"Friends of Diego" Newsletter
David Alfaro Siqueiros
Dear Friends of Diego,
The Mexican muralists are getting off to a roaring start in 2020. As the 100th anniversary of the Mexican muralism program approaches, the Whitney Museum (NYC) unveils Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945, February 17 through May 17. Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco toppled a cultural border wall and artists north of the frontera gravitated to the energy radiating from a post-revolutionary México. The continent’s artistic poles had shifted. Locally, future Coit Tower muralists Ray Boynton, Ralph Stackpole (who had met Rivera in Paris in 1907), Bernard Zakheim, and Victor Arnautoff made the pilgrimage. From different places Elizabeth Catlett, Marion and Grace Greenwood, Isamu Noguchi and others headed south, often in creaky, leaky vehicles. (Thelma Johnson Streat, who briefly served as an assistant on Pan American Unity, is also represented in the show.)
One hundred years ago, Diego Rivera was culminating his European gestation with an extended stay in Italy. To master buon fresco, Rivera studied Giotto, Tintoretto, Uccello, and others. He imprinted the techniques, painterly and geometric, artistic and scientific, with which he would chronicle the history of México.
(Ely de Vescovi, aka Bettina Whitman, was descended from Tintoretto. She concocted the half butanol-half water solution, first used on our mural to extend the drying time of fresco plaster. Recently, our art conservators have found what may be a down-side to the use of this solution. In 1940 she was accepted as an original resident at the Montalvo Art Center, which cut short her tenure as an original assistant on Pan American Unity. In June Mona Hofmann wrote, “We were still living in a hotel [California]-Diego, Bettina and I-on separate floors-still compiling the materials and instruments to start that enormous project.” De Vescovi had worked with Mona in 1934 helping Rivera recreate the “Rockefeller mural” at Bellas Artes, soon after its NYC destruction.)
For those American artists not venturing south, Los Tres Grandes’ energy was delivered by their creative visits north. This influence was formalized by George Biddle’s request to FDR on May 9, 1933 to create a national program to emulate the Mexican program:
…..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, page 2 on AAA link and FDR’s reply.)
(Having seen MoMA’s 80th anniversary Rivera retrospective in the winter of 2011-12, I may wait until spring to go to the Whitney. Though I stayed at the Warwick Hotel, practically across the street from MoMA’s rear entrance, I had to wear everything I brought to jay-walk 54th street without freezing. The Vida Americana show moves to San Antonio in June)
But it wasn’t only artists who went to México. In November 1935 composer George Gershwin went south to look for the kind of musical inspiration he had previously found in Cuba. He didn’t find it, but budding painter Gershwin wrote, “…Spent a great deal of time with charming fat Diego Rivera & charming lovely Mrs. Diego Rivera. Made color pencil portraits of them both.” The polarity of Gershwin’s politics shifted.
(The Gershwin Trust has recently shared a photo of Gershwin sailing home on the SS Santa Paula and shared a copy of the passenger manifest. These are wonderful pushpins in the chronology. The manifest recorded that actor Frank Morgan, soon to be the Wizard of Oz, had boarded in Los Angeles with his wife. They are is in the photo. For those, like me, mired in the minutia; it was a two week trip through the Panama Canal from Mazatlan to NYC with stops. The cast of Porgy and Bess was waiting for Gershwin at the pier.)
Gershwin also met Siqueiros during the visit and helped underwrite the Mexican artist’s Experimental Workshop in New York in 1936. At this workshop Jackson Pollock was introduced to drip painting. Here is a picture of Siqueiros and Pollock.
