Diego Rivera: His Life and Times. By Bertram D. Wolfe.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1939. 354-376
This is The Making of America in Five Panels:
Harriman, Vanderbilt, Morgan, Mellon, Bruce Barton.
You have just beheld the Makers making America:
They screwed her scrawny and gaunt with their seven-year panics:
They bought her back on their mortgages old-whore-cheap:
They fattened their bonds at her breast till her
thin blood ran from them...
So wrote Archibald MacLeish in his Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller's City, published the year of the great conflict between Rivera and Rockefeller. But the theme offered Diego for execution on the elevator bank facing the main entrance to the RCA Building in Radio City was quite a different one: Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future.
The strange partnership of one of the world's greatest painters with one of the world's richest financial dynasties to give the people of the city of New York a mural with such a theme - a theme, incidentally, not of Rivera's but of Rockefeller's choosing - was the result of protracted and precarious negotiations. The preliminary "wooing" of the painter was long and reassuring: Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr. (daughter of the late Senator Nelson W. Aldrich), and Mrs. Nelson Rockefeller (the former Mary Todhunter Clark), collectors both, had purchased examples of his work. As if to evidence that their taste in art was superior to prejudice against his social themes, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller had included among her purchases his notebook of Russian sketches. Nelson Rockefeller praised Diego's Detroit murals, deplored the controversy which they aroused, wrote notes containing such flattering statements as " Please let me know when your frescoes in Detroit are finished so that we can arrange to come up and see them. Everybody is terribly anxious to see how you have interpreted the industrial life of Detroit" (letter of October 13, 1932). Finally, when the fierce pride and suspicion on Diego's part were overcome, Nelson Rockefeller broached the subject of his doing a mural in Radio City. Similar requests were made of Picasso and Matisse.
The written proposal from the construction engineers which followed the oral negotiations invited the three painters to enter into a "competition," the terms of which seemed, consciously or unconsciously, calculated to restrain these turbulent spirits by a series of elaborate restrictions and regulations. They were to submit preliminary projects (for which they were to receive three hundred dollars) for paintings in which no colour was to be used, "only black, white and gray"; the scale of the drawings was to be "8 foot, 6 inches for the human figure in the front plane"; the mural was to be done, not in fresco, but on canvas; the painting was to cover" between sixty and seventy-five percent of the canvas"; and the instructions even stipulated the number of coats of varnish that were to cover the pigment!
Matisse rejected the commission on the ground that its scale, theme, and character did not accord with his style of painting; Picasso refused to receive the representative of the architects; Rivera turned down the proposal in a letter (of May 9, 1932), written in French to architect Raymond Hood, from which I translate the following:
I thank you. Ten years ago I would have accepted your kind invitation with pleasure. It would have helped me to start . . . but since then I have worked enough and I am known enough to ask of each one who wants my work that he ask for it on my value. One can always have me make a sketch and take it or leave it, naturally, but no "competition" - I am no more at that point.
Permit me therefore to tell you that I don't quite understand this way of dealing with me; especially when you and Mr. Nelson Rockefeller have had the amiability to indicate your interest in having my collaboration, without the slightest previous solicitation on my part...
"Sorry you can't accept," wired Raymond Hood, the architect, to Diego, but Nelson Rockefeller intervened and persuaded him to accept without competition. When the painter heard a little later that Frank Brangwyn and Jose Maria Sert had been substituted for Matisse and Picasso, there was a fresh crisis. He did not mind so much the frippery that was being dispersed throughout many of the other buildings, but the mural canvases of Brangwyn and Sert were to flank his own, and he had contempt for the work of both of them.
From May to October the uncertain negotiations continued. Diego wrote huge "pamphlets" in French to Raymond Hood trying to convince him that he should be permitted to use colour rather than mere black and white, and be permitted, even without increase in payment, to do a fresco in place of a canvas mural. "Never have I believed that mural painting should have as its principal characteristic that of conserving the plane surface of the wall," he wrote to Hood, "for in that case the best mural painting would be a uniform coat of colour... Monumental painting does not have as its object ornamenting, but extending in time and space the life of the architecture..."
"We Would accentuate the funereal feeling Which is fatally aroused in the public by the juxtaposition of black and white," he argued in another lengthy epistle. "In the lower parts of a building ... one always has the feeling of a crypt... Suppose some illdisposed persons should chance upon such a nickname as 'Undertakers' Palace.' ..."
Again and again relations were strained in these lengthy negotiations between the obstinate architect and the no less obstinate painter, but always it was Nelson Rockefeller, functioning as diplomat, friendly intervener, executive vice-president of Rockefeller Center, Inc., and real boss of the whole undertaking, who finally straightened things out and sustained Rivera in his various demands as a painter.
