"Friends of Diego" Newsletter
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!
Dear Friends of Diego,
The last few weeks have been a great time for meeting visionary artists & activists.
“At the end of 2016, inspired by the murals of Diego Rivera, French artist JR decided to imagine how a whole neighborhood could be represented through art.” (From pamphlet for Les Bosquets 2017)
Recently at SFMOMA’s invitation, I did a tour of the City Club’s Allegory of California mural for JR. He and his crew are creating a San Francisco Mural to capture the whole city. He invited me to be photographed against a “green screen” at his studio with a colorful prop, a reference to one of my favorite Rivera murals. We chatted over chocolate cake and he elegantly autographed a copy of JR: Can Art Change the World? The book and JR have given me the same thrill I got in 2006 engaging with muralists at Dra. Guadalupe Rivera Marin’s International Mural Painting Encounter in México City. The celebratory work of artists from all over the world is life affirming. As we work conserving and exhibiting our masterpiece, it is gratifying to believe in a future for murals. Maybe, art can change the world. One mural at a time. French director Agnès Varda and JR’s delightful, Oscar-nominated documentary Faces, Places is currently playing.
SFMOMA had previously requested a Pan American Unity mural tour for JR, but I was in LA. My longtime friends Angela (an actress, original Zoot Suit) and Rene (retired community college professor) put me up. Over several evenings, with eyes-closed, they listened to me read my play; giving me vital feedback. We had a great time at LACMA’s Found in Translation show along with their friends, artists & activists Juan “Johnny D.” González and Irma Beserra Núñez. They are a living legacy of the East LA Chicano art movement, who are dedicated to public service. Juan had a 1970 graphic map of East L.A. murals in the LACMA exhibit. The UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center has recorded 27 hours of his oral history. At LACMA our Rivera mural was represented by four preliminary drawings (SFMOMA) and an iPad slideshow of mural images we had furnished. This is the second consecutive LACMA exhibit showcasing our mural.
Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico at the Skirball Cultural Center was exceptional. We were enthralled by the focused depiction of an era and the personalities who made it special. Curator Laura Mart said that, unfortunately, the show will not travel; so don’t miss it while it’s up until February 25th. She has shared a copy of a dated, 8-page letter of which I wasn’t aware from Frida to Anita; sent from San Francisco’s St. Luke’s Hospital. Another “push pin” for the chronology!
The museum generously let me park my car there past closing time, while my new friends Juan and Irma gave me a tour of some East LA murals. One of Juan’s pieces is the acknowledged first Chicano mural in East LA. The traffic is a subject unto itself.
On an historic January 3rd the CCSF team assembled with SFMOMA staff, art mover Scott Atthowe, and conservator Anne Rosenthal to take an initial joint look at how to move the mural. (Anne, Scott, and structural engineer Jim Guthrie comprised our 2011 mural assessment team.) The most important part of the coming 2020 project will be to cure the tag that the mural is little known.
Had a wonderful phone conversation with Cynthia Boissevain, who now lives in Wales. As pointed out last time, as an eleven year old in México City she heard George Gershwin play and sing all of Porgy and Bess at the 1935 party her mother threw for him, the subject of my play. Cynthia related that Frida was an amazing women, who didn’t let on about her pain. She said their Paseo de la Reforma home is still there because it is part of the national patrimony. Just what I needed; an excuse to go to CdMx.
Saw Gary Oldman’s Oscar-nominated performance as Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” The newly-appointed British prime minister is desperately trying to divert the momentum of the Nazi avalanche. The suspense is palpable as we wonder how anybody can slow the German juggernaut, let alone arrest it. Yet, now we know it happened. Historian Victor Davis Hanson in The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won makes a case that the Axis defeat could have been foretold. In late spring 1940 he would have been hard pressed to get bettors on that scenario.
Hedge-hopping towards San Francisco in early June, Rivera paced airport lounges reading about the Dunkirk evacuation to save the surrounded British army in France. With Paulette Goddard’s help he was fleeing Stalinist assassins. Diego stippled our mural with the tension everyone felt awaiting the Nazi’s seemingly inevitable victory. Rivera loved the movies and the old movie weekly serials always ended in a cliffhanger.
Another classic example of the vagaries of history is George Gershwin’s fateful November 1935 trip to México, arriving bruised by the poor Broadway reception for Porgy and Bess. (He never lived to see his vindication.) The time spent socializing with Diego and Frida (he took color photos of them) radicalized his politics and affected the budding painter in him. This eerily evocative self-portrait was done upon his return to NYC.
Infatuated with Paulette Goddard in Hollywood in early 1937, Gershwin encouraged her to go to México to get her portrait painted by his friend Diego. (If the disillusioned Gershwin had not forsaken NYC for Hollywood, he might have had immediate treatment for the belatedly diagnosed brain tumor, which killed him suddenly in July. How much more exquisite music would we have had?)
When Paulette finally arrived in 1940, Diego was divorced from Frida, but slated to marry his model Nieves Orozco. In an 2006 interview, Nieves told me that the amorous Rivera burned his bridges when Paulette showed up. If Porgy and Bess had opened to good reviews, Rivera might have married Nieves and never remarried Frida. Would Frida be as famous today? Or would she be just a “footnote”; another of Diego’s wives, like painters Angelina Beloff and Marevna? Like Chaos Theory, it demonstrates the outrageous ramifications of just a slight change in how the cosmos plays its cards. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union posits just such an alternate reality; history’s zag, instead of zig.
Prior to their 1940 remarriage, Frida had only two solo shows. The first was the 1938 Julien Levy Gallery show in NYC (Per Hayden Herrera’s Frida, “Julien Levy wrote me a letter saying that someone had talked to him about my painting…” Might it have been Gershwin, Julien Levy’s friend?) The botched 1939 Andre Breton brokered show in Paris was salvaged by Marcel Duchamp and Mary Reynolds, but was not widely known. Might Frida have become like artists Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo; very much admired, but not international icons?