A comparison of Siqueiros’ portrait of the iconic revolutionary Emiliano Zapata with Rivera’s portrait is very revealing. The darkness and lightness of the concurrent paintings could serve as a metaphor for the political differences that separated the two Mexican artists for a good portion of their lives. Rivera’s alignment with Leon Trotsky became an encumbrance after the ex-leader of the Red army was assassinated in México in 1940, while Rivera painted in San Francisco. Siqueiros had tried dramatically, but unsuccessfully, to machinegun Trotsky several months earlier. Later, when Rivera applied for re-admittance to the Stalinist Mexican communist party, he would disavow this relationship and claim he was really trying to set-up Trotsky by inviting him to asylum in México. In Yuri Slezkine’s House of Government there is a similar example with Konstantine Bulatkin conveniently claiming that he wasn’t really a follower of the tarnished Cossack Filipp Mironov, but only trying to “kill the traitor.”
David Alfaro Siqueiros Zapata (1931). Oil on canvas, Hirshhorn Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Diego Rivera, Zapata (1931). Fresco, MoMA.
Recently, there was a meeting at City College of San Francisco with architects assembling the Criteria Document for a new Diego Rivera Theater, including the lobby installation of the mural, upon its 2023 return from SFMOMA. The architects are creating functional standards for viewing, lighting, security, and access to guide the architectural firms bidding on the project. This will probably be the mural’s home for the next 80 years, so the planning has to be prescient; we will be handing a pristine mural off to the future. Also addressed was a move of our library’s unique Diego Rivera Collection in proximity to the mural.
On a Saturday afternoon walk on Russian Hill, we stopped by to see the progress of the conservation work on the Olmsted murals at SFAI. The cleaning phase appears to be done. City College restored its Science Building’s Olmsted murals in 2002.
Diego was crazy about Hollywood movies and the stars. Our mural references Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, and Edward G. Robinson in Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Diego went down to LA on the very first weekend he was here to visit Paulette Goddard, who hosted a tea. Diego’s friend, actress Dolores Del Rio, threw a party at the Beachcombers. Later, Edward G. Robinson hosted some guests at his house. Paulette Goddard & Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich & Erich Maria Remarque, and Orson Welles & Dolores Del Rio got to see his Rivera paintings. Talk about some power couples! (Erich Maria Remarque became Paulette’s last husband.)
In January 1941 on his way home from San Francisco, he spent almost a month in Santa Barbara, but went to LA to attend a party at the home of actor Oscar Homolka. (Since Emmy Lou Packard said that they drove via the Pacific Coast Highway, I know the exact day Diego passed through my hometown of Oxnard. How’s that for minutia?) There was a lot of German exile filmmakers at the party, including Salka Viertel. Recently at the Mechanics Institute, Donna Rifkind spoke about her new book, Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Rifkind was a special guest at a screening of Queen Christina (1933), starring a luminous Greta Garbo and co-written by Garbo’s dearest friend Viertel.
The David Owsley Museum of Art (DOMA) at Ball State University will host Mexican Modernity: 20th-Century Paintings from the Zapanta Collection highlighting some of the most significant modern Mexican artists, from January 30 to May 3.
The Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection is scheduled to run at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, February 13 - May 18 and at the Portland Art Museum, June 13 – September 27. It then moves on to the Denver Art Museum on October 25, 2020 and runs until January 17, 2021 (almost concurrently with SFMOMA’s Diego Rivera’s America.) The Gelman Collection was at SFMOMA in 1996 and has accumulated some frequent flyer miles over the years.
The DeYoung’s Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving opens March 21. Curator Hillary Olcott will be giving a free lecture at the museum on February 27th at 10:30 am. An exhibit at the Cleve Carney Museum of Art in Chicago will highlight the works of Frida Kahlo in the summer of 2020. The list of recent or upcoming Frida shows is staggering. A sidebar to all the “official” Frida shows is the issue of the Frida Kahlo Corporation and the right of artists to include images of Frida in their works.
Went to an opening reception for sculptor Fernando Escartiz’s exhibit, México: Raiz y Fuerza / Mexico: Root and Strength. The event was co-sponsored by the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco and the Public Policy Institute of California. Escartiz’s version of the Mexican Tree of Life represents the relationship between Mexico and San Francisco and is a part of Consul General Remedios Gómez Arnau’s year-long series of exhibits celebrating “2020: Año de México en San Francisco”/“2020: Mexico’s year in San Francisco." You may have seen some of the artist’s work at the San Francisco Symphony’s last Dia de los Muertos concert.