At last Diego, still in Detroit, began to work on a sketch of his intended mural. To guide him he was given the following amazing instructions:
The philosophical or spiritual quality should dominate... We want the paintings to make people pause and think and to turn their minds inward and upward... We hope these paintings may stimulate not only a material but above all a spiritual awakening.
Our theme is NEW FRONTIERS.
To understand what we mean by "New Frontiers," look back over the development of the United States as a nation...
Today our frontiers are of a different kind... Man cannot pass up his pressing and vital problems by "moving on." He has to solve them on his own lot. The development of civilization is no longer lateral; it is inward and upward. It is the cultivation of man's soul and mind, the coming into a fuller comprehension of the meaning and mystery of life.
For the development of the paintings in this hallway, these frontiers are --
1. Man's New Relation to Matter. That is man's new possibilities from his new understanding of material things, and
2. Man's New Relation to Man. That is man's new and more complete understanding of the real meaning of the Sermon on the Mount.
In view of the dispute which followed, it is interesting to record Diego's detailed verbal description of his intended painting, which accompanied the sketches he submitted.
On the side where Brangwyn is to depict the development of the ethical relations of mankind, my painting will show, as the culmination of this evolution, human intelligence in possession of the Forces of Nature, expressed by the lightning striking off the hand of Jupiter and being transformed into useful electricity that helps to cure man's ills, unites men through radio and television, and furnishes them with light and motive power. Below, the Man of Science presents the scale of Natural Evolution, the understanding of which replaces the Superstitions of the past. This is the Frontier of Ethical Evolution.
On the side where Sert is to represent the development of the Technical Power of man, my panel will show the Workers arriving at a true understanding of their rights regarding the means of production, which has resulted in the planning of the liquidation of Tyranny, personified by a crumbling statue of Caesar, whose head has fallen to the ground. It will also show the Workers of the cities and the country inheriting the Earth. This is expressed by the placing of the hands of the producers in the gesture of possession over a map of the world resting on sheaves of wheat supported by a dynamo, expressive of Agricultural Production supported by Machinery and Scientific Technique - the result of the evolution of the methods of production. This is the Frontier of Material Development. The main plastic function of the central panel is to express the axis of the building, its loftiness, and the ascending echelon of its lateral masses. For this, colour will be employed in the centre of the composition, merging laterally with the general clair-obscur.
In the centre, the telescope brings to the vision and understanding of man the most distant celestial bodies. The microscope makes visible and comprehensible to man infinitesimal living organisms, connecting atoms and cells with the astral system. Exactly in the median line, the cosmic energy received by two antennae is conducted to the machinery controlled by the Worker, where it is transformed into productive energy.
The Worker gives his right hand to the Peasant who questions him, and with his left hand takes the hand of the sick and wounded Soldier, the victim of War, leading him to the New Road. On the right of the central group, the Mothers, and on the left, the Teachers, watch over the development of the New Generation, which is protected by the work of the Scientists. Above, on the right side, the Cinematograph shows a group of young women in the enjoyment of health-giving sports, and on the left it shows a group of unemployed workmen in a breadline. Above this group the Television gives an image of War, as in the case of Unemployment, the result of the evolution of Technical Power unaccompanied by a corresponding ethical development. On the opposite side, above the representation of the joy derived from sports, the same Television brings the image of a Popular Movement, the result of high aspirations created by Ethical Development, but unsuccessful without an accompanying parallel material development of Technical Power and Industrial Organization, either already existing or created by the movement itself.
In the centre, Man is expressed in his triple aspect - the Peasant who develops from the Earth the products which are the origin and base of all the riches of mankind, the Worker of the cities who transforms and distributes the raw materials given by the Earth, and the Soldier who, under the Ethical Force that produces martyrs in religions and wars, represents Sacrifice. Man, represented by these three figures, looks with uncertainty but with hope towards a future more complete balance between the Technical and Ethical development of Mankind necessary to a New, more Humane and Logical Order.
