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Bronner writes: "Diego used the mural not merely to communicate the struggle of the downtrodden - but to let them see themselves. His desire was to 'paint the revolution' on the walls of world capitals. He showed the constraints, limits, and explosive possibilities of change in the 124 panels decorating the Education Building and the National Palace in Mexico City, as well as those in the Agricultural School at Chiapingo."

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. commissioned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera to paint a mural at the lobby entrance of the Rockefeller Center. Rockefeller took exception to Rivera's interpretation and ordered the destruction of Rivera's work, shown above. (image: marxists.org)
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. commissioned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera to paint a mural at the lobby entrance of the Rockefeller Center. Rockefeller took exception to Rivera's interpretation and ordered the destruction of Rivera's work, shown above. (image: marxists.org)



Homage to Diego

By Stephen Eric Bronner, Reader Supported News

07 April 12


Reader Supported News | Feature

 

Do you wish to see with your own eye, the hidden springs of the social revolution? Look at the frescoes of Rivera. Do you wish to know what revolutionary art is like? Look at the frescoes of Rivera.

- Leon Trotsky

iego Rivera was the toast of New York City when an exhibition of his murals was held at the Museum of Modern Art from late December 1931 to January 1932. There was a thirst for revolutionary art by working class movements in the face of a rising reactionary threat. Diego filled the bill. The exhibition created a sensation: it broke all attendance levels. In November of 2011, the MOMA tried to reprise the past with the same show of Rivera's work: it will last until May of 2012. But this time, the response has been far more muted. Perhaps that is in part the case because the exhibition itself is so notably liberal in its outlook, conventional in its presentation, and lacking any radical verve. Half in jest, I even suggested to a few influential activists from Occupy Wall Street that an "occupation" might be in order. Unfortunately, none of those young people knew of Diego Rivera. It's a pity. The great activists felt themselves part of a project that reached back into the past. It was part of what made them what they were. Knowledge of the past kept them from constantly reinventing the wheel. It spurred their innovative capacities whether with respect to culture or workers' councils whose theory and practice should be so important to contemporary advocates of "horizontalism" and participatory democracy. To be radical is to go the "root," according to the young Karl Marx, and to go to the root means to look at history. The radical tradition should serve as a source of pride and, often, a cautionary warning. The new does not abolish the old, but, instead, refashions it to meet new conditions: revolution is not apocalypse.

Diego and his comrades understood that. They understood it better, in fact, than their contemporaries among the European avant-garde. Futurists, expressionists, and surrealists projected the apocalypse as they identified non-conformism with politics. They pitted subjectivity against reification and disrupted the ingrained experience of everyday life through distortion, montage, and the reconstruction of the canvas. Futurists highlighted the need for speed and ruthlessness; expressionists embraced pathos and the "spirit" of humanity; and surrealists fused consciousness with the unconscious - Marx and Freud - in fashioning what Andre Breton termed a "politics of desire." These avant-garde movements opened new vistas for future artists and new experiential possibilities. But they never touched the masses. Others were more successful. They visited Europe and overlapped with the avant-garde in the bohemian cafÈs of Barcelona, Berlin, and Paris during the 1920s. Diego Rivera and his friends understood the revolutionary and political character of their art very differently. They may have been deeply influenced by Cezanne and his (politically quiescent) cubist followers. But they blended the new technical achievements with the heritage of indigenous painters like Jorge Posada. The radically new mixed with the radical past in the work of Diego Rivera and his friends. His now famous wife, Frieda Kahlo, painted luminous self-portraits and wondrous reconstructed scenes of everyday life. David Alfara Siqueiros produced ominous propaganda paintings and left a host of unfinished murals. There was also JosÈ Clemente Orozco, whose singular works evidence not only a frustrated Christian vision of redemption but also a deep attachment to the fight of the oppressed and the experience of oppression in Mexico.

