May 11, 1933
An artist scorned, Diego Rivera spilled out his fury yesterday against the 'little group of commercial minded people" who fired him on Tuesday night from his ambitious task of decorating the main lobby of the seventytwo story RCA Building in Rockefeller Center with a mammoth fresco. With keen and stubborn class consciousness, the foremost Mexican artist announced that he would never give in to the demand of the Rockefeller interests that the head of Lenin be removed from one of the panels of the mural.
"I shall sustain to the uttermost limit," he remarked last night, "my right to conclude my work without any modification whatsoever imposed by the power of wealth. And I shall fight for the completion, reproduction and exhibition of my work. Afterward they can do with it what they will"
Will Not Go to Court
Senor Rivera, scanning this capitalist city at twilight from his comfortable apartment on the thirty-fifth floor of the Barbizon-Plaza, seemed a little uncertain as to just how he would wage his fight. Of one thing he was sure he wouldn't go to court, not ever, no matter what happened. The artist from below the Rio Grande took the view that the issue was a moral one. The law leaves him cold, and its courts, he looks upon, with his proletarian eye, as bourgeois institutions.
While the tempest in a paint pot blew all day across the city, rousing artists and scientist and plain citizens who don't know much about art but who know that they dislike to becoming partisans in the new controversy, the Rockefellers kept cool, aloof, and silent. Their workmen had put up a huge screen of lumber and tar paper across the Rivera murals within a few hours of the moment when he was ordered down from his scaffold and given $14,000 Monday night, thereby receiving full payment on his $21,000 contract. The screen completely hides the mural, which is sixty-three feet in length and seventeen feet high. The frescoes would require only about two weeks more work by Senor Rivera and his seven assistants to complete the artist said.
Fate of Work Is Uncertain
What the Rockefellers are going to do with it in the event that the break with Rivera is final, there was no inkling whatever. At the office of Nelson A. Rockefeller, son of John D. Rockefeller Jr., who first asked the artist to substitute the face of "some unknown man where Lenin's face now appears," it was said that Mr. Rockefeller had nothing more to say, on the subject, at least for the time being. Unofficially, it was said yesterday by those in close relations with the Rockefeller interests that there was no intention to remove or paint over the Rivera frescoes; that these, however would remain screened indefinitely.
To remove them would present tremendous difficulties, for the artist works on wet plaster into which, when it dries, the paint becomes impregnated to a considerable depth. To get rid of the fresco would mean getting rid of about four tons of wall and building.
Senor Rivera conceded that he had he not mentioned any intention to put Lenin on the walls of Rockefeller Center when he sketched his mural for those who Commissioned him. His sketch had merely shown "a leader" clasping hands with two workmen.
"I am a worker," he said last night, "and for me Lenin is the only leader. When I think of a leader I think of him."
"It is not a portrait," he went on.
"But it is an excellent likeness of Lenin," an interviewer remarked.
"Perhaps that is because I am a good painter," the Mexican said, his soft, plump face breaking into a smile.
There were many other characters besides "the leader" in his Rockefeller Center mural, a questioner spoke up. Was any particular person portrayed in any of these others? Senor Rivera conceded that Lenin's was the only likeness of any prominent person to be found in the frescoes, though, of course, he had used models in his work.
"Suppose you were going to depict a capitalist instead of a leader, would any particular capitalist come to your mind?" he was asked.
"Oh, I have painted capitalists," he said. The question was repreated and his second reply was that "capitalists are not leaders."
He had intended, as had been his custom to devote the hours of Tuesday night to working on the mural, but, instead, he went to see his lawyer, Philip Wittenberg of 70 West Fortieth Street, when he was called off his job.
Has Knotty Problem
Yesterday morning he though about going to court, perhaps to get out an injunction to restrain the Rockefellers from removing or erasing or even shielding his frescoes, perhaps to try to establish a right to go on with the task. It was, lawyers admitted, a pretty problem, a nice question to be settled, something new in American law. Had an artist a sort of "continuing ownership" in his art even though someone else bought it? Mr. Wittenberg was inclined to say that in such a contract as that made with Rivera by the Rockefellers there was sort of an "implied covenant" that the artist's work would be exhibited. He was obviously tempted to go to court and find out what the judiciary would have to say about that, for it would probably establish a precedent, whatever the ruling. But later, after he had talked with the artist in his office for an hour at midday, Mr. Wittenberg said he wasn't going to do anything unless the other side did something. For the time being, if Rivera's work remained untouched, he would just sit tight.
"It is not a legal question," Rivera kept insisting, "It is a moral question. They have violated two fundamental elementary rights--the right of an 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.
"I am not a propagandist. I am an expressionist--giving expression to modern trends in social life, wherever it is found, in America, in Russia, under the microscope, up among the stars. I am the one who is truthful. They are the ones who are hypocrites.
"I'll show you how much truth there is in their arguments. In the first place, they knew it was to be a fresco--a painting that becomes itself a part of the very wall and which cannot be removed from it.
"In the second place, they accepted my sketches, knew of my plan, had full knowledge of the ideas I was to develop. Third, they knew of my personal character and ideals; they knew that I consider myself one of the working class. And they knew that I desired to portray existent life--not life as they would wish it to be portrayed.
"Yet, knowing all that, they permit me to proceed with the work until it is nearly completed. They permit my fellow workers to labor with me until they suddenly discover somewhere in the picture the face of Lenin. Then that becomes the excuse to cover my work. It is not my painmting, but it is that man Lenin, which makes the work propaganda.
Expounds His Theories
Last night Senor Rivera expounded his credo of art as the handmaiden of utility and of social forces and concepts at a dinner of the Menorah Artists and Writers' Committee at the Hotel Park Crescent, Riverside Drive and Eighty-Seventh Street. Although he did not directly identify his remarks as referring to Rockefeller Center, applause was liberal at such remarks as: "The role of the artist is to condense in himself all social conditions and put them in such a form, against all opposition of whatever interests there may be, as to show them plainly to the whole world."
Miss Anita Brenner, writer on Mexican and Latin America, interpreted Senor Rivera's address, which was in Spanish. At times the artist became so engrossed that he went on for two or three hundred words without giving Miss Brenner an opportunity of translating. Senor Rivera made the concession to bourgeois forms of appearing at the dinner in a dinner coat.
"The artist," he said, "is merely the result and expression of his social milieu. The architect is, historically, by derivation, the chief workman on a job. When he ceases to be this, he becomes a go-between, between the man with the money and the engineer. So naturally, today, architecture and painting have the appearance and character, precisely, of something done by a go-between.
"Architecture in New York has as its object the exploitation of real estate values and this misfortune is due to the fact that the whole problem is to make something which is cheap worth a great deal. Steel skeletons are cheap but, in order to make the building expensives, architects add plaster or paris and papier-mache styles long since dead which they drag out of the gutter. This architecture and this painting is nothing but a representation of the ethics of our own capitalistic society."
A Rivera committee of artists and scientists was organized yesterday by Walter Pach, author of "Ananias, or the False Artists," and Miss Suzanne La Follette, author of "Art in America," and a former editor of "The New Freeman." Their committee will meet tonight at Miss La Follette's home, 22 East Tenth Street.
While art was bubbling so hot at the top of the publicity pot, a group of well known American artists announced the formation of the Advance American Art Commission which intends 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 is superior" to the home product. The governing board of the new association, which is to launch its campaign at a dinner at the Roosevelt on May 18 is composed of Dewitt 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.