Although, as usual, he was to modify and clarify his project as he "thought with his hand "upon the wall, the general outlines here indicated were never departed from. The painter had done his best to incorporate the fuzzy verbiage of the assigned theme into his own description, but it was perfectly clear from the outset that he was planning a Communist - that is, a revolutionary socialist - mural. Here is science destroying the gods (lightning strikes off the hand of Jupiter); the liquidation of tyranny (Caesar beheaded) ; "the workers of the cities and the country inheriting the earth"; "machinery controlled by the worker, "the union of worker, peasant, and soldier under the leadership of the worker; the denunciation of capitalism as breeding war, crisis, and unemployment; a "popular movement" based on ethics and modern industry; all looking "with uncertainty but with hope towards... a New, more Humane and Logical Order." Whatever the Rockefellers may have expected to do in the way of gentle persuasion to get the painter to modify his plan, and however much they underestimated from the black and white and verbal sketches the power that the living painting would have upon the wall in full colour, they surely cannot say that they were not forewarned as to the general intentions of the artist. And Diego was justified in writing later:
The owners of the building were perfectly familiar with my personality as artist and man and with my ideas and revolutionary history. There was absolutely nothing that might have led them to expect from me anything but my honest opinions honestly expressed. Certainly I gave them no reason to expect a capitulation. Moreover, I carried my care in dealing with them to the point of submitting a written outline (after having prepared the sketch which contained all the elements of the final composition) in detailed explanation of the aesthetic and ideological intentions that the painting would express. There was not in advance, nor could there have been, the slightest doubt as to what I proposed to paint and how I proposed to paint it."
"Enough said," wrote Mr. Todd of the construction engineers on receipt of the description and sketch." We are all happy and looking forward with great confidence and assurance to your larger scale details and to the finished result " (letter of November 14, 1932).
Raymond Hood wired:
"Sketch approved by Mister Rockefeller... Can go right ahead with larger scale..." (telegram of November 7, 1932).
In March 1933, Diego moved into Radio City and began to paint. The comparatively high fee of $21,000 (nothing to boast of, considering that the space to be covered was 1,071 square feet and that the painter had to pay his own plasterers and helpers) enabled him to hire an unusually large number of qualified assistants and thus speed up the work. These included Ben Shahn (whose Sacco-Vanzetti series he had admired), Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Dimitroff (who had begun working for him in Detroit), Hideo Noda, Lou Block, Arthur Niendorf, and Antonio Sanchez Flores, his chemist. They prepared the walls while he was still in Detroit, ground his colours, made tracings of his wall sketches, and stencilled them on the wet plaster. Yet the actual painting, as always, Diego did himself. The work progressed smoothly and swiftly, and soon the "crypt" in the RCA building began to glow with colour and stir with movement. Two great elongated elipses crossed each other in the centre of the wall, one revealing the wonders of the microscope--cells, plasms, diseased tissues, bacteria; the other the wonders of the telescope--whirling nebulae, comets, flaming suns, and solar systems. To the right, a night club, an unemployment demonstration about to be broken up by the police, a lurid battlefield with searchlights playing, men in gas masks, gleaming bayonets, tanks, planes flying overhead, portrayed the evils of the existing order which man must overcome if his civilization is to continue. To the left of the great "crossroad " was an athletic stadium with girls engaged in sports, a May Day demonstration in a Socialist land all aglow with flaming red banners borne by marching, singing workers, and the figure of the leader of the workers joining the hands of a black and a white worker and a soldier in fraternal clasp. The architects and directors of construction became increasingly uneasy. They complained that it was "too realistic," too full of colour and life. But on April 3 the painter was reassured by another friendly note from Nelson Rockefeller:
I am extremely sorry not to have had the pleasure of seeing you as yet since you have been in New York. Yesterday I saw in the Sunday paper your picture working on the mural for the RCA building. It was an extremely good photograph. From all reports I get you are making very rapid progress and everybody is most enthusiastic about the work which you are doing. As you know the building opens the first of May and it will be tremendously effective to have your mural there to greet the people as they come in for the opening...
"First of May"--date full of portent! "Tremendously effective" indeed!
It was not until April 24 that trouble began. It appeared in the form of a reporter from the World-Telegram, Joseph Lilly. His impressions of the painting, now nearly two thirds completed, were published under the provocative title:
RIVERA PAINTS SCENES OF COMMUNIST ACTIVITY AND JOHN D. JR. FOOTS BILL
The article was no less provocative than the headline:
Diego Rivera, over whose shaggy head many storms have broken, is completing on the walls of the RCA building a magnificent fresco that is likely to provoke the greatest sensation of his career ... microbes given life by poison gases used in war . . . germs of infectious and hereditary social diseases ... so placed as to indicate them as the results of a civilization revolving about night clubs ... a Communist demonstration ... iron-jawed policemen, one swinging his club... The dominant colour is red - red headdress, red flags, waves of red . . . in a victorious onsweep..." Mrs. Rockefeller said she liked my painting very much... Mr. Rockefeller likes it too."...
Diego continued painting with maniacal speed, as if the vision was burning him till he had it all spread out upon the wall. By the 1st of May it was nearing completion. For several weeks now the sketch of the labour leader on the wall had become an unmistakable likeness of Lenin. (Earlier the likeness had been dimmed by a cap, but by mid-April it had been altered into the more familiar bald-headed portrait sketch.) Diego was painting from the top of the wall downward, and before the 1st of May, he had converted the sketch into a fully painted portrayal.
