Diego Rivera is in the limelight again. With the smoke of the Detroit controversy scarcely settled, the powers that rule Rockefeller Center called the noted Mexican muralist from his scaffold in the RCA Building, where he was putting the finishing touches to his vast picture, handed him a check for the balance of his contract (making $21,000 in all), and dismissed him much after the manner of an ordinary proletarian. Once more Rivera had caused a tempest in art circles and given the hard working city editors valuable "copy".
The immediate cause of the dismissal, as stated in the press, was Rivera's refusal to acceed to Nelson A. Rockefeller's request that he remove Lenin's head from the fresco because it "might very easily seriously offend a great many people". Lenin, represented as the "great leader", is shown joining the hands of a soldier, a worker and a Negro. From other sources, however, it became known that the artist's entire conception was objected to because of its communistic theme, although the original sketches had been accepted; and it was declared that the vivid colors of the painting did not harmonize with the other decorations. It will be remembered that two other foreign artists were commissioned to furnish murals for the huge hall--Jose Maria Sert of Spain and Frank Brangwyn of England. Serf's decorations have already been installed, while Brangwyn's have been delayed by the artist's illness. The title of Rivera's mural had been announced as "Human Intelligence in Possession of the Forces of Nature".
The New York dismissal was not the end of Rivera's troubles. Another blow was to fall. Three days after the Rockefeller dismissal he received a telegram informing him of the cancellation of his commission to paint another huge mural on the walls of the General Motors Building at the Century of Progress Exposition. The telegram, signed by Albert Kahn, architect for the automobile corporation, said: "I have instructions from General Motors executives to discontinue with the Chicago mural. This is undoubtedly due to the notoriety created by the Radio City situation. Am terribly disappointed and will still do my best to get permission for you to proceed." The Chicago mural, according to Rivera, was not to be controversial but was to portray only the beauty and utility of machinery.
Rivera, who has at various times contended that art which is not propaganda is not art at all, stated that the Rockefeller Center trouble is "not a legal question". It is a moral question. They have violated two fundamental, elementary rights--the right of the artist to create, to express himself, and the right to receive the judgment of the world, of posterity.
"They have no right, this little group of commercial-minded people, to assassinate my work and that of my colleagues, and if they veil it, cover it with tar paper as they have done, that is as much assassination as its complete destruction would be".
The New York American hit editorially at the Communistic angle of the controversy: "American murals of semi-public character, if the very highest principles of decorative art are to be subserved, ought to represent in some way the American spirit, if not the American scene. But there is certainly nothing American about Communism, which Senor Rivera chose to celebrate in his design, and not even a flaming Red would pretend that Lenin belongs in the Pantheon of American heroes".
"The finale of it all is that Don Rivera has lost his Rockefeller job for presuming to make a Communist cartoon out of what was intended to be idealistic and beautiful".
"If the penalty seems harsh to him and his doctrinaire sympathizers, let him bless his 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".
Meanwhile individuals and groups have hastened to take sides. The Communist party charged that the dismissal of Rivera was an atrocity of the same magnitude with "the vicious deeds of Hitler". Demonstrations in protest before the building were broken up by the police. A group of artists met in the studio of Suzanne La Follette to discuss ways and means.
On the other side the newly organized Advance American Art Commission, composed of a group of well-known American artists, issued the following statement: "Mr. Rockefeller is to be commended on his action in discharging Rivera in defense of the right of the American people to their beliefs and form of government; but the Advance American Art Commision feels that this incident illustrates the error in bringing foreign artists to this country, particularly when American artists are as great as any foreigner and when the rest of the world excludes American artists". The commission's governing board is composed of De Witt M. Lockman, George Elmer Browne, Leopold Seyffert, Dean Cornwell, Louis Betts, Wayman Adams, Ulric Ellerhusen, Joseph Schlaikjer, Sidney Dickinson, Eugene Savage, Robert Aitken and John Taylor Arms.
It has been reported on good authority that a prominent American artist will be engaged to paint a "mural to be hung over the Rivera frescoes.
If the decisions of both General Motors and the Rockefeller interests are final, Rivera says he will remain in New York and spend the money already paid him in painting murals, free of charge, for the Rand School, the International School of Workers and the New Workers School. The New York Herald Tribune points out that this would give him perfect liberty to express any class feeling he may desire.
All doubt of the orthodoxy of Rivera's communism was dispelled at the protest meeting in the Town Hall auditorium, where he led the singing of the "Internationale", was saluted as "Comrade Rivera" and expounded a wholehearted defense of art for propaganda purposes as a weapon of the worker against the capitalistic class. "Art", he said, "is not what the decadent bourgeois say it is--inspired, coming from above, to be enjoyed in leisure. Art is the life blood of a people".
Throwing down the gauntlet to the Fords and the Rockefellers, the artist spoke of his entry into the United States. "I had to come in as a spy, in disguise", he was quoted as saying in the New York Herald Tribune. "At first I kept my principles in the background. Then, as they came to me more and more, my ideas became clearer in my work. Finally, in the murals in Detroit, I expressed by true analysis life in an industrial country". Proof that it was a "true analysis", he said, was found in the fact that the bourgeoisie immediately attacked it and the proletariat as readily rose to defend it.
Speaking of the Rockefeller fresco, he said: "I could not have painted any man but Lenin as that leader, but then they would have fired me anyhow--for that fresco was the first collected work of art expressing the unity of science and art, and expressing the feelings and philosophy of the proletariat. And someday when you workers take your proper place and that building assumes its proper function, it will be revealed.
Will Rogers, America's humorist, writing in his special department of the New York Times, summed up the affair in his own characteristic way. "I string with Rockefeller", he said. "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".