From Portrait of America by Diego Rivera.
New York: Covici, Friede, Inc. 1934. 21-32.
In the last few months of my work in Detroit, I received a definite offer to paint three panels in the lobby of the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center. Matisse and Picasso, I was informed, were to be offered the two lateral corridors in which each was to paint five panels. I was very doubtful that these two painters would accept, and said so to the architect of the building who was negotiating with me; nevertheless, the possible company of these painters (which was certainly good company), and above all the large, well-proportioned, and well-lighted wall that was offered me, decided me to accept. Even the theme was not bad, although it had been worded in very pretentious terms by the general staff of the management: "Man at the Crossroads Looking with Uncertainty but with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a Course Leading to a New and Better Future."
From the very beginning, I explained to the architects, as well as to the owners and management of the building, my interpretation of the theme-for a man of my opinions, the only possible interpretation. The crossed roads were the individualist, capitalist order, on the one hand, and the collectivist, socialist order, on the other; and Man, the Producer, in his triple personality of worker, farmer, and soldier, stood at their intersection. Thus, my composition would synthesize, contrasting them by means of their most typical realities, the two opposed concepts; and Man would be represented, naturally, as the skilled worker, the worker who is also man of science, the classless man, controlling by means of the machine which is the child of scientific knowledge, the vital productive energy in order to canalize it from its various natural functions into the broad stream of fundamental human necessity: that is to say, production in the hands of the producer and not of the exploiter.
I had also to take into account the fact that the wall offered me was well situated in an open and public site and that it was of the utmost importance to utilize it well; for, no matter what the outcome of the events that the painting must surely have produced, they would in any case constitute a most valuable test, as the mural would indubitably, if correctly done, focus international interest on its social significance.
As I had expected, the painters first proposed refused the commission. Matisse objected that neither the building nor the size of the wall was suited to his intimate style; while Picasso would not even receive Raymond Hood, the architect, nor Mr. Todd, of the contractors, to discuss the project with them. Since they were unable to secure the work of these two good painters, the management thereupon engaged Jose Maria Sert and Frank Brangwyn. But this put another face on the matter for me, and my first reaction, as a painter, was naturally to refuse the commission. Moreover, Mr. Todd was insisting at all cost that the painting must be a canvas mural of the usual "expensive wallpaper" type, and with good reason, for such murals avoid difficulties, distract no one from the weighty affairs of business, and are so "distinguished" that no one sees them; thus bourgeois digestions are not upset, nor is the risk run of arousing the unrest of exploited employees.
Two members of the owners' family, however, were interested--or so they assured me--in having at least one true mural in the building, and they insisted that I accept the commission. They supported my opinion that the painting be done in fresco and in colors, so as to "center" the series of murals, as well as to emphasize the point of the axis of the group of buildings, something which was obviously necessary and finally admitted even by the architects. Only Mr. Todd still held out for black and white, and on the day that the final meeting was held to authorize the use of fresco and of color, he preferred to go rabbit-hunting rather than take part in a decision which he considered a violation of all those principles of esthetics, ethics, religion, and capitalist politics which he held sacred.
The Rockefeller Center architects had always wanted to use black and white in the decorations. One of them, perhaps the most modern of them all, and, as far as painting was concerned, with the most cultivated taste, had mentioned to me that his personal preference was for canvas murals which would be "something like Chinese painting." I have no idea why he conceived the notion of going to painters who have a definite personality and a style of their own to produce anything of that sort. As for the other architects of the project, the one among them who enjoyed the greatest authority and renown told me frankly, on a number of occasions, that he understood nothing of painting, something which seemed to me undeniable. Moreover, subsequent events have demonstrated that, like the majority of their American colleagues turned out by the Paris Ecole de Beaux Arts, they can only tolerate as mural painting those nauseating productions of the infra-academic painters deriving from the same school, or of the stepsons of that famous establishment.
A small amount of reflection will, I think, enable anyone to realize that the only things these architects really like to paste on the walls of their buildings are canvas enlargements of the vulgarest kind of illustration from the popular magazines, done in oils, and as slick, smooth, and shiny as the patent leather pumps which they wear to their evening parties. (Historical note: Mr. Todd, in the contracts drawn up under his orders, insisted on inserting the express condition that the murals done in oils must be given at least five coats of varnish!)
Needless to say, the problem, for me, was totally different. It was the problem of painting a fresco that would be useful to the working people of New York, since the producers have enriched the financiers who "own" the building; and, in all justice, it is to the working people of the city and of the world that Rockefeller Center really belongs. Thus, I considered that the only correct painting to be made in the building must be an exact and concrete expression of the situation of society under capitalism at the present time, and an indication of the road that man must follow in order to liquidate hunger, oppression, disorder, and war. Such a painting would continue to have esthetic and social value--and still greater historical value--when the building eventually passed from the hands of its temporary capitalist owners into those of the free commonwealth of all society.
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 esthetic 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.