On May 4 the painter received the following letter:
While I was in the No. 1 building at Rockefeller Center yesterday viewing the progress of your thrilling mural, I noticed that in the most recent portion of the painting you had included a portrait of Lenin. This piece is beautifully painted but it seems to me that his portrait, appearing in this mural, might very easily seriously offend a great many people. If it were in a private house it would be one thing but this mural is in a public building and the situation is therefore quite different. As much as I dislike to do so I am afraid we must ask you to substitute the face of some unknown man where Lenin's face now appears.
You know how enthusiastic I am about the work which you have been doing and that to date we have in no way restricted you in either subject or treatment. I am sure you will understand our feeling in this situation and we will greatly appreciate your making the suggested substitution.
With best wishes, I remain sincerely,
Nelson A. Rockefeller
Hastily Diego summoned a council of war. For several weeks now he had been receiving tactful hints in increasing volume from architects, construction heads, renting officers, from Mrs. Paine and other emissaries of the Rockefellers, to tone down colour, subject-matter, " realism," and what not. If he yielded on the head of Lenin, would not one demand lead to another until the whole conception would be destroyed? Was not Lenin merely the pretext they had been looking for? Did he not have the right, as painters have ever done, to use any model which seemed suitable for each generalized figure?
As one of those called in to advise him, I urged that he offer to yield on Lenin's head in an effort to take Nelson Rockefeller at his word, and thus save the rest of the painting. But other advisers thought otherwise. Particularly his assistants were all for an open break. " If you remove the head of Lenin," they told him, " we will go on strike." It was not hard for them to persuade Diego in that direction. He had been uneasy with such a patron from the first, and the years of merciless criticism by the Communist Party had left their scars, and made it harder to accept advice which, even if successful, would be deliberately misinterpreted. The majority of those he consulted being artists nourished on those gestures of defiance which enliven the rebellious history of art, this opinion easily prevailed.
On May 6 he sent Nelson Rockefeller the following answer:
In reply to your kind letter of May 4, 1933, I wish to tell you my actual feelings on the matters you raise, after I have given considerable reflection to them.
The head of Lenin was included in the original sketch, now in the hands of Mr. Raymond Hood, and in the drawings in line made on the wall at the beginning of my work. Each time it appeared as a general and abstract representation of the concept of leader, an indispensable human figure. Now, I have merely changed the place in which the figure appears, giving it a less real physical place as if projected by a television apparatus. Moverover, I understand quite thoroughly the point of view concerning the business affairs of a commercial public building, although I am sure that that class of person who is capable of being offended by the portrait of a deceased great man, would feel offended, given such a mentality, by the entire conception of my painting. Therefore, rather than mutilate the conception, I should prefer the physical destruction of the conception in its entirety, but preserving, at least, its integrity.
In speaking of the integrity of the conception, I do not refer only to the logical structure of the painting, but also to its plastic structure.
I should like, as far as possible, to find an acceptable solution to the problem you raise, and suggest that I could change the sector which shows society people playing bridge and dancing, and put in its place, in perfect balance with the Lenin portion, a figure of some great American historical leader, such as Lincoln, who symbolizes the unification of the country and the abolition of slavery, surrounded by John Brown, Nat Turner, William Lloyd Garrison or Wendell Phillips and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and perhaps some scientific figure like McCormick, inventor of the McCormick reaper, which aided in the victory of the antislavery forces by providing sufficient wheat to sustain the Northern armies.
I am sure that the solution I propose will entirely clarify the historical meaning of the figure of leader as represented by Lenin and Lincoln, and no one will be able to object to them without objecting to the most fundamental feelings of human love and solidarity and the constructive social force represented by such men. Also it will clarify the general meaning of the painting.
The letter was meant to be conciliatory in tone, and leave the way open for further negotiation. During four or five days. there was ominous silence. Hastily Diego engaged a photographer to preserve some record of the almost finished work. Guards prevented him from taking the pictures, declaring that they had just received orders barring all photographers from the building. Then Lucienne Bloch, a Leica concealed in her blouse, moved around the scaffolding taking such details as her secret operations would permit, which alone saved the work from total obliteration.
The further progress of the affair we can follow in Rivera's own words as later recorded in his introduction to Portrait of America:
A mysterious warlike atmosphere made itself felt from the very morning of the day that hostilities broke out [May 9]. The private police patrolling the Center had already been reinforced during the preceding week, and on that day their number was again doubled. Towards eleven o'clock in the morning the commander-in-chief of the building and his subordinate generals of personnel issued orders to the uniformed porters and detectives on duty to deploy their men and to begin occupying the important strategic positions on the front line and flanks and even behind the little working shack erected on the mezzanine floor which was the headquarters of the defending cohorts. The siege was laid in strict accordance with the best military practice. The lieutenants ordered their forces not to allow their line to be flanked nor to permit entrance to the beleaguered fort to anyone besides the painter and his assistants (five men and two women!) who constituted the total strength of the army to be subdued and driven from its positions. And all this to prevent the imminent collapse of the existing social order! I wish I could have been equally optimistic!
