To read the newspapers, one might think that this was actually a battle between John D. Rockefeller Sr. and Diego Rivera. In reality the roots of the row went much deeper. As evidenced by the deluge of press that this incident received, it is clear that many parties had a vested interest in the confrontation. Ultimately, this was not a war over a controversial figure in a mural; it was not even a war between Rivera and Rockefeller. The “Battle of Rockefeller Center” was actually a manifestation of the larger controversies transpiring in this era, a battle that pitted not only Capitalists versus Socialists, but artists versus artists, radicals versus radicals, and Americans versus Americans.
The majority of headlines
named “Rockefeller” as the persecutor of Rivera’s art; one
had to read the fine print to find out which Rockefeller was being referred
to. Nelson Rockefeller, son of John D. Rockefeller Jr., was executive vice president
of Rockefeller Center, but the commission for Rivera was extended from Raymond
Hood, architect of Rockefeller Center, admittedly at the urging of Nelson and
his mother Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.
It was Nelson who wrote the first letter to Rivera expressing concern over the head of Lenin and requesting a replacement, but according to several Nelson Rockefeller biographies, after Rivera’s refusal, the matter was taken out of Nelson’s hands and transferred to Hugh Robertson of Todd, Robertson & Todd, the managing agents of Rockefeller Center. Although it was not Nelson who ultimately called Rivera off the scaffold, it was he who was identified in the press as the bad guy, but only because of his last name.
Nelson—-when his first name is actually used—-is almost always referred to as “Nelson Rockefeller, son of John D. Rockefeller Jr.” Many articles name “the Rockefeller family” (Times May 12, 1933), “the Rockefellers” and “Mr. Rockefeller” (NY Herald May 11), to clearly allow for the ambiguity about which member of the family they are referring to. The Los Angeles Times even went so far as to print, “John D. Rockefeller Jr. personally appeared last night to order Rivera to cease his work” (May 11). The truth of the matter is, Junior—-to whom the wall actually belonged-—was far removed from the incident, claiming no responsibility and making no comment for or against the mural.
Perhaps this need to name “Rockefeller” as oppressor stems from the desire of the American public to find a scapegoat for the economic collapse after the Great Crash. In many minds, this scapegoat was formed by the “three B’s”—-brokers, bankers, and businessmen. This current censorship could simply be another item on the list of atrocities performed by yet another “Robber Baron.” This disapproving term was used to describe late-nineteenth-century industrialists, including Andrew Carnegie and Carnegie Steel, Cornelius and William Vanderbilt and their railroads, and of course, John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil. Interestingly, this phrase gained widespread popularity as the title of Matthew Josephson’s The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists 1861-1901, published in 1934—
Much like the Crash of 1929, a major economic reversal had occurred in the fall of 1873. The signal event was the failure of Jay Cooke and Company, the country’s preeminent investment banking concern. Cooke’s fall touched off a chain of events that engulfed the entire nation. The New York Stock Exchange was closed for 10 days, credit dried up, banks failed, and factories closed their doors costing thousands of workers’ jobs.
Cooke could not be considered the sole culprit; the causes were much broader. Like the 1920’s, the postwar period following the Civil War was one of frenzied, unregulated growth, with the government playing no role in curbing abuses. More than any other single event, the extreme overbuilding of the nation’s railroad system laid the groundwork of the Panic of 1873 and the depression that followed. In addition to the ruined fortunes of many Americans, a bitter antagonism between workers and the banking and manufacturing leaders developed from the Panic of 1873. This tension would erupt into the labor unrest that marked the following decades, culminating in the Pullman Strike of 1894. During the Great Depression, the country waited to see if a huge labor revolt would take place. There were many instances of labor unrest and strikes that turned violent, including the Bonus Army March in Washington in the summer of 1932, but ultimately the great Revolution never occurred.
