December 2017

Dear Friends of Diego,

Last Friday, December 8, was Diego’s 131st birthday. Today his beloved San Francisco gave him a terrific present.

Two local treasures, symbiotically founded in 1935, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art & City College of San Francisco, unveiled a Memorandum of Understanding for a major collaboration. To anchor a blockbuster 2020 SFMOMA exhibition, Rivera’s America, City College will lend the museum our 22 foot high x 74 foot long Pan American Unity masterpiece.

In 1940 it was the museum’s first director, Dr. Grace Morley, who in Mexico City personally invited Diego Rivera to paint a mural in San Francisco for the College. Instrumental in the founding of the museum, architect Timothy Pflueger, who had worked with Rivera in 1931, traveled to Mexico on behalf of the Golden Gate International Exposition and his Art in Action program to get Rivera’s signature on a hand-written contract.  Albert Bender, a founding patron, had been brokering Rivera’s work in San Francisco since 1926. A dear friend of Diego & Frida, he donated their first pieces to the fledgling museum, which in addition to paintings has 100 drawings by the master Mexican muralist.

Meeting at the proposed display site, SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra assured CCSF Chancellor Mark Rocha that after this show, the mural will never ever be little known again. Curated by James Oles and SFMOMA’s Caitlin Haskell, the exhibition, focused on Rivera’s mural work, will run from October 17, 2020 to January 31, 2021. Though the show will subsequently travel, the mural will not.

The collaboration is a transcendental nexus in the College’s stewardship of a mural, which could last hundreds of years. It has been said that the colors in a true fresco continue to get more vivid for the first 100 years. In return for the loan, the museum will generously underwrite the complete conservation of the mural  on its 80th birthday. The museum will additionally underwrite the eventual installation of the mural in the lobby of the Performing Arts & Education Center that City College plans to build on the west side of Phelan Avenue. This location, across the street from Timothy Pflueger’s Science Building, will finally fulfill Rivera and Pflueger’s vision: that the mural should be seen in its entirety from outside through a glass façade. The SFMOMA siting will be a titillating preview.

A central theme of the mural is Dualidades (dualities) or Yin Yang. In May when the idea was first pitched to me by SFMOMA principals, I was both elated and saddened. The offer was clearly a dream come true, but only last January my steadfast Rivera partner Julia Bergman had passed away. She shares a birthday with Diego, but wouldn’t get to see the fruition of our 20 years of work. Now, I choose to believe that Julia is still, as always, looking out for the mural, pulling strings from the “other side”. Thank you, my dear friend.

To aid the mural’s conservation, its Cultural Heritage Imaging (CHI) photogrammetry work will be indispensable. Here’s the link to the video of a CHI presentation at the NCPTT 3D summit. It explains scientifically the detail captured in this work.

The moving job will be handled by our good friends at Atthowe Fine Arts Services with whom we have a long-time relationship. They installed our Olmec head in 2004. Then, Director Harry Parker III of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, who brokered the deal to get City College the head, assured me that they were the best art movers around. Scott Atthowe is a member of our mural’s assessment team. Recently at CCSF, while re-installing  Aristides Demetrios’ sculpture Sentinels (restored by the SF Art Commission), he said he would postpone his retirement for our unique project, moving a 20 ton work of art. If you come to campus, also see the conservation that the SF Art Commission did of Benny Bufano’s sculpture St. Francis of the Guns. Its theme is more topical than ever.

December 8th also commemorated Diego and Frida re-marrying in San Francisco’s City Hall in 1940.

Diego Rivera by Amedeo Modigliani (1914)

Diego Rivera by Amedeo Modigliani (1914)

Holly Schuman visited the mural on a late October Saturday afternoon, hanging around after catching the tail end of my talk to Dan Hess’s Junior State of America students. She volunteers at the Skirball Cultural Center, which I plan to visit for Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico. (CCSF’s Leslie Simon said the Skirball show is great.) Holly mentioned that she had bought a book on Amazon, which she had never gotten around to reading. After chatting, she thought I should have it and graciously mailed me Life with the Painters of La Ruche by Marevna, Diego’s common-law wife in Paris and mother of Marika. The book recounts first-hand stories of the painters who inhabited this “beehive” in Montparnasse. She related that on a blackboard in his studio Rivera diagrammed structural analysis of Cezanne paintings. Modigliani, Picasso, Matisse, Cocteau and others formed a rapt audience. Marevna’s insights are provocative and singularly illuminating. The book has yielded wonderful nuggets to spice my play.