Throughout the day our movements were closely watched. At dinner time, when our forces were reduced to a minimum . . . the assault took place. Before opening fire, and simultaneously with the final manoeuvres which occupied the strategic posts and reinforced those already occupied, there presented himself, in all the splendour of his power and glory, and in keeping with the best gentlemanly tradition of His Majesty's Army, the great capitalist plenipotentiary, Field-Marshal of the contractors, Mr. Robertson of Todd, Robertson and Todd, surrounded by his staff. Protected by a triple line of men in uniform and civilian clothes, Mr. Robertson invited me down from the scaffold to parley discreetly in the interior of the working shack and to deliver the ultimatum along with the final cheque. I was ordered to stop work.
In the meantime, a platoon of sappers, who had been hidden in ambush, charged upon the scaffold, replaced it expertly with smaller ones previously prepared and held ready, and then began to raise into position the large frames of stretched canvas with which they covered the wall. The entrance to the building was closed off with a thick heavy curtain (was it also bullet-proof?), while the streets surrounding the Center were patrolled by mounted policemen and the upper air was filled with the roar of airplanes flying round the skyscraper menaced by the portrait of Lenin... .
Before I left the building an hour later, the carpenters had already covered the mural, as though they feared that the entire city, with its banks and stock exchanges, its great buildings and millionaire residences, would be destroyed utterly by the mere presence of an image of Vladimir Ilyitch... .
The proletariat reacted rapidly. Half an hour after we had evacuated the fort, a demonstration composed of the most belligerent section of the city's workers arrived before the scene of battle. At once the mounted police made a show of their heroic and incomparable prowess, charging upon the demonstrators and injuring the back of a seven-yearold girl with a brutal blow of a club. Thus was won the glorious victory of Capital against the portrait of Lenin in the Battle of Rockefeller Center...
The affair now became a cause celebre. Bigger and bigger demonstrations picketed Radio City, demanding the unveiling of the covered mural. Messages of protest poured in to the Rockefellers; messages of solidarity and support came in a constant stream to Rivera. Andrew Dasburg wired the support of the artists and writers of Taos, Witter Bynner those of Santa Fe; John Sloan and the Society of Independents, Ralph Pearson and his students, Walter Pach, Lewis Mumford, Carleton Beals, Alfred Stieglitz, Suzanne La Follette, Peggy Bacon, Niles Spencer, A. S. Baylinson, George Biddle, Van Wyck Brooks, Stuart Chase, Freda Kirchwey, Hubert Herring, George S. Counts, Helene Sardou - these are a few names culled at random from the mountain of telegrams that poured in, giving Diego and Frieda days and nights of sleepless excitement.
Hostile voices were heard too, for the Rockefeller group was neither idle nor lacking in potency. Harry Watrous, president of the National Academy of Design, declared the head of Lenin " unsuitable " for an American mural; Alan Bement, director of the National Alliance of Art and Industry, expressed his " disappointment that so great an artist should . . . condescend to become a mere propagandist." A group of conservative painters formed the Advance America Art Commission - which did not outlive the controversy--to " sound the death-knell for all existing beliefs in the pseudosuperiority of foreign artists."
If artists and intellectuals and the liberal and radical movements rallied in the main to the support of the painter, the big businessmen who were planning to act as his patrons were not lacking in " class solidarity " either. Rivera had already prepared his sketches for a mural to be called Forge and Foundry, ordered by General Motors for their building in the World's Fair at Chicago. On May 12 he received a wire from Albert Kahn, architect for the building:
Have instructions from General Motors executives discontinue with Chicago mural ...
All the promised walls in America seemed to vanish with that telegram. The painter was boycotted, blacklisted, cut off from further murals in the land of modern industry and machinery which had fascinated him so deeply.
In a radio address over WEVD, Diego summed up the issues involved in his controversy:
The case of Diego Rivera is a small matter. I want to explain more clearly the principles involved. Let us take as an example an American millionaire who buys the Sistine Chapel, which contains the work of Michelangelo. . . . Would that millionaire have the right to destroy the Sistine Chapel?
