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 Oaxaca, Mexico: Tattooed Museum Walls

Museums in Oaxaca don’t shy away from exhibiting edgy work, and a show linking Dr. Lakra and Toño Camuñas at Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños proves no exception.

The tattoos on the bodies of both artists seem to spill onto their works on the walls. The comic-book-like drawings of Camuñas easily could be labeled pornographic. Dr. Lakra, née Jerónimo López Ramírez, began his career as a tattoo artist. His upward trajectory has included solo exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston and The Drawing Center in New York City, where statue-topped pedestals dominating the exhibit in Oaxaca emerged.

Covering Lakra’s 2011 show for The New York Times, Carol Kino wrote:

“Lakra is a much more complex artist than people realize,” said his longtime art dealer and friend Jose Kuri, a partner in the Mexico City gallery Kurimanzutto. “It’s very easy to pigeonhole him as a tattoo artist who entered the art world with these tattoos on vintage magazines. But he’s really well-educated in classical painting and anthropology.”

… Born in Mexico City as Jerónimo López Ramírez, Dr. Lakra is the eldest son of the anthropologist and poet Elisa Ramírez Castañeda and the painter Francisco Toledo, one of Mexico’s towering cultural figures. (Mr. Toledo has had a hand in founding just about every cultural institution in his native Oaxaca.)

Dr. Lakra and his older sister, the conceptual artist Laureana Toledo, spent their childhood travelling around the world and continued visiting their father wherever he was living — New York, Paris, Barcelona — after their parents divorced in 1980. “My father took us to many, many museums,” Dr. Lakra said.

Sorry, Grandpa Jacob, but you’re just going to have to live in the closet for a while….

Jacob Radcliffe, 1764-1844

Jacob Radcliff, 1764-1844

I was feeling guilty when I took you down.

After all, you are the Mister’s third great-grandfather and the source of his middle name.

And you’ve been around a long time, a very long time.

radcliffegashYour frame certainly shows it. It appears to have endured a war or two; although I’m not sure wars were what caused its wounds. You are merely an engraving of sorts, but your frame was impressively regal at one time. We’re not sure what time, but I’ve never encountered another frame with such a heavy, brown ceramic interior. When did they make such frames?

Before I removed you from our hall, a temporary relocation of sorts, I thought I should write a few words about you. But all I knew was you were a mayor of New York City, which always impressed me.

In Bayard Tuckerman’s name-dropping family history, A Sketch of the Cotton Smith Family of Sharon, Connecticut, Jacob and his wife sound so perfectly civilized:

They lived first at Albany, where he was Judge of the Supreme Court, and afterwards in New York of which he was three times elected Mayor between 1810 and 1818. The Radcliffs had a country home near Poughkeepsie called Chestnut Hill, and there Juliana continued to have “literary evenings,” which are mentioned in letters of Chancellor Kent, Edward Livingston, Chancellor Livingston and Miss Janet Montgomery as “delightful gatherings where youth and age, fashion and wit, met for pleasure and improvement.”

Your resume looks pretty good. Graduated from Princeton. Sat on the Supreme Court of New York State. You joined with your friend Alexander Hamilton in a partnership founding Jersey City. Was that a good thing? Hamilton never got to see if that was a good idea or not, as he made the fatal mistake of insulting Aaron Burr. I do thank you for having the good sense not to follow suit.

The Bowery Boys website is rudely dismissive of you:

Politics is a messy, incomprehensible thing sometimes. Keep Blagojevich, Senate appointments, and all other recent government scandals in mind as you traipse through the thickets of political absurdity below.

The year 1815 marks the real beginning of New York City’s Tammany Hall era.

And that’s where Jacob Radcliff and John Ferguson come in. They are by no means exceptional leaders; they were Tammany men at the right time, in an era before absolute corruption pervaded the society’s every activity….

On top of the usual partisan stew of a swiftly growing city, the war of 1812 left party affiliations malleable, with Federalists opposing action (even suggesting secession from the United States!) and staunch Democratic-Republicans generally favoring the conflict. Thus, as you can imagine, it would be difficult to remain balanced in such unstable political waters, even for somebody as savvy and popular a career politician as (DeWitt) Clinton.

In this wily tug-of-war between the Federalists and Tammany candidates, Clinton was again unceremoniously ousted in 1810 and replaced with Jacob Radcliff….

The winds shifted again the next year, and Clinton was placed back in the mayor’s seat in 1811. (Following this so far?)

As war broke out with England in 1812, all political parties and affiliations seemed to disintegrate entirely. As James Renwick says in his biography of Clinton, “On this occasion the old party lines were completely obliterated; no trace of affection for Great Britain remained in any mind, and the very name of federalist only exists to be used as a mode of discrediting a political adversary in the minds of the ignorant.”

As a result, many Federalists jumped ship to join the surging Tammany Democrats. Among their number was former mayor Jacob Radcliff, warmly greeted by Tammany head ‘grand sachem’ John Ferguson.

A perfect storm brewed in 1815 when Tammany for the first time controlled the state senate and enjoyed great gains in local elections. For the first time, Tammany could really do what it wanted. And what it wanted was to get rid of that old stalwart Clinton. Once and for all.

And who better to replace him than the head of Tammany himself, John Ferguson? However, whether by intent or sudden whim, Ferguson stepped down after only three months in office to take on the far-more lucrative job of officer of the Port of New York custom house, according to one source a major center “of federal revenue, political patronage and potential graft.”

And so he was replaced with….Jacob Radcliff again, now a mayoral appointee representing an entirely different political party from the first time he had the job!…

Meanwhile, Radcliff was caught up in a scandal when, halfway into his term, he was caught distributing a list of potential Tammany replacements for all still-remaining Federalist council members, a politically insensitive move which galvanized the Council and ensured that 1816 would be Radcliff’s last year ever as mayor.

jradcliffeMaybe if you didn’t look quite so pompous. Maybe if it wasn’t quite so obvious that you have been looking down your sharp nose at me all these years. Maybe then I wouldn’t have dug deeper into your resume.

The Bowery Boys website even calls you “politically wishy-washy.” The original flip-flopper.

But, as Juliana’s first cousin, three times removed, once said:

           History is the story of events, with praise or blame.

And, whoa. Speaking of looking down one’s nose.

If that cousin had ever been offered for us to hang in the hall beside you, I certainly would have known better. His reputation preceded him.

This is what he would say about the Fiesta-colored garb I sport on a daily basis:

For an old woman to flant [flaunt] it in a youthful dress, is altogether as prodigious a Disorder as for the Flowers of May to appear among the Snows of December.

He never would have made it out of our closet. I could never have borne his disapproving glare on a daily basis.

Besides, Cotton Mather would have burned me at a stake.

Juliana’s puritanical father, John Cotton Smith (1765-1845), a Yale-educated governor of Connecticut, might not have drowned me but certainly would not have approved either.

But that’s partially his son-in-law’s fault. So eager for votes, Jacob Ratcliff was willing to stoop to courtship of the immigrant population swarming into New York City.

You let those damn Irish Catholics get a foot in the door, and, the next thing you know, only a couple of generations later, one of them marries into your family.

So hard to keep that puritanical bloodline pure.

Note Added June 6, 2013: In 1968, one of the Mister’s first cousins, once removed, purchased and restored John Cotton Smith’s former home in Sharon – Weatherstone.