April 2, 1933
By Anita Brenner
DIEGO Rivera is again the center of a raging controversy, and his new job at the RCA Building in the Rockefeller Center is likely to prove another. For the story of his life and the story of his work is a story of controversies, in which, like Bernard Shaw, he accumulates scalps and glory, and, as with Shaw, time skewers his dragon and blurs the issue.
To hundreds and perhaps thousands of people Rivera has become a Cause and they an army of defense. New converts entering the ranks via platforms, radio broadcasts and the printed page swell the excited crowds that push daily into the court of the Detroit Art Institute, where the Rivera murals, now under fire, are to be seen. All beholders are roused by this work to some intensity of emotion and too much vociferation; so that if words were bullets these walls would now be plowed beyond recognition, but there would have been considerable slaughter first.
The age of science which he is to forecast and glorify on the main wall of the RCA tower building separates Diego Rivera from the flowing mane and the exclamatory tie that trademarked the artist in other days. He has left what bohemian uniform he may have wore in the Madrid cafes of his youth to the memories of his friends; and his life, spanning the shift from the tinted decades to the tense and dizzy present of a world conditioned by electricity, represents also the emancipation of the artists from his studio, and gives some notion of the function of the artist in the future, serving industry and science as in other days Leonardo and Cellini served the Borgias and their God.
He has left, too, in the first years of his decade as a muralist, the picturesque armor in which, as a member of the now famous Syndicate of Painters, Sculptors and Intellectual Workers, he fought his first battles on behalf of the Mexican Renaissance. The proof of victory is the spread of the mural movement from Mexico City through California to New York, but Rivera has conceded to another environment his huge black Stetson, heavy khaki shirt, big stick and cartridges and gum, as well as something over a hundred pounds of formidable avoirdupois.
His wife and Marx, he says, have cured him of the flamboyant imagination which in other days built blithe and logical pyramides of theory and took him on impossibly probable adventures to all quarters of the globe, including also the kingdom of the dead and stopping hardly short of the moon and Mar.
In the ordered chaos enclosed by the steel and concrete of the RCA, pivot of Radio City, Rivera merges with the plasterers, the casual foremen, the workmen straddling beams and boisting weights and hammering, chiseling, scraping, the art full of dust and din.
RIVERA'S "shack", in the engineers, camp on the open mezzanine, looks exactly like the fram hut of the blueprint man on any big construction job, and inside, with its jars of distilled water, its rolls of paper, its cupboard full of bottles and boxes and its rough table covered with draftsmen's plans and draftsmen's instruments, is as far from the romantic garret consecrated to art as the job itself is from the South Sea island of refugees from the machine age: closer, in spirit, to the busy shops in which the Italian Renaissance was made.
The maestro--which in Spanish means the master builder, master cobbler, master bricklayer, expert tailor (skilled worker, in short) as well as master painter and master musician and teacher--is to be identified as the large man sitting on a plank supported by steel scaffolding, presumably with a brush or crayon in his hand, and also by the small congress of admirers and observers with passes in their hands respectfully gazing up at his bulk and carrying on a brisk conversation with him, for Rivera has never been without a loyal and enthusiastic audience, mostly young.
This for eight, twelve, fourteen hours a day. His wife complains that his lunch and dinner grow cold on the plank beside him, and once on a big job he worked so long that he fell exhausted from the scaffold and hurt himself badly.
In a restaurant, because of his Roman look and his stamp of a man accustomed to a public, you would take him for a Senator or an operatic star. Brushing by him in the street, you would think he was most likely an inventor. Close up, the mixed bloods in his veins and the cosmopolitan weave of his life might give you some clue to the total: the suave, large build and the jowl of an Italian; the quick, plausible tongue and scholastic air of a Spaniard; the skin and small square hands of a Mexican Indian; the bold, intelligent and wary eyes of a jew; the easy manner and quick interest of a man of culture and curiosity; the silences of a Russian and a man of intellect; the shade of melancholy of the sensitive human animal in some incomprehensible zoo; and the thing that is Rivera uniquely, a generous kind of charm, an oiled wit, and a way of dovetailing his notions to his audience that gives every hearer a man-to-man status. He has nothing, he insists, of an Anglo-Saxon.