Next month the SFMOMA/Atthowe/CCSF “mural move” team is off to México to confer with our UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) team members. Mexican engineers have fabricated full-size, mural panel replicas, allowing us to quantify strategies to handle the real panels. The wonderful closure is that Mexican art conservation, chemical, engineering, and technological prowess is facilitating the move of a priceless mural, which celebrates U.S. technology. Diego’s dream for México has come true.
This coming May, the American Alliance of Museums and the International Council of Museums will be meeting in San Francisco. Both organizations have requested bus tours of the Diego Rivera murals. As it turns 80 years old, this will be a signature year for the Pan American Unity mural; finally getting the international attention it merits.
A heartfelt muchas gracias to my departed partners and to all you who have helped get the mural to this “tipping point”,
"There is a pool of good. No matter where you put in your drop, the whole pool rises."
Recent Friends of Diego missives are archived at: “Friends of Diego Newsletter”. There is some redundancy as we try to make every newsletter stand-alone.
Self-Portrait Lithograph, 1930 (age 44 years)
Dear Friends of Diego,
Happy 133rd Birthday, Diego! This is how Diego looked on his first visit to San Francisco. Today is also my late Rivera partner Julia Bergman’s birthday. That Julia and Diego should share a birthday was among the synchronicities we never questioned. We were destined for this work. (We have a signed copy of this 1930 Self-Portrait lithograph, a gift to our collection from the late Lynn Wagner, the little girl painting, while seated on the floor in Panel 4. She was the daughter of Rivera’s assistant Mona Hofmann, the blond woman seated at the table in Panel 2, to whom Diego gave the lithograph.)
SFMOMA will celebrate his 134th birthday with the Diego Rivera’s America exhibition of 160 objects and one giant mural, scheduled to open October 24, 2020. The mural work for the exhibition has many facets. The conservation work done this summer included local and graduate foreign conservation interns assisting our master conservators. The Italian interns mapped the individual giornata (one day’s fresco work) and we saw that the giornata featuring Paulette Goddard in Panel 3 appeared completely surrounded by older work. Apparently, Diego was waiting for Paulette to arrive to “model” for him, though having worked on her stand-alone portrait in Mexico in May 1940, he could have done her from memory. Paulette came to San Francisco to appear in the San Francisco Examiner’s Ski Show at the Civic Auditorium on November 13, the date on his Panel 4 signature. Diego was in the home stretch painting to the right on the bottom level. On November 15, two weeks before the “finished” mural was unveiled, Paulette showed up to model. Other than the two giornata with painted dates, this may be the only giornata for which we have an exact date! (It occurred to me that I already had enough information to realize this, but my “lightbulb didn’t go on” until the giornata were mapped.)
Scholar Adriana Zavala, who is writing two essays for the Rivera show catalog, visited the mural.
This past week we had a meeting to assimilate new engineering data and further refine the moving strategy. Further work will follow in México in January.
Artist Rina Lazo has passed away and with her another of the direct connections to Diego and Frida. Her murals in the Museo de Antropologia are favorites and, in a brush with history, she was present at two events we attended in México.
Recently Frida’s Portrait of a Lady in White sold at a Christie’s auction for $5.8M, the second highest price for her work. Of interest was the conjecture over when and where it was painted. One article speculated that it was done in San Francisco in 1930. Since Frida and Diego didn’t arrive in San Francisco until November 10, the window to paint it is rather small. An Artnet article speculated on the subject: “Experts still debate whether the portrait’s subject is an ex-lover, a friend, or a former classmate.” Further, “Others speculate that the woman might be a relative or friend of Ralph Stackpole, a sculptor who lived with Kahlo and Rivera in San Francisco.” Though Diego and Frieda stayed at 716 Montgomery, Stackpole’s indoor studio, (adjacent to his outdoor sculpture yard, now the Villa Taverna), he did not live with them. We do know Frieda painted a Portrait of Jean Wight (dated January 1931) and her famous wedding portrait (dated April 1931) during her 6 month stay.
