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DC at Night

Monday, May 5, 2014

Diego Rivera: Man at the Crossroads

Reproduction of one of 3 parts of Diego Rivera's Man at the Crossroads
By 1933, Diego Rivera was recognized as an influential Mexican artist with international prestige. John D. Rockefeller, the fabulously wealthy American businessman behind Standard Oil, was one of the world's richest men and looking to create a symbol that would establish his name for all the ages.

In some ways, it might seem inevitable that the paths of the 2 men would cross. But it was equally inevitable that any transaction between the activist artist and the rich tycoon would not end well.

The new exhibition at the Mexican Cultural Institute details the intriguing story behind Man at the Crossroads: Diego Rivera's Mural at the Rockefeller Center.

The exposition, on view until May 17, centers around the destroyed, never-unveiled mural by reconstructing its history with reproductions of letters, telegrams, contracts, documents, photographs, and both small and large sketches.

The story began when Rockefeller decided to have a "city within a city" constructed in downtown Manhattan that would become the commercial, cultural, economic, and financial center of the world. The project, started at the height of the Depression, was designed to give employment to 40,000 workers.

Part of the fresco
Rivera lobbied for a contract to supply art, and, surprisingly to many given his leftist leanings, was given permission to create a mural for the 70-story project which would be titled Man at the Crossroads.

The first battle occurred when Rivera decided he wanted to create a fresco instead of a mural painted on canvas, arguing that "nothing can take the place of fresco in mural painting because fresco is not a painted wall, but rather a painting that is a wall."

Representatives for Rockefeller conceded to Rivera's demands and the artist began 6 weeks of intensive work on the project.

However, project officials soon discovered that Rivera was depicting Communist leader V. I. Lenin in his work, an image that they believed was totally unacceptable to welcome Rockefeller whenever he arrived at his office.

Rivera was ordered to remove Lenin's image. However, the artist refused, saying "rather than mutilate the conception, I should prefer the physical destruction of the conception in its entirety, but conserving at least the integrity."

The decision not to include Rivera's work sparked a series of protests, rallies, and marches. It also provoked a cultural debate around the world about freedom of expression and the roles of both the artist and patron.
Protest ensued and Rivera himself spoke at several rallies.
On February 9, 1939, nine months after Rockefeller architects had covered up the work, Man at the Crossroads was destroyed. All that remains today are the preparatory drawings, sketches, and a few pictures taken of the work in progress, many of which appear in the current exhibition. This is the first visual attempt in the United States to fully explore the mural's unique history.

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