Diego Rivera’s America
July 16, 2022-January 3, 2023
SFMOMA Floor 4
So, I went to San Francisco and one of the highlights — out of many — was being able to see a massive retrospective of Diego Rivera's American works at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I really liked the San Francisco MOMA because it’s not quite as big as the New York one and has an absolutely phenomenal collection; it’s also a really nicely designed building.
Diego Rivera himself has been slightly eclipsed by the newfound fame of his wife Frida Kahlo; without wanting to take anything away from Frida I think it’s pretty clear that Diego was really a master painter and should not be downgraded. His pro-Soviet communism, which he wore — like his heart — on his sleeve, was strangely enough in his lifetime not considered such a big deal but it may have something to do with why he has been less esteemed in the last few decades. Bizarrely he’s even now often described as ‘Frida Kahlo’s husband’ which is pretty unfair.
Diego Rivera is America -shows through a wealth of paintings, drawings, magazine and book covers — how Rivera interacted with the great power of the United States. The show demonstrates how he worked successfully in the United States and how he brought a strong awareness of the reality of Mexico into his artwork.
Rivera had a great deal of sympathy for the peasant and working-class Mexicans, employing them as models and painting them with empathy and sensitivity. He’s never patronising in his imagery of peasant women in particular; he shows off the back-breaking grind of their labours but also depicts them as living monuments, icons of an ancient Mexican matrilineal tradition as old as the geological formation of the land.
Rivera did not hide his Communism, but he did not need to. In the period before the Cold War (and the so-called Witch Hunts led by Senator McCarthy) communism was actually quite popular in the United States, despite the fact that many people opposed it and the government was officially against it. In fact, it was President Roosevelt’s new deal that changed people’s minds about socialist solutions to the Depression. However many, like Rivera, thought that communism would be the best way forward for a country like Mexico and that it would also be the best way to share the wealth of the United States. You can see that he was influenced by Soviet painting in this large picture.
Of course Rivera is probably best known as a muralist, and what the museum manages to do is to get really high quality photographs of his murals and project them against the gallery walls. This was effective because it managed to tie in his mural painting to his canvas painting; it was a good way to see them in detail because obviously, you can’t normally move murals.
The SF MOMA has one of Rivera’s murals on long term display, a magnificent work Diego Rivera’s largest portable mural, Pan American Unity, which was actually moved from City College of San Francisco (CCSF) to the SFMOMA. Pan American Unity comprises ten massive fresco panels that are rich in symbolism and imagery from across the North American continent, including Mexico, the United States, and Canada.
Rivera write and designed a stage play — quite surrealist I think — and the SFMOMA managed to get or recreate the costumes. They look amazing and I for one do want to see that play revived!
Finally my favourites of Diego Rivera’s paintings.
this last one makes me think of another great Mexican genius, Guillermo del Toro!
ART TRAVEL INFO:
SFMOMA is open daily except Wednesdays and has a decent cafe.
SFMOMA 151 Third St
San Francisco, CA 94103
More info about SF. It’s damned cold! Always bring a jacket. I stayed outside of the city, but the terrific BART made travelling into town easy and inexpensive.