Neither Diego nor his comrades had much knowledge of the political conflicts raging in the Communist International during the interwar period, never mind the theories of Marx, Lenin, or Trotsky. Most drifted in and out of the Communist Party, and Siqueiros even played a prominent role in a plot to assassinate Trotsky. Others like Kahlo and Rivera associated themselves with the great revolutionary even before his ill-fated exile in Mexico. Neither Diego nor Frieda was obsessed with immediacy or the shocking effect for its own sake, as in the case of, say, the famous cutting of the eye in the film The Andalusian Dog (1929) by Luis Bunuel and Salvador DalÌ. Conscious of themselves as "revolutionary artists" (in the dual meaning of the term) and banding together during the heroic years of the Russian Revolution, Rivera and his wife rejected abstraction as an end unto itself - the pathos so often associated with expressionism - or any doctrinaire form of socialist realism. He and his friends expressed their politics and their dreams in their work (often using surrealist techniques), even as they embodied unique mixtures of the personal and the political in a painterly anticipation of what would become known as "magic realism." This was especially the case with Kahlo, but also with Rivera, who reinvented the fresco and became, undoubtedly, the most important muralist of modernity.

Diego used the mural not merely to communicate the struggle of the downtrodden - but to let them see themselves. His desire was to "paint the revolution" on the walls of world capitals. He showed the constraints, limits, and explosive possibilities of change in the 124 panels decorating the Education Building and the National Palace in Mexico City, as well as those in the Agricultural School at Chiapingo. The Earth Oppressed (1925), Night of the Rich (1926), and Night of the Poor (1926) were anything but beautiful, and critics coined a new word, feismo (uglyism), to describe them. But works like these, precisely because they do not translate into book illustrations or wall posters, evidence the singularity of painting for a new age. They are not painted for the singular buyer or intended for the museum or private collection. They are painted so that anyone can see them, and insofar as they exist on public walls or public buildings, they confront the quotidian elements of everyday life with a suppressed sense of power and agency. These works are not self-referential in their radical aspirations, but portray a lived collective experience through an individual vision. With his wonderful murals, Rivera brings about an encounter with history, fosters an anti-imperialist sensibility, and - perhaps above all - builds a sense of radical political tradition.

Rivera's dreams always enter the story and fashion the vision. But the associations are never free. They always have an objective referent: the Paris Commune, the First International, the Mexican peasant revolutionaries and the betrayal of their hopes. Rivera's magnificent historical-allegorical mural of Mexican history that began with Before the Conquest resulted in "not a painting but a world on a wall." Those words were written by Bertram Wolfe in his wonderful "The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera" (1963). A one-time communist revolutionary and friend of the artist, and someone not prone to sentimentality or exaggeration, Wolfe called this work an iconographic treasure from which the political archaeologist of the future can learn more about Mexican history, "actual and legendary, than any other single monument in history would reveal of any other civilization." Rivera's famous Communist Unity Panel (1933) is, by contrast, more modest. Destroyed at the behest of its buyers after being commissioned to adorn Radio City Music Hall in New York, this work creates a smaller world whose inhabitants harbored the greatest of ambitions. This work depicts the great political figures of an international revolutionary movement, including "Stalin the Executioner." Rivera sought to portray the history of oppression, the struggles against it, and the radical hopes that still exist among the lowly and the insulted. His artistry carries forward not only the dialectical legacy of Hegel and Marx but the most genuinely political legacy of modernism as well.


Stephen Eric Bronner is a Distinguished Professor (PII) of Political Science at Rutgers University and the Senior Editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture. His new book, "Modernism at the Barricades: Aesthetics, Politics, Utopia" will appear in the spring or summer of 2012 with Columbia University Press.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.

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+4 # CandH 2012-04-07 17:25
"Because Abstract Expressionism was expensive to move around and exhibit, millionaires and museums were called into play. Pre-eminent among these was Nelson Rockefeller, whose mother had co-founded the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As president of what he called "Mummy's museum", Rockefeller was one of the biggest backers of Abstract Expressionism (which he called "free enterprise painting"). His museum was contracted to the Congress for Cultural Freedom to organise and curate most of its important art shows.