Diego painted his Lady in White in 1939 and that was Mona Hofmann’s costume for the September 1940 Art in Action “come as a painting” party.
Ansel Adams, Mona Hofmann as the “Lady in White, Rivera as himself, and Timothy Pflueger as “Rivera.”
Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving will be coming to the DeYoung from March 21-July 26, 2020. This show has been on a tour which originated at the Casa Azul in 2012.
Over the years, we have had a fruitful relationship with the DeYoung and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF).
At the museum’s request in 1999 (in another brush with history) we showed the mural to artist Elizabeth Catlett and her husband, artist Francisco Mora. She graciously invited my wife and me to the private dedication ceremony of her sculpture at the Legion of Honor.
FAMSF Director Harry Parker III went down to Veracruz in 2004 to borrow an Olmec head for the opening of the new DeYoung Museum and brokered an additional deal. City College received a gift from the state of Veracruz; a 14 ton, 9 foot high replica of El Rey, San Lorenzo #1. From the nearby Frida Garden its fierce countenance protects our Diego Rivera mural. During the dedication ceremony Governor Miguel Alemán Velasco pointed out that in 1906 it had been Governor Dehesa of Veracruz who gave Diego his first scholarship to study in Paris.
(These maps, another legacy from the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition, deserve a respectful, permanent home. Adriana recently recorded a podcast as part of the Brava for Women in the Arts’ Indómitas series.)
We are exploring the possibility of Jean Franco and me performing the one-act, An Interview with Frida, at the DeYoung in the spring.
The white-washed Frederick Olmsted mural at the San Francisco Art Institute is re-appearing as the paint covering it is meticulously removed by conservators Molly Lambert and Samantha Emmanuel. As The Art Newspaper says: “The conservation project contrasts with a decision to cover up a controversial 1930s school mural in the same city.”
Christie’s auction house recently did a blurb on Francisco Toledo.
The Noguchi-Hasegawa exhibit, which closes today at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, was a wonderful treat for the human soul. In post-WWII Japan the two artists “sought to balance tradition and modernity, Japanese culture and foreign influences, past and present.” Isamu Noguchi worked with Rivera in Mexico during the time George Gershwin came to visit in 1935. Noguchi had done a bust of Gershwin in 1929. (This year’s Gershwin prize will go to country music’s Garth Brooks. ) Isamu had an encounter with Frieda, before she was Frida. With the ascendency of Hitler, she dropped the “e” from her name, so it wouldn’t look so German.
Coming in September 2020 there will be a London Mural Festival.
Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection is on view at the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) in Raleigh until January 19, 2020.
Lastly, here is a link to a video of my SFMOMA talk at JR’s mural last August.
Abrazos y Feliz Año Nuevo,
Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and José María Morelos y Pavón in Pan American Unity.
Feliz Mexican Independence Day!
Dear Friends of Diego,
The Mexican Consulate and Consul General Remedios Gómez Arnau kicked off the festivities a week early at a War Memorial Building reception. San Francisco’s City Hall will be lit up red, green, and white to honor the day. We had a chat at the opening of the Mexican Museum’s exhibition of Mexican Masks (at the Consulate till October 11), part of the museum’s Museo sin Muros program. She will visit the mural later this month. Also ran into Robert McDonald and Vivien Bertozzi of the Bond Latin Gallery. Their son Max created a video of our mural for their Gallery website. On my last visit to the gallery, Max showed me works by the great Mexican artist Francisco Toledo, who, sadly, passed away recently. Here is some of his work.
Happy birthday (September 27), Donald Cairns, the little boy in the lower center of the mural. Donald was “founded” in 1935, the same year as City College and SFMOMA. Donald and Kathé attended my JR talk at SFMOMA on August 9 and he got introduced to the audience.
