By Ida Victoria Gustavson
Mexico’s main contribution to 20th Century art was the mural. The Muralism movement in Mexico came about during and after the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The ever-changing political powers used the mural as a form of propaganda, to get their message of a “new Mexico” to the masses. In a country with an extremely high illiteracy rate, this form of propaganda was very powerful. The murals created for public spaces in Mexico cemented Mexico’s top muralists Diego Rivera, Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco into the international art scene. The works of these artists inspired a rush of Muralism throughout the world, and these artists began to get commission work outside of Mexico. One of the most famous or infamous stories of Muralism in America was the scandalous Rockefeller Center incident or as Diego Rivera called it “The Battle of Rockefeller Center.”
Diego Rivera, one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century and a member of the Communist party, was hired by the Rockefeller family, the embodiment of American capitalism, to create a mural in the newly constructed RCA building in Rockefeller Center. This relationship, to the outside observer, seemed doomed from the beginning. The theme of this mural was specific, to show “human intelligence in control of the forces of nature.” Nelson Rockefeller, the son of John D. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, was placed in charge of this project. The title for this massive piece was already decided, “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future.”
With the theme and subject set, and sketches for the massive mural approved, Diego Rivera began work in March of 1933. The 63 x 17 foot mural was to depict two opposing views of society, Capitalism on one side and Socialism on the other, with the symbolic worker at a crossroads of industry and science. As the mural began to emerge, it started to look less and less like the sketches that were approved and more and more a bash at Capitalism. In the spot in the sketches that were roughly outlined to represent the “worker-leader,” a perfect portrait of the Communist leader Vladimir Lenin emerged. The press had a field day with this, and the public became enraged after an article in the New York World-Telegram announced “Rivera Paints Scenes of Communist Activity And John D. Jr. Foots Bill.” With this public outcry, the Rockefellers tried to convince Rivera to at least remove the portrait of Lenin, and replace it with a generalized figure. Rivera tried to negotiate saying he would not remove the figure of Lenin, but he would place a great American historical figure, like Abraham Lincoln on the other side of the mural to balance it out. Neither side was willing to compromise.
In May of 1933, Rivera was called down from the massive scaffold and handed an envelope with the balance of his fee of $21,000 for the mural and informed he was fired. After Rivera was escorted off the property, the mural was completely covered by tarpaper and wooden screens. This story does not end with Rivera’s exit from Rockefeller Center. Rockefeller accused Rivera of using the Mankind at the Crossroads mural for willful propagandizing and Rivera retorted “All art is propaganda!” He also made a public statement declaring “Rather than mutilate the conception, I should prefer the physical destruction of the conception in its entirety, but preserving, at least, its integrity.”
There was much debate on what to do with this massive work. The public was split, and in the art world a major controversy was brewing over censorship in art. An editorialist for the Times wrote “A mural painting is a signboard. People don’t hang signboards in front of inns announcing that poison is on sale within. They don’t put up over the doors of schools Latin inscriptions stating that children’s minds are befogged inside. Yet that is what a Lenin mural on a Rockefeller business structure amounts to.” Even though the Rockefeller’s had insisted that the work would not be removed, at midnight on February 9, 1934, the workers of the RCA building destroyed the mural with axes and sledgehammers and resurfaced the wall. Diego Rivera announced that he would paint this exact mural in another location in New York for free, but the offer was never taken. In the end, Rivera did paint the mural in the Bellas Artes in Mexico City, with Lenin in his place and he added John D. Rockefeller in a nightclub scene just to the left of Lenin’s portrait. Horace Gregory, the American poet and critic stated “The real issue was raised when the Rockefellers dismissed Rivera. The blank space is now a better testimonial to the cause of art and revolution than the work itself would have been.”
You can find Ida at the Ida Victoria Gallery in San José del Cabo.