego Rivera’s “autobiography” My Art, My Life. In 1944 Gladys March started interviewing Rivera in Mexico. She visited periodically until just before his death in 1957, when she realized that 2000 pages might be enough. For over 15 years we had been intrigued that these pages shrunk into only a slim 190 page book. Last July I explained how we serendipitously found these “lost” papers.
[N.B. Several confidentiality agreements have given me access to information otherwise unavailable, so I scrupulously adhere to the agreements’ constraints.]
Our Canadian host (who requested anonymity) only permitted us to make hand-written transcriptions. Over 3 days in a windowless room (Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose came to mind) we took notes to later craft an abstract of the papers, a mélange of various numbering systems, marginal scribbling, and different voices. Some stories were copied in their entirety. We found episodes which didn’t make the book or were notably modified and even a hilarious story March never meant for the book. At Diego’s goading Gladys went to Hollywood to visit one of his friends, a movie “sexpot” (you-know-who). The ingénue Gladys recounted that she was not quite ready for the alarming moves put on her as she was plied with absinthe, which evidently didn’t make her heart grow fonder.
The papers corroborated our old insight into Rivera’s stories: Diego had only a whimsical interest in the truth. ¡Ay, Diego. Que embustero eres! (My Grandmother Hermiña used to call me an embustero, a fibber.) Bertram Wolfe perfectly captured this whimsy in the title of his book, The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera. (Can you believe it? This is a link to the whole Google book on-line! We plan to get an NEH grant to digitize as much of our collection as is legal and then post it. Julia and I hope to institutionalize as much of the Diego Rivera Mural Project as possible, hopefully, before we ourselves are institutionalized.)
A surprise find, not part of the Gladys March Papers, was a binder containing both sides of the correspondence relating the genesis of one of Rivera’s self-portraits, which is owned by our host. Most often, in doing our research we have to speculate on what was said in reciprocal letters. Some letters were already public, but these additional missives illuminated the saga of a single work. Included were a few letters by Frida, complete with the obligatory lipstick prints.
Elsewhere and especially important to us, Diego described how Pflueger and he envisioned our mural’s installation; so that it was visible from outside. It was modeled on windowed walls in Rivera’s cactus-fenced San Ángel studio. This vision will eventually be realized when we move the mural to the lobby of the City College Performing Art Center, sans the cactus (I’d be the first to make their acquaintance.)
The papers were also a sad reminder that our mural was contractually slated to end up THREE times as large. The U.S. entry into WWII and the subsequent segue into the “Cold War,” prevented Diego, a born-again, post-war Stalinist, from ever returning to the U.S. to finish the job. If he had returned during the Joe McCarthy era, the uproar around the 1934 Rockefeller incident might have, in comparison, only looked like a slight difference of opinion. Fortunately, the destroyed Rockefeller mural was “replaced” by a slightly smaller version that Diego painted at Bellas Artes.
For insurance purposes the College recently commissioned an outside professional appraisal of the mural’s “replacement value” (this appraisal has its own confidentiality constraints.) This seemed a daunting task, but there are professional protocols for using comparable works of art, if available and appropriate, as benchmarks. The resulting appraised value is appropriately large. But how do you rationalize a metric for the incomparable?
It is difficult to monetarily quantify the fact that this 1940 mural was the sole major piece in Diego Rivera’s “farewell tour” of San Francisco, where his work in the U.S. had started in 1930. Specifically emulating him, the WPA’s Federal Art Project was founded in 1935. Our vast mural is a coda; the bookend to a decade-long era for Rivera, San Francisco, and the United States. What are appropriate historical “comparables”?
Is there a “bonus” value for it being Diego’s single largest [contiguous] mural, as he reiterated in the Gladys March papers? (“Bonus” value: Kind of like having a 4.2 GPA or like Spinal Tap turning the volume up to 11.) Absolutely unique in Rivera’s oeuvre is his depiction of the United States; evoked as the flag-draped arm, the muscular savior against aggression. The only military and industrial power that could halt Hitler, he had presciently written elsewhere in late 1939.
The historical irony is that at this idiosyncratic moment, before WWII reached the Americas and before Hitler fatefully invaded his erstwhile ally the USSR, an internationally prominent Mexican communist found the United States to be his natural ally. Certainly, no “comparables” there. Ever. Since these arcane facts couldn’t be factored into the appraisal paradigm, I feel that the resulting appraised value is too low. But, then again, so would any dollar value for our priceless mural.
Clearly, this “replacement value” is a curious concept because as SNL’s Chevy Chase said about Generalissimo Franco:
“This breaking news just in. Diego Rivera is still dead.”
Feliz Labor Day & Hispanic Heritage Month,