Postcard from Mexico City: Rivera freed stories from ancient stones

After vanquishing the Aztecs in Mexico City, Hernan Cortes (1485-1547) requisitioned the stones from the destroyed palace of Moctezuma II (1466-1520) to build his home on the same site across the plaza from the Cathedral. While much of this building was devastated in 1692, the stones were incorporated yet again as the building blocks for what is known as the National Palace, the current home of Mexico’s Treasury and Archives departments.

Working on an immense mural on a massive staircase within the governmental building between 1929 and 1935, Diego Rivera (1886-1957) released some of the stories witnessed by those stones. Tackling centuries of the history of Mexico in one composition, he viewed his painting as an opportunity to redefine the national identity. An accompanying set of murals, added between 1940 and 1951 and covering part of the walls on the second floor, traced pre-Hispanic history and the early roots of products of Mexico.

Instead of presenting history through the traditional European descendant lens, an anti-Indian and anti-Mestizo lens, Rivera glorified what it meant to be Mexican. He did not shrink away from presenting the brutal horror of the conquest or the corruption he saw within the clergy or the reign of Porfirio Diaz (1830-1915). Native Americans and those of mixed race were given dignity as the true faces of Mexico.

Diego Rivera belonged to a generation of Mexican muralists who picked up paintbrushes as others would swords. His paintbrush was wielded as a powerful didactic tool for shaping public opinion and affecting political change.

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.

Postcard from Mexico City: A mountainous amount of history reflected in Chapultepec Palace

In 1725, the commanding Chapultepec hilltop rising steeply 200 feet above Mexico City was the site chosen by Viceroy Bernardo de Galvez (1746-1786) for his manor house. During the Mexican War of Independence, the site was abandoned. The Mexican government then remodeled it for use as a military academy.

Two hundred cadets, some as young as 13, were among the 1,000 Mexican soldiers guarding the citadel when General Winfield Scott (1786-1866) set his eyes on the target as a strategic asset facilitating the capture Mexico City during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848.) Following intensive shelling, American troops were able to scale the fortress and engage in bloody hand-to-hand combat with the defenders.

The costly victory for participating Marines is engrained deeply in the corps’ tradition, “From the halls of Montezuma….” For Mexicans, the battle heroes remembered are six brave cadets who refused to surrender. Fighting until the bitter end, one wrapped himself in the Mexican flag before leaping off the precipice so the flag would not be captured. Virtually every city in Mexico has an avenida memorializing the valor of the cadets, los ninos heroes.

Captured flags arouse countries, and the aging silk banner of the New Orleans Greys seized by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (1794-1876) during the 1836 Battle of the Alamo is displayed in Chapultepec Castle today despite continual efforts to negotiate its return to San Antonio. History always is subject to the interpretation of the teller, and it is not surprising that the slant given the Mexican-American War in the United States differs slightly from the version presented in the museum housed in Chapultepec Castle.

For the United States, the war represented the fulfillment of its Manifest Destiny. As explained on the San Jacinto Monument, the Texians’ victory at the Battle of San Jacinto laid the foundation for the next violent chapter of relations between the neighbors:

Measured by its results, San Jacinto was one of the decisive battles of the world. The freedom of Texas from Mexico won here led to annexation and to the Mexican War, resulting in the acquisition by the United States of the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma. Almost one-third of the present area of the American nation, nearly a million square miles of territory, changed sovereignty.

With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the United States paid the Mexican government $15 million, or about $15 per square mile, for the land it now claimed.

The treaty meant Mexico lost half its territory for the same amount of money paid the French for the Louisiana Purchase. The interpretation at Chapultepec records the war as a land grab by its greedy neighbor, a war that cost many their lives. At the very bottom of the signage is a quotation from President Ulysses S. Grant, expressing shame for the “wicked” war.

Grant’s words, however, were not taken out of context. Here is a longer portion from an 1879 interview given by Grant:

I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico. I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, only I had not moral courage enough to resign…. I considered my supreme duty was to my flag. I had a horror of the Mexican War, and I have always believed that it was on our part most unjust. The wickedness was not in the way our soldiers conducted it, but in the conduct of our government in declaring war…. We had no claim on Mexico. Texas had no claim beyond the Nueces River, and yet we pushed on to the Rio Grande and crossed it. I am always ashamed of my country when I think of that invasion.

Another intrusion into Mexico’s sovereignty occurred soon after. The $15 million received from the United States did little to alleviate the debt Mexico incurred during the expensive war. President Benito Juarez defaulted on Mexico’s loans from France. A conspiracy between out-of-power Mexican conservatives and Napoleon III resulted in an 1862 invasion by France. The French were defeated in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, the reason for the annual Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

But that was one battle, not the entire war. While the United States was occupied fighting the Confederacy, France succeeded in installing Maximilian I, a Hapsburg prince, as Emperor of Mexico. Emperor Maximilian transformed the castle into his residential palace with a grand boulevard, now known as Paseo de la Reforma, leading into the heart of the city.

Not surprisingly, many in Mexico were not fond of having a foreign monarch with no command even of the Spanish language, and forces loyal to Benito Juarez executed him in 1867.

During the extended off-and-on terms of President Porfirio Diaz from 1876 to 1911, the castle served as his palatial headquarters as well. Amazingly, during the following tumultuous years of the Mexican Revolution that followed, much of the opulent décor contributed by Maximilian and Diaz remained unscathed.

Chapultepec was declared a national museum in 1939.

Masterful murals depicting the revolutionary period were commissioned in the late 1950s to 1970s. Juan O’Gorman’s (1904-1982) murals commemorating Mexican independence were begun in 1960. Work by David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) was interrupted when he was imprisoned followed anti-government protests in 1960, and he completed his 175-foot mural after his release in 1964.