"Friends of Diego" Newsletter
Dear Friends of Diego,
At the Diego Rivera Theatre in late May, a convocation of world-class conservators, curators, engineers, architects, and art movers gleaned new insights into the mural’s condition and installation. In late July further work involved removing an exterior decorative stone panel to expose the structural wall to which the mural is attached. Conservator Kiernan Graves (“our mural whisperer”) again came for the day from L.A. to lay her hands on the mural to detect excessive vibrations. The resonant frequencies of the mural panels is a question. (In a nice bit of closure, Kiernan’s mentor was conservator Francesca Piqué, author of the first 1999 Getty Conservation Institute mural report.) Soon, some of us from CCSF, SFMOMA and Atthowe Fine Arts Services had our latex-gloved hands on the mural feeling the vibrations as the outside crew sawed and chiseled through the exterior panel. (Atthowe’s Scott, Bryan, and Esteban installed our 14-ton Olmec head in 2004.) Once portions of the 12” thick structural wall were exposed, Bryan drilled holes to allow a borescope to peek and film behind the mural.
All the information will inform Atthowe’s strategy for relocating the mural to SFMOMA for their late 2020 Rivera’s America exhibition. In addition we have started conferring with City College Performing Arts and Education Center (PAEC) architects, who are modifying the lobby design to accommodate the mural upon its return.
In May one surprise to UNAM historian/conservator Sandra Zetina Ocaña and to Kiernan Graves was a bit of graffiti. Frankly, I couldn’t see it until Cultural Heritage Imaging’s Carla Schroer helped with a hi-res sample of our photogrammetry shoot (shown above). In lower Panel 2 where Diego depicts himself painting a fresco, subtly scratched in pencil to the left of his brush tip is,
¡libertad para SIQUEIROS!
At first, I thought that Diego’s solidarity was surprising. The Stalinist David Alfaro Siqueiros and the Trotskyist Rivera had a conflicted, pistol-packing relationship over the direction of the Mexican communist party. On May 24, 1940 Mexican artist Siqueiros led the assault on Leon Trotsky’s fortified house by 20 inept submachine gun toting assassins dressed as police. Only Trotsky’s grandson was slightly injured. Rivera, both a potential target and, initially, an official suspect, prudently went into hiding. Divorced from Frida, he was covertly aided by movie star Paulette Goddard, Charlie Chaplin’s estranged wife, who was in town to get her portrait painted. Overestimating his “chances” with Paulette, Diego burned other local, amorous bridges. Paulette and Diego flew out of Mexico on June 4, headed to California for a splashy, flashbulb arrival at the Burbank Airport.
Four months later on October 4, Siqueiros was arrested at his hideout.
I had believed that the graffiti was likely written soon after. Later released, Siqueiros left México before anyone had a change of heart. (Leon Trotsky had been attacked by Stalin’s “Plan B,” Ramón Mercader, on August 20 and died the following day.)
Flying this scenario past Sandra Zetina, the Mexican scholar also sensed that the solidarity was surprising. She thought, instead, that the graffiti might refer to an international campaign for Siqueiros’ release after a 1960 arrest. (He was released in 1964.) On August 9, 1961, the first anniversary of his arrest, a NY Times ad, paid for by artists, called for Siqueiros’ freedom. The only problem with this scenario was that Diego died in 1957.
Belatedly comparing writing samples, it seemed to me that the graffiti handwriting didn’t match Diego’s. But, if not, who would have the chutzpah to write on Diego’s masterpiece? If the graffiti appeared after the mural was installed in the theater in mid-January 1961, the list of suspects became smaller.
In 1941 while the mural was initially in storage at Treasure Island, a fireman accidently punctured the crate holding Panel 5 with an axe during a fire. In the summer of 1962 Emmy Lou Packard was hired by City College to repair the damaged part of the mural. She had access and the opportunity to possibly scratch the graffiti.
In 1954 Rivera had been finally re-admitted to the Stalinist Partido Communista Mexicano (PCM), which had booted him out in 1929. A recent Weekly Standard article addressed Frida’s obsession with Stalin. Emmy Lou in a 1979 AAA interview disavowed her anti-Stalinist dalliance, citing a rationale that only Stalin could have defeated Hitler. It seems that after WWII, Stalin was the only game in town for the Left. Did Emmy Lou express her solidarity and Rivera’s in absentia? Hopefully, more information will surface to resolve the issue.
