In Liberation of the Peon (1931), Rivera developed a harrowing narrative of corporal punishment. A labourer, beaten and left to die, is cut down from a post by sympathetic revolutionary soldiers, who tend to his broken body. Peonage, a system of indentured servitude established by Spanish colonisers, under which natives were forced to work the land, persisted in Mexico into the 20th century. The mural offers the injustice of earlier social and economic conditions as a rationale for the Mexican Revolution.
In New York’s Museum of Modern Art, a new exhibition has opened that displays the artistic work of Diego Rivera, whose socialist murals of the 1930s depicted the onrush of capitalism and its effects on labour and rural cultivators in Mexico. The heroines and heros of the Occupy movement in the USA could not have asked for a more fitting epilogue to their struggle, for Rivera’s work is as relevant today as it was 80 years ago, and indeed more so, for in 1931 western capitalism had not the ravening tools it employs today.
Rivera at work in MoMA, 1931-32. Photo: New York Museum of Modern Art
Diego Rivera’s name is synonymous with epic murals of social revolution in the first decades of the 20th century. The powerful appeal of socialist politics following the Russian Revolution was felt by broad layers of the population in Mexico, especially with the economic collapse of 1929, and could not be ignored. Rivera’s connection with socialism went deep, for the power of his work was bound up not just with the radical nationalist Mexican Revolution, but also with the establishment of the first worker’s state in Russia in 1917.
Even so, it comes as a surprise to learn that the Museum of Modern Art’s first curator, Alfred H. Barr, met Rivera while in Moscow in 1927, where the already renowned painter and member of the Mexican Communist Party was a guest of honour at the festivities honoring the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution.
Writing in the World Socialist Web Site, Clare Hurley has provided us a politically enlightening and socially highly relevant article to convey the historicity of the current exhibition. “Some have found it ironic that Barr, who represented not only MoMA, but its founding patrons, wealthy socialite Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and her husband industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. invited – all expenses paid – an artist known for his Communist views to come to New York to paint murals for the museum,” she has written.
Sugarcane (1931). Set on a sugar plantation, this portable mural introduces the tensions over labour, race, and economic inequity that simmered in Mexico after the Revolution. In the foreground, an Indian woman, with the traditional braids and white clothes of a peasant, cuts papayas from a tree while her children collect the fruit in reed baskets. Behind them, dark-skinned men with bowed heads gather bunches of sugar cane. A foreman, with distinctly lighter skin and hair, watches over them on horseback, and in the background a pale hacendado (wealthy landowner) languishes in a hammock. In this panel, Rivera adapted Marxist ideas about class struggle - an understanding of history born in industrialised Europe - to the context of Mexico, a primarily agrarian country until after World War II.
She has noted that at the time, the American ruling elite no doubt had more enlightened artistic views than its counterpart today, since figures such as Abby Rockefeller still had the confidence to associate themselves with what they considered the most progressive artistic trends of the time. “Today, such an association would not be so much ironic as inconceivable,” Hurley wrote.
These images (taken from the MoMA website on the Rivera exhibition) show Rivera’s well-known fresco cycle in Cuernavaca, Mexico, which depicts Mexican history in sweeping breadth: ‘Sugar Cane’, ‘Liberation of the Peon’, ‘Indian Warrior’, and ‘Agrarian Leader Zapata’.
In The Uprising (1931), a woman with a baby at her hip and a working man fend off an attack by a uniformed soldier. Behind them, a riotous crowd clashes with more soldiers, who force demonstrators to the ground. The location is unclear, though the figures’ skin tone implies that the scene is set in Mexico or another Latin American country. In the early 1930s, an era of widespread labour unrest, images of the violent repression of strikes would have resonated with both US and Latin American audiences. The battle here stands as a potent symbol of universal class struggle.
Diego Rivera was the subject of MoMA’s second monographic exhibition (the first was Henri Matisse), which set new attendance records in its five-week run. MoMA brought Rivera to New York six weeks before the exhibition’s opening and gave him studio space within the Museum, a convenience intended to solve the problem of how to present the work of this famous muralist when murals were by definition made and fixed on site.