This month poet Judy Halebsky and I will read my play about George Gershwin, Rapsodia en Azul (An American in Mexico). Public readings will follow next year. That’s Diego Rivera with Cynthia Boissevain in the photo below, which I just got from her son, writer Nick Madigan. As an 11 year old sitting on the stairs, Cynthia heard the composer play all of Porgy and Bess at her mother’s 1935 party, the subject of my play. She has a strikingly similar profile to her mother Estrella Elizaga. The Rivera painting in the background, In Venum Veritas, was painted in 1945 and installed at the bar of the Hotel Reforma. It was de-installed in 1947. So Cynthia must be about 21-23 years old here. Nick is arranging for me to interview her.

Diego Rivera and Cynthia Boissevain

Photographer unknown.

For many years we have known that Diego Rivera and Mexican muralism were the basis for the 1935 genesis of the WPA’s expansive muralism program. Now the exact documentation has surfaced.  On page 2 of the newly digitized AAA diary of George Biddle, he floats the idea of a U.S. muralism program, like Mexico’s, to his schoolmate FDR on May 9, 1933:

“Dear Franklin:

…..There is a matter which I have long considered and which some day might interest your administration. The Mexican artists have created the greatest national school of mural painting since the Italian Renaissance. Diego Rivera tells me that it was only possible because Obregon allowed artists to work at plumber’s wages in order to express on the Government’s buildings the social ideals of the Mexican Revolution.” (Full text and FDR’s reply on AAA link above.)

Rivera, Siqueiros, and others founded the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors, whose egalitarian sentiments stated that all labor was honorable; that the work of a plumber was as valuable as that of an artist.  Rivera expressed this sentiment at the bottom of mural Panel 2, where he depicts himself painting in blue working clothes in solidarity with the fresco plasterer, working ahead of him. (Note: Soon after on May 22, 1933, Rivera was paid in full and expelled from the Rockefeller Center, site of his controversial mural. When Rivera’s mural was destroyed in February 1934, the Coit Tower mural artists went out on strike.)

The DeYoung’s Raquel Garcia del Real forwards this message:

We would like to invite you to help us spread the word about Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire.  Our doors are open to community groups and cultural organizations working with underserved communities who would like to book a group visit free of cost.  Groups of 4 or more people will receive free admission when they book directly with me.   Please pass my email on to groups for whom the admission cost might be a barrier to seeing Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire, and I will gladly make the arrangements. [For those of you who are not familiar with Teotihuacan, check out the DeYoung’s digital stories.]

As the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution is being observed, some people have been unable to, as Vladimir Putin suggested, “Get over it!” Director Ralph Lewin’s Mechanics Institute hosted Yuri Slezkine, author of the new epic The House of Government, in conversation with the Stanford Hoover Institute’s Bert Patenaude (Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary). The scintillating talk was a reminder that though history is mainly depicted as broad landscapes, it is real people and their idiosyncrasies, who steer the lurching historical jalopy down a rutted road. The Rivera research has yielded numerous examples, i.e., Diego and Frida’s lives might have been substantially different if George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess had opened to good reviews. Bert and I, who met some years back on a speakers’ panel at UC Berkeley’s Center for Latin American Studies, chatted about the reappearance of the Trotsky murder weapon. He told me about a new Russian TV series about Trotsky, which is described in an article in the New Yorker. In his introduction Bert zealously plugged the very well received Slezkine book, but couldn’t outdo his previous “sales job.” I ended up buying two copies of his Trotsky book because it came out under a different title in Britain.

A belated Thanksgiving; thank you all for your support, now and over the years. Cada día es un regalo,