According to Alan Trachtenberg, the violence of 1877 spurred a cultural boom in towns and cities across the country (Incorporation of America, 71), and indeed the period from 1870-1900 is referred to as “The American Renaissance.” Art began to show the ordinary activity of ordinary people; to celebrate “the essence of art”-—realistic style, but idealized subject; and to state its purpose as reform, education and inspiration. During this transitional period, artists and writers sought to liberate themselves from the constraints and conventions of Victorian Society (Baigell, 13).
The Modernist Movement—-of which Rivera was a member—-spurred directly from this American Renaissance. Modernism exploded onto the international scene in the aftermath of The Great War, a traumatic transcontinental event that psychologically disillusioned the West in an unprecedented way. A prominent feature of this movement was its emulation of European modernism, the effort “make it new” through radical innovation. They set out to violate conventions— not only of art but also of society,— treating controversial subject matter and using unconventional artistic techniques all with the objective of challenging the norms of the dominant bourgeois culture (Baigell, 18). And one can clearly see these themes in Rivera’s own works.
But during the exhibition season of 1930-31, hostility to the forms and content of European modernism surfaced. The Depression led many artists to forsake these radical experiments for realistic styles and easily understood often nationalistic subject matter. Paintings by Americans portraying American themes were praised at the expense of European-inspired artists. What had earlier been viewed as a contest between traditional and modernist styles had very quickly become a battle between American and European art. This marked the growth of the “American Scene” movement, a movement marked by the importance of social realism: the imperatives of place, politics, social change, and history (Baigell, 19). Again, although these are also themes apparent in the works of Diego Rivera but Diego Rivera was not American.
This problem had lain at the heart of the initial controversy over the commissioning of Rivera to paint the Rockefeller Center murals. Before Rivera was officially commissioned, fifty art students in the New School for Social Research protested the hiring of “alien” artists, saying:
The commissioning of any foreign artists to paint murals for an American building is inconsistent with the achievement of total harmony between form, function, decoration, and use. Such a course is unnecessary on the ground of the quality and equipment of any foreign artist since we have artists as well equipped to interpret American life and build an interpretation into an architectural design as any nation, and much better equipped than are Sert or Rivera (New York Times January 20, 1932).
After Rivera’s firing, a group of “well know American artists” formed the Advance American Art Commission, whose intent was “to let the country know that American artists are incensed by the ‘foreign invasion’ and the public’s acceptance of the ‘belief that foreign art was superior’ to the home product” (New York Herald Tribune May 11, 1933). Alon Bement, director of the National Alliance of Art and Industry, was “disappointed that so great an artist as Rivera should have been willing to relinquish his fine standing as a mural painter and condescend to become a mere propagandist.” (New York Times May 11, 1933). F. Ballard Williams, national chairman of the American Artists Professional League, called the incident “one more regrettable instance of our tendency to pursue the lure of foreign names, too often, as it has happened, to our uncalled-for disadvantage and took often as an affront to our own dignity and attainment” (New York Times May 13, 1933). Edwin Blashfield, dean of American Mural Painters, expressed approval of Rivera’s dismissal, saying “if Rivera’s art expressed opposition to the American Government, it should not be tolerated by the American people” (New York Times May 22, 1933). And Harry Watrous, president of the National Academy of Design, expressed the opinion that for artists to speak of the destruction of the Rivera mural as a crime against art was “poppycock” (New York Times February 14, 1934). In his autobiography, Rivera referred to these artists as “chauvinistic second-raters who would have substituted a national-origin standard for that of artistic excellence, and who applauded Rockefeller’s act of vandalism.” But these artists were not alone in their criticism of Rivera.
