José Guadalupe Posada Gran Calavera Eléctrica
Dear Friends of Diego,
Dia de los Muertos (Tue, Nov 1, 2022 – Wed, Nov 2, 2022) is my favorite Mexican holiday because it nourishes and refreshes our ties with nuestros antepasados, those who have gone on before us. The mural’s Yaqui deer dancers daily invoke part of my heritage. Working with the mural has instilled a kinship with those who created it in 1940; those who welded the frames, slaked the plaster’s lime, ground the colors, and painted a work that everyday glows still brighter. The conveyor belt bracketing the right side of the mural, like the Mayan calendar, is a metaphor for the cyclical nature of time. Our mural watch is part of a continuum of those who have and those who will care for it over the coming centuries; we will become the antepasados.
Set on Dia de los Muertos, the new San Diego Opera El Ultimo Sueño de Frida y Diego (The Last Dream of Frida and Diego) opened October 29. It’ll be at the San Francisco Opera next June. Hopefully, some tie-in with our mural can be arranged. Diego and Frida live on in these and their works. (The Mexican government is investigating the burning of a Frida drawing to create an NFT.)
Ken Burns’ 3-part documentary The US and the Holocaust reminds us of those lost in WWII in the camps and other killing fields. Episode 2 depicts our country’s social and political milieu in which Rivera was immersed as he created our mural. You cannot understand the mural without being conversant with newspaper headlines of the time. Diego was a Mexican Paul Revere crying out that “The Nazis are coming; the Nazis are coming;” it’s his grito. The US’s isolationist policies seemed logical to many, if you ignored the fact that the world was smaller. Charles Lindbergh, soon a Nazi sympathizer, had flown the Atlantic solo in 1927. In 1931 you could fly from San Francisco to New York in 27 hours. Even the Bay area was smaller because of the two new bridges cinching in the bay. The Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island celebrated the new bridges and was home to the China Clippers, flying boats which could leap-frog the Pacific.
In Pan American Unity Diego was arguing that in a smaller world at war, there was no place to hide. As Californians have found, you cannot stay “neutral” in a forest fire. That your part of the forest is not currently ablaze, will be scant consolation when the wind invariably shifts. Rivera was a few chess moves ahead, advocating that our country check the seemingly unstoppable Nazis, still allied with Stalin’s USSR. (A year later, four days after Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war on us.) Lamentably, our country’s consensus to not accept refugees-especially Jews and people from the “wrong” countries-didn’t reflect well on a “nation of immigrants.” Healing that attitude is still a work in progress.
My father and uncle came back from defending our country in the Pacific and in Europe in WWII, only to find that schools were still segregated for Mexican-Americans. There was a disconnect between responsibilities and rights. Having been temporarily stationed as a Marine in the south in 1966, I saw, first-hand, segregation and the shocking “Jim Crowe” restrictions on Black people. As a 19 year old, I suddenly realized someone else would decide if I could drink from a “Whites Only” water fountain. It became not merely a philosophical, but a visceral part of my education; something I never would have learned if I had gone directly to college. More lessons awaited me soon, much further away. These racial divides were also manifest in “hidden” redlining policies. At a high school reunion last month, a few discussed the “redlining” in my Southern California hometown. Mexican-Americans could only live in the “north end” if they stayed on their side of the railroad tracks, the Colonia, where my grandparents Manuelita and Abelardo Ordoñez lived. Not long ago, the California Historical Society presented: Freedom to Discriminate: How Realtors Conspired to Segregate Housing and Divide America – YouTube. Longstanding societal ills will never be resolved if the situations which bred them are not sunshined. (The California Association of Realtors has recently apologized about this issue.)
Reminder: Jean Franco and I will perform our 45 minute one-act play “Frida: March 1941 Interview” on Diego’s birthday, Thursday December 8 at 6 pm in SFMOMA’s Roberts Family Gallery. The play is set in México shortly after Frida and Diego remarried. The play, like the mural, is free to the public. (For the last year Jean, who plays “Frida,” has been living in México, so we’ve started our rehearsals via Zoom.)
