“I Paint What I see”
Mexican Muralist Diego Rivera’s most controversial painting was first commissioned by, and later destroyed by the Rockefellers in New York City in the early 1930s. Prominent American capitalists could not tolerate Rivera’s audacious and highly-political effort to immortalize renowned Communists as part of his ambitious project. Nonetheless, Rivera helped to legitimize muralism as an important artform in the U.S. during the Great Depression era. Many WPA murals celebrating American ingenuity and culture can still be seen today.
Ross Chambless: In early in 1934, Mexican Muralist Diego Rivera was painting what would be his most controversial mural ever. He had been given a large wall on which to paint it, in the prestigious Rockefeller Center in New York City. The work was commissioned by the owner of the wall, the wealthy politician and art collector, Nelson Rockefeller. Rivera was calling the work, Man at the Crossroads.
Susan Vogel: He always has to do something to anger people.
Ross: That’s author Susan Vogel. We’ll get to the part that really made people angry. But let’s explain the work first.
Diego Rivera's Man at the Center of the Universe, Mexico City, painted 1935. The first version of this mural painted at the Rockefeller Center in New York City was destroyed before its completion in 1934.
Susan: He puts an Aryan man. A white, blonde hair, blue-eyed man in the middle of the control of some big machine.
Ross: This figure is presumably mankind, who has mastered the natural world through his technologies. He sits at the center of the work, which is very geometrical.
Susan: There’s this axis that runs up and down. And from it are these two ellipses that project out from this character in the middle.
Ross: They almost resemble crisscrossing lenses radiating out from the guy in the middle. One lens is filled with the cosmos and the wonders of space exploration. The other examines the microscopic world of biology and the wonders of modern medicine.
The left side of Rivera's mural "Man, Controller of the Universe," shows the brutalities of WWI, including poison gas and machine guns. (Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City) (photo: Peter Van Eynde, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Photo courtesy of the Khan Academy.
Susan: On the left-hand side, he’s got these wall street folks.The caricatures of the wealthy people at a cocktail party. And above that, he has a military-industrial image. Very much a war image with people wearing gas masks, and helmets with bayonets and airplanes flying above. And hen he's got some images down below of some children staring off in front of them, and a riot.
Ross: On this half of the mural Rivera was evoking the brutalities of WWI and the destructive technologies that capitalist societies had unleashed on people. There’s even a fierce statue of the Greek god Zeus menacing people with a bolt of lightning. Contrast this scene with the right side, where there’s a healthy crowd of unified workers wearing red scarves and waving red flags – symbolic of the Russian Revolution.
The left side of the mural depicts a defaced classical sculpture believed to be Caesar surrounded by the political figures of the Russian Revolution. (Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City)(photo: Peter Van Eynde, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Photo courtesy of the Khan Academy.
Susan: A loud gathering of workers expressing their views. So, the contrast is obvious. The military industrial complex and the privilege of the wealthy people on the left and what happens when you have a socialistic government and when you have workers who are healthy and strong and participating in the process on the right.
Ross: Also, on the right side you see workers seated on the decapitated head of a classical Greek sculpture of Caesar. Some interpret this as Rivera’s way of criticizing the political elite of antiquity who repressed the popular masses throughout history. All of this was pretty provocative, especially in the 1930s. Notable figures in the communist worker’s movement are shown, like León Trotsky, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx. But famously, it was the face of one key Russian figure that really rankled Nelson Rockefeller. The face of Vladamir Lenin.
Here’s a scene from the 1999 film, about the conflict between River and Rockefeller, called Cradle Will Rock.
Scene from the 1999 film Cradle Will Rock.
A scene from the movie Cradle Will Rock:
Rockefeller: “Why can’t you paint another face over it?”
Rivera: “Would you prefer Stalin? I don’t. I was kicked out of the Communist Party for disagreeing with him. But if you want, I'll paint Stalin.
Rockefeller: You’re not being very cooperative.
Rivera: I am too, I told you I would paint Abraham Lincoln surrounded by freed slaves to counterbalance Lenin, and you rejected the idea.
Rockefeller: Why Lenin?
Rivera: He’s a revolutionary leader, like your Washington or Thomas Jefferson.
Man: There’s an idea. Paint Jefferson. What do you say?
Rivera: Ridiculous. I said Abraham Lincoln to balance Lenin. But Lenin stays.
Man: This is not a revolution, Diego. This is the United States, not Russia.
Rivera: And I am Diego Rivera, not Frederick Remington!
Rockefeller: You understand it is entirely inappropriate to feature a Communist leader in the lobby of the Rockefeller building?
Rivera: No! I believe nothing in art is inappropriate. I paint what I see.”
Ross: You’re listening to Nuevas Voces, a podcast by Artes de Mexico en Utah. This is Episode 14, and in this episode, we’re continuing to talk about Diego Rivera and the Muralist Movement, and specifically Rivera’s most controversial work: Man at the Crossroads. A mural that caused so much outrage at the time that Nelson Rockefeller forced Rivera to stop painting, paid him in full, and promptly had the whole mural destroyed… the whole wall it was painted on, was torn down.