There were letters and protests against Rivera on the part of the Americanists in art and politics, the clergy, and the lmore energetic anti-communists. The New York American wrote, “If the penalty seems harsh to [Rivera] and his doctrinaire sympathizers, let him bless is lucky stars that it happened in America. He has his liberty and received his pay in full. In Russia, had he exercised a questionable liberty contrary to the sentiments of the ‘governing classes,’ the Cheka would have had him in prison before now and probably on the road to Siberia” (qtd. in Art Digest May 15, 1933). The New York Times questioned why Rivera painted his anti-capitalist images in the Rockefeller Center building that housed “the all the foundations and activities by which the Rockefeller fortune is distributed in manifold benefactions,” arguing that it “put Lenin in the position of hating most the good side of capitalism” (May 16, 1933). Even the humorist Will Rogers was rooting against Rivera:
I string with Rockefeller. This artist was selling some art and sneaking in some propaganda. Rockefeller had ordered a plain ham sandwich, but the cook put some onions on it. Rockefeller says, ‘I will pay you for it, but I won’t eat the onions.’ Now the above is said in no disparagement of the Mexican artist, for he is the best in the world, but you should never try to fool a Rockefeller in oil (Art Digest May 15, 1933).
From the beginning, the main supporters of Rivera’s cause were the members of the Society of Independent Artists under the direction of John Sloan. Its members formed a committee of artists, writers, students, and scientists presided over by art author and artist, Walter Pach to defend Rivera . Rivera was also supported by the The Lovestoneites—the Right Opposition expelled from the American Communist Party in 1929—residing at the New Worker’s School headed by Rivera biographer Bertram D. Wolfe. These groups picketed Rockefeller Center and the family mansion and wrote signed petitions of protest to Rockefeller. A group of writers, sculptors, and painters in Santa Fe and Taos planned a protest. After the destruction of the mural in February 1934, the American Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers decided to withdrawal from the Municipal Art Show that was going to be held in the Rockefeller Center from February 28 through March, issuing this explanatory statement:
This is not to be interpreted as a protest in sympathy with Rivera’s work or communistic propaganda, but it is a definite protest against the indignity placed upon living artists by the arbitrary action of a corporation in destroying a work of art without previously consulting the artist” (New York Times February 15, 1934).
Ironically, the Society of Independent Artists-—Rivera’s strongest supporters—-decided that they would hold their exhibition in the Rockefeller Center, explaining
In taking this action we feel that we are following the wishes of the majority of our members. The directors, however, hereby register their protest against the recent destruction of the Diego Rivera mural by the authorities of Rockefeller Center […] Mr. [John] Sloan expressed the opinion that if the directors had acted on their personal preferences, they would have declined to hold the show in Rockefeller Center, but that they felt they had no right to disregard the interests of the many members of the organization that might suffer in case the show were canceled […] Mr. Sloan said that as President of the Independents, he would disregard his personal feelings and exhibit in the show although he would not send any of his work to the forthcoming Municipal Art Show (New York Times February 15, 1934).
Paradoxically, full support for Rivera did not come from the American Left—-generally opposed to all things capitalist. Mirroring the division of the Left in general. The Communist Party agreed with Rivera’s political views while refusing to support the artist personally; the dissident Communists—including the Trotskyites and the Lovestoneites—reacted in an exactly opposite manner.
On May 14, 1933, “radical groups” organized a “unified front committee” to protest the veiling of Rivera’s murals, yet booed and hissed one another before uniting in a plan of action. Speakers and sympathizers of the John Reed Club, a Communist organization that had long borne Rivera a grudge for “selling out” conceded to protesting against “Rockefeller vandalism,” but refused to yield to a clause preventing “recrimination” as to “certain actions of Rivera.”
As Rivera later wrote in his autobiography, “oddly enough, Communist leaders such as Robert Minor, Sidney Bloomfield, and my old friend Joe Freeman, editor of The New Masses, denounced the work as ‘reactionary’ and ‘counterrevolutionary’ and condemned me for having betrayed the masses by painting in capitalistic buildings!” Robert Minor, writing in The Daily Worker called Rivera “Morgan’s artist, Rockefeller’s artist, Ford’s artist, where once he had been the Mexican workers’ and peasants’ artist,” and claimed that, by “painting for Rockefeller, [Rivera] had deserted the Communist party.” In all truthfulness, the party had essentially deserted Rockefeller when it kicked him out in 1929, but the sentiment remains.
