January 2012, Week 4


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Hal Foster

LRB  . Vol. 34 No. 2 . 26 January 2012
pages 30-31
[follow the link for several mural reproductions]

It comes as a surprise to learn that the second artist
given a major show at the Museum of Modern Art was Diego
Rivera, for when the exhibition opened in December 1931,
the 45-year-old Mexican was already a celebrated
Communist. Just as surprising, given that the museum was
founded by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and friends, is what
Rivera chose to display: five fresco panels devoted to
Mexican history from the perspective of the recent
revolution, and three others concerning New York City
during the Depression. Five of these massive pictures,
along with related prints, documents and materials for
other commissions, including the famous mural for
Rockefeller Center that the Rockefellers first
commissioned, then destroyed, are now at MoMA again (until
14 May).

At the time the show opened, Rivera was acknowledged,
along with David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente
Orozco, as a leader of Mexican muralism, which was
supported by the new government of Alvaro Obregon as a way
to promote a transformed sense of Mexican identity through
public art. This new identity would yoke an indigenous
past to a modern future while condemning a long history of
colonial abuse and dictatorial rule. When Obregon came to
power in 1920, Rivera was just another bohemian in Paris
besotted with Cubism. The education minister, Jose
Vasconcelos, sent him to Italy to study the Old Masters;
somehow it was thought that the narrative power of the
grand tradition of painting, given over to biblical
scenes, powerful lords and wealthy bankers, could be
retooled to depict a post-revolutionary Mexico. When
Rivera returned to Mexico in 1922 with this new expertise,
he set to work on the epic murals - most of which are
located in national schools, ministries and palaces in
Mexico City, Cuernavaca and Chapingo - that quickly made
his name.

In 1927 Rivera was chosen to represent Mexico at the
tenth-anniversary celebrations of the Russian Revolution
in the Soviet Union. There, as recounted in a catalogue
essay by the MoMA curator Leah Dickerman, aesthetic debate
was split between ex-Constructivist groups that advocated
photographic displays as the true means of collective
representation (painting was rejected as bourgeois) and
proto-Socialist Realist groups that sought to refunction
traditional modes of art for proletarian propaganda.
Although Rivera was more sympathetic to the former
position (which was advanced by Aleksandr Rodchenko, El
Lissitzky and Gustav Klutsis, as well as his friend Sergei
Eisenstein), he effectively triangulated the two groups,
and the murals he made on his return to Mexico in 1928
combine photographic effects such as cropped figures and
massed groups with Socialist Realist motifs like bright
flags and cheery peasants.

While in the Soviet Union, Rivera encountered Alfred H.
Barr Jr and Jere Abbott, two young American art historians
soon to become the founding director and associate
director of the Modern, who were on their own sojourn to
scout out the Russian avant-gardes. Strange bedfellows,
the three made even stranger collaborators at MoMA. That
said, Rivera was hardly unknown in the United States; in
the news in 1930-31 on account of mural commissions in the
Bay Area, he was already presented as a pan-American
counterpoint to difficult European modernism - his radical
politics notwithstanding, he was at least aesthetically
moderate. (His influence on representational art in the
1930s was immense, as evidenced in the work done under the
federal Work Progress Administration.) Furthermore,
although American capitalists were suspicious of the
Mexican government, they pushed for an opportunistic
engagement with their disadvantaged neighbour to the
south, and cultural exchange in the manner of the MoMA
show was part of the programme.

Rivera came to New York only a few weeks before the
opening. As frescos are fixed in situ, he had to vary his
usual method: he had cement poured into steel frames ready
to be surfaced with fresco plaster on his arrival. The
Modern set him up in an empty gallery on 57th Street,
where he worked non-stop with three assistants, all under
the pressure of a steady stream of visitors, a curious
media and a tight deadline. The fresco added to the
constraints, for in this medium the pigment is mixed into
wet mortar, which then dries to a hard surface. Execution
thus has to be rapid, which is one reason Rivera favoured
graphic sweep, bold massing and broad colour in his
murals. Despite its difficulties, he insisted on the
medium precisely for its associations with public space
and collective viewership. That said, his panels at MoMA,
though large (most are five or six feet by eight) and
heavy (because of all the steel and cement), were in
principle as saleable as any easel painting, and they
ended up in collections in both the US and Mexico.

Rivera finished the five murals on Mexican themes in time
for the opening, and unveiled the three New York pictures
just two weeks later. This was possible largely because
almost all the Mexican scenes were adapted from his murals
back home. Four of the panels - Sugar Cane, The Uprising
(the one newly conceived), Liberation of the Peon and The
Agrarian Leader Zapata - present legendary scenes on the
road to the revolution: oppressive labour in the old
hacienda, police repression of urban workers, the
sacrifice of unknown revolutionaries and, finally, the
victory of the hero Zapata. In the fifth panel, Indian
Warrior, a primitive figure in a jaguar mask straddles a
prone conquistador whose armoured chest he stabs with a
stone knife; this extraordinary image, Dickerman writes,
'offers a native Mesoamerican precedent for revolutionary
resistance, a distilled emblem of righteous vengeance'.

Nature is sympathetic to the revolutionary spirit in the
Mexican panels. In Sugar Cane, the stalks conform to the
exertions of the workers, while in Liberation of the Peon,
four horses lament a tortured peasant. In Agrarian Leader
Zapata, the giant steed that stands with its master
approves the final triumph over the fallen enemy (this
beast - it is almost a unicorn - shares the pure white
coat and dark oval eyes of the hero). At the same time
history is understood as sacrificial; Indian Warrior is
downright Bataillean. Blades abound in the pictures, even
though the swords of the enemy, whether conquistador,
soldier or police, are ultimately no match for the stone
knife of the masked avenger or the machete of Zapata. In
all the panels, Dickerman notes, the bodies of oppressors
and oppressed, victors and vanquished, 'create figural
rhymes that speak of shifting power relations across the
historical stage'.

