In addition to giving numerous interviews to the press, Rivera recorded his version of the dispute several times, . His earliest full interpretation was a June 15 article in The Workers Age, followed by The London Studio in July of 1933, and a section of his book Portrait of America (February 1934), dedicated to the incident. In 1939, Rivera recorded his story with his “friend and comrade” Bertram D. Wolfe for the “Battle of Rockefeller Center” chapter of Wolfe’s biography, Diego Rivera: His Life and Times. Finally, Rivera told the tale twenty-five years after the incident in his autobiography My Art, My Life (1960).
Not only are there discrepancies among them, but examinatin of what Rivera left in and took out of his description is also extremely telling. For example, in My Art, My Life, Rivera mentions that he refused to paint the Rockefeller mural when he heard that “two inferior painters, Frank Brangwyn and Jose Maria Sert, had been given the walls previously offered to Picasso and Matisse.” In Portrait of America, he writes that, “Since they were unable to secure the work of these two good painters, the management thereupon engaged Jose Maria Sert and Frank Brangwyn.” And Bertram Wolfe went so far as to say that Rivera had “contempt for the work of both of them” (Diego Rivera: His Life and Times). However, in Rivera’s article in The London Studio, his “contempt” for the two painters is omitted, perhaps because Brangwyn was a British painter.
The question of Rivera’s original sketches becomes an important one in determining who was “right” and “wrong” in the incident. In The Workers Age article, he writes, “it was in my sketch and on the wall in outline for over a month.” In My Art, My Life he includes an explanation of his refusal to paint out the head of Lenin, “I pointed out that a figure of Lenin had appeared in my earliest sketches submitted to Raymond Hood.” However, an examination of the sketches as they accompanied Rivera’s article in The London Studio, shows that the leader to which Rivera refers wears a cap and bears little resemblance to Vladimir Lenin. According to the notebooks of Rivera’s assistant, Lucienne Bloch, Rivera asked his assistants to procure a portrait of Lenin on April 28. And the letter that Rivera wrote to Nelson Rockefeller on May 6 unknowingly admits that his sketches were unclear:
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 leader appears, giving it a less real physical place.
Of course the Rockefeller management team would accept a sketch of an “abstract leader,” one that bore absolutely no resemblance to Lenin. How were they to know, that “as usual, he was to modify and clarify his project as he ‘thought with his hand’ upon the wall”? (Wolfe, Diego Rivera: His Life and Times). According to Rivera, they should have know because they:
were perfectly familiar with my personality as artist and man 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 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 (Wolfe).
It is true that while the sketch contained no political iconography, the detailed description of Rivera’s intent is filled with Communist imagery. His description of the section in question is as follows:
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…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.
This description verifies Hugh Robertson’s assertion that there had been “not the slightest inclination either in the description or the sketch,” of the appearance of Lenin. There is no mention of a “leader” in general, let alone Vladimir Lenin.
Perhaps the most interesting of Rivera’s omissions when retelling the story is the exclusion of his relationship with Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Among the barrage of insults Rivera hurled at the Rockefeller Center management, there is a lonely sentence in a May 11 article of The New York Times that reads, “both he and his wife expressed the opinion that members of the Rockefeller family, who had been friendly to them, would regret the stoppage of his work.” Rivera’s only referral to Abby in his own writing was to say, “Two members of the owners’ family…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.” (Portrait of America). In reality, Rivera’s association with Abby was a lot deeper than he let on.
During the months that Rivera was working on his exhibition at MoMA, Abby became something of a friend to him, as well as a patron, and somewhat of a maternal figure to Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo. Diego and Frida visited the Rockefeller home, and Frida and Abby maintained a friendship through frequent correspondence. In a letter dated January 22, 1932, Frida wrote Abby from her hotel room at the Barbizon-Plaza: “Diego sends his love to you… Many kisses from Frieda Rivera. Pleaze excuse my terrible English.” A few days later she wrote again, “Diego misses very much your daughter’s baby [Abby Milton] and he told me he loves her more than me…He is very glad you and Mr. Rockefeller liked his drawings of Mrs. Milton and he thanks you” (Kert, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller).
In light of these revelations, Rivera’s actions seem almost like a betrayal. Abby had invited him to New York, patronized his art, and had a hand in securing for him his RCA building commission, only for Rivera to drag her family’s name through the mud in the media. But these were not the only players involved in this battle, and it was not fought in a vacuum. It is unfair to indict any participant without taking a look first at the larger picture.
IN THIS CORNER