“Are you going to write about the destruction of the Rivera mural at Rockefeller Center?” people invariably asked, when I told them that I was writing a book about the Rockefellers and their art sponsorships and donations. So I was more than intrigued when the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) announced that it was memorializing the Rivera show it held eighty years ago.
Five of the eight murals of the original show are now reunited at MoMA. During the original 1931 groundbreaking exhibition, it occupied a major fraction of the two year old museum, then housed in rented quarters in New York’s Heckscher Building. Today, by contrast, the exhibition fills only a small fraction of MoMA’s second floor.
Rivera’s 1931 show was a prelude to the drama that would engulf the Rockefellers and the artist when the latter was commissioned to paint a mural for the under-construction Rockefeller Center. Alfred Barr, MoMA’s founding director, had met Rivera in 1928 when both were visiting Moscow, eleven years after the Soviets assumed power. Independently, Mrs. Rockefeller had become interested in Mexican art and had bought some of Rivera’s work, including the sketchbook he painted during his Russian visit. As a consequence the artist was invited to present a solo show at the new museum. In Mexico Rivera had revived the ancient fresco technique in which paint is applied to freshly plastered walls. MoMA’s invitation prompted him to adapt the procedure to portable works.
Rivera’s images are as powerful today as they were in 1931. Indian Warrior depicts a jaguar about to devour a Conquistador; in Zapata, Mexico’s agrarian leader stands next to his white stallion, inspiring hope and respect; Frozen Assets, which combines the supremacy of a bank vault with an immense homeless shelter, is utterly depressing.
While they resided in New York, Diego and his wife Frida Kahlo were frequent guests at the Rockefeller home. Abby Rockefeller mothered a despondent Frida during a miscarriage. The commissioned Man at the Crossroads, the Rockefeller Center mural, was finalized while Rivera was in Detroit. From there he sent Mrs. Rockefeller a sketch and a letter in with he expressed “his respectful and affectionate compliments” and also assured her that he would try to do for Rockefeller Center, and especially “for you Madame, the best of all the work I have done up to this time.”
When Rivera started painting, the mural deviated from the approved sketch, and when he included a portrait of Lenin his employer protested. When Rivera refused to remove the portrait even though Frida Kahlo and others pleaded with him to do so, he was paid his entire agreed-upon fee and escorted off the premises. Eventually the mural was destroyed.
The loss of the Rockefeller Center mural left deep scars. Rivera was a very popular painter and at the time there were protests about his dismissal. It is said that Mrs. Rockefeller felt deeply betrayed by the man whose reputation she helped to establish.
Rivera recreated Man at the Crossroads in Mexico City. In addition to Lenin, the mural now sports a portrait of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in which the life-long teetotaler clutches a cocktail.
MoMA’s current exhibition includes the rarely seen forty-five small watercolors from the painter’s Moscow sketchbook, which Mrs. Rockefeller gave to the museum along with the six-foot-long original sketch for the Rockefeller Center mural.
The MoMA show is worth a visit. The murals are on view until May 14th, 2012. Admission to the museum is free Fridays from 4-8 PM, but expect a line.
Suzanne Loebl is the author of America’s Medicis: The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy. (Harper Collins, 2010)