A photo taken of the incomplete "Man at the Crossroads" in the Rockefeller Center, 1933.
Ross: Rivera later painted a new version of the same mural in Mexico City, which he called Man, Controller of the Universe.
But why was it so offensive to American capitalistic sensibilities at the time? And who again was that blonde man in the middle? Let’s get back to where we were.
Fanny Blauer: What I read is, it’s the meaning of industrialization.
Ross: He represents industrialization.
Fanny: But as Susan said, Diego Rivera was in favor of developing of the sciences. And science is all developed based on the elements of the cosmos. When we look at those wings, to me it looks like an atom. We also see natural elements in those wings. We see the moon, the sun, the stars, the clouds… the elements shown here are based on cosmovision.
Rivera painted key figures in the worker’s movement, including León Trotsky,
Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx.
Ross: Cosmovision. You remember that idea, right? If not, go back and listen to episode one.
Fanny: Because of science, industrialization was implemented.
Ross: The more I study this mural, the more I think Rivera was really thumbing his nose at the wealthy elite – in a not so subtle way.
Luis López: I can see why Wallstreet didn’t like this. He’s just pushing the limit with his work, and what they would find acceptable. Of course, he’s protesting through his art. That’s the biggest thing I see with this. And the placement. I don’t think it’s an accident he painted what he did, where he did.
Susan: It’s funny when people hire a political artist to do what they do. And then they’re outraged that they do what they do.
Luis: Exactly. They grow to fame because they don’t hold back. And then you think because you’re paying them you’re going to control them. That’s what I love about a lot of these muralists, is yes, they’re being contracted to paint these things, but at the end of the day, I do what do.
Artist Diego Rivera with a copy of the mural he painted at Rockefeller Center that was eventually destroyed. A. Estrada / Courtesy of Museo Frida Kalho
Ross: Isn’t it the case often, that whenever people try to censor a work of art, that work of art grows infinitely more popular. Censorship can backfire.
Luis: I just imagine you work on Wallstreet and you’re going to walk past this everyday. You’re job is to make millions for the people on top, and as you enter the office and as you leave you gotta see this. It’s a reminder that eats at your conscience. I’m sure that’s why they wanted it gone.
Ross: It’s also important we consider the time period in context of this mural. It was during the Great Depression in the United States. And many Americans were struggling to get by.
Susan: The unemployment rate was huge. People were starving. They couldn’t get jobs.The division between the super wealthy and the poor was vast.The Communist Party in the U.S. was super popular. It was on the ballots all over… so what the muralists brought was this sense of honoring the worker. It was art that showed social and economic inequities and portrayed the worker as someone with dignity. So, for the U.S., this was a great time for that art to come here.The impact was huge.
This WPA mural, in the Cohen Building in Washington, D.C., as with many other WPA frescoes shares many of the same culturally aspirational qualities as Rivera's Man at the Crossroads, but instead for American Capitalism rather than Communism.
Ross: The Mexican muralists influenced the creation of the Works Progress Administration – part of the Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression – which employed artists to work on projects across the country.
Susan: The WPA mural projects all over the country. There are hundreds, if not thousands of them. We have them in Helper, Utah, and in Provo, and in Beaver, Utah on the walls of post offices. We have WPA buildings all over the state, it also reinvigorated the artistic work here that portrayed social themes. Themes of social justice and social realism. And it resonated with artists here. Because prior to that there had been a push of European abstraction that stirred everything up. And this was much more accessible to people. It showed real life things. The political and social problems of the time.
Utah WPA mural
Ross: In 1933, the famed American poet E.B. White published a poem in the New Yorker about Diego Rivera’s conflict with Nelson Rockefeller over his provocative mural. Here’s the last stanza of E.B. White’s poem, “I PAINT WHAT I SEE, A Ballad of Artistic Integrity.”
Ross: “It’s not good taste in a man like me,
Said John D’s grandson, Nelson.
To question an artist’s integrity
Or mention a practical thing like a fee,
But I know what I like to a large degree,
Tho art I hate to hamper.
For twenty-one thousand conservative bucks
You painted a radical. I say, shucks,
I could never rent the offices-
The capitalistic offices.
For this, as you know, is a public hall.
And people want doves, or a tree in fall,
And tho your art I dislike to hamper,
I owe a little to God and Gramper.
And after all,
It’s my wall…
“We’ll see if it is,” said Rivera.”
~ ~ ~
Thanks to our commentators Susan Vogel; Fanny Guadalupe Blauer; Luis Lopez; Episode produced and edited by Ross Chambless; Thanks to KCPW 88.3 FM for the studio space; The music you heard in this episode comes from Philip Glass, Al Caiola, Antonio Pinto, Calexico, Ted Weems Orchestra, and, of course, that Russian Communist composer Dmitri Shostakovich.
Engage with Us:
What do you think of Man at the Crossroads? Do you think it’s still controversial today? Are there any similar political murals you can think of that angered people in similar ways?