Conversely, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is about his disillusionment with communism after participating in the Spanish Civil War in 1937 as part of the anti-Stalinist POUM, the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification. Orwell noted that you needed a scorecard to keep track of all the leftist Republican players, who governed Spain as an uneasy coalition. Moscow used the war to brutally purge the Republican side of non-Stalinists, despite it undeniably helping the fascist Franco to victory. Siqueiros served in this war, honing his anti-Trotskyist agenda; while Trotsky, fleeing Stalin, got his fatal asylum in México in 1937 through Diego Rivera’s intercession.
Rivera researchers alert!
Rick Tejada-Flores, director of the PBS American Masters documentary Rivera in America wrote:
I want to let you know that the entire collection of materials for Rivera in America are now housed at the Washington University Film Archives in St. Louis, and are available to researchers. They include the source tapes that I shot of interviews with Raquel Tibol, Lucienne Bloch, Steven Dimitroff, Ella Wolfe, Emmy Lou Packard, Pele DeLappe, Peter Stackpole, the doorman at the Stock Exchange Club, Michael Goodman, Jose Alfaro and Paul Von Blum. There are also dupes of all the footage of Rivera Painting in Detroit. Also Included are my production papers including partial interviews and the Paramount story on Frida welcoming Trotsky to Mexico.
Working with Stanford’s Digital Libraries, Cultural Heritage Imaging gave me a peek at the huge photogrammetry file for Panel 5, which Stanford is currently hosting. The resolution of the not yet public image is extraordinary. Using the Digital Elevation Map (DEM) feature, I have already been able to see the outlines of the work done by Emmy Lou Packard in 1962. (Per Carla: the DEM is “a false color way of showing the 3D surface topology in a 2D image. It is derived from the 3D data, specifically from the 3D point cloud.”) An important future project will be to map the now visible outlines of each jig-saw puzzle shaped giornata, a single day’s painting work on the fresco’s wet plaster.
We are looking forward to the cutting-edge discussion about intellectual property rights, access to the images, storage in perpetuity, and all the issues surrounding this unique cache of information. This work will be useless if the files cannot be safely passed forward to future generations.
[Note: Funding for the photogrammetry shoot has been paid for entirely by donations to the Foundation of City College of San Francisco’s Diego Rivera account (disclaimer: I am the signatory). Thank you, Mural Angels, for your gifts to the future!]
When Dra. Guadalupe Rivera Marin, Diego’s daughter, was in town for a Father’s Day conversation at the Brava Theater, I gave her a framed print of a photo of Diego, her sister Ruth, and her taken by George Gershwin in November 1935 (courtesy of the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust). She and I plan to meet next time I’m in México. These Gershwin pictures will be publicly available through the Library of Congress, once the Trust’s assets are catalogued.
Artist Wayne Healy was in town for the ongoing (until September 16) California Historical Society’s exhibition ¡Murales Rebeldes! about L.A. murals that were lost or destroyed. He and curator Jessica Hough came by to visit the mural. Diego Rivera believed in the reconciliation of Art & Science and often said he would have been an architect, if not an artist. Diego would have loved Wayne. In addition to being a prolific muralist, he is an aerospace engineer. We talked Bernoulli’s Principle over lunch and were later interviewed by Univision.
In the Living New Deal’s latest newsletter, there is an article about a WPA mural that was recently painted over. The issue of the stewardship of public art is ongoing. The artists who painted the murals in the “Mission” district can no longer afford to live here. The Living New Deal is co-sponsoring a conference "Women and the Spirit of the New Deal" on October 5-6, 2018 in Berkeley.
John Charlot, son of artist Jean Charlot, Diego and Frida’s good friend, contacted me recently. Jean had been featured in the Anita Brenner show at the Skirball. Linda Downs, past director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, hooked us up.
Matria is a documentary film by Fernando Llanos, about his grandfather Antolin Jimenez, a revolutionary, politician, Mason, and businessman, who in 1942 tried to muster an army of Mexican charros (horsemen) to fight against the Nazis, should they attack México. The film describes Nazi influence in a México, which eventually sided with the Allies. This is the world Diego Rivera wrote about in early 1940 in the tabloid Hoy, just prior to coming to San Francisco.
Our June San Francisco History Association talk had almost 300 attendees, a surprise to the hosts and to me. Swapping stories with other investigators was a real treat.