The museum was also linked to the CIA by several other bridges. William Paley, the president of CBS broadcasting and a founding father of the CIA, sat on the members' board of the museum's International Programme. John Hay Whitney, who had served in the agency's wartime predecessor, the OSS, was its chairman. And Tom Braden, first chief of the CIA's International Organisations Division, was executive secretary of the museum in 1949."

"Modern art was CIA 'weapon'
Revealed: how the spy agency used unwitting artists such as Pollock and de Kooning in a cultural Cold War" http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/modern-art-was-cia-weapon-1578808.html
 
 
+7 # ganymede 2012-04-07 22:04
Thanks for the very thoughtful piece. I visited Mexico City many years ago and was totally knocked out by the vast, epic works of Rivera and others that adorned many buildings in, what is one of the greatest cities in the world.The Aztec background, the Spanish colonial architecture, the pyramids outside of Mexico City and, most of all, the beautiful, powerful sophisticated political art on buildings and public places. It's worth a trip.
 
 
+8 # dipierro4 2012-04-07 22:19
Many years ago I saw the murals at the National Palace. I had not heard of them before, so they were a total surprise and still a great memory. I sometimes wonder whether they still are being cared for, and whether they will be kept up at all, with right-wingers like Calderon running the government.

And not to be snippy, but it's good to hear someone mention Rivera now and then. Usually all I hear about is Ms. Kahlo.
 
 
0 # Texas Aggie 2012-04-08 12:35
Don't worry. Not even the PAN can destroy his work and it still inspires the working class. At the moment the workers at the museums are fighting the government's attempts to increase the fees that museums charge beyond the reach of average people.
 
 
+7 # ivories29 2012-04-08 07:03
Readers should be reminded of E.B.White's great 1933 poem, "I Paint What I See--A Ballad of Artistic Integrity," which poetically sums up Rivera's artistic creed as well as the confrontation with the Rockefeller family over the mural.
Susan Kagan
sk@susankagan.com
 
 
+2 # cordleycoit 2012-04-08 08:23
There are real reasons why the North American public are not allowed to know about the work of the great muralistas. Fear. Siqueros was the the father of abstract expressionism as he was inventing 'plastic reality' He was working abstract passages, that an assistant Jake Pollack lifted for his own use, while Siquerious was in prison for an attempt on Trotsky's life.
Critics try and blunt the work of Rivera or the others because of their intense revolutionary subject matter. The battle between Northern vanilla culture and the culture of fire goes on. It looks like Rutgers is a C.I.A. stopping point.
 
 
+5 # James38 2012-04-08 10:03
"They may have been deeply influenced by Cezanne and his (politically quiescent) cubist followers."

"politically quiescent"? Guernica? 1937.

How many Occupiers and other young progressives are aware of this masterpiece by Picasso? I was shaken into a higher state of political and social awareness when I first saw it.
 
 
+3 # bobby t. 2012-04-08 10:53
nice catch james38. you took the words out of my mouth. guernica is my all time favorite work of art. ironic now.
 
 
+1 # zordog 2012-04-08 12:27
An excellent piece of writing, thank you Mr. Bronner.I am indebted... When I first saw Picasso's Gernica I was amassed at its power. Likewise when I first saw the various works of the great Mexican muralists I was also taken aback by the flood of emotion and intensity they invoked...Art's ability to transcend language and communicate directly to our hearts and souls is what elevates us above the beasts of the forest.
 
 
0 # jwb110 2012-04-08 13:32
Americans have the historical knowledge of a neut. The youngest members of the Nation already have the self imposed beginnings of Alzheimer's.
 
 
0 # PABLO DIABLO 2012-04-08 14:51
Diego Rivera was a GIANT. Today, Jeff Coons is new depths of shallow.
 

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