Photo by Catherine Du Tiel, SFMOMA, August 9, 2019
Diego’s Bag of Tricks: The work round the mural, which started again July 1, has been a boon on many fronts. After returning home, Mexican photographer Ricardo Alvarado sent me books containing his work. It became apparent to me that Diego’s repertoire of imagery extended far past the examples I’d gleaned over the years. For example, the nudes and sun on the ceiling in the City Club’s 1931 Allegory of California are right from the 1927 Chapingo Chapel murals, as are the miners and the hand holding fruit.
A Mexican post-doc chemist, who came to analyze Rivera’s plaster and pigments, turned out to be my “cousin.” Miguel Ángel Máynez is from Valle de Allende, Chihuahua, my grandmother Herminia’s hometown (Miguel said it’s small and everyone is related). This, also, is the name of my late beloved mentor, Uncle Mike, a theater director. Everyone should have an Uncle Mike or an Auntie Mame.
My favorite UNAM mechanical design engineering professors Alejandro Ramirez Reivich and Pilar Corona Lira returned, along with one of their grad students. They recorded and analyzed vibrations induced in the mural and its frame by the coring work on the exterior concrete wall. Grad school fresco conservation interns from Italy and Malta helped clean the mural and map the giornata. All the information gathered will become layers on the photogrammetry images shot by Cultural Heritage Imaging and hosted at Stanford’s Digital Library. By late September the mural will again be available for viewing from the mezzanine. All these art professionals and more joined our local team in a symphony of cooperation and amistad, which felt like the “Summer of Love.”
Washington High School: The school board agreed not to destroy the Arnautoff murals. The NAACP, actor Danny Glover, and writer Alice Walker have come out in support of the murals, negating contentions that mural advocates supported a “white supremacist” narrative. Now, the task is to keep the murals uncovered. There is a fundraiser this September 17.
An interesting article on artist Agnes Pelton references women artists, who have surfaced in our research (and a couple that I know). Am hoping that connecting with California Desert Art might lead to information on Diego Rivera’s apocryphal visit(s) to Palm Springs.
Rick Tejada-Flores reminded me that the archives for his PBS American Masters Rivera in America documentary are available at the Washington University Film and Television archive in St. Louis.
Graciela Iturbide, famed Mexican photographer, will appear at the JCCSF, Sept. 26 in conversation with artist Enrique Chagoya. Saw a huge show of her work last January in Mexico City. This photo was taken when she visited the peoples in Juchitán, Oaxaca, at the invitation of Francisco Toledo.
Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas (Our Lady of the Iguanas), Juchitán, Oaxaca, 1979.
Dana Galloway, a City College buddy, has sent me a listing for architect Timothy Pflueger at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park (Colma, CA.)
Sargent Johnson is also buried there. He currently has several pieces on display at SFMOMA’s 2nd floor gallery in addition to Forever Free. Sadly, the great artist’s grave has no marker. His concrete casting of athletes, cut out from our old gyms, are in storage at City College, awaiting a new site.
Forever Free, Sargent Johnson, 1933, SFMOMA
Twenty-three years ago, Tannis Reinhertz changed my life. My friend was the instructor in the Pierre Coste Dining Room (part of City College’s Culinary program), where I dined daily. There was a student-donated mural on the wall, which she told me was due for a change. With her class helping, we pried the panels off the wall. She then asked me what I was going to paint on the wall as a replacement? Though I had some ideas, the old Diego Rivera mural poster remaining alone on the wall gave me an idea. Using the photos for the poster, we could hang a large mural reproduction. Unfortunately, the photos were nowhere to be found. But, I soon met the late Julia Bergman, the Works of Art committee chair, just back off a sabbatical. The librarian offered to underwrite new mural photography to create a reproduction, on one condition; I had to join her committee. This jump-started a splendid twenty-year Diego Rivera collaboration with one of the finest people I’ve ever known.
Now, our dear Tannis has lost her long, heroic fight with cancer. Her request, so many years ago, pointed me down my destined road, the road taken. I will be forever grateful for her gift.
"There is a pool of good. No matter where you put in your drop, the whole pool rises."