Being at the mural is never boring: a visiting Canadian family told me they have a friend who is the grandson of a former Canadian ambassador to Mexico. This friend has an autographed drawing of Diego’s penis, which the Mexican artist sketched for the Ambassador. They’ll try to send me a photo and the details of what must be an interesting story.
Had a great scare lately when my laptop hard drive crashed. Having been remiss in regularly backing up my Rivera research, the consequences might have been catastrophic. John at SF Computer Repair saved the data. Please, remember to back-up your work!
Dear Friends of Diego,
Bay Area Locals! On June 17, 2018 at 3 pm, Dra. Guadalupe Rivera Marin, Diego’s daughter, will give a talk in honor of Father’s Day, Un Río, Dos Riveras at Brava for Women in the Arts on 24th Street in the Mission.
Our collaboration with SFMOMA is picking up steam. Our CCSF Education team was hosted at a museum open house. A cohort of SFMOMA staff came out to see the mural and we’ve booked another visit with more staff. Curator Caitlin Haskell graciously invited Dean Kristina Whalen and me to the opening party for the unique René Magritte: The Fifth Season exhibition. Caitlin is moving to the Art Institute of Chicago and we will certainly miss her on this Rivera project.
May 29-31 we started exploring inside the wall below the mural to confirm that the building plans accurately reflected the mural anchorage. Ouch, they didn’t. Locations, where the mural was to be bolted to its lower support, were welded. An unused bolt had been left behind. Externally, electro-magnetic probing helped explore strategies to release the mural from metal rods tying it to the wall. The lobby was bursting with world-class curatorial, conservation, and engineering talent using light meters, temperature/moisture sensors, borescopes, and very sensitive ears and fingers. At the invitation of SFMOMA’s staff, Sandra Zetina Ocana, an UNAM art historian/conservator with expertise in Rivera, flew in from México for several days. Conservator Kiernan Graves, experienced with Rivera’s portable frescoes, flew in from L.A. for the day. Sometimes, dreams come true.
Doing Rivera research is like solving a jigsaw puzzle, albeit one in which the final image is a mystery. A new piece of information is coddled into a niche, where it sweetens that story. There’s lots of empty space. In Spanish, jigsaw puzzle is rompecabezas, literally “break heads.” This aptly describes the feeling when pieces elude us; like the exact date of Frida’s late May 1931 return to Mexico. The SFAI’s Jeff Gunderson, librarian & archivist, just sent me a copy of a press release dated May 12, 1931 about a party Frida had attended the night before. We’re zeroing in.
The first of last month’s Rivera murals (all three) tours for the Mexican Consulate included two couples who had just heard me do a presentation for the California Historical Society the previous Saturday. Ron sent me a link to his take on the tour, which started with a City Club lunch with the Consul General and ended 5 hours later with my analysis of Frida’s wedding portrait at SFMOMA.
On the second tour, the Mexican Consulate’s Itziar Mondragón pointed out to me a striking similarity between the tree stump in Allegory of California and 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). This was definitely a jigsaw puzzle piece.
Rivera immersed himself in pre-Columbian artifacts and incorporated the motifs in his murals. He drove Frida crazy with his compulsive buying. He may have been an easy mark for counterfeiters. Some pieces in Anahuacalli, his museum, may not stand up to scrutiny; a failing of some of Rivera’s fabulous stories, as well.
As the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust in San Francisco transfers its collection to the Library of Congress, their archivist Michael Owen (CCSF Library program graduate) invited me to pick up a couple of books he had set aside for me. Michael mentioned that the books might have originally been from George’s library. The 1940 MoMA exhibition Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art catalog clearly belonged to Ira because George died in 1937. But Miguel Covarrubias’s The Prince of Wales and other famous Americans (1925) includes a caricature of George (below) and was most likely his. Having been so involved in the George Gershwin play over the last few years, there’s an eerie poignancy in cradling a book once held by hands that played Porgy and Bess. It’s quite a singular thrill.
We were recently contacted by Dr. Caroline Zilboorg, who is writing a bio of her father Dr. Gregory Zilboorg, George Gershwin’s psychiatrist. He accompanied George to Mexico and per differing accounts was brilliant or manipulative (like speaking Spanish to some of their Mexican contacts to exclude Gershwin).
Diego Rivera’s The Rivals (approximately 4’ x 5’) sold on May 9, 2018 for $9.76M, a new auction record for Latin American art (Spanish link), surpassing the record held by a Frida painting. It will, hopefully, be part of SFMOMA’s 2020 show Rivera’s America. The value is intriguing because “comparables” for our Rivera mural were used to compute a replacement value for insurance purposes.