Like the recent asteroid shot, Paulette Goddard was the “bombshell” aimed by George Gershwin that deflected Diego’s trajectory. Paulette appeared in México to get her portrait painted at Gershwin’s suggestion and a smitten Diego (divorced from Frida) abandoned his announced marriage to Nieves Orozco, the Desnudo con Alcatraces. Paulette predictably moved on. When Frida fled to San Francisco after Leon Trotsky was assassinated, Diego was available to remarry her in San Francisco’s City Hall on his birthday. A “Fred Astaire”- precise choreography seems to determine these interactions. But what might have happened if Porgy and Bess had instead opened to good reviews and Gershwin had never exiled to Hollywood and met Paulette? In New York, his brain tumor might have instead been diagnosed and successfully healed. We might have had another 40 years of Gershwin music. And what might have happened to Diego, Frida, and Nieves? In quantum mechanics many possibilities exist until the wave function collapses and there’s a single outcome.
For hardworking immigrants with Hollywood hopes, the Frida Kahlo Theater is a space to learn and dream – Los Angeles Times (latimes.com). Having grown up in my late director “Uncle Mike Maynez’s” Plaza Players theater, this article resonated. My plays are a homage to him, who made my world blossom. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the UNAM’s team chemist coming to analyze the plaster and pigment for our mural move was named Miguel Angel Máynez, like my uncle, and hailed from my grandmother Herminia’s hometown of Valle de Allende, Chihuahua. When I suggested that we might be related, he enlightened me, “It’s a small place, we’re all related.” The two degrees of separation that has blessed the Rivera research, had me working with an unknown primo! Off to the side Rod Serling opined, ”The cosmos is a small barrio and we’re all vecinos.”
Opening at the Noguchi Museum: In Praise of Caves: Organic Architecture Projects from Mexico by Carlos Lazo, Mathias Goeritz, Juan O’Gorman, and Javier Senosiain (October 19, 2022–February 26, 2023). Juan O’Gorman designed Frida and Diego’s Casa Estudios, where George Gershwin hung out and took pictures in November 1935. They were built with funds Diego was paid on his first US pilgrimage to San Francisco.
Our Canal Arts friends have an exciting project, The People of the Canal; A Story of Thousands of Years. They propose to create “over two miles of the San Rafael Shoreline Path, an interactive timeline, a history of the people and their relation to the land and water, in the voices of its occupants, through archeology, written and spoken evidence, and creative imagination.” “The fiscal sponsor that manages tax exempt donations in general support for The Canal Arts’ work is Marin’s 95 year old, and oldest, arts organization, Marin Society of Artists.”
Here is an NPR follow-up on the controversy over the Victor Arnautoff murals at Washington High School. James Oles, the curator of Diego Rivera’s America said that the issue drew world-wide attention. The Living New Deal will be hosting a benefit screening of Town Destroyer at the Roxie Theater on November 10 at 6:45 pm. (Note: there are benefits in the previous days for this film about the Washington HS murals by Victor Arnautoff.)
There is no further word on when the SFAI mural will be available to the public.
Mural visitor stories:
Peter Albin (the bass player for Big Brother and the Holding Co, Janis Joplin’s original band) came by SFMOMA and we had a chat. He is a cousin of puppeteer Ralph Chessé’s family. The puppeteer is mentioned in John Weatherwax’s 1931 short story about Frida, The Queen of Montgomery Street (pages 22-25). He performed at 728 Montgomery, just up the block from 716, Ralph Stackpole’s studio, where Diego and Frida were staying. Frida loved being near Chinatown. Their entourage walked in the rain to see the puppet show. (When I went by, I found 728 no longer exists, likely folded into 730.)
Julie and Charlie from the East coast came by the mural with an interesting offer. She had an Anton Refregier painting, My Critics, and wanted to donate and put it up near his Rincon Annex murals. Hooked Julie up with my friends at the Living New Deal. Project Scholar Gray Brechin has written about the controversy at the Rincon Annex murals, which is the subject of the offered painting. Our mural’s primary assistant Emmy Lou Packard helped save the murals from Refregier’s critics. (Emmy Lou’s granddaughter Shannon, whose profile is a spitting image of her grandmother’s, recently came by to visit the mural. In the 2015 performance of our Interview with Frida, Shannon and her son did a “magical realism” walk-on, appearing as Emmy Lou and her son Donald Cairns, the little boy in the mural, who is Shannon’s father.)
My Critics by Anton Refregier, photo by Julie
Lindy and David, who are working on a documentary about Leon Trotsky, came by and we compared notes and anecdotes. Later, Lindy sent me the photo below, which I absolutely love. Somewhere Diego is smiling.
