The Case of the Missing Mural

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By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

The first vicious controversy over a wall between Mexico and the U.S. took place 85 years ago in New York City. Two larger-than-life personalities were involved: the US philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and the famed Mexican artist Diego Rivera. The battle was waged over a mural Rivera had painted in the newly erected Radio City Music Hall in Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan.

In some ways the combatants were very similar. Both were born in the last half of the 19th century—Rivera in 1886 and Rockefeller 12 years earlier. Both were children of privilege; Rockefeller was born into one of the wealthiest families in the world, and Rivera was pampered and lauded from early childhood because of his prodigious artistic ability. And both as adults championed the cause of the working class.

Yet in other ways, they were very different. Rockefeller was a true-believer Christian and Rivera a staunch atheist. Rockefeller was shy and retiring; Rivera thrived on his celebrity status. Rockefeller was a teetotaler but Rivera quite the contrary. Rockefeller was married to the debutante Abigail Aldrich for 47 years until she died in 1948 and then remarried in 1951 to Martha Baird until his death in 1960. Rivera was known for his often tempestuous relationships with a series of women, including the incomparable artist Frida Kahlo, twice his wife.

The person who brought them together was most likely Rockefeller’s wife Abigail. Abby was a noted art collector and travelled widely to buy paintings from early 20th century artists. Her husband, it was rumored, detested her choice in paintings.   New York’s Modern Museum of Art (MoMA) was Abby’s idea and project. Although John Jr. provided a relatively small stipend for the MoMA, she and two of her friends were the ones who badgered New York society to raise the funds needed for completing construction of the museum. The Museum opened in November 1929, days after the infamous stock market crash; and exactly two years later, one of the first major MoMA exhibitions was a retrospective of the works of Diego Rivera.

Her husband, John Jr., in the meantime had his own art-related project—Radio City Music Hall. John envisioned a palace that would feature American-made films featuring American movie stars, plus stage performances that would be dedicated to delighting the masses and providing hope for relief from the crippling Depression. As soon as MoMA opened its doors for the first time, Rockefeller began to translate his vision for the Music Hall into concrete, hiring Donald Deskey to design the Art Deco interior.

Simultaneously, the Palace of Fine Arts was being constructed in Mexico City, also in Art Deco style and also to provide performances to delight the masses. Perhaps as a kind of international competition, Rockefeller in 1932 hired Diego Rivera to provide the centerpiece mural in the main foyer of his palace in New York. Rivera was then living in the US, having been expelled from the Mexican Communist Party, and was already famous for a mural in Moscow celebrating the October Revolution, a mural for the City Club of the San Francisco stock exchange, and a controversial series of fresco panels funded by the Ford Company at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

According to Rivera’s recollections of the Radio City Music Hall project, “They did much urging to persuade me to accept the work, which I finally did only on condition that they would give me full liberty to paint as I saw fit. My interpretation of the theme and my sketches for the painting were discussed and approved. The theme they assigned was: Man at the crossroads, looking with uncertainty but with hope to a better world.” (Workers Age, Rivera Supplement, 1933).

An early sketch, now at the Frida Kahlo museum, shows a lovely and politically tame view of the theme. Central to the rendition was the figure of a worker staring into the future and clasping hands with smaller figures of a soldier and a peasant standing slightly behind. The central figures are flanked on both sides with social scenes that do not immediately appear to be controversial. And over the heads of the central figures are symbols that can be recognized as scientific in nature.

Rivera set to work on the mural. What began to emerge on the wall was quite different from the original sketch. Some say that Rivera changed the mural after being chastised by friends and workers groups for selling out to the wealthy Rockefeller family. Rivera himself said, “My interpretation, naturally, portrayed the crossroads with the road to the left as the socialist world, that to the right, the road of capitalism.”

There was no doubt that in the mural the socialist world was far better morally, humanely, philosophically and environmentally than the capitalist world. Most egregiously, from the viewpoint of the Rockefeller family, Lenin to the left appeared as the true visionary while John D. Rockefeller, Sr., appeared drinking a cocktail and surrounded by women who evidently were not members of polite society. Our guess is that part of the inspiration for the rendering of the capitalistic world may have come from Frida Kahlo. Her less than flattering portraits of life in the US, especially as compared to Mexico, strongly resonate with the Rivera depiction.

When John Jr. and Abby’s 24-year-old son Nelson Rockefeller saw the mural in progress, he reportedly metaphorically hit the wall. He demanded that the mural be changed; the face of Lenin was to be removed. Rivera absolutely refused, “Since, as much for my personal sentiments and opinions as for the historical truth, the outstanding leader of the proletariat is Lenin, I could not conceive or represent the figure of the worker-leader as any other than that of Lenin.”

The battle was joined. A cadre of Rockefeller lawyers insisted that Rivera was in breach of contract since the mural in progress differed significantly from the plan originally approved. Rivera contended that Rockefeller knew he espoused Marxist politics and knew how he expressed his views of capitalism from previous works – especially the murals he had recently completed while in residence at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Rockefeller demanded that all work cease on the mural, draped it in cloth and banned Rivera from the site. Rivera encouraged a demonstration by a group from the New York Workers School outside the Music Hall.

After a call by a Rockefeller representative to the NYPD, police arrived and, according to Rivera, brutally attacked the demonstrators. Rivera agreed to stop work but announced that the monies advanced by Rockefeller to construct the mural would be used to teach revolutionary painting at the Workers School.

The Rockefellers hired the Spanish muralist Jose Maria Sert to replace the Rivera work. In the 2002 movie Frida, the entire wall is dramatically depicted as being torn down (Nelson Rockefeller more than metaphorically hitting the wall), but there remains no clear evidence whether the wall was destroyed or Sert painted over Rivera’s mural. Ironically, Sert’s politics also became controversial years after his mural American Progress was complete, as he became an ardent supporter of the fascist Spanish dictator, General Francisco Franco.

Fortunately for the world, Rivera’s assistants had photographed his almost complete mural in the Radio City Music Hall before it was covered with drapes and then destroyed. So, in 1933 Rivera returned to Mexico and, working from the photos, reconstructed the mural in the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, where it can be viewed today.