Extrapolating from this “size and price”, our mural is worth over $790,000,000.00. Note: In 2016 a Rivera painting Baile en Tehuantepec (82” x 65”) went for $15.7M in a record private sale. (Its rate would value our 22’ x 74’ mural at $690M.)
Have a correspondence with the seller of the Hermes Pan portrait by Diego Rivera. He found our last missive interesting.
Came across an article on Luther Burbank that had an image of prints he made from cross sections of fruits. Wonder if Frida saw these in December 1930 at his house in Santa Rosa? She later used her lip prints as a “signature” on letters.
Choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, whom I mentioned in the last FOD missive, garnered very nice reviews for her Guernica at the SF Ballet.
My buddy Frank Koehler gave me a pristine copy of Art in America, Feb. 1986 with an article about artist Lucienne Bloch. She was a dear friend to Frida and an assistant to Diego at the Detroit Institute of Arts and at Rockefeller Center.
Anne Schnoebelen invited me to a Treasure Island round table lunch at the City Club. I’ve spent so much time there this year, I should get an honorary membership. Things are looking up for Anne and our friends at the Treasure Island Museum Association. I will speak there next year.
Sadly, we have to report that René Yañez has passed away. The long-time Mission district artist was an inspiration to many.
Third graders have become my favorite tour of the year. They studied one panel a week for the 5 weeks prior to their visit. They were enthusiastic, polite, and knowledgeable. I can’t say enough good things about their teacher, who visited last year while working at a different school. Let’s just clone Amy!
On June 26 at 7:30 I will present Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, & San Francisco: A Love Affair for the San Francisco History Association at Congregation Sherith Israel.
"There is a pool of good. No matter where you put in your drop, the whole pool rises."
We have another tantalizing piece of Diego Rivera’s Hollywood puzzle thanks to Lewis Sykes, a member of the Foundation of City College’s Auxiliary. Rivera’s 1943 portrait of Hermes Pan is up for sale and Lewis sent me a postcard with the image, new to me. Pan was Fred Astaire’s choreographic collaborator for many of his films (including 1937’s Shall We Dance, George Gershwin’s last work). He tutored Paulette Goddard for five weeks for her dancing role opposite Astaire in the 1940 Second Chorus. Shooting started not long after she and Rivera returned from Mexico. (The movie’s co-star, Burgess Meredith, became Goddard’s third husband.) According to Hermes Pan: The Man Who Danced with Fred Astaire by John Franceschina, Hermes had a break from movie work and took the train to San Francisco to stay at the Palace Hotel. By accident he ran into Paulette, who was staying there on one of her visits (in late September or mid-November 1940). She introduced him to Rivera. In 1943 Pan posed in Mexico, while Rivera experimented with depicting motion in a portrait. This is a neat parallel to George Gershwin’s 1937 suggestion that Paulette get her portrait painted by Rivera. She finally got there three years later.
The lower part of Panel 4 is the “Movie Panel.” Rivera’s love for film is represented by scenes from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and a scene from Confessions of a Nazi Spy, starring his friend, art collector Edward G. Robinson and Francis Lederer, both Europeans. Rivera referred to movies as “moving frescoes”, a term which may have come from Russian film maker Sergei Eisenstein according to Anita Brenner. (Panel 2 contains cannons, references to Eisenstein’s epic Battleship Potemkin.) In January-February 1941 as Rivera worked his way back to Mexico he stayed in Santa Barbara and visited Hollywood. Newspapers mentioned his meeting with actor Oskar Homolka and other émigré European movie makers, many of whom were Jewish and had fled Hitler. In 2015 the Skirball Museum exhibited Light and Noir, Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 in which Confessions of a Nazi Spy was highlighted.
In the Panel 4 polemic, a large arm draped in the US flag restrains a swastika tattooed hand with dagger. Rivera implored the US to get into the war against the Nazis. Since the Stalinist USSR and Nazi Germany were allied by a non-Aggression Pact, no other communist was advocating this. The Mexican artist did this at his peril according to the FBI. Despite being a Mexican and a communist, Rivera found, ironically, that his natural ally was the U.S.
John Lukacs in Five Days in London, May 1940 (1999) states a rationale to which Rivera must have subscribed:
“Churchill understood something that not many people understand even now. The greatest threat to Western civilization was not communism. It was National Socialism. The greatest and most dynamic power in the world was not Soviet Russia. It was the Third Reich of Germany. The greatest revolutionary of the twentieth century was not Lenin or Stalin. It was Hitler."
