Photo: Jean Franco, June 17, 2018, at Brava Theater
Dear Friends of Diego,
Doctora Guadalupe Rivera Marin passed away on January 15, 2023. Born in 1924 she was Diego’s last surviving child by Lupe Marin, his first Mexican wife. In 1999 Julia Bergman, Masha Zakheim and I met and recorded an interview in her Mexico City office, when she was still a politician. She had also been a law professor. In May 2006 Dra. Rivera invited Julia and me to participate in an Encuentro Internacional de Pintura Mural (International Muralism Encounter) in Mexico City with 200 exponents of muralism arts. The following year we went to support her at the opening of a Mexican graphics show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She was our guest of honor in 2008 at the unveiling of the 8’ Pacifica statue model in the Frida Garden next to the mural at CCSF. Over the years she visited San Francisco, and we visited her in México.
On her last San Francisco visit (photo above) for Father’s Day 2018 at the Brava Theater, I gave her a print of a photo of her as an 11 year old and her 9 year old sister Ruth with their father Diego in front of the cactus fence at the Casa Estudios. Composer George Gershwin took the photo during his November 1935 visit. Over the years Dra. Rivera did much to keep her father’s legacy alive world-wide by giving talks and writing many books. She would especially have been proud that the Pan American Unity mural, which celebrates accomplished women, was recently the background for a ceremony welcoming 40 sci-tech women as new U.S. citizens. We will miss her and her smile.
L.D. Kirschenbaum recently posted important videos on YouTube. They are full of the figures Diego loved; it’s like seeing México through Diego’s eyes:
Jean Franco was stunning as Frida in our performance of Frida: Interview March 1941 at SFMOMA, Dec. 8, 2022. The full-house audience had wonderful things to say about Jean and the celebration of Diego’s birthday. The event was recorded, and we await the posting on-line.
Photo by Darrel Hess
Just received missives from México from dear friends Elena Durán and Dr. Michael Emmerson. Michael alerted me that the three-part BBC series, Becoming Frida Kahlo, is set to air next month. An article on the series speculates that Diego helped Frida in her “transition.” The theory is supported by Diego’s grandson Juan Coronel and curator Luis-Martin Lozano with whom Julia and I worked in 2005 on Taschen’s definitive book on Diego’s murals. The BBC crew interviewed me at SFMOMA in April 2022 and the thoroughness with which they prepared, impressed me. Will pass along more specific info next time on how to see the documentary.
Michael also had wonderful news, “I am delighted to let you know that Elena will be returning to give a concert in the Bay Area as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival on Sunday, 18 June @ 6pm in the BRAVA Theater, 24th Street, San Francisco. She will be playing a wonderful Mexican program with Nicholas McGegan [piano] and accompanied by video clips from the great movies of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. Elena, a world-renown flautist, was born in East Oakland, but has long resided in México. She has been a great friend of the mural, having performed at City College’s Diego Rivera Theatre on its behalf in the past.
The mural’s panel 5 has generated a lot of discussion. Rivera curiously captioned it “The Creative Culture of North Developing from the Necessity of Making Life Possible in a New and Empty Land,“ a terra nullius, and a wagon train enters the mural in the upper right-hand corner. The title has been criticized for omitting the fact that there were already peoples in this “new and empty land.” Why did Rivera not address the issue?
Was Rivera trying to ingratiate himself with this country as he emerged from the artistic exile imposed on him by the debacle at NYC’s Rockefeller Center in 1933-34? As SFMOMA’s recent “Diego Rivera’s America” exhibition demonstrated, though Diego could make a living doing portraits, his heart craved making murals. The less-lucrative mural business in Mexico was drying up and he lost opportunities in the US beginning with General Motors cancelling their contract. The gas suited figure sacrificed on barb wire in lower panel 4 was originally destined for GM’s mural at the Chicago World’s Fair. It’s use in the mural might also refer to Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), which was banned by Hitler, but was shown at the GGIE. (Remarque would become Paulette Goddard’s last husband.)
But, maybe, the wagon train signifies something more, if you look a little to the left and towards the top at a tree being felled. In June 2018 I had previously written about an image of the árbol quebrado (broken tree) from the Códice Boturini, which documents the 200 year peregrination of the Mexica (Aztecs) from Aztlan to Tenochtitlan (Mexico City). Rivera’s depiction of a toppling massive redwood tree has two figures comically trying to restrain it with a rope. But the idea of a wandering people also has parallels to many cultures looking for a sign, from the Vikings to nomads. In the case of the Mexica the sign was an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its beak. The Mexica’s “new and empty land” was unfortunately previously populated by the city-state Culhuacán.
