September 2023

Ernest O. Lawrence, Diego, and Emmy Lou Packard at UCB’s Rad Lab.

Dear Friends of Diego,

The few “degrees of separation” paradox that characterizes the Diego Rivera in San Francisco story has struck again. Just saw the film Oppenheimer and was reminded of a Rivera connection. The above picture shows Diego and his assistant Emmy Lou Packard visiting Ernest O. Lawrence at the Rad Lab (Radiation Lab) at UC Berkeley on Aug. 28, 1940, a couple of years before J. Robert Oppenheimer appeared and the issue of the bomb arose. Diego might have been the first communist (who wasn’t a a scientist) to visit there. The book they are perusing is unknown. Rivera was very inquisitive and one of the main dualities he incorporated in the Pan American Unity mural is the reconciliation of Art and Science. The very first characters that the Mexican artist wanted in the mural were Samuel F.B. Morse and Robert Fulton. A Pflueger note while on his April 1940 Mexico City visit was to follow up with research on the two inventors for Rivera’s use. Morse had obliterated time with his invention of the telegraph and Morse code. Now messaging was “instantaneous.” (It is a revelation to some younger mural visitors that messaging hasn’t always been “instantaneous.”) Fulton obliterated space with his working steamboat and now travel was not dictated by the wind. Ever the engineer Rivera was enthused that these two great inventors were also artists.

Oppenheimer’s relationship with communism mirrors Rivera’s; neither was able to toe the line. Rivera had been expelled from the PCM, the Mexican communist party in 1929. The Mexican artist wanted an indigenous party, not one controlled by Stalin from Moscow. American Prometheus author Kai Bird in a New Yorker podcast, said Oppenheimer “was not the kind of man to submit himself to party discipline.” However, though it seems that the scientist did join the party, he denied it during security clearance hearings. Diego went so far as to script an article for the Russian Hill Runt, “I Am Not A Communist.” Though, philosophically, both were communists, they needed to unload that baggage, which hindered their agendas. In 1940 Diego had finally gotten his foot back in the door after the exile from the US over the Rockefeller incident, ostensibly for his inclusion of a portrait of Lenin in the mural. Mental reservations were made for the “greater good” as these titans perceived them. (A Russian Hill Runt newsletter drawing confirms that Frida went to the public opening of the mural in early December, though she had told Dr. Eloesser she was not interested in attending the private opening on November 29, when “all those dames” would be there.)

Ambiguity infuses these stories with ironies. Rivera depicted Stalin as one of the bad guys. Yet by June 1941, just seven months after the mural was finished, he was an ally, “Uncle Joe”, after Hitler invaded the USSR with Operation Barbarossa. By the end of the war both Diego and Frida were Stalinists. Oppenheimer led the construction of the bomb, but later campaigned against its use. But it was he who had opened Pandora’s Box.

The latest news on the San Francisco Art Institute is that it is for sale, including the mural. However, “A group of nine arts and business leaders, including philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, is pursuing the purchase of the bankrupt San Francisco Art Institute’s vacant Russian Hill campus.” Librarian/Archivist Jeff Gunderson writes that “We are thrilled to be up-and-running at the SFAI Legacy Foundation +Archive—welcoming researchers with great topics—so far from the University of Exeter in England (tech & art/eco-art from the ‘60s & ‘70s), Stanford (Bernice Bing, Win Ng, Charles Wong), CSU-Chico (AE Women Artists ‘40s-‘60s), a NYC scholar researching Bill Berkson!, and San Francisco historian, Lee Bruno investigating the artistic fallout from the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition!”  There’s a 1917 listing for Mexican artist José Clemente Orozco living at 628 Montgomery, the “Monkey Block”.

A worst-case scenario is that all three of Diego Rivera’s San Francisco murals will be publicly inaccessible after the March 2024 storage of the Pan American Unity mural (SF Mercury News front page article-for subscribers only, unfortunately.) The City Club is private, as it has always been, but all three Rivera murals form an artistic legacy for San Francisco, unique outside of México. (The smaller Still Life with Blossoming Almond Trees has been conserved at SFMOMA, but its re-display at UC Berkeley will be delayed as a new more accessible venue is prepared.) The prolonged local storage of  another of the GGIE’s artifacts, the large Covarrubias maps, is a sobering case study. (Lithos of the painted maps.)

There is a civic, moral, and ethical responsibility that goes with owning world-class masterpieces, which can last centuries. The enduring care of the Pan American Unity fresco mural requires yet unrealized institutional protocols. A non-binding MOU the college signed with the Mexican Consulate in 2011 speaks to the need for future cooperation, but you cannot care for the mural with platitudes only. Someone will always have to be el Custodio of the mural.