In calling for Pan American unity Rivera understood what the isolationist “America Firsters” didn’t. In a world war, there is no place to hide. (Many America Firsters, like Ford and Lindbergh, were anti-Semitic admirers of Hitler, which drove their agenda in demanding American neutrality.)
To keep my dance thread going: choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who is in town working with the San Francisco Ballet (Unbound: C) visited the mural. In 2016 she created a 45 minute dazzling ballet about Frida called Broken Wings for the English National Ballet and she will create a 2 hour full length narrative about Frida in 2020 at the Dutch National Ballet. We talked…about Frida. Our mutual friend Celia Fushille, artistic director of the Smuin Ballet, connected us. I’m planning a 2020 trip to Amsterdam for the premiere.
The DeYoung’s Cult of the Machine is about the Precisionist school of art. Among the exhibition’s featured painters and photographers is Charles Sheeler, whose 1927 photo (not in show) of a Ford stamping machine Diego Rivera appropriated for our center icon’s right side. A highlight of the show is the gleaming Cord automobile; it goes fast while stationary.
A donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, has forwarded this lovely photo of Mona and Lynn Hofmann, both figures in our 1940 mural. The late Lynn generously donated all her mother’s artifacts to the CCSF Rivera Collection.
Our friend, Bay area homie, and Mexico City’s Musical Ambassador, flautist Elena Duran, will be leading a musical tour to Cuba, Oct. 31 to November 5, 2018.
Emmy Lou Packard’s son Don Cairns, the little t-shirt clad boy in our mural, escorted an early March mural tour from his church. (Kathé Cairns organized the event. Over the years the couple has been generous to our Project in many ways.)
The Auxiliary of the Foundation of City College led by Debra Dooley came for a mural tour followed by lunch at CCSF’s Chef’s Table. A tour I gave for them a decade ago led to my fruitful connection with the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust.
On April 21 at 11:30 am, I will be hosting a California Historical Society members-only Tour.
Went to the CHS opening artists’ reception for ¡Murales Rebeldes! and met L.A. muralists Barbara Carrasco and Yreina D. Cervántez (who both came to see the mural). Got to chat with local legends Juana Alicia and Miranda Bergman, who are trying by April 20 to fund a book about their Women’s Building mural.
As part of the S.F. Mexican Consulate’s Mex Am Festival on May 3-4, I will be conducting two Rivera mural bus tours; including the City Club, the S.F. Art Institute, and CCSF.
On June 26 at 7:30 I will present Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, & San Francisco: A Love Affair for the San Francisco History Association at Congregation Sherith Israel.
There’s a blurb on our SFMOMA deal in the Living New Deal newsletter.
Diego Rivera’s painting The Rivals is part of The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller coming up for auction at Christies. There are catalog essays by Luis-Martin Lozano, our 2000 Fulbright scholar, and by James Oles, co-curator of Rivera’s America, the 2020 SFMOMA show featuring our mural. (The Rivals will be part of this show, as well.) Work on the mural loan for the show continues. Extricating the 20 ton masterpiece from the Diego Rivera Theatre will require prestidigitation. We recently had a meeting with the “magicians” tasked with the move, as we scheduled next steps. (Christie’s article on Abby Aldrich Rockefeller is illuminating. Her advocacy for Rivera’s 1931 one-man MoMA show was a game changer in his career. Only Matisse got a solo show ahead of him.)
My late Rivera partner librarian Julia Bergman and I always agreed that the most important part of our work was saving the stories. These ephemeral pieces of lore are in jeopardy as the eye witnesses leave us. Recently, I was pleased to come across art that was saved; the Leonard Bernstein and New York Philharmonic’s televised Young People’s Concerts from 1960.
It was at a 1937 party hosted by Edward G. Robinson for composer Igor Stravinsky that George Gershwin met Paulette Goddard and dramatically changed the trajectory of Diego and Frida’s lives. Here is Stravinsky conducting pieces from his Firebird.
Aaron Copland was a great compadre to Mexican composer and Rivera collaborator Carlos Chavez, a character in my Gershwin play. Both Copland and Gershwin were Russian Jews born near each other in Brooklyn, who chose different roads to compose American music. Here is Copland conducting his El Salón México.
These are great. Enjoy!