Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art

Special exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art through May 14.

Whenever I see Diego Rivera’s distinctive art, my first thought is always to wonder once again why Nelson Rockefeller thought he’d be happy with one of Rivera’s murals in Rockefeller Center. Not only were Rivera’s socialist beliefs well known (he was a founding member of Mexico’s Communist party!), they inform virtually all of his work, so why in the world would the scion of one of the United States’ most famous capitalist families expect his own vision of “Man at the Crossroads” (the assigned subject) to be compatible with Rivera’s?!*

Rockefeller’s naïveté and arrogance become even funnier when you see the murals that brought Rivera to New York in the first place. Because so much of the internationally renowned artist’s work was fixed to the site of its creation, the fledgling Museum of Modern Art invited Rivera to create relatively portable murals at the museum itself. When he arrived, he created five frescoes with Mexican subject matter and three directly inspired by his visit to New York, and all of them deal with revolution, laborers, or inequality.

In short, nothing about the murals screams, “I belong in your family’s art deco temple of capitalism!”—except, of course, the fact that they’re beautiful and striking and bold. And in that the murals exemplify Rivera. His artistry is such that any fair observer would have to recognize it, but that artistry cannot be separated from Rivera’s political perspective any more than Bach’s St. John Passion can be separated from its liturgical foundation. That impassioned point of view is part of what makes the art so affecting and meaningful in the first place.

The MoMA murals, seven of which have been gathered back together for this exhibit, are small enough to be portable but still impressive in size: the most modest is roughly three feet by four, and the largest nearly eight feet by six. Like Rivera’s murals on the walls of buildings, the portable panel murals are frescoes on cement, created by painting pigments onto wet concrete so that the work was fixed when it dried. The drying cement forced Rivera to plan carefully, work quickly, and complete the murals in discrete sections called giornate, the borders of which must be obscured.

The exhibit displays sketches and X-rays alongside the murals themselves to illuminate Rivera’s process, which is fascinating, but the murals themselves keep drawing the eye. Online images of the frescoes simply can’t do them justify. In person, the colors are bolder, the scale is often remarkably grand, and the gritty texture of the concrete gives the paintings a raw, forthright quality that’s completely lost in photos.

The Mexican paintings are particularly vivid. In Indian Warrior, an Aztec jaguar kills a fallen Spanish conquistador with a stone knife through the neck. Agrarian Leader Zapata portrays Emiliano Zapata leading a band of peasant rebels as he stands over a dead hacienda owner, and The Uprising depicts a labor riot in strong colors: red for the revolutionary flags, blue for the laborers’ apparel. The violence in the murals isn’t graphic (at least not in the way we think of now, with blood spurting everywhere), but it is deeply unsettling in part because it is class conflict, usually with heavy racial undertones. Even in the ostensibly bucolic Sugar Cane, a light-skinned plantation owner lounges on a hammock while a heavily armed, noticeably darker-skinned foreman oversees the even darker-skinned laborers at their back-breaking tasks. The beautiful composition, foregrounded by Indian girls picking papayas, is darkened considerably by the subtext of economic and racial inequality.

Frozen Assets, the most spectacular of the American murals, critiques such injustice even more baldly, juxtaposing the city’s burgeoning skyline (Rockefeller Plaza stands in the middle of the tableau), a warehouse of homeless men, and a gated bank vault attended by a guard and a few elegantly dressed patrons. It’s a sad, stark painting that both marvels at the skyscrapers being built at the time and deplores the gross inequalities of the Depression-era economy. The verticality of the towers strains against the flat, quasi- subterranean warehouse and bank.

You could, I suppose, appreciate Frozen Assets on a purely aesthetic basic: the versatility with which Rivera wields his deliberately dingy color palette; the balance of his three-segmented composition; the delicacy with which he manages to depict light at its grayest, light devoid of hope; the dark echo of the broad-shouldered guard in the warehouse and then the bank. But that is not how Rivera would want one to experience the mural. For all his classical formality, drawing on styles of past masters, Rivera is a romantic in the sense that his art is meant to communicate something; it is not art for art’s sake; it is explicitly political art.

That kind of art always makes me a bit nervous. I suppose I idealize art for art’s sake; the idea that art need not justify itself with “meaning” appeals to me. But Rivera makes me see the nobility in meaning, the nuances that even a strong, clear voice can create. After all, that deal-breaking portrait of Lenin in the Rockefeller mural was, in all likelihood, making a more subtle, thoughtful point that Rivera’s critics were willing to credit. Painted during the rise of Stalin’s oppressive rule, Rivera’s Lenin probably represented a challenge as much to the Soviet Union as to the anti-Communist United States. And moreover, Lenin was but one face among many.

Rivera’s work might not be art for art’s sake, but it is still art: impeccably composed, darkly beautiful, and richly provocative. Yes, the MoMA’s exhibition makes it pretty obvious than Rockefeller was naïve in choosing Rivera for such a commercial project, but it makes something else obvious, too: he had excellent taste.

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*Yes, I know Rivera submitted sketches before beginning the mural itself, but sketches are sketches—preliminary by definition. No one should have been surprised when Rivera decided to make what one the previously undifferentiated faces into Lenin’s.