The ability to finally see the mural from a distance as it was intended is one of the great features of SFMOMA’s display. Simultaneously seeing both the rich, idealized indigenous life in panel 1 and the stark absence in panel 5 is Rivera’s statement. The sole indigenous person in panel 5 is akin to Ben-Hur as a galley slave. His mandate is to “row and live.” The “cigar store Indian,” disguised as another example of folk art, is a not-so-subtle rebuke for the sad state of indigenous peoples in this country. A thick plaster patch on the chest of this figure probably covers a comment that Diego’s more prudent side decided to obscure. Someday we’ll x-ray this area and find out.
So why was Diego being subtle? When Rivera got to the US in June 1940, Hitler was racing, basically unchallenged, through Europe. Diego’s beloved Paris fell not long after he arrived in San Francisco. It was only a matter of time before Hitler was victorious over the continent as both Collier’s magazine and Mexican political cartoons suggested. Rivera thought that once Hitler won in Europe, he’d turn his malignant eyes to the America’s. This Mexican political cartoon depicts the Führer “discovering” America.
Hoy magazine cover, Oct. 12, 1940
Rivera was a Mexican Paul Revere, shouting that the “Nazis are coming, the Nazis are coming.” In Panel 4 he articulates that it is the US which must stop the Nazis by showing a hand with a swastika tattoo and dagger being restrained by a massive arm draped in an American flag. This was his paramount agenda. Any blatantly controversial images in panel 5, would have only distracted from his main thesis. Already, some German sympathizing San Franciscans had taken him to task for damaging the psyches of our impressionable youth with his less than complimentary depictions of Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini. There were many nefarious plots afoot to benefit the Nazis (and the Soviets) by maintaining US “neutrality.” At the time the “America Firsters” were a strange brew including communists and Nazi sympathizers. But the communists would bail after Hitler invaded the USSR in June 1941. After Hitler declared war on us on December 11, 1941, it was hard to find an “America Firster.” Henry Ford would make armaments for us and all was forgiven. Charles Lindbergh wouldn’t have such an easy transition.
Diego Rivera’s America at SFMOMA closed after drawing big crowds. In its closing weeks, visitors were alarmed to find out that many days were already sold out. For many, the icing on the cake either after or before seeing the exhibition was the Pan American Unity mural. The Diego Rivera’s America exhibition moves on to Crystal Bridges Museum (Bentonville, Arkansas), opening on March 11, 2023.
The looming “elephant in the room” is the question of what is going to happen to Pan American Unity when it is de-installed at SFMOMA in January 2024, a little over ten months from now. City College’s new Performing Arts Center will not have yet had a groundbreaking. There are few options given the constraints of mural size, duration of the “layover,” and the great cost to move the masterpiece. Any suggestions are welcome!
Irene Bohus enlarges photo of diver Helen Crlenkovich taken at the Fairmont Hotel’s Terrace Plunge, now the Tonga Room. WPA Photo.
Bari Lee, daughter of mural diver Helen Crlenkovich, came by for a visit and had some stories. In 1940 Helen was the best diver in the US and was again the national champ in 1945. The woman in the white bathing suit with her back to us (Panel 2) may be Bari’s aunt. Bari was only seven years old when her mother passed away. Here is Bari speaking at her mother’s induction into the Croatian-American Sports Hall of Fame.
Actor Owen Wilson came by to visit the mural.
Dr. Clayborne Carson founded Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute in 2005. He was selected by Coretta Scott King in 1985 to organize MLK’s papers. We had a nice visit about historical research and then had lunch. Here is Dr. Carson’s interview of Bernard Lafeyette, “When I get Grown”. Thanks to Lauren Lee for the hook-up. Here is a Library of Congress Magazine – November/December 2022 (loc.gov) article (page 21) on a map of lynchings.
Jim Guthrie has passed away. A structural engineer, he participated in the 2011 preliminary mural move analysis and had generously designed the Olmec head tie-down.
Nathan Zakheim has passed away. He oversaw the conservation of the Frederick Olmsted fresco secco murals in the lobby of architect Timothy Pflueger’s Science Building at CCSF. Nathan was the son of Coit Tower muralist Bernard Zakheim and brother of Masha Zakheim and Ruth Gottstein.