Diego Rivera and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

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Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Diego Rivera, 1914

I’ve got two projects in the works at the moment, a conference paper on Berenice Abbott and my MA thesis on the early years of American Muralism. I’ll be blogging about both subjects frequently, and unless other things come up (and I have time to think about them) Abbott and Murals will be my main contribution. It’s kind of a lot to deal with, and I hope breaking it down into smaller posts might help me manage the work load.

One of the things I’m interested in is Diego Rivera’s relationship with America and the part the Museum of Modern Art played in it.

A little run down of my thesis from my proposal:

My thesis takes a closer, case-study driven look at the American mural movement of the early 1930s.  While scholars have begun to re-assess the federally commissioned murals of the great Depression, little work has been done on the years directly preceding the relief programs when the idea of the “American mural” was still being formed. In my thesis I will discuss a series of events and works of art that were crucial in shaping what would become the standard iconography of a federal mural. The most central of these events was the 1932 Museum of Modern Art Exhibition Murals by American Painters and Photographers, where the debate over the function and form of American murals came to a head. Equally important are two events concerning the Mexican Artist Diego Rivera, his 1931 MoMA retrospective, and his 1933 commission for Rockefeller center.

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Alfred H. Barr Jr, and friends.

In 1931 the Museum of Modern Art (hence forth MoMA), held its second artist retrospective and arguably its first “blockbuster” exhibition, featuring the works of Diego Rivera. MoMA opened on November 7th, 1929, and the museum’s first director was Alfred H. Barr. During his tenure, Barr would dictate the direction of Modern Art in America. By the time of the Rivera exhibition Barr and Rivera had been friends for a while. The two met while independently visiting Moscow in the early days of the newly formed Soviet Union in the late 1920s. While Barr was just starting out in the art world, Rivera had become world famous as one of “Los Tres Grandes” The Three Greats of Mexican Muralism 1. By the time of his retrospective, Rivera had already completed huge mural series at the Secretaría de Educación Pública and the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City, as well as a mural for the San Francisco Stock Exchange.

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Rivera’s Allegory of California for the San Francisco Stock Exchange, 1930.

Relatively well known in America, the 1931 retrospective at MoMA really launched Rivera into the spotlight. Though incredibly successful for the museum (Rivera ended up painting additional works well into the run of the exhibition due to popularity), I think this exhibition begins to mark the end of Rivera’s pristine reputation in America. Prior to the MoMA retrospective Mexican Muralism was held up in America as the artistic way forward, and Rivera as one of its most skilled practitioners. The Mexican murals were revolutionary, dynamic, and exciting. Thematically they featured the struggles of the poor and peasant class in a way that didn’t romanticize, while simultaneously celebrating Mexico as a nation poised for greatness. For American progressives, Mexican Muralism in itself was a revolution.

Left-wing publication The New Masses, began to regularly feature the work of the Mexican Muralists during the mid 1920s alongside articles about the decay of the American painting. Rivera, and other mexican artists, were praised for their modern yet strait-forward and socially conscious art2. Rivera’s first show, a smaller retrospective held at the Wehye Gallery in 1927 led the New York Times to declare that a trip to Mexico should supplant the traditional artistic pilgrimage to Europe 3.

But after Rivera’s success at MoMA reviews and public opinion began to change. “Painting and Politics: The Case of Diego Rivera” written by Robert Evans for The New Masses in 1932, outlines the left’s issues with Rivera; basically he sold out. Rivera’s retrospective included over 140 works, many of which pre-date his revolutionary mural period. Also heavily featured were portable murals made specifically for the exhibition. There are many issues involved with murals made for exhibition that I explore regarding the 1932 MoMA exhibition “Murals by American Painters and Photographers”, but in short, murals are public works of art meant to be seen and accessed by the general public without limits. Is a mural painted for exhibition any different than regular easel art? That’s for another blog post.

On the whole, Rivera showed a watered down version of his revolutionary art. In his piece Evans concluded that “from these it is obvious that his reputation is due not to his craftsmanship, but to his themes.”4 Rivera’s work was exciting because of it’s revolutionary subject matter, as well as it’s unconventional format (I argue), and the 1931 retrospective presented Rivera just like the artists he and others had intentionally set themselves apart from. More on that later.
 

1The other two being David Alfaro Siqueros, and Jose Clemente Orozco. I’m sure they’ll feature in a blog post soon.

2 In a 1927 editorial for The New Masses, American artist Hugo Gellert “threw down the gauntlet against modernist formalism which had no clear social message”. James Wechsler “The Art and Activism of Hugo Gellert: Embracing the Specter of Communism.” PhD Diss., City University of New York, 2003.

3Read all about Rivera in America with this neat timeline! http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2011/rivera/chronology.php

4Robert Evans,  “Painting and Politics: The Case of Diego Rivera”, The New Masses, February 1932.

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