In the actual work, which I tried to carry out to the best of my ability and to make superior to anything I had done before, I was assisted with the generous collaboration of distinguished scientists, engineers, biologists, inventors,-and discoverers, one of them an important research worker in a well-known scientific institution supported by the owners of Rockefeller Center. Doctor and biologist of international reputation, he carried his generosity to the extent not only of lending me his biological skill and knowledge to be made plastic on the wall, but of working at my side night after night, sometimes until three o'clock in the morning, so that the material he supplied me might possess its correct social and esthetic function in the finished painting. Talented young artists, some of them at the beginning of a brilliant career, sacrificed their time and gifts in order to become my assistants. And the workmen engaged in the construction of the still unfinished building took such an interest in the progress of the fresco that they would arrive an hour before their day's work began in order to watch us, much to the annoyance of the foremen and private guards of the owners, whose job it was to police them.
Large numbers of the outside public, as well as many qualified specialists, took a lively interest in the work. I think it may be said that all the positive social forces were for it, and, naturally, only the negative forces against it. There was nothing grandiloquent or demagogic in the painting, nothing that did not correspond accurately to the reality of the existing social situation. It was a work of art made to function in society, and it is no self-flattery to believe that its purpose would have been fulfilled. Had its functioning been less efficient, its interpretation of the given theme less penetrating and accurate, the bourgeoisie would not have proceeded against it with all the force and power at their command and, finally, destroyed it.
The attack was at first veiled, and couched in the courteous language of diplomacy. But when the painter failed to give ground before the conciliatory offers of these patrons of the arts; when, before the power of the richest people in the country, the colors of the painting did not pale or a single form disappear; then these all-powerful lords sent their trusted employees, the executors of their peremptory orders, to deal drastically with the situation.
I preserve a beautiful memory of this "Battle of Rockefeller Center." A mysterious warlike atmosphere made itself felt from the very morning of the day that hostilities broke out. The private police patrolling the Center had already been reinforced (luring 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!
Several days before, orders had been given out not to allow camera men to enter. They were now made even more stringent, and there was no doubt that the owners would under any circumstances try to prevent the publication of any reproduction of the fresco. Fortunately, Miss Lucienne Bloch, one of my assistants, was adroit enough to take a series of ten details, as well as one complete view, with a tiny Leica camera under the very noses of the enemy's spies, who were so efficient that they failed to notice it!
Throughout the day our movements were closely watched. At dinner time, when our forces were reduced to a minimum--only I, my Japanese assistant, Hideo Noda, my Bulgarian assistant, Stephen Dimitroff, and the Swiss-American, Lucienne Bloch, were on duty--the assault took place. Before opening fire, and simultaneously with the final maneuvers which occupied the strategic posts and reinforced those already occupied, there presented himself, in all the splendor of his power and glory, and in keeping with the best gentlemanly traditions 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 check. 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 sevenyear-old 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...
But it was not yet over. If it is true that it is highly improbable that many of the seven million inhabitants of New York City would have seen the dangerous painting, on the other hand, thanks to the valiant attack of Capitalism against the mural, the press, the radio, the movies, all of the modern mediums of publicity, reported the event in the greatest detail over the entire territory of a country peopled by 125,000,000 people and even in the smallest villages of the United States. Tens of millions of people were informed that the nation's richest man had ordered the veiling of the portrait of an individual named Vladimir Ilyitch Lenin, because a painter had represented him in a fresco as the Leader, guiding the exploited masses towards a new social order based on the suppression of classes, organization, love and peace among human beings, in contrast to the war, unemployment, starvation, and degeneration of capitalist disorder...
Even now, a year later, I continue to receive publications from Europe, from South Africa, from the Far East, China and Japan, from India and Australia and South America, carrying the same message to all the exploited workers in all parts of the world. Can Mr. Todd and Mr. Robertson ever calculate the number of exploited and oppressed proletarians who, thanks to their good offices, have been taught that in the opinion of the very overlords of America there is only one solution to the problems of hunger, unemployment, war, and all the cruel stages of capitalist crisis, and that this solution bears the name of Lenin?
The attack on the portrait of Lenin was merely a pretext to destroy the entire Rockefeller Center fresco. In reality, the whole mural was displeasing to the bourgeoisie. Chemical warfare, typified by hordes of masked soldiers in the uniforms of Hitlerized Germany; unemployment, the result of the crisis; the degeneration and persistent pleasures of the rich in the midst of the atrocious sufferings of the exploited toilers-all these symbolized the capitalist world on one of the crossed roads. On the other road, the organized Soviet masses, with their youth in the vanguard, are marching towards the development of a new social order, trusting in the light of History, in the clear, rational, omnipotent method of dialectical materialism, strong in their productive collectivization and in their efforts for the abolition of social classes by means of the necessary and logical proletarian dictatorship, result of the social revolution. This was expressed without demagogy or fantasy, with a simple objective painting of one of those marvelous mass demonstrations in the Red Square, under the shadow of the Kremlin and the Tomb of Lenin, which year after year give to the entire world an unequalled spectacle which makes visible and tangible the revolutionary march of the 16o,ooo,ooo inhabitants of the Soviet Union towards a better world. That road, too, is painful, hard, and filled with difficulties, but it leads ever forward, despite all the political vicissitudes inevitable in any revolutionary movement, to a more logical, juster, and more efficient human society, towards that time in which the period of "prehistory" will come to its end and, with the beginning of Communism, true human history will begin.
