Back to the Future: Diego Rivera at MoMa [Literary & Arts]
By David Myers
Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art
November 13, 2011 – May 14, 2012
In 1931, the Museum of Modern Art hosted muralist Diego Rivera for a solo exhibition. Given that it was both two years into the Depression and only the second year of the museum’s existence, the choice of an avowed atheist and vocal Communist is, on the face of it, a difficult one for us to understand today. The fact that the honor of a retrospective at the MoMA had only previously been granted to one Henri Matisse underscores the selection’s significance. Ultimately, the exhibit would draw over three-times that of the earlier Matisse exhibit, which had the allure of being MoMA’s inaugural retrospective no less.
Rivera had already cemented his position as the dominant figure in early 20th century Mexican art and a leader of the international social-realist public art movement. Having gained fame from the murals he had produced in his native Mexico, the retrospective marked the apogee of Rivera’s creative tenure abroad and presented New Yorkers the opportunity to see firsthand the works of an artist they had come to know largely through printed reproductions. At no point before or after was Rivera so fully entangled in the American public’s social and cultural consciousness.
Nearly eighty years later, MoMA is revisiting that important, if largely forgotten, chapter from its Depression-era infancy. “Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art” reunites five of the original eight murals, presenting them along with related drawings, sketches, and photos. With these and other historical ephemera, MoMA is once again presenting New Yorkers the opportunity to experience the artistic force of Diego Rivera, and to appreciate what had once so fully captivated the city’s attention and imagination.
The murals, and Rivera’s oeuvre in general, exhibit a blending of styles, materials, and content unique to the artist. Unfolding on expansive monoliths, Rivera drew on the frescoes born of the Italian Renaissance. The content, meanwhile, whether depicting the pre-Columbian heritage of his native Mexico or 1930s New York, is more contemporary and infuses a brand of socialism that was itself a product of the times. The style too, with its dense layering of form and space, evokes a kind of Cubism that was squarely at odds with the frescoing.
The mural cycle for the original commission communicates a revolutionary narrative imported from the artist’s native Mexico. The most exciting among these is the Agrarian Leader Zapata. Zapata Emiliano, the painting’s central subject and key orchestrator of the revolution’s agrarian uprising, is shown grasping at a horse’s reigns, its vanquished rider’s limp body sprawled on the ground. A muted pallet of browns and greens constitute the background, contrasted with the pure, radiant white of the foregrounded leader.
With an air of triumph and a determined gaze, he appears on the verge of marching out of the mural and into our world, horse in hand and yet-unsatisfied mob in tow. Agrarian Leader Zapata, like the other Mexican-themed frescoes, is glorified propaganda, an apotheosis of revolution. Downright reverential, and conveniently ignoring the gruesome guerilla warfare that preceded victory, the mural broadcasts the potential to affect change through collective action.
That message, it seems, did not fall on deaf ears. As the exhibit’s quick success indicates, New York in 1931 was ripe for such revolutionary sentiment. The final three murals present Depression-era New York as only a radical communist and avant-garde icon possibly could. Undoubtedly the showstoppers of the bunch, the New York murals offer a candid and poignant insight into the city that greeted the artist.
Frozen Assets is undoubtedly the most visually and emotionally overwhelming of these. In it, Rivera poignantly captures a stratified city caught in the throes of the Depression and bifurcated between destitution and industry. In a three-tiered cross-section, the city’s skyline is shown resting atop a subterranean homeless shelter, filled to capacity, and beneath that a bank vault where a corporeal woman has come to check on her savings. At over six feet by eight feet in size, and weighing in at over 1,000 pounds, the mural is literally and figuratively titanic, its force dramatic and immense. Here, as in the rest of the mural cycle, the cityscape dominates, confining and crushing its builders.
The scale of construction in 1930s New York was virtually unprecedented, and Rivera seems visibly taken with the technology and resulting urban landscape. Plumes of steam and smoke rise from the landscapes; their puffs gradually melt into the muted grey-blue skies. An above-ground subway system and cranes hanging from the tops of towers attest to a city constantly in motion and a project chronically unfinished.
While the works show a Mexican native thoroughly captivated by the modern metropolis, they primarily exhibit an artist’s profound empathy with his subject. As new buildings barrel heavenwards, their spires prodding at the passing clouds, the workers remain earthbound, imprisoned by a system their labors make possible. That paradox constitutes the central motif of the later murals.
Presented alongside his Mexican-themed murals, the artist’s critique is unmistakable: a system that achieves progress by exploiting an underclass is not merely unfair – it is, the mural cycle bellows, doomed. The New York murals are less polemical than the revolutionary Mexican ones. However, they work to communicate their message in unison, beckoning viewers to recall the earlier, overtly revolutionary murals. ‘Recall Emilio Zapata,’ the cycle seems to instruct, guiding viewers to remember the empowered proletariat (and vanquished old guard) while looking at the destitution of New York’s urban poor.
Whether the organizers of “Diego Rivera” intended to capitalize on the cultural cachet of a Depression-era retrospective in the present is difficult to say. Regardless, the droves of New Yorkers that regularly huddle in line, frequently for upwards of an hour and in frigid temperatures, indicate that Rivera’s work has maintained its resonance with the public, particularly the left.
For all the meaning that these frescoed time capsules of 1930s New York convey, the exhibit should have gone a step further. Rivera may have been a muralist of unique talents, but he was also part of a specific historical moment in the art world. The Depression was an era when artists, largely funded by Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration, produced art that was ‘public’ by virtue of its federal support. The artworks were also public, though, in a less obvious and yet equally fundamental regard: they evince an artist beholden to his public.
Public art had assumed a defining role in American culture, and muralism, which rarely arises in the present, was the most direct incarnation of that public-mindedness. Whether it be the regionalism of Edward Hopper or the heroic social realism of fellow muralist Thomas Hart Benton, the art of the period reflected the anxieties of the public. The layman may not have been able to appraise a given work’s aesthetic qualities, but he could speak its language because it attempted to speak his.
The 1931 retrospective, having been commissioned by the MoMA using private funds donated by the Rockefeller family, does not qualify as public art in the explicit sense of the term. Still, Rivera had achieved global recognition on the merit of his public commissions in Mexico, and it was in the context of a vibrant, domestic public art scene that New Yorkers flocked to the exhibit. By locating Rivera’s work in that milieu, the organizers could have seized on the public’s renewed interest to promote a discussion on the evolved role of art, and specifically the diminished importance of public art, in contemporary society.
A visit to MoMA’s retrospective demonstrates just how much has been lost in the process. We may look at a painting like “Frozen Assets” and recognize its arresting picture of inequality. It’s unlikely, however, that a major national publication would reproduce the work in full color, as Fortune magazine did in 1932. Accompanying the full-page reproduction was the caption: “What is here reproduced is not a sermon on the city of New York, nor an Essay on Man.” Surely there have been artist-celebrities since Rivera, but would such a public discourse on the arts be possible today?
Rivera’s works may speak to us in the present in unexpectedly profound and moving ways. The effect, though, can be disquieting, the experience more than a little disturbing. In the end, the works are valuable because of the ease with which we recognize the chaos and malaise depicted therein. That itself is nothing to celebrate four years out from the peak of a recession. More disturbing, though, is what it means when the best mirror of our present is located in a hand-me-down from the past, Depression or not. Where is our Rivera? And what does it say when we seek introspection in a retrospective?
DAVID MYERS is a senior in the General Studies/JTS joint program and the Literary and Arts Editor of The Current. He can be reached at [email protected] Photo by Flickr user Martin Beek.