Diego Rivera, The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on This Continent, also known as Pan American Unity, 1940; City College of San Francisco; © Banco de México Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico City / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Dear Friends of Diego,
“The tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
In lower panel 2 Rivera quotes from Thomas Jefferson’s letter of November 13, 1787 to William Stephens Smith regarding Shay’s Rebellion. In latter 1940 Rivera had a very precise mission: to articulate a paradigm for an alliance of the Americas and to get the United States into the war against Nazi Germany. Therefore, he embraced a particular interpretation of the quote that Jefferson holds in his hand. But like scripture, words will be interpreted at the discretion of the person citing them. Timothy McVeigh’s t-shirt bore the quote on the day of his Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. A doctor who entered the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6 texted, “Tree of liberty was watered today!” Who is it that determines who are the “patriots” and who are the “tyrants”? As the assault on the Capitol Building continues to be investigated, some comparisons are being made with Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch, an attempt, based on a lie, to overthrow the elected government. (Gray Brechin of The Living New Deal addresses another similar issue here.)
Rivera’s art is very explicit. In the upper right corner of this image, Abraham Lincoln is warding off the symbols of the fascist aggressors as wisps of the gaseous cloud waft in from lower panel 4. Some have suggested that the image of the 16th president is a reference to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the Norteamericanos who fought in the Spanish Civil War with the duly-elected Republicans against Franco’s Nationalists. The opposing sides had been backed by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, respectively. The civil war ended on April 1, 1939 and just five months later the Soviet Union and Germany, now allies, started WWII. On September 1 Germany invaded Poland from the west and on September 17 the USSR invaded Poland from the east. Writing about the cynicism manifested in their so-called “Non-Aggression Pact” put Diego in mortal danger, according to his FBI file.
We see the fasces, the wooden staves bound about an axe; a Roman symbol of power. The Lincoln Memorial has these symbols of power on the armchair. Mussolini appropriated the symbol and it lent its name to his political party. Both Hitler and Mussolini embraced ancient Roman symbols to legitimize their envisioned long-lasting regimes. Straddling the fasces is a symbol Rivera composed, a black cross out of which shoot jets of flame at right angles. Was this fiery swastika a reference to the Croix-de-Feu, the symbol of French fascists? Below this we see the twin cannons from Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin and the bayonets and mother with dead child from the “Odessa steps” scene. (Note: Lower panel 4 has a reference to Picasso’s Guernica in the depiction of another mother over her dead child and, perhaps, in the “flames” by the cannon shell. Guernica is such an indictment of war that when Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the UN in 2003 to argue, based on a lie, for invading Iraq, the US requested that a tapestry replica of Picasso’s work be covered; the optics would be paradoxical. The tapestry had been commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller, who had the notorious incident with Diego Rivera in 1933.)
The tableau of the American “liberators” is the counterpoint to the totalitarian leaders of lower panel 4. In a pointed omission, Theodore Roosevelt, who is carved between Jefferson and Lincoln on Mt. Rushmore, was not depicted. His 1905 Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine sanctioned United States machinations in Latin America. USMC Major General Smedley Butler, twice awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, would belatedly rail in War is a Racket against these expansive overtures in which he had admittedly participated. For Teddy Roosevelt, Rivera substituted abolitionist John Brown, who depending on the viewer’s politics was the first martyr of the Civil War or a cold-blooded killer. History is all about ambiguity. Regardless, the image of Brown is evocative of Michelangelo’s Moses or God in the Creation of the Sun, Moon and Plants. Rivera is layering meaning into his mural and the viewer’s intellectual bandwidth affords access to more or less of this information. (This is the constraint under which I consciously labor.)
All of these images are part of the Liberty Tree fresco, which Diego depicts himself painting with his plasterer working ahead of him. This is a “mural” within the mural. Rivera stands in working solidarity with the Mexican craftspeople in the foreground, who are part of the larger mural. Like the tromp l’oeil design of The Making of a Mural fresco at the San Francisco Art Institute, Rivera is creating different levels of reality to engage or baffle the viewer.
Rivera was being careful in this first foray into the United States after a six year artistic exile in the wake of the Rockefeller incident. He needed to get his foot back in the door, unknowingly, for the last time. His title for the fifth panel was The Creative Culture of North Developing from the Necessity of Making Life Possible in a New and Empty Land. “A New and Empty Land”? Rivera would seem to be an apologist for those who came up with the ideology of “Manifest Destiny.” But, Rivera subtly maintained his “revolutionary credentials” by depicting the sole Native American as a slave turning the lathe. His only other reference to the original inhabitants is the “Cigar Store Indian” covered in a pastiche of symbols, a surrogate, I believe, for the countless victims of genocide, which was unfortunately their “manifest destiny.” These are a stark contrast with his vibrant, albeit idealized, depiction of the indigenous peoples of México on the mural’s left side. However, the right side’s subtlety may have been a strategic move to avoid creating a distracting controversy. His main polemic was for US entry into the war against Germany as depicted by the strong arm, draped in the stars and stripes, restraining a smaller Nazi arm wielding a dagger. There was some blow-back from the German-heritage community, who took offense at Rivera’s depiction of Hitler and his agenda. The local German Consul General Captain Fritz Wiedemann, Hitler’s superior officer in WWI, hung out at the old Schroeder’s and strode about town in a black leather trench coat and a low-slung fedora, having seen too many “B” movies. Fritz felt confident he could convert northern California over to his point of view. In 1940 San Francisco was like Casablanca with agents of many sides walking the streets. Rivera, however, was walking a tightrope, exposed high on the scaffolding. Once Trotsky was murdered, Diego had a .45 in one pocket, a .38 in the other.