Let us suppose that another millionaire should buy the unpublished manuscripts in which a scientist like Einstein had left the key to his mathematical theories. Would the millionaire have the right to burn those manuscripts? Or suppose that an engineer has invented a machine which would solve a vast number of economic problems because of the ease and low cost of production if the machine were placed in operation. Would the buyer of the plans of that machine have the right to destroy them? There are only two real points of view from which to choose: the point of view of capitalist economy and morality (that is, that in which the right of individual property takes precedence over the interests of the human collectivity), and the point of view of socialist economy and morality (that is, that in which the rights of the human collectivity take precedence over the isolated individual and private property).
From the capitalist point of view the reply to our questions must be yes. And as a matter of fact, thousands of inventions are bought each year precisely for the purpose of keeping them from use and to prevent the competition which they might originate, even though they be useful to the majority of human society. There is not a single cultured and sensitive man or woman who would not be indignant before the destruction of the Sistine Chapel, because the Sistine Chapel is the property of all humanity. So are the high mathematical acquisitions represented by the theories of Einstein, and there is not a single man of science nor a single man of common sense who would not be indignant at the idea of the destruction of an unpublished manuscript which contained them.
We all recognize, then, that in human creation there is something which belongs to humanity at large, and that no individual owner has the right to destroy it or to keep it solely for his own enjoyment...
So powerful and unexpected was the storm let loose by the ousting of the painter that the Rockefellers found themselves obliged to give a public pledge that " the uncompleted fresco of Diego Rivera will not be destroyed, nor in any way mutilated, but ... will be covered, to remain hidden for an indefinite time ..." (WorldTelegram, May 12, 193 3).
But six months after this solemn assurance as to the public trust which their wealth had put into their custody, on midnight of Saturday, February 9, 1934, the Rivera mural was removed from the wall by the process of smashing it to powder! The destruction was undertaken deliberately though experts had explained how the mural might be removed without damage to it or to the wall, though interested parties had offered to meet the expense of its removal and preservation, and though the painting was safely covered over with a great canvas and might have remained so indefinitely, for future generations to decide whether it was worth conserving. Clearly, the ruthless spirit that built up the Standard Oil monopoly lives on in the more polished descendants of the first John D. Rockefeller.
They had cynically chosen the moment when a municipal art exhibition was preparing in Radio City. Many indignant artists withdrew their paintings - among them Baylinson, Becker, Biddle, Gellert, Glintenkamp, Cropper, Laning, Lozowick, Pach, Sardeau, Shahn, and Sloan. Other artists wavered; the powerful Rockefeller machine went into action, cajoling, even threatening with blacklisting at museums responsive to their bidding. Many painters became silent, timidly returning their pictures to the exhibition. A few sycophants were found, Watrous for instance, to issue public declarations calling the protest "poppycock." But the men whose names I have recorded above, and many others, including Jose Clemente Orozco, and Gaston Lachaise (who had done an important sculptural group in the centre), steadfastly refused to lower their dignity as artists and as men by exhibiting in this vandals' hall, for ever to be haunted by the ghost of a murdered mural.
As a sort of comic epilogue to the Rivera-Rockefeller controversy came a disagreement between the conservative Frank Brangwyn and his Radio City employers. He had been commissioned to paint a mural canvas allusive to the Sermon on the Mount, to flank Rivera's fresco on one side, while the work of Sert, also on canvas, was to flank it on the other. To his astonishment, when his painting arrived in December it was rejected because he had painted Christ as a figure in it!
Diego told reporters:
I take the part of Brangwyn as an artist, and I defend his right, like mine, to express his own feelings and ideas in his painting. . . . I must say I don't like the painting of Brangwyn. I find that he is the type of painter that the bourgeoisie merits today, and this conflict with him proves the present crisis of capitalism and its internal contradictions. If the owners of the building don't want in it the figure of their Christ because it is a commercial building, this means that business is contrary even to the Christian commandments -and today nineteen hundred years after He scourged them from His temple, the money-changers take their revenge on Christ by scourging Him from the temple of commerce.
The proprietors by forbidding a Christian painter to paint Christ and a Communist painter to paint Lenin prove that when they hire a painter, they think that they are buying him body and soul. . . . They are mistaken.
But the Rockefellers were in no mood for fresh controversy, nor was Brangwyn the kind to defend too fiercely his right to paint his vision as he saw it; the little quarrel was patched up before it had well begun, by arranging that the figure of Christ should withdraw a bit, become more shadowy, and turn His back - oh, ironic symbol! - upon the temple of the-money-changers.
For years the gash remained blank where Rivera's fresco had faced the main portal. After negotiating in vain with a number of American artists to induce them to paint over the haunted spot, the Rockefellers at last engaged Sert to produce another of the melancholy works like the ones which he had already contributed to the building. Thus did life for once follow the laws proper to poetic justice, for the Sert mural canvases are exactly such paintings as the place now merits. And by agreeing to serve in this capacity, Sert has assured himself A place in the history of painting. Perhaps the Rockefellers, too, in the end will be best remembered in connection with this use of the power their wealth gave them.