RIVERA says that if he were to live over again, with other professions to choose from, he would still be a painter, because, although he is fascinated most of all by industrial science and admires nothing so much as a machine, he feels that he himself can function, in his work and with his mind, with the precision and efficiency of a machine, and without "the dead weight of invested capital". To him the United States expresses its creative force and its sense of beauty through machines and through the scientific research that creates machines--"in general, all the creation of American engineering, which is the real artistic expression of the genius of this part of the world. Though, indeed, the majority of the American intelligentsia still denies this fact."
A work of art that is not made "exactly within the same laws as a machine is a bad work of art. Beauty and mechanics are synonymous. This axion fortunately begins to make itself felt in the work of some architects, plenty of photographers and cinematographers, and some painters--Marin, Benton, Robinson, Billings, Miller, Ben Shahn, Nash, Wanda Gag, Stuart Davis, William Siegel--and others whom I cannot enumerate but of whose value I am sure".
Rivera hopes and believes that the American ideal of beauty is the "Washington Bridge, a trimotor, a good automobile or any efficient machine which means not 'influence' but creative power. Happily," he adds, "the ideal of beauty contained in the art galleries and the antique shops is, I hope, the ideal of a minority, under the influence of the worst of European bad taste."
As to human beauties, he does not think that the movie stars represent the American ideal, "unless, of course, you include Mae West, who is the most wonderful machine for living I have known--unfortunately on the screen only--and who shares the genius of Charlie Chaplin."
In a way he considers it part of his job in the world to interpret America to Americans, and by America he means the continent. The emphatic part played by ideas in all of his murals indicates that even though, if he started to live his life over again, he would live it still as a painter, the philosopher pilot seeks his intellectual motor. He seeks, he says, to express the emotions that the rhythm of universal life produces in him, "putting it entirely at the service of my class--the workers--because in serving my class I serve myself."
Rivera feels that if his work had no esthetic value outside of the ideas expressed through it he would not be "given commissions by those who, naturally, are not interested in making propaganda"; yet he says also that the esthetic value of a work of art exists in direct proportion to the intensity of its political-social content.
"This," he explains, "is the spring that moves the artist, and the stronger the result the better; but such a work contains also a proportional expression of the universal harmonic rhythm which is what we call beauty, and this remains over and above, the different dialectic modes of its political-social content. That is why we have the sensation of beauty with the marvelous drawings in Neolithic caverns and with the works of art springing from political-social theogonies which have nothing to do with us anymore.
"But that work of art which contains most completely and most intensely the expression of our own political--social forces, and succeeds in expressing, too, the universal rhythm, will be more valuable to us than any work of art of the past. And, naturally, it will be attacked by all those who represent stoppage and retrogression within the historical process of our day."
THOUGH the modern age has made his a Hegelian Marxist, had Rivera lived three hundred years or a thousand years ago he would still have been a philosopher. His is the type of mind that must have order in the universe.
It is predominantly the qualities springing from his urge to organize and order the world in his mind that have fed the fame of his work: his power of organizing complex and numerous forms into a coherent whole on a grand scale, praised as a genius for "composition," and, paralleling this formal order, his structure of ideas, expressed realistically, like a pictograph, but containing like a hieroglyph abstract implications that fit with each other to express a philosophic, and behind that a metaphysical, whole.
Rivera's art, while it provides for connoisseurs the pleasures of rhythm and color and form which they find in any other admired artist, and for the simple of heart and every day world as plain as a poster, contains also, to the satisfaction and glee of those who make and unmake the world in the clear cold depth of abstract ideas, a springboard to thought, and the mysterious delights of multiple meanings, like a box within a box, within a box endlessly.