The mural’s exposure at SFMOMA has been a joy to experience. Museum-goers point out elements of the mural to their partners and some have given me insights: Frida stands directly under the aspect of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, who is the patron of women who die in childbirth. Friends, old and new, come by to see the mural. Schoolteachers are preparing to bring their students. See: Teaching Diego Rivera’s Pan American Unity Mural: Curriculum from City College of San Francisco · SFMOMA
My favorite 3rd grade school teacher Amy messaged: “Look what I found in a So Cal airport car rental display?!”
(Her class’s mural visit with me is in April and, like her previous classes, they’ll come better prepared than many college students.)
Ran into Paul and Anne Karlstrom at the mural. Paul’s interviews for the Archives of American Art and others have been an ongoing resource for me and many who study art. It’s all about the legacy we leave. Recently, architect Timothy Pflueger’s great-nephew, architect Tom Pflueger and his daughter Genevieve, visited. He told me stories he’d come across in helping his father John organize the Pflueger family papers. It’s so much fun to see Tim’s 140 New Montgomery depicted in the mural and then look out the window and see the actual building. At Treasure Island Timothy created much for the Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE). Now we’re getting a revitalized Treasure Island, which still has the three permanent aircraft buildings from the GGIE. The dark roof hanger, closest to the Oakland side, is where Rivera painted our mural. The size of the 14’ 9” square upper mural panels was the largest which could be crated and still transported over the top deck of the Bay Bridge, standing up to protect the precious fresco plaster.
Here’s an example of a research item. Some time back I got a “Diego Rivera” Google alert about a 1940 SF house for sale. It was “designed and built by a WPA artist who worked with the renowned Diego Rivera.” Well, after hitting a dead end trying to identify the artist, I forwarded the info to CCSF’s Dr. Nicole Oest, who coordinates our docents. She hit the jackpot and identified the artist who built the house as Jack Moxom. (Ironically, it sold on Diego’s birthday, December 8, 2020.) So I forwarded this info to art conservator Anne Rosenthal, who restored the Reuben Kadish mural at the old SF State College building (now the Haight Street Art Center). She did some sleuthing and forwarded the AAA interview with Hebe Stackpole and Jack Moxom, who had done WPA murals at that complex of buildings. It turns out that after Trotsky was assassinated in México Diego Rivera was eager to rent Moxom’s house because it had high walls. Though, he never actually ended up working with the Mexican artist, Jack confirmed in the interview that Diego was armed. A useful research strategy is to have smart friends.
Our friend Luis-Martín Lozano recently communicated with me about his new book, Taschen’s Frida Kahlo: The Complete Paintings. Decades ago we invited Luis-Martín to be a visiting Fulbright scholar at City College and he was instrumental in mentoring my late partner Julia Bergman and me to focus our Rivera work. He went on to become director of Mexico City’s Museum of Modern Art. We worked with him and Diego’s grandson Juan Coronel in San Francisco as they researched and created our part of Taschen’s definitive Rivera, The Complete Murals book (2008). Their depiction of our mural was an early breakthrough in international exposure. Originally, the Taschen website ad had the 600 page, 17 pound book open to our mural. In México he took us on a private tour of Anahuacalli, Rivera’s museum of ancient Mexican artifacts. Across the street from Diego and Frida’s studios at the San Ángel Inn, he showed us what a real “Margarita” was; the ice never touched the precious Tequila.
Jeff Gunderson, Librarian and Archivist at the SFAI, writes, “On another note, I don’t know if you heard that SFAI received a nice grant from the Mellon Foundation for all things SFAI Rivera Mural—some conservation, some publicity, some research into our archives as well as CCSF’s wonderful collection; public programming, etc. etc….In fact there is a job description posted on the SFAI website for a part-time project coordinator.” Sounds like a terrific gig.
SFAI alumni, artist Ben Wood’s project: Artist Projects Glimpses of Cliff House History From Iconic SF Building’s Museum (msn.com).
More information on Diego Rivera’s frescos:
Here is information on the move of the “History of Medicine in California” mural by Bernard Zakheim. WPA-era murals still have lots of active friends.
As I continue to work on my essay on Frida’s first love affair, here are some views of LA, which she may have seen in 1930-31 on her layovers to and from San Francisco. Here are some images of San Francisco in early 1940’s as Diego and Frida might have seen them just as they left.
Julia’s and my CCSF friend, Abdul Jabbar has a new book: Not of an Age, but for All Time: Revolutionary Humanism in Iqbal, Manto, and Faiz.
La Nuit des Idees (Night of Ideas) has been postponed world-wide due to COVID. It will, hopefully, be rescheduled later this year. I’ll be in SFMOMA’s booth at KQED’s studios with former CCSF docent Vickie Simms to answer questions about the mural.