April 16, 2012

Diego Rivera: Under the City

 Frozen Assets, 1931-32; fresco on reinforced cement in galvanized steel framework, 94 1/8 x 74 3/16 in. 

In 1931, the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera came to New York City for a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art. While there, he painted eight portable murals in a modern version of the fresco technique. We can see these paintings and attendant drawings in an exhibition currently at MoMA. What I most loved were Rivera's three paintings of New York, a look at the grandeur above ground, and most moving for me, the picturing of working people of the city. I got the images for this post from the excellent website for the show, which has high resolution images and explanatory text. 

 Frozen Assets, detail

We have to remember that the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression when these paintings were made, and that Rivera was a dedicated leftist, a Communist, aware of the complexities of capitalism, revolution, poverty, and modern and traditional life. The soaring, crowded geometries of city buildings are very different from the swelling volumes of Rivera's Mexican peasants. He later described the US as "a truly industrial country such as I had originally envisioned as the ideal place for modern mural art."

 Frozen Assets, detail

Below the wealth of skyscrapers is a shelter for homeless men, and hidden below that is the protected vault of a bank. Are the assets that are frozen the unused labor of the masses of unemployed? In the brilliant three part design of this painting our eye is caught by the center, by the warehouse space filled with bodies.

 Electric Power, 1931-32; fresco on reinforced cement in galvanized steel framework, 58 1/16 x 94 1/8 in. 

Workers are encased in the strict geometries of industry...

Electric Power, detail

where they sometimes appear as part of the machine. (I'm tempted to say that this detail of the mural is riveting, but I'll refrain.) As in all his work, Rivera's strong, simple shapes create a sense of the universal. 

 Electric Power, detail

The technique of fresco demands that the artist paint into wet plaster, or in this case, cement, so that each day a section of the mural must be completed. This requires planning and a sure and confident hand. I enjoyed seeing the marks of the brush close up (which you can also see on the website). Rivera tended to use parallel strokes of the brush to draw the forms; the color was translucent. 

Pneumatic Drilling, 1931-32; fresco on reinforced cement in galvanized steel framework, 94 x 74 in.

The black and white of this image highlights the rhythms of bodies and hoses as workers drill into Manhattan bedrock during the excavation for Rockefeller Center. This image of heroic labor is somewhat ironic in view of later events: the work on Rivera's 1933 mural for Rockefeller Center, Man at the Crossroads, was stopped when he wouldn't remove a portrait of Lenin; the mural was destroyed in 1934. The paintings of Rivera are beautifully successful formally––color, composition, drawing, depth––but they must also be seen in their political and social context, or they lose their reason for existing. 


  1. What a great post. So interesting to learn more about these...on so many levels. And so applicable to today's society. Makes one wonder about "progress," eh?

    1. thanks, Julie. We don't seem to have made much progress, have we?

  2. love your posts! so informative and insightful.