Postcard from Mexico City: Opulent Art Nouveau facade contrasts with revolutionary murals housed within

Dear Mr. Rivera:

While I was in the No. 1 building at Rockefeller Center yesterday viewing the progress of your thrilling mural, I noticed that in the most recent portion of the painting you had included a portrait of Lenin. The piece is beautifully painted, but it seems to me that his portrait, appearing in this mural, might seriously offend a great many people. If it were in a private house it would be one thing, but this mural is in a public building and the situation is therefore quite different. As much as I dislike to do so, I am afraid we must ask you to substitute the face of some unknown man where Lenin’s face now appears.

You know how enthusiastic I am about the work which you have been doing and that to date we have in no way restricted you in either subject or treatment. I am sure you will understand our feeling in this situation and we will greatly appreciate your making the suggested substitution.

Letter from Nelson A. Rockefeller, May 4, 1933

Halted as he was at work last night on his scaffold in the Great Hall of the seventy-story RCA Building in Rockefeller Center, Diego Rivera, the celebrated Mexican mural painter whose communistic leaning have frequently enveloped him in controversy, was informed that the fresco on which he was engaged, and which he had regarded as his masterpiece, was no longer acceptable to the Rockefeller family.

Turning sadly with a few of his assistants and devoted friends to his “shack” on the mezzanine of the building, Senor Rivera found that his telephone had been cut off. He also found awaiting him a letter from Todd, Robertson & Todd, enclosing a check for $14,000, completing payment in full of the $21,000 he had been promised for three murals.

The letter expressed regret that Senor Rivera had been unable to come to some compromise on the paintings and said that the check was to be regarded as terminating his employment, although none of the three panels for which he had been contracted had been finished.

A crowd of about 100 art students and other admirers of the painter previously had been ushered from the hall by representatives of Todd, Robertson & Todd, the managing agents on behalf of John D. Rockefeller Jr., and mounted and foot police were on duty outside the building to prevent any demonstration when Senor Rivera was called away from his work.

No demonstration materialized immediately, but about 10 o’clock, two hours later, between 75 and 100 men and women sympathizers of the artist paraded in front of the building, shouting “Save Rivera’s art,” and “We want Rivera.” They carried banners on which similar sentiments were emblazoned.

The police and fifteen uniformed attaches of the building made no attempt to interfere as the demonstrators marched around the building three times. But on their last round they gathered in Sixth Avenue between Forty-ninth and Fiftieth Streets, blocking the sidewalks, and were ordered to disperse by the police.

Booing and jostling the policemen, the demonstrators refused. A crowd of waiting taxicab drivers took the side of the police, and a free-for-all fight developed. The policemen, brandishing their nightsticks, rushed into the crowd, which resisted until two mounted patrolmen charged into their midst. Then they fled….

With an air of resignation rather than bitterness, Senor Rivera described in his broken English his design for the mural which, covering a space sixty-three feet long and seventeen feet high, was to have depicted “human intelligence in control of the forces of nature.” A sketch of it had been shown to the Rockefeller family and approved by them, Senor Rivera said….

But when the actual painting began objection was raised, he said, to a figure of Lenin joining the hands of a soldier, a worker, and a Negro, which was to have topped the painting. In the background were crowds of unemployed.

Senor Rivera said that he had been told that Mr. Rockefeller and his advisors did not find the mural as “highly imaginative” as they have expected it to be, and that its effect was unpleasant. They also objected to the brilliant colors in the background, he said.

“Rockefellers Ban Lenin in RCA Mural and Dismiss Rivera,” The New York Times, May 10, 1933

Rockefeller Center canceled its $21,000 investment in a fresco by Diego Rivera by destroying the offending mural over the week-end.

Yesterday, when the news became known, protest meetings were called and John Sloan, president of the Society of Independent Artists, urged an artists’ boycott of Rockefeller Center and announced that he would never exhibit there….

“If this vandalism had been committed last May immediately after Rivera was dismissed from Rockefeller Center, it might have been condemned as ‘art slaughter’. My verdict now is that it is premeditated ‘art murder’.”

“Rivera RCA Mural Is Cut from Wall,” The New York Times, February 13, 1934

In hindsight, it seems an obvious train wreck waiting to happen. The strident politics of Diego Rivera, often figuring prominently in his work, were the polar opposite of those of his client, a family symbolizing the massive wealth that could be accumulated under the banner of capitalism.

What was censored in the staid and stable El Norte, however, was embraced by its neighbor to the south, a country whose history was crowded with wave upon wave of successive revolution. A country where rising to the presidency often turned into a death sentence.

Mexico welcomed the rejected design. Diego Rivera recreated the work in the new Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. His enormous murals and the possibly even more controversial ones completed inside by Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros stand in sharp contrast to the elegantly proportioned Art Nouveau palace.

The construction of the Bellas Artes itself reflected tumultuous times. President Porfirio Diaz first commissioned Italian architect Adamo Boari in 1904 to design an opulent new home for the National Theatre of Mexico for the centennial celebration of the Mexican War of Independence in 1910. The soft subsoil led to issues with sinking soon after construction began, but the project was completely stalled out by the time of the 1913 overthrow and assassination of Francisco Madero.

Much of the original Neoclassical and Art Nouveau exterior design favored by Boari was retained when construction resumed in 1932. But architectural styles had evolved during the lapse, and Mexican architect Federico Mariscal transformed the interior into a celebration of Art Deco detailing. When the doors finally opened in 1934, the Bellas Artes also embraced the inclusion of works by some of Mexico’s greatest muralists.

The political, satirical and even violent revolutionary images apparently need not be feared by government leaders. Every president of Mexico since 1934 has survived to complete his six-year term in office.

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