In the painting, Lenin, the Leader, unites in a gesture of permanent peace the hands of the soldier, the Negro farmer, and the white worker, while in the background the mass of workers with their fists held high affirm the will to sustain this fact; in the foreground, a pair of young lovers and a mother nursing her newborn child see in the realization of Lenin's vision the sole possibility of living, growing, and reproducing in love and peace. In the center, Man, the intelligent and producing skilled worker, controls vital energy and captures it for his own uses through the machine and by means of his knowledge of the life of the vast inter-stellar spaces and of the immensity of microbiologic space; while the mechanized hand, symbol of human power in action, grasps within its fingers the vital sphere--atoms and the cell, which are the essential reality of all life.
Two enormous lenses placed at the sides magnify these central elements of the composition for the eyes of the students and workers ranged in seated groups on each side of the main panel; these groups are made up of international types--Anglo-Saxons, Germans, Latins, Scandinavians, Indians, Jews, and Negroes--thus expressing the reality of the population of this continent, a continent peopled by numerous delegations of all the races of humanity, to realize in the future the synthetic human compound divested of racial hates, jealousies, and antagonisms, the synthesis that will give birth to intelligent and producing Man, master, at last, of the earth, and enjoying it in the high knowledge of creative energy and without the exploitation of his fellows.
"Too realistic," I was told. I can well believe it! That is why it did not suit the owners of the building. Had it not been realistic it would not have annoyed them; unable to deny the too evident reality of every day and hour, they hypocritically cover it with a veil.
"We were expecting that, in accordance with the theme, the work would be highly imaginative." Naturally! Thus you could have admitted everything in the name of "art," that mysterious prostitute which, unfortunately, has not for you the same meaning that it had for the Greeks, but is merely a curtain of fog, a luxurious and ridiculous robe behind which you can hide the disgusting sores of your decayed capitalist regime; of a piece with opium, cocaine, religion, and stupefying beverages, with which to drug and destroy, if possible, the intelligence and virility of men, to exploit them more easily as slaves so long as they are docile, and kill them like cattle in the slaughter house when it suits your interests...
A few months later, Mr. Frank Brangwyn, who had been chosen to fill the walls originally intended for Matisse in the same building, found. himself threatened with a conflict for having included the figure of Christ in his mural of the Sermon on the Mount. This time, the owners of the building, it appeared, did not consider that the atmosphere of a commercial enterprise was a fit environment for the Savior. The always curious newspaper men again sought me out to inquire my opinion of the new controversy. I answered that it was a manifestation of certain laws of history that in 1933, the nineteen hundredth anniversary of the expulsion of the money changers from the Temple by Jesus of Nazareth, the money changers should now be taking a belated revenge by expelling Jesus from their own Temple.
Unfortunately, the Brangwyn incident never attained great proportions, which is a pity, for it had elements of real comedy. When his mural illustration in oil of the Sermon on the Mount was pasted on the wall, Christ appeared with his back turned to the public, and the capitalists, like good Christians, not having to look the Lord in the face, were probably satisfied with this ingenious solution.
With the Rockefeller money (that is to say, with the money extorted from the workers by the Rockefeller exploiters), I painted a series of twenty-one panels in fresco in the New Workers' School of New York. The Rockefellers thought to prevent my talking to the people by destroying the fresco in their Center. In reality, they succeeded only in clarifying, intensifying, and multiplying my expression,
I shall not speak at length here of that series of panels, which is the first affirmative outline of the Portrait of America which I have begun to paint. They are, moreover, fully explained by the text which my friend and. comrade, Bertram D. Wolfe, Director of the New Workers' School, with whose collaboration the series was planned and carried out, has contributed to this book. I painted them for the workers of New York, and for the first time in my life, I worked among "my own"; for the first time, I, painted on a wall which belonged to the workers, not because they own the building in which their school has its quarters, but because the frescoes are built- on movable panels which can be transported with them to any place where their school and headquarters may be called to move. They all helped in the work, and there, in the modest premises of an old and dirty building in 14th 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. The work lasted six months. I did all that 1 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, the best constructed, the most correct in historical dialectic, the richest in materialistic synthesis, and, moreover, informed with the greatest enthusiasm and love that I am capable of feeling.
For these reasons, I offered them to the workers of New York and asked the comrades of the New Workers' School to be their depositories. They, and many thousand others, were happy in the arrangement, and they notified me that, in the name of the producing masses of the United States, they were naming me the first "People's Artist" of America. In other words, they socialized me, as is done in Russia with those intellectuals who are considered useful to the community at large. And so America, the true, producing America, paid me in advance this splendid price for the portrait which I am just beginning.
I hope that this portrait may be in some small degree useful to a few hundreds, or thousands, or as many as possible, of the millions of workers who, in the near future, will carry out the formidable task of transforming, by means of revolutionary struggle and proletarian dictatorship, the marvelous industry of the super-capitalist country into the basic machinery for the splendid functioning of the Union of Socialistic Soviet Republics of the American Continent.