A few weeks ago, my business partner and I went to see Diego Rivera’s Murals at the MoMa, which runs for another few weeks until May 12th. You should go and see it, not only because of the beauty of the murals and the artistry behind these images that are so familiar that they are simply unappreciated, BUT because it’s a fantastic exhibition to illustrate to us, viewers, the importance of critical thinking of information presented to us.
But first, the soft balls and the background. Most people are familiar with Diego Rivera, if for nothing else than his ubiquitious images of peasants gathering calla lillies AND for being the husband of Frieda Kahlo. However, 80 years ago he was what can only be considered a power player in the international art world. He was invited by The MoMa to come to New York and to create a series of murals that could be shown here (since by and large the concept of transporting a mural is challenging)and he created 5 almost “mini murals” (they are no more than about 7 feet tall at their highest and 4 or 5 feet wide for the largest ones). The show was the most well attended show in MoMa history at the time and ran from December 22, 1931, to January 27, 1932. After the show opened he added 3 more murals, dealing with the changing landscape of Manhattan, which he was transfixed by during his time here in New York.
The murals themselves are at once amazing and disappointing. If you have seen them reproduced in art books and in poster form, the scale of them in person is a bit underwhelming. But, the technical execution and subject matter is stimulating, invigorating and, even all these years later, politically charged. Murals have always been designed to be publicly consumed art forms, and it was a medium that Rivera clearly excelled at because with relative simple composition and choices, he is able to convey not just a scene, but a political position and an emotional rationale for taking his position. In short, this is socialist propaganda at it’s best- so good that whatever your political view point, you feel lost in the moment and emotion of the mural. Take for instance, Indian Warrior (1931). It is bold and graphic and digestible: an Aztec Warrior wearing a Jaguars costume stabs a Spanish Conquistador through his armour with nothing more than a stone knife. Simply put: it advocated Indigenous rebellion against lifetimes of domination by a leaden, stiffened culture. The sheer WILL of being a warrior gave them power over the might of the Spanish armor. An empowering image. A call to action.
Artistically, the most exciting aspect of the exhibition however wasn’t message nor mural, but actually the amazing, moving, fluid sketches Rivera prepared for his murals. Seen in some cases side by side with the finished products, I had new respect for Rivera as an illustrator and a visual emoter. And I had new understanding for the limitations of a medium and the compromises an artist makes when choosing his or her medium: For Rivera, the mural provided a large platform to convey message and enabled him to fulfill his mission of creating “art for the public”, but in choosing Fresco he lost the emotion and fluidity. And for his purposes a worthy tradeoff, but a fun thing to see for the viewer.
And now, the meatier, more provocative weird stuff. This is the stuff you totally don’t need to bother reading, but that still has me scratching my head a few weeks later. Back as a student at Brown just before the turn of the millennium, the mode was to teach a very “X-Files” type of thinking… Question everything… including canons and institutions. It could easily make someone into a conspiracy theorist, and the emphasis on critical thinking could sometimes strip an experience of it’s joy… But walking through the Rivera exhibition I couldn’t help but think to myself “Isn’t it FUNNY how the MoMa put this exhibition together this way…”
Upon entering the room, the viewer has a choice to start the walls to their left or the walls to their right. Being western, 90% of the viewers go left because that’s the way we are taught to “read”…both a book and a room. The exhibition starts off with a lengthy documentation of the the conflict between Rivera and the Rockefellers because of Rivera’s commission to complete a mural for Rock Center and his inclusion of imagery of Stalin and it’s highly socialist message. Long story short, Rockefeller claimed to be shocked at the inclusion, Rivera claims it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Rivera fired and slayed in the media and falls off his golden pedestal in America.
As we, the viewer progress through the show we then see the 3 murals that Rivera created in New York, after he’d spent some time here. They are fascinating insights into an outsider watching New York while under Massive modern construction…. skyscrapers popping up everywhere and the skyline as we know it being created. The show then moves to his more “Socialist” images such as “The Uprising”, which shows a clash between soldiers and working class protesters. These are positioned side by side with amazing images from Rivera’s Sketchbook of images taken during his time as Stalin’s guest in Moscow in 1928. Stalin invited Rivera, a member of the Mexican Communist Party, to visit for the 10th Anniversary of the Communist Party being in power in Russia.
Buried in the object placards around the various sketches and drawings from his trip to Moscow the curators from MoMa outline the following narrative: It was during this visit that Rivera met Stalin’s OTHER important guest, Alfred H. Barr, a founder of MoMA. Barr, like Rivera was on an all expenses paid trip to see the festivities. Barr then introduced Rivera to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (husband to John D. Rockefeller), who loved Rivera’s sketchbooks from his time in Moscow so much, she purchased them to help Rivera cover his expenses to come to New York. It was also during this trip that the entire concept of Rivera coming to New York for a Solo Show evolved and it was after the introduction to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (and the sketchbooks) that the commission for the controversial mural at Rockefeller Center…
After this narrative was revealed, there were about 1 or 2 more drawings and murals left to view before the exhibitions’ end. The entire thing was puzzling to me because I couldn’t understand why the exhibit would OPEN with the Rockefeller controversy? Why not simply tell the story chronologically and let the viewer assign “blame” to Rivera or not in the Rock Center mural controversy on their own. Why “Frame” the entire show around that debacle when it was clearly a well intentioned, intellectual NY infatuation gone awry? How many political and spiritual trends have we seen (in our lifetimes) celebrities and socialites champion, only to see them go awry? It happens. But instead it seems the museum didnt want to leave that conclusion to chance… And then I realized it’s because the Rockefeller family still calls a lot of the shots at MoMA and, in the rearview mirrors of life, history has mourned the loss of those murals at Rock Center as much as we mourn the loss of the old Penn Station… Perhaps a moment of rashness that always brings the blush of embarrassment.
All of this is to say, this show was a great reminder to me to view critically. Unless you are viewing art in an artist’s studio, we never just SEE the image alone… we see it in context. We can’t help ourselves. So remember, there are two artists at every exhibition: the one whose work is on the walls and the one who curated the way in which you viewed it.