THE smooth mechanics of his mind order, too, the way in which he works, dynamically fed by the "juice" of his famed energy, efficiency and industry. Every move in his job, from the rough block of his first sketches to the cool texture of the finished wall, is planned and carried out in an orderly manner from his hand to the hands of his assistants.
First the sketches are made, then drawn to scale on large sheets, then traced with a perforator, fastened in place, dusted with charcoal and removed, leaving the outlines of the mural on the bare wall. He makes his changes on the basis of how the wall looks then.
The fresco preparation--sand and lime--is laid on in sections and the drawing corresponding to each section is again "dusted" on. The wall is then ready for paint (earth and water); this must be laid on while the plaster is still fresh and cannot be easily changed once it is dry. The amount of space to be covered each time is carefully calculated according to the time which the painter expects to spend and according also to the natural architectural divisions of the composition and the wall itself.
Each of his assistants, who are usually students or technicians, knows his job and does it quickly and well. Arthur Neindorff, a Texan who went to Hollywood as a song-writer and ended up in San Francisco working with Rivera on his mural at the Stock Exchange, has charge of the "dusting" and puts on the fresco foundation. Andrea Sanchez Flores, a Mexican who worked in the sugar fields and in the Detroit automobile factories and meanwhile studied chemistry, sees to it that the water has no organic matter and that the paints have been tested for injurious chemical reactions.
Five student painters work out the rest of the preparations. They are Dimitroff, a Bulgarian who studied in Chicago and worked at the Detroit Institute of Arts; Hideo Noda, a Japanese pupil of Arnold Blanch; Lucienne Bloch, painter and sculptress, daughter of the composer of the American Symphony; Ben Shahn and Lou Bloch. Rivera considers that although every work of art represents a collective contribution, a work to which more than one person has distributed labor is always superior to a purely individual product; and that is why, he says, he prefers mural paintings.
RIVERA develops this idea by saying that the art of the future cannot be individualistic because mankind is moving more and more, compelled by technological advancement, toward collective social forms, "and the artist who does not express this won't be even an artist." The greatest value of individualism, he says, is "to be an efficient person within the old social order--a negative value. Therefore in the field of art it cannot produce anything but ugliness and mediocrity; it is enough to examine the artistic production in all the countries of the globe today to testify that there isn't a single exception to this rule."
Besides the students and technicians who assist directly in the work of painting the murals, Rivera has other collaborators in the scientific world: the professors of radiotherapy at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Centre, who place their machines and their slides at his disposal for sketching; the professor of pediatrics at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, who is lending Rivera laboratory room in which to examine bacterial slides microscopically; the physicist who will guide him in the world of television; the students, men of science, intellectual and manual workers who will pose for portraits to form part of his mural ensemble.
These latter, Rivera says, are the critics whose praise he most values and whose observations he most needs. In creating his industrial mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts he was most anxious to have things "right" in the eyes of the engineers, the foremen, and the skilled and unskilled labor at the Ford Plants.
THE murals in the RCA Building will occupy the front and flank walls from some feet above the ground to the bridge mezzanine, a total of 1,071 square feet. The front wall, facing Fifth Avenue and approached from a sunken plaza, will be the only one in color. The side panels wrap back at right angles and are separated by a bridge from Brangwyn's chiaroscuro on the left, and Sert's on the right.
The scheme is Rivera's, and the theme, to be developed as a whole by the three painters, was decided upon by the RCA art commission. Brangwyn is to portray the ethical evolution of mankind, from primitive society to the institutions of the family, religion and government. Rivera's side panel continues this idea and is to depict the liquidation of superstition by science.
The main figure in this composition is a Jove whose thunderbolt has been replaced by the ray of modern physics; the instruments, machines and people representing the present and future value of the ray to humanity complete the picture, which focuses interest mainly on the figure of the man of science, who teaches, on a Darwinian basis, the history of humanity. This idea was inspired, says Rivera, by a speech of Jefferson's praising Benjamin Franklin as the man "who snatched the bold from heaven and the sceptre from the tyrant."
