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Diego Rivera's Great America


DeWitt Cheng


Diego Rivera, “Pan American Unity,” 1940, mural, courtesy of City College of San Francisco, 22 x 74'

My mural which I am painting now— it is about the marriage of the artistic expression of the North and of the South on this continent, that is all. I believe in order to make an American art, a real American art, this will be necessary, this blending of the art of the Indian, the Mexican, the Eskimo, with the kind of urge which makes the machine, the invention in the material side of life, which is also an artistic urge, the same urge primarily but in a different form of expression.

—Diego Rivera, 1940

The January 6th committee hearings have been a bombshell, exploding the myths of Donald Trump’s patriotism, character, and competence for all to see — and for his MAGA-cult minions to deny with their usual stubbornness. The ex-Trumper men and women who are finally coming forward to testify or to write tell-all books are being lauded by the excitable mainstream press as heroes. Some, such as Rusty Bowers and Cassidy Hutchinson, have braved threats to life and career, and thus merit a certain respect. Pat Cipollone, William Barr, and a number of other Trump apostates, however useful their current testimony, may have ulterior motives and should be considered heroes only in the most qualified sense. Where were they during the impeachment hearings? Why did it take the mob-and-mobster mayhem of January 6th to awaken these loyalists, who mocked the ‘woke’ liberals for four years, from their dogmatic slumbers?


Diego Rivera at work, from "Diego Rivera: The Complete Murals"

The truth about Trump has been evident for decades to anyone without rose-colored (or Rose-Garden-colored) lenses. He is, after all, a capitalist embodiment of the Seven Deadly Sins: Lust, Envy, Glutton, Anger, Sloth, Envy, and lest we forget, Greed. If there is one good feature about the horde of evils released from the Pandora’s Box of Trumpism, it is the exposure that — to quote the title of Republican political operative Stuart Stevens’ 2020 book characterizing Trumpism as Reagan Republicanism on steroids: “It Was All A Lie.”


Any reader of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” (1980) — which in. An ideal world would be required reading for high-schoolers — could have told us that before Reagan was elected. But the myths of American virtue and exceptionalism persist in the public mind and mass-media assumption. Horatio Alger’s best-selling up-from-poverty-with-pluck capitalist version of Dickens somehow endures, despite the ‘concerning’ realities. Tucker Carlson touts his own 90-hour-a-week work ethic — not crafting chicken pies for his Swanson-heiress mother, but polishing paternalistic moral tales for keeping the benighted both blessed with progeny and mired in debt: dependable wage slaves for the Masters of the Universe. Work for nothing, teens; show us your character.


Diego Rivera, “Pan American Unity,” detail

If the United States is to survive and prosper, mainstream Americans must shake off the toxic lie of Christian predatory capitalist white supremacy. The demographics are on the side of a pluralistic, multicultural America, and with it the purveyance of common decency and the real history of an immigrant America, not Hollywood tales of jut-jawed gunmen defending the “sacred American way of life” (to use Dubya’s felicitous term from 2001) against The Other. The final existential battle between equal and opposite contending forces/principles curiously never seems to be the last, just the penultimat. There’s always a new clash of titans when historical time, in all of its complexity, gets morphed into the simplistic fantasies of mythic time.


The current exhibition of 150 infrequently seen artworks by Diego Rivera at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is titled “Diego Rivera’s America.” That claim to sovereignty is a corrective to those of the flag-bearing European colonists of the New World, a claim that reflects the artist’s own background as a Paris-trained modernist who returned to Mexico to renew his affiliation with his homeland and its mestizo (mixed) culture. America, for Rivera, meant the entire western hemisphere, “the territory included between two ice barriers of the two poles.” The exhibit resurrects for younger audiences an artistic giant who conveyed his sociopolitical convictions with compelling power and beauty. Rivera was an epic history painter beyond the establishmentarian connotations of the word. His sprawling, packed murals collapse and conflate eras and cultures, persistently violating the time and space standards of classical historiography. While the exhibit includes videos of murals painted elsewhere, the colossal “Pan-American Unity,” also titled “The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and the South on This Continent” (1940), is present, on loan from City College of San Francisco. It should not be missed. As if one could overlook a ten-panel, multi-ton, 22 by 74 foot panorama, mounted on the wall of the museum’s foyer.


Diego Rivera, “Pan American Unity,” detail

Spend the time to take it in again. Mid-century murals like Rivera’s “Pan-American Unity” and Victor Arnautoff’s George Washington High School murals, the subject of political controversy in recent years, are artistic monuments and historic time capsules with which San Francisco, liberal and tolerant (most of the time), is blessed — if we resist the impulse to discard them in the momentary passion of current political sins. Nelson Rockefeller had Rivera’s 1932 Rockefeller Center mural painted over because it depicted, amid the hordes populating “Man at the Crossroads,” that antichrist of capitalism and idol of 1930s-era communists like Rivera, V.I. Lenin. By 1942, however, after learning of Stalin’s pogroms and show trials, Rivera had concluded that, “Communist revolution has only one outcome: totalitarian dictatorship … democracy is the only alternative …”


Rivera’s universal history of the Americas is encyclopedic and maximalist, a God’s eye view of the history of the New World. He includes the cultures (indigenous and Euro-immigrant) and personalities that shaped the New World for centuries and those world-stage leaders who were prominent during the 1930s. The nameless weavers, miners, farmers, and other laborers whose contributions go unsung by history are here ennobled and commemorated, though without the vacant pomp of Socialist Realism. Portraits of eminent persons of all kinds include the poet Netzahualcoyotl, king of Texcoco; Helen Crlenkovich, Olympic high diver; and Timothy Pflueger, San Francisco architect and Rivera patron. Also included were the physicist Albert Einstein, industrialist Henry Ford, and inventor Thomas Edison. The roster includes Samuel F.B. Morse and Robert Fulton, both painters as well as inventors; political leaders George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln; their Mexican counterparts, Miguel Hidalgo and Jose Maria Morelos; the revolutionists Simòn Bolivar and John Brown. Cultural figures like Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Edward G. Robinson, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Frida Káhlo, Emmy Lou Packard (one of Rivera’s assistants) gather at the easel. Frank Lloyd Wright, Maronio Magaña (depicted sculpting the stone head of the Aztec Feathered Serpent god of sun, wind, air and learning, Quetzalcoatl), appear alongside Rivera himself.


Diego Rivera, “Pan American Unity,” detail

It’s a compendium of his past history, of his European artistic heritage and his love for working class people and his love of indigenous history. You know, I mean, it's all there. And his idea of progress and change, that it's not scary. For him, the idea of change is moving forward all together within this piece. To me, [the forbidding Aztec goddess] Coatlicue [at the center of the mural] is not just the earth. Coatlicue is the cosmos. In all its beauty and humbleness and its scariness, you know, which he does not shy away from. So, it it's really like, it is an exuberant, magnificent, life-affirming piece. — Yolanda López, Chicana artist and activist


Yeah, it is magnificent, it is beautiful. But it’s also really complex because it’s Rivera’s vision of this American continent shaped by similar historical forces, the Indigenous past, colonial history, but also this confidence in innovation and technology. Like a lot of his work, for me, this mural is, it’s just super optimistic: if we emphasize what we share more than what divides us, across ethnic or class or political borders, if we empathize, you know, we might actually achieve greater harmony, greater equality. It’s a utopian idea, of course, but it’s a very powerful one. —James Oles, curator of Diego Rivera’s America

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Diego Rivera, “The making of a fresco, showing the building of a city,”

1931, fresco mural, courtesy of San Francisco Art Institute

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