When they drove Rivera from the scaffold, they paid him off to the last penny the amount stipulated in the contract. This deprived him of the possibility of appeal to the courts: the law will recognize such rights as may be settled in money, but knows naught of the artist's rights in the work he has once been paid for, nor the rights of society either. If the Rockefellers should use their colossal fortune to buy up all the art treasures that constitute man's richest cultural heritage, and then destroy what they had bought and paid for, there is no law to stop them. But a painter has his own ways of taking his revenge.
Diego held the check for $14,000 in his hand and meditated on its possible uses. Out of it, $6,300 (thirty per cent of the original price of $21,000) was to go to Mrs. Paine as commission. An additional $8,000 had gone in wages and materials. But that left almost $7,000 of "Rockefeller money " to dispose of. His painting was covered (he did not yet know that they would destroy it), and he was determined that they should not prevent his speaking to the people of New York through a mural. "So long as this cheque holds out," he announced to the press, "I will use it to paint in any suitable building that is offered, an exact reproduction of the buried murals. I will paint free of charge except for the actual cost of materials."
The painter was besieged with offers of walls, but in each case either the dimensions were not suitable or he did not like the uses to which the building was put. In the end he selected none of the places proposed, but one of his own choosing: a crazy ramshackle old building on West Fourteenth Street, the home of the New Workers School. The building was merely rented, and so old that it would soon be torn down, so the painter constructed movable walls. The school, for its part, had not dreamed of offering itself as a place for painting, since it had no funds to pay for materials. But his assistants agreed to continue to work with him for reduced wages, he moved from the Barbizon Plaza to cheaper quarters near by, and paid for all the materials himself.
"For the first time," he wrote afterwards in Portrait of America, " I painted on a wall which belonged to the workers, not because they own the building ... but because the frescoes are built on movable panels. ... They all helped in the work, and there, in the modest premises of an old and dirty building on Fourteenth Street, at the top of a steel staircase as steep as those of the pyramids of Uxmal or Teotihuacan, I found myself in what was for me the best place in the city. . . . I did all that I could to make something that would be useful to the workers, and I have the technical and analytical certainty that those frescoes are the best that I have painted ... and informed with the greatest enthusiasm and love that I am capable of feeling..."
Diego's intention had been to repaint the Rockefeller mural, but the building was not suitable in size or structure. In harmony with that structure and the uses to which the building was put, he planned a new work, his Portrait of America. Because he was painting in an auditorium usually crowded with people, he filled the foreground of each panel, just a little above the level of the heads of the seated public, with human figures slightly larger than life-size so that the people filling the hall seem to be continued into the wall, giving the stuffy, crowded quarters an unexpected extension and feeling of amplitude. These painted figures represent the real or symbolical heroes of our country's history; thus the painter unconsciously fulfilled the thwarted ambition of Rodin, who had sought to set his Burghers of Calais almost level with the street, " melant leur vie heroique a la vie quotidienne de la ville." The upper or middle ground of each panel is occupied by masses of men in action, those masses whose representative heroes fill the lower foreground. And at the top rises and falls all around the hall the vast landscape of America; while in each panel (except one in which the painter deliberately set out to give a feeling of confusion) some tree-trunk, edifice, or other solid, uprising object gives visual support to the ceiling, maintaining the function of the wall and seeming to increase the height and amplitude of the painfully long and narrow and low auditorium.
The frescoes--there are twenty-one of them, occupying 700 square feet of wall space--are painted on movable sectional panels of the painter's own design: each panel framed in wood, fastened at the corners with metal cleats, backed by wooden crosspieces, composition board, chicken-wire and various coats of plaster, topped off with the painted surface of ground marble and cement, held in place by wooden supports and metal strips. Each panel weighs about 300 pounds. Since Diego had come to this land, which builds its structures so that they shall not endure, or tears them down before they are really old, he had been preoccupied with this problem of movable walls. Eventually these stood the test for which they were intended: the old building had to be abandoned, and the paintings moved with the school from Fourteenth to Thirty-third Street, without the paintings' suffering a single crack or scratch.