The panel on the right continues Sert's, which will describe the technological development of mankind from crude stone implements to the scientific instrument and the machine. Rivera develops on this premise his panel portraying the emancipation of mankind through technology. This panel is built around the figure of a Roman tyrant with a fascio--ancient symbol of authority--destroyed by a mechanic drill. A skilled worker takes possession of the world, which is spread out mapped on an electric motor, and his companions are shown, says Rivera, "inheriting the earth."
The main wall is given over to the future as seen from the present by the RCA art commission: "Man at the crossroads, facing the future with uncertainty but with hope, looks toward a better solution."
Man, in Rivera's concept, is a skilled workman--a steel man, occupying the centre of the composition between two giant lenses which cut across each other: one, the telescope and the cosmic world; the other, the microscope and the infinitely small forms which in movement and form repeat the cosmic motif. Only the lower part of the telescope is seen, on a heroic scale; this is calculated to carry the image upward, beyond the limits of the panel, giving the sense of the height of the building, and is also an indication of its purpose and pivotal industrial and architectural character.
In the background cinema and television lenses show the historical events projected by technological and scientific advancement. Above, on the right, soldiers wearing gas masks, armed with flame bombs and backed by tanks and airplanes face, on the left, a mass demonstration. Below, on the right, a procession of unemployed face a group of students of every race in a city fully developed industrially and set in fertile fields. In the extreme foreground, below, a horizontal panel is filled with a representation of the earth as an open book, with the chief elements of organic life in geological strata on its pages and plants sprouting on the soil surface.
RIVERA fully expects to have many critics disagree with the social-political contents of his work. But he is accustomed to attack, for every reason, from the faces of his statuesque females to the plain allegory of the whole, and also, indeed, for implications which he never intended and does not himself see in his work.
Since the days when he felt that he needed a gun to defend his painting he has been attacked from all sides and for numerous reasons: in Mexico, for painting Indians instead of "decent" whites; in Cuernavaca, for portraying the conquest as a brutal sack; in this country for a panel done in Mexico depicting the billionaires-among the Rockefeller and Ford-starving on gold around a centrepiece of ticker-tape; in Detroit, for depicting what looks like a Holy Family with a doctor vaccinating the child, and the traditional animals--providers of serum--in the foreground; and for what the churchmen and women who are antagonized by his views call "rank communism."
From the artistic point of view his enemies in Detroit complain that his work there, which is a glorification of the steel industry that has made Detroit and modern civilization what it is, lacks spiritual content and is hard and cold. To this Rivera answers that he paints what he sees, and that he sees automobiles and workers every day but he never sees spirits; and that steel is also hard and cold. The Fords, father and son, say they admire the murals, which were a $25,000 gift to the city of Detroit from Edsel Ford.
FACED directly with the question of whether or no he is a Communist, Rivera replied that he is not, for he has been expelled from the Communist part; but pressed as to whether or no he has painted the "Philosophy of Moscow" on the walls of the Detroit Art Institute, he answered, "Of course, because it is the only ultimate form of social life among civilized people."
This answer puts Edsel Ford in the curious position of an enemy of capitalism. It also puts the Rivera frescoes in danger of being destroyed, a fact which worries the artist considerably, because he says they are the best thing he has done.
Otherwise, Rivera says he takes a good deal of pleasure in being attacked. "Success," he explains, "consists in expressing my emotions and sensations in work with the content I wish to put into it. The only proof I can have of achieving this is the human repercussion my work can cause; sympathy from those for whom I work--the manual and intellectual producers--and hostility and attack from the enemies of the workers and the mentally and esthetically backward; so that the greater the attack, for me, the greater the success-as for every man who wishes to do something useful."
Moreover, he remarks that there is illustrious precedent in the history of art for believing that the better the work, the more bitterness it calls forth. He says that historians and not himself will have to estimate the value of his contribution and the weight of his influence. "But anyhow," he concludes, "I am positive that I have contributed to the intellectual and artistic development of my time and of future generations just as much as I am sure of increasing the volume of the Atlantic Ocean if I empty a bucketful of water into New York Harbor."