Working around the clock with two assistants, Rivera produced five “portable murals” – large blocks of frescoed plaster, slaked lime, and wood that feature bold images drawn from Mexican subject matter and address themes of revolution and class inequity. After the opening, to great publicity, Rivera added three more murals, now taking on New York subjects through monumental images of the urban working class and the social stratification of the city during the Great Depression. All eight were on display for the rest of the show’s run.
Emiliano Zapata (1931), a champion of agrarian reform and a key protagonist in the Mexican Revolution, here leads a band of peasant rebels armed with makeshift weapons, including farming tools. With the bridle of a majestic white horse in his hand, Zapata stands triumphantly beside the dead body of a hacienda owner. Though Mexican and US newspapers regularly vilified the revolutionary leader as a treacherous bandit, Rivera immortalised Zapata as a hero and glorified the victory of the Revolution in an image of violent but just vengeance.
Inspired by his experience of New York City, the panels also show a modern metropolis at the height of a building boom made possible by the legions of available labour during the Great Depression. The skyscrapers that came to define the city’s iconic skyline all went up in an astonishingly short period of time. The Empire State Building, the tallest building in the world at the time, went up in just over a year, and was completed in 1931 while Rivera was in the city.
However, it has been ‘Frozen Assets’, an image of the social relations that underlie capitalism’s achievements, which has drawn the most attention at the time, and in today’s social context. The painting inventively takes a vertical slice of the city to expose the layers beneath its towering skyscrapers: first, masses of workers lined up on a subway platform, beneath them, a barracks of sleeping homeless people, and, finally, under it all, a guarded bank vault where the wealthy are waiting to check on their loot.
Of all the panels Rivera made for The Museum of Modern Art, Indian Warrior (1931)reaches back farthest into Mexican history, to the Spanish Conquest of the early 16th century. An Aztec warrior wearing the costume of a jaguar stabs an armoured conquistador in the throat with a stone knife. The Spaniard’s steel blade - an emblem of European claims to superiority - lies broken nearby. Jaguar knights, members of an elite Aztec military order, were known for their fighting prowess; according to legend, their terrifying costumes enabled them to possess the power of the animal in battle. The panel’s jarring vision of righteous violence offered a Mesoamerican precedent for Mexico’s recent revolution, as well as its continuing struggles.
MoMA has said of the exhibition: “Focused specifically on works created during the artist’s stay in New York, this exhibition will draw a succinct portrait of Rivera as a highly cosmopolitan figure who moved between Russia, Mexico, and the United States, and will offer a fresh look at the intersection of art making and radical politics in the 1930s.”
Rivera’s New York panels – 1
In Frozen Assets (1931-32), Rivera coupled his appreciation for New York’s distinctive vertical architecture with a potent critique of the city's economic inequities. The panel’s upper register features a dramatic sequence of largely recognizable skyscrapers, most completed within a few years of Rivera’s arrival in New York. In the middle section, a steel-and-glass shed serves as a shelter for rows of sleeping men, pointing to the dispossessed labor that made such extraordinary growth possible during a period of economic turmoil. Below, a bank’s waiting room accommodates a guard, a clerk, and a trio of figures eager to inspect their mounting assets in the vault beyond. Rivera’s jarring vision of the city - in which the masses trudge to work, the homeless are warehoused, and the wealthy squirrel away their money - struck a chord in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression.
Rivera’s New York panels – 2
Pneumatic Drilling (1931-32). The day after Rivera arrived in New York City, the New York Herald Tribune reported on his plans to “paint the rhythm of American workers.” The city was in the throes of one of the greatest construction drives of all time, made possible by the armies of surplus labor available during the Depression. The figures in the foreground here use a pneumatic drill and jackhammer to bore into Manhattan’s granite foundation Rivera later identified this scene as depicting preparations for the construction of Rockefeller Center, which was still in its early stages when he arrived in New York.
Rivera’s New York panels – 3
Electric Power (1931-32). Situated below a view of New York City’s jagged skyline, a steel-and-cement power plant interior dominates Electric Power’s composition. Rivera peeled back his plant’s facade to bring the workers—deep in the inner workings of its machinery—into the space of the viewer, exposing the human labor that powers the modern city. The work captures Rivera’s excitement at witnessing industrialization in the United States firsthand. He retrospectively described his time in the U.S. in the early 1930s as a “crucial test,” saying that “unlike Mexico, it was a truly industrial country such as I had originally envisioned as the ideal place for modern mural art.”