Rivera used art history to underscore these desired
shifts. His time spent in Paris and Italy is evident in
pointed allusions to French and Italian painting. The
woman who stands with her child between the police and the
workers in The Uprising evokes The Intervention of the
Sabine Women by David, and the lacerated peasant in
Liberation of the Peon calls up the crucified Christ in
Lamentation by Giotto. Here the sacrificial nature of
history according to Rivera is both pagan and Christian,
as is the mythical gloss that he gave it, and this is why
his otherwise weird anachronisms of subject and technique
- indigenous and modern, Mexican and European, fresco and
steel, history painting and photographic effects - make
sense. Across the Atlantic in these same years, Walter
Benjamin argued that mass society and mass media worked to
erode the auratic basis of traditional art. Rivera wanted
it both ways - technological advance in society and iconic
authority in art - and sometimes he forced the issue. For
example, he had difficulty with his imaging of crowds,
which often lump together the very sides he otherwise saw
as opposed. Here the ex-Constructivists were perhaps
right: photography and film are better suited to such
compositions. Yet the force of his pictures is beyond
doubt. My childhood home contained only one image I
identified as art, a print of the Zapata mural; that a
representation of an agrarian revolutionary could find its
way into a middle-class house in Seattle in the 1960s
attests to its powerful iconicity as much as to its
popular circulation.

In the three New York panels Rivera turned from agrarian
and revolutionary themes to industrial and capitalist
ones. In Pneumatic Drilling (whose whereabouts are
unknown) two giant labourers, composed as simple swirls of
dynamic lines, bend over power drills, breaking ground for
a Rockefeller Center on the rise, while in Electric Power
three lone workers toil in three subterranean chambers of
a steam plant on a nearby river. The concern of these two
murals is the labouring body, often pictured anonymously
from behind, with echoes of Realist predecessors such as
Courbet (Pneumatic Drilling draws directly on his
Stonebreakers), but with the scenes switched from bleak
countryside to dynamic cityscape. With the sweep and speed
of his execution, Rivera binds these working figures to
his own painting body (he was famously rotund; Barr once
described him, in his Waspy way, as 'rather Rabelaisian'),
yet this identification does not undo the alienation that
Rivera also wanted to convey here. Unlike the natural
sympathy of the rural panels, the men in these industrial
scenes are connected to their tools and machines
prosthetically but not spiritually.

The showstopper in the New York group is Frozen Assets,
which presents a fictive cross-section of Manhattan in
three layers. In the bottom rank, a caged bank vault is
watched over by a clerk and a guard; at a desk inside a
woman looks through her jewel box, while on a bench
outside two young women wait with an older man (who
resembles John D. Rockefeller Jr) to handle their own
treasures. In the central rank, a vast hangar is filled
with shrouded figures on the floor overseen by another
guard (the near twin of the one below). Finally, in the
top level, above an elevated platform where an endless
line of anonymous workers shuffles to work in trains, the
great metropolis rises; three cranes signal that the
skyline is in active production. Frozen Assets is an
inspired montage: Rivera based the vault on those he had
toured in Wall Street and the hangar on the interior of
the Municipal Pier on East 25th Street, while his skyline
combines a few downtown banks with several new buildings
in midtown, including the Chrysler, Empire State,
McGraw-Hill, Daily News and Rockefeller Center (the last
three of which were designed by Rockefeller favourite
Raymond Hood). The allegory of this literal expose is
explicit: the building boom that gave us the great
skyscraper city depended on the cheap labour represented
by the subway drones and the sleeping bodies as much as on
the stashed assets. In this not-so-divine comedy, the pier
is a grey purgatory and the vault a brown hell, as much
prison as bank (in this faecal cavern, Rivera almost
suggests the anal sadism that Freud associated with
money). Only the skyscrapers have any vitality, but their
animation is fetishistic; indeed, Frozen Assets depicts a
fetishisation of capital on a metropolitan scale, in which
urban liveliness counts far more than the actual
livelihood of working men and women; unlike the labouring
bodies in the other murals, they are the real 'frozen
assets' here.

How did Rivera get away with these pictures at MoMA?
Again, his great patron was Abby Rockefeller - wife of
John D. Jr, who was caricatured by Rivera, and mother of
Nelson, who censored his Rockefeller Center mural. Her
support mattered, of course, as did his popularity, but
more important still was a public sphere that, in the
depths of the Depression, was more capacious politically
than anything Americans have experienced since. This was
also a time when capitalism could still be grasped,
readily if roughly, in terms of class iconography, and
when capital was still material enough to be represented
by a vault. Our situation today seems very different. If
Frozen Assets were updated, what form might it take? How
to image our liquid assets, not to mention our vanished
ones? And yet the coincidence of the present show and the
Occupy Wall Street movement might point to new parallels.
The MoMA exhibition opened in mid-November, just two days
before Zuccotti Park was cleared by the police and four
days before a major demonstration was staged throughout
the city, with a nasty confrontation on the Brooklyn
Bridge. In The Uprising the police beat down the
protesters, and in Frozen Assets the guards watch over the
rich and keep the poor in line. They still do. The clash
on the bridge had brutal moments, and a common sign at OWS
events is 'Police Protect the 1%.' OWS demonstrates that
the politics of appearance by actual people in real space
still counts; it suggests that public art might too.


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