“VIVA CARMELITA”: photos by Will Maynez
Dear Friends of Diego,
Took a running head start for Diego’s birthday last month with a 10-day visit to Mexico City with my buddies art conservators Anne Rosenthal and Kiernan Graves. Covid had canceled our mural team’s 2020 trip and the air tickets were due to expire. Our thought was to see Rivera’s work and to visit project friends. The trip dates were finalized by the chance to celebrate Dia de los Muertos and an invitation.
Over lunch in San Francisco, long-time friend Adriana Williams, biographer of Miguel Covarrubias, invited me to her 90th birthday party in Mexico City. A sumptuous fiesta was held at the stately archives of her grandfather President Plutarco Elías Calles. The next day we took an excursion on the Xochimilco canals, complete with Mariachis, beer, and food. In Mexico City, it is always about the food! In 2006 at the late Dra. Guadalupe Rivera’s Encuentro Internacional de Pintura Mural, a group of us cruised in a trajinera named after my late wife, Carmelita. Seeing her name float by this time reminded me of our last trip in 2007 when we spent Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca. ¡Que viva Carmelita por siempre!
The Casa Estudio Museum is currently being renovated, but some of its artifacts were on display in the adjoining building, also designed by Juan O’Gorman. These elevated living/working quarters were built with the monies Diego earned on his first trip to San Francisco.
Across the street, the manager of the San Angel Inn invited us in to see the place where George Gershwin stayed in 1935 and actress Paulette Goddard stayed in 1940. Their chance encounter at a 1937 Beverly Hills party actor Edward G. Robinson hosted for composer Igor Stravinsky introduced Paulette into the narrative of our mural story. Because of her, Nieves Orozco would not marry Diego (but would go on to marry the richest communist in the US, Frederick Vanderbilt Field). Diego and Frida remarried in San Francisco’s City Hall on his birthday, Dec. 8, 1940. Here is some film footage of Paulette and George in Palm Springs. The Library of Congress should at some time make publicly available the photos that Gershwin took in México, which have so enriched my research.
Our colleague, curator Karla Niño de Rivera, gave us a tour of her turf, Anahuacalli, Diego’s home for his pre-Columbian art collection. It was stunningly decorated inside for Dia de los Muertos and her hospitality was a highlight. We left a mural brochure on the ofrenda for Diego’s daughter, Lupe. Accompanied by her dog Chicharrón, Karla showed us some caches of Diego acquisitions not on public display.
Karla called ahead and facilitated our entry to Frida’s Casa Azul. After enjoying that teeming museum, we savored an hour and a half visit with the pre-eminent Rivera and Frida scholar Luis-Martin Lozano. He was the consultant on the BBC2 Becoming Frida documentary and many years ago was our Fulbright scholar at CCSF. He gave us copies of his latest Taschen Frida Kahlo book and regaled us with his analysis of the Diego-Frida relationship. He had recently consulted on Christie’s sale of Frida’s Portrait of Cristina, My Sister. Luis-Martin and my late research partner Julia Bergman were dear friends.
The Palacio de Bellas Artes has a wonderful selection of murals by Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco, Tamayo, and others. Man, Controller of the Universe, Rivera’s recreation of the destroyed Man At The Crossroads at Rockefeller Center is worth the visit all by itself. Nearby is the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, home of Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central Park. Over the years I’ve spent several Sunday afternoons in the park, catching the latest version of the people’s weekend outing. In Chronicles of San Francisco, the French artist JR depicted me as the balloon seller in the Rivera mural.
We went to UNAM to visit friends Professor Alejandro Ramirez Reivich and his wife Professor Pili Corona. We toured campus murals, like the iconic mosaic on the main library by Juan O’Gorman. At the post-graduate Mechanical Engineering labs, we examined a sawed-off remnant from the mural panel facsimiles constructed to obtain data on what vibrations our masterpiece could withstand. The orange steel extrusion shown here was no longer available, so they fabricated it from scratch, including the cut outs and indentations. Led by Alejandro, their analysis was indispensable to the successful execution of the mural move.
Our friend UNAM professor and conservator Sandra Zetina took us to Cárcamo, Rivera’s murals and sculpture at the waterworks, which I’d never seen. The now empty sump is an encyclopedia of Rivera imagery. Outside the large relief sculpture of the water deity Tlaloc is meant to be seen from the sky by airplanes, birds, and UFO’s.
Cárcamo with (l-r) Sandra Zetina, Kiernan Graves, and Anne Rosenthal.
At the Anthropology Museum, we drew a beeline for the Mexica Sala to see the two versions of the Coatlicue featured in the mural’s central icon. On the way out we caught the Voladores, half-way down their tethered, spiral descent off the tall pole. Diego refers to them in the mural’s upper panel 2 as the smokestacks with guy wires.
Though we went to San Ildefonso, we were not able to see Rivera’s Creation, however we did see the Orozco and Siqueiros murals. At the nearby Mercado Abelardo Rodriguez, we saw murals by Marion and Grace Greenwood and a sculpture by Isamu Noguchi. All the while I was enthralled by my friends’ commentary on painting and conservation techniques, which made this trip special.
The Templo Mayor was the center of Tenochtitlan, the city the Mexica (Aztecs) founded after a 200-year search. Over the years its museum has become more accessible and large models recreate how it looked in antiquity. Recently the Digital Florentine Codex (getty.edu) has been published to help in understanding the ancient writings. The museum is at the Zocalo, the large city square which had giant effigies for the holiday. Though the Palacio Nacional is also on the Zocalo (in background), its Rivera murals were inaccessible during the holidays.
Here’s an article on the mural at SFMOMA by the Koret Foundation, one of the principal project funders.
The World’s 20 Best Cities for Culture Right Now (timeout.com) Mexico City is #1.
If I have learned anything from all the mural research, it is that there is no getting around the vagaries of history. Unfortunately, our story has not had a happy conclusion. SFMOMA and CCSF have filed a suit and cross complaint about who is responsible for paying for the mural’s return to City College.
Whatever the resolution to the suits, Pan American Unity is going into storage after January 2024, probably for 4 years.
The City Club has put their once monthly mural tours on hold.
The SFAI mural is closed, but there is still hope philanthropists can save it as an art center.
The Stern fresco, fully conserved, has returned to Berkeley. They are looking to build a better venue, so it will go into storage for 3 years.
After January 2024 all the San Francisco Rivera murals will be publicly inaccessible. Cannot seem to wrap my mind or my heart around that.