Facilitated by SFMOMA’s intervention, the mural is being passed to the future in great shape as 300,000 museum viewers can attest. The mural has been cleaned & conserved and “panel mounts” have been bolted to the back of the mural to strengthen it and facilitate handling & mounting. Cultural Heritage Imaging recorded a mural benchmark; a 3D photogrammetry shoot, whose massive digital files are preserved in perpetuity at Stanford University. A new Diego Rivera Theatre at CCSF will eventually showcase the masterpiece.

Frida’s exposure with San Francisco Opera’s work, El Ultimo sueño de Frida y Diego this past June, will continue next year with a San Francisco Ballet work on the Mexican artist in April 2024. This is choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings, first performed by English National Ballet and danced by Tamara Rojo, who is now the artistic director of San Francisco Ballet. In 2018 I had the honor to show the mural to Ms. Lopez Ochoa when we were connected by our friend Celia Fushille, outgoing Artistic Director of the Smuin Ballet.

ALERT: The long awaited BBC2 three-part documentary Becoming Frida Kahlo will be aired on PBS beginning September 19 at 9/8C.


Retired art mover Scott Atthowe came by to visit the mural. Nobody had thought about the mural move more than Scott and it became his grand exit. His company is now in the sure hands of his former employees, now owners. Scott had already been thinking of the mural move for a decade when I met him in 2004, when his company installed the replica 14 ton Olmec head (a gift from the Mexican state of Veracruz) in the Frida Garden adjacent to the mural at CCSF. In 2011 we engaged Scott, conservator Anne Rosenthal, and the late engineer Jim Guthrie to evaluate the viability of a mural move. Some people say we did it because the theatre building was structurally unsound. This was not the case. The evaluation reflected the reality that the mural could long outlive the building and would have to be moved some day. SFMOMA’s offer to borrow the mural and execute the delicate move was the best thing that has happened to the mural. The siting of the mural at SFMOMA answered many design questions and gave the mural the international exposure it deserved.

Mural visitor Mike Bernhardt recently sent me a link to a short refugee story, The Tides of War. Sometimes, we can collect facts about WWII, but have a poor sense of the impact on ordinary people.

José Moya del Pino was an artist in the Bay area. Originally from Spain, he brought a collection of Velasquez reproductions he had painted at the request of King Alfonso XIII to the Bay area. He ended up staying. I only knew of him because of a photo of the Family Club. Recently his family came to visit the mural, daughter Tina and granddaughters Paola and Anna.

Here is Rivera in 1940 with some  members of The Family Club, a split off from the Bohemian Club. These are mainly artists Rivera met on his first 1930 visit. Left to Right, Standing Lucien Laubdt (Beach Chalet), Antonio Sotomayor (Grace Cathedral), José Moya del Pino (Coit Tower), Otis Oldfield (Coit Tower), William Gerstle (SF Art Institute), artist Phil Little, architect Timothy Pflueger, seated are Diego Rivera and Charles Black (head of PG&E and Shirley Temple’s father-in-law).

José was good buddies with Otis Oldfield, who is the figure sketching in the central image below from Coit Tower. The “Hooded Nuns,” anthropomorphic industrial chimneys, from the Simmons Mattress Factory on Bay Street that Diego included in all his San Francisco murals, are depicted in Moya del Pino’s work at Coit Tower. He used to come and visit Rivera on the scaffolding when he was painting his first work Allegory of California at the Pacific Stock Exchange Lunch Club and they could chat in Spanish. Frida’s use of the image was not affectionate.

Canadian Consul General Rana Sarkar has come by a couple of times. He will help host APEC CEO’s conference being held at Moscone in November. We’re hoping to get the original Covarrubias maps from the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition displayed for this gathering of countries from the Pacific rim.

As the Moscone Centers conferences have ramped up, we’ve had architects, psychiatrists, game developers, and cyber security personnel meeting. Many attendees have come by to visit the mural and the foot traffic has been brisk. The international visitors have included Lithuanians, French, New Zealanders, Australians, Spaniards, British, and people from all over the Americas. All have left with smiles on their faces.

Had a nice visit in Carmel with some avid mural fans, who wanted to continue our conversation.

Happy Birthday this month to Don Cairns, the little boy in the lower center of the mural. He and his wife Kathé have been supporters of the mural for decades and first shared the precious work of his mother Emmy Lou Packard.


Mexican Independence Day commemorates September 16, 1810, when Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla (left) gave the “cry of independence” from Spain.  He and José María Morelos y Pavon (right) are featured in the mural. Recently, the US has returned stolen pre-Hispanic artefacts.