The theme of this mural is the history of this country--a portrait of the America of yesterday and today. It is interesting to record how the painter acquired an intimate insight into the history of a land not his own. Obviously, for the purposes of art, mere knowledge is not enough: it must be felt as well as known, reacted to as well as apprehended, absorbed until it becomes "second nature," before it can become the stuff of painting. It was the task of the painter's assistants and members of the faculty and student body of the school to make this material accessible and vividly alive to Rivera. We avoided the standard histories in favour of contemporary documents and contemporary iconography; not alone for lack of confidence in professional historians, but still more because only thus could the artist acquire a "feel" for the impact of living events upon sentient human beings. We ransacked libraries, reference rooms, museums, for contemporary prints, wood cuts, oils, and newspaper caricatures. We ran through the speeches and writings of each representative personage selected, excerpting the most vivid and characteristic passages; viewed them through the eyes of their enemies, distilling the latter's hatreds, and through the eyes of their admirers, distilling their loves. Words were checked against deeds, promises against performances, outcomes against gloomy and sanguine anticipations. And beneath and beyond we sought to dig to the moods of the nameless masses in whom these men had inspired love or hatred, the masses who had followed them and in a sense created them as well. How well this method succeeded at its best - thanks principally to Rivera's amazingly prehensile mind - is testified alike by the general sweep of the history of our land and by the beauty and vividness of such portraits as those of Ben Franklin and Tom Paine, Emerson and Thoreau, Walt Whitman and John Brown. Or by the brutal and savage power of such social caricatures as that of J. P. Morgan the First. Many may disagree with his interpretation of our history, but none can deny its impact or its power, nor regard it as a mere cold exercise in learning facts by rote. Indeed, whatever its shortcomings, there is no example by one of our own painters that comes anywhere near giving so complete and penetrating and moving a portrayal of our people, our history, and our land.
When Diego had finished his murals in the New Workers School, he still had a little "Rockefeller money" left, so he moved into the headquarters of the New York Trotskyites and did two small panels there representing the Russian Revolution and the "Fourth International," which Leon Trotsky was then beginning to proclaim. With this his funds were exhausted. There was nothing to do but return to his home in Mexico, there to consider the problem of: What next?
He felt he had got even with the Rockefellers by using their money to paint for the workers' movements that challenged their continued rule. And in the New Workers School he had done with malicious glee two mordant portraits of the founder of the dynasty and his son. But when he learned in Mexico that his fresco in Radio City had been smashed to bits, his anger flared up afresh. He applied to the Mexican government for a wall on which to paint anew the mural they had destroyed. He received a wall in that monument of ugliness,--the Palace of Fine Arts. But this time the building was no real concern of his: he was not seeking to paint a fresco which would express its architecture and use; he was looking for a public place where he could let men see what kind of painting it was that these" patrons of the arts "had chosen to destroy. They had tried to prevent his work from surviving, even in a photograph; now he would bring it to life in full colour and monumental scale once more upon a wall, that it might for ever haunt them, and that the world might judge between these men and him. Some changes the building forced him to make. The elevator shaft in the RCA building had been a "triptych," a main wall flanked by two sides; but this new wall was flat. The figures which had been on the sides of the elevator bank he now introduced into the two sides of a single main design, and, there being some extra space to fill, he added a few additional figures, among them Trotsky and Marx. There is, too, a little less simplicity and solidity of structure, a little more emphasis on sensitive line.
But the most interesting change from the Rockefeller Center original was one not required by the architecture: the introduction into the night-club scene, not far from the germs of venereal disease, of a portrait of John D. Rockefeller Jr. "Let them be well used," Hamlet said of the players, "for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time; after your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live." But it is more dangerous to use painters ill, since epitaph and report are one.
Thus ended Diego's invasion of the United States. The last word on his American painting we will leave to Elie Faure, who from his sick-bed, which he was not to leave until his death, wrote to Diego (letter of July 20, 1933) his reactions to the Rockefeller affair:
I am writing you from my bed, where I am spending all my afternoons for the past two months as I have been told that I am very sick. I know now, however, of your great adventure, principally from an article in Lu; for the daily press here would save itself from whispering the least word which might risk, as this does, troubling the quiet atmosphere which surrounds the brain, if I may call it such, of the French bourgeois; which might disturb his digestion and risk introducing into his ideas, again if I may call them such, the imaginary structures which might upset the flat harmony of his stagnant perspective.
Your daughter also proudly brought me the fragment of an American magazine where you are addressing the people, as well as the representation of the fresco where Lenin soiled the wall. I envy your power to awaken in the heart indignation, the spasm of anger. You have found a way of acting through thought, which ought to be the ambition of all true intellectuals, of all true painters or writers. Yesterday it was still mine. Alas, no one here wants to understand me, doubtless because I speak a language too hermetic. You have the luck of having at your disposition painting, and of knowing how to handle it. Your plastic language is hermetic too, but its very strangeness puts it across as painting. One has to look at it well. One can ignore what I am saying - one can avoid the opening of a book. In fine, bravo! Hurrah for the success of your action! The artistic glory of a Matisse or even of a Picasso does not count alongside of the human passions which you arouse, and there is not at this hour in the world's course another painter who can say as much. . . .
My dear old Diego, I embrace you tenderly.