The Communist controversy over Rivera in America began well before the Rockefeller Center incident. In February of 1932, Joseph Freeman wrote an article in The New Masses under the pseudonym of Robert Evans entitled, “Painting and Politics: The Case of Diego Rivera.” In the article, Freeman explains the conditions surrounding Rivera’s expulsion from the Mexican Communist Party, claiming that in the midst of the Communist Party’s struggle against the Mexican government’s attacks on the Party, Rivera accepted a government post as head of the National School of Fine Arts. At this point, Freeman wrote, Rivera’s art took a marked change as he moved from painting the revolution to painting “national art,” specifically pointing to Rivera’s mural in the National Palace. Freeman argued that Rivera changed the original design from a woman holding a worker and a peasant in her arms to a woman holding harmless grapes and mangoes. This idea was contested by E.B. White in an article entitled “A Shameless Fraud” in the Rivera Supplement of The Workers Age. The supplement included Rivera’s National Palace sketch and the finished mural to show that Freeman’s accusations were false. However, White also felt it necessary to add:
We do not wish to discuss here Rivera as a political figure. With his political line we are not in agreement. But we recognize him as one of the world’s greatest artists, producing revolutionary art which speaks directly to the masses and furthers the cause of Communism art which, when our cause has triumphed, will live on as precious heritage of classless humanity.
Like the head of Lenin, grapes and mangoes are not ultimately at the heart of this debate. Rivera’s anti-capitalist vision was one embraced by all factions of the American Left. His paintings served as billboards for Leftist ideals—which would normally be approved by the Communist Party—but the problem was the location of billboard. Essentially, the Communist Party was angry about what they saw to be Rivera’s “selling out” and consequently using the label “communist” to his benefit. Rivera portrayed himself as a victim, claiming, “the official Communist party has expelled me from membership, and now the conservative element attacks me… I paint what I see” but yet he “frankly admits that his sympathies are communist” (New York Times May 11, 1933). Rivera’s use of the Communist label was also a problem because he was actually a Trotskyist. The Trotskyists viewed themselves as a Left opposition to official Communism and favored a return to the original Leninist regime, which they believed was more internally democratic and internationally revolutionary (Encyclopedia of the American Left, 828). Rivera was therefore a member of one of many factions with the left, many of which claimed to represent true Communism.
In this light, it is easy to see why the John Reed Club of New York called Rivera “a renegade and a counter-revolutionist, who since 1929 has deliberately and without hesitation used the influence he obtained as a Communist and working-class leader to play the game of Wall Street and its Fascist Government in Mexico” (New Masses February 1932). Freeman questions how Rivera can:
explain that now, when the American bourgeoisie coddles and lionizes him, he should find it necessary to seek out the John Reed Club in New York, there to attempt some kind of justification of himself, to proclaim himself still a revolutionary painter and a communist, to revive his old slogan that only the revolution can inspire great art? Was he seeking publicity? Is there, perhaps a streak of the mountebank in the artist who, calling himself a Trotzkyite, at the same time flirts with the Communist Party? (New Masses February 1932).
This seems highly plausible, especially when paired with an entry in the diary of Rivera’s assistant, Lucienne Bloch’:
April 8…Today he sure loosened up! He’s on the right side of the wall painting communism, with women in kerchiefs singing, and red flags all over—and they’re RED…Diego had been expelled from the Communist party three years earlier for refusing to toe the line. He wanted desperately to return to the fold, but on his own terms, so it is to prove to them that he is not afraid of any capitalists that he paints the Moscow May Day with gusto and with plenty of Venetian red (Kert, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller).
condemns Rivera, but Rivera himself understood his situation. He recognized
that he would be criticized for painting for the Fords and the Rockefellers when he asked Bertram Wolfe, “what would the Party say about my being a painter
for millionaires?” (A Life, 603). Rivera knew the answer to his
own question. In seems that he painted May Day and Vladimir Lenin as defenses against the inevitable
WHO OWNS AMERICA?