Diego Rivera’s Revenge
Diego Rivera, a prominent Mexican painter and muralist, was commissioned in 1932 by the Rockefeller family to create a mural for the lobby of their newly-built Rockefeller Center in New York City. The mural, titled “Man at the Crossroads,” was intended to depict the social and political issues of the time. Rivera was given complete creative control over the project.
However, when the mural was unveiled in May 1933, it sparked a major controversy. The mural included a depiction of the Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin. This was considered highly provocative during what was known as the Red Scare of the 1930s. The Red Scare arose after World War I and revolved around the perceived threat from the American labour movement, anarchist revolution, and political radicalism. So the inclusion in the mural of images of workers and other socialist themes, were deemed by some to be anti-American.
John D. Rockefeller Jr., who had commissioned the mural, was outraged and demanded that Rivera remove the Lenin figure. When Rivera refused, Rockefeller had the mural covered up with canvas. Eventually he ordered its destruction. Rivera was paid in full for his work, but the incident caused a major scandal in the art world. It led to a public debate about the role of art and politics.
Rivera later recreated the mural in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, with some modifications, as “Man, Controller of the Universe.” Rivera took revenge on John D Rockefeller by depicting an image of him with a drink in his hand (he was a teetotaller) talking to a woman underneath an image of Syphilis cells.
The mural is now considered one of his greatest works and a masterpiece of Mexican muralism. The controversy surrounding the Rockefeller Center mural is often seen as a seminal moment in the history of public art in the United States. It highlighted the tension between artistic freedom and commercial interests. The incident also cemented Rivera’s reputation as a political artist and a champion of the working class.
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