Unknown photographer at Secretaría de Educación Publica. Posted on Facebook by Marcela Davison Aviles
Had an interesting conversation with a local architect about the Rockefeller Center mural. He thought a Rivera piece still existed on the ceiling of “30 Rock.” I assured him that Rivera’s mural had been destroyed and that he hadn’t painted on the ceiling. In researching the issue, I found that Spanish artist José Maria Sert, whose 1937 American Progress replaced Rivera’s Man At the Crossroads, was a fascist follower of Francisco Franco. In Sert’s ceiling mural called Time, a vortex of circling planes seems an ominous testimonial to the Luftwaffe’s April 26, 1937, bombing atrocities on Guernica in Spain’s Basque region. Sert’s mural, painted on canvas in Paris, was installed at “30 Rock” in December 1937. Had Sert seen Picasso’s Guernica, displayed at the Exposition Internationale, held from 25 May to 25 November 1937 in Paris? The irony of a communist Rivera, being replaced by a fascist artist speaks to the temper of the times. Fear of an atheistic communism drove many agendas, sometimes creating perverse alliances. The fascist past is not so far removed as Italy just commemorated the 100th anniversary of Mussolini coming to power. (Diego, though, would have appreciated all the scaffolding in this mural.)
While writing this newsletter, it was appropriate that one of the mural visitors was Cianna Stewart, who writes Dying Kindness, the “podcast for people who are going to die someday.” Just seems like the mural visitors keep getting even more interesting. The interactions at the mural reflect all the wonderful possibilities this masterpiece can generate with robust foot traffic. The mural has never been so well displayed in its entire 82 years of existence. (At SFMOMA the mural is one foot off the ground; at the 1940 Art in Action the mural was 14 feet off the ground, as it was going to be displayed in City College’s new library. Rivera was so high up that Miné Okubo demonstrated the fresco technique at floor level.) Come see the mural (for free) and SFMOMA’s Diego Rivera’s America, which will only be up until January 2, 2023.
Photo: Will Maynez
A new 6’ x 20’ mural reproduction has been mounted in the CCSF Chef’s Table at the Pierre Coste Dining Room. Come have lunch and enjoy the mural. The reproduction is dedicated to my late friends Tannis Reinhertz, past chairperson of the Culinary Arts and Hospitality Studies Department, and Librarian Julia Bergman my partner for 20 years on the Diego Rivera Mural Project. They were instrumental in erecting the original piece in 1997 and were renown champions of the College. This piece was funded by the CCSF Culinary Arts and Hospitality Studies Department and the Foundation of City College of San Francisco Diego Rivera Mural account.
The hi-res image was printed by Magna Chrome on aluminum, is UV resistant, and can be cleaned. This is a milestone in that it replaces the now faded and warped reproduction I put up for Tannis in 1997, my first Diego Rivera related project. At the time with Julia’s financial backing, it necessitated getting the mural panels photographed and the resulting film digitized and stitched to create a 250 MB “Mother” image file of the mural. That digital file was the largest I’d ever seen and the concept of storing it was daunting. Today, Cultural Heritage Imaging’s 8.06 gigapixel photogrammetry file of our mural is being stored at Stanford. We pass this image forward to future stewards of the mural.
Cynthia Boissevain has passed away. Her mother Estrella Elizaga hosted the party in Mexico City for George Gershwin in November 1935, which is the subject of my play. In a 2018 phone call from Wales, Cynthia told me that as a young girl she secretly sat on the stairs and heard Gershwin play Porgy and Bess on her mother’s piano. Her son moved her back to México so she could spend her last days in her favorite place.
We remember my “Mission homey” architect Timothy Pflueger. He lived his whole life in a house that’s just around the corner from me in San Francisco’s Mission district. We have been the grateful recipients of his wonderful architecture and his friendship with Diego and Frida.
We note the passing of dear Ruth Gottstein at 100 years old. Ruth was the sister of our late friend CCSF instructor Masha Zakheim, whom my Rivera partner Julia Bergman and me, called the “Voice in the Wilderness” for her earlier efforts on behalf of the Rivera mural, when others didn’t care. Their father Bernard Zakheim was an artist and Ruth is the little girl in the sailor suit in his Coit Tower mural, The Library. His History of Medicine in California murals were recently uninstalled at UCSF.
My late wife, Carmelita Mae Alvarez, who though she’s gone, left me her smile. Descanse en Paz, Mi Amor.