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Friday, February 24, 2012

Diego Rivera in New York

By Tom Phillips

History doesn't repeat itself, as the man said, but it does rhyme.  And so Diego Rivera's Depression-era murals of oppression and revolt, first shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1931, pack a double impact in their return to MOMA now, amid the Great Recession and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The mural above is called The Uprising, and depicts a clash between troops and protesters during the Mexican Revolution in the 1920s.   But it made me think of – even feel again – the thud of a student’s body against concrete in Zuccotti Park last December, when police tackled him for jumping a barricade.  Here the barricade is a sword, thrust out at the level of the man’s genitals.  A wife protests, a baby screams. In this crowded scene is all the tension and menace inherent in a popular uprising – people against power, with weapons drawn and the outcome unknown.    

In Rivera’s art we are always in the middle of a struggle, never at the end.  The most violent image in this show is “Indian Warrior,” showing an Aztec kneeling on a Spanish conquistador, finding the chink in his armor and slaying him with a stone-age knife.  But in the background, boots are marching by, heading to the next battle.   There is no triumphalism, and no shallow cartooning; both sides are grim-faced, locked in a combat not of their own making.  And just as often it is the oppressors who lie bleeding on the ground.  In his mural showing a victory by the agrarian leader Zapata, the leader himself is physically flawed, weak and knock-kneed, leading a ragtag peasant army and looking haunted by his conquest.  The only heroic figure in the painting is Zapata’s white horse.   And that I take to represent the people, en masse.   

Rivera produced eight murals for the 1931 exhibit, five scenes from the Mexican revolution, and the other three scenes of New York City.   In New York, the artist said, he found the industrial society he wanted to portray in his wall art.  And he takes on all of the city in what was his most controversial piece at the time, “Frozen Assets.”

You could call it abstract realism.   Rivera breaks the city into four layers; skyscrapers and construction cranes at the top, underlined by an endless elevated subway platform, with faceless workers crowded shoulder to shoulder.  Below that is an eerie scene of a homeless shelter, hundreds of shrouded bodies sleeping in dim, harsh light, overseen by a square-shouldered guard.   And underlying it all is a bank vault, with another guard staring out from behind the bars, and a clerk bent over a desk.   

Paradoxically, the Great Depression took place amid New York City’s greatest building boom, and the economic collapse didn't stop it.  With a huge oversupply of cheap labor, the Rockefellers and their like sent up the skyline that defines the city to this day.   So the top of Rivera’s mural looks contemporary.  And the rest is familiar as well.   The ashen workers on the subway platform would have been mostly Irish, Polish and Italian then; now they would more likely be Hispanics, many of them Mexicans, the city’s new immigrant underclass.  The homeless -- the living dead – are sheltered the same way now as then.   And the bank vault looks much the same.   1931 was before FDR’s banking reforms – in the 21st century, we have lived with the consequences of dismantling those reforms. 

The MOMA exhibit is powerful but fragmented, pieced together from disparate sources.  For the full force of Rivera’s vision, you should go to the Detroit Art Institute and see his permanent frescoes from 1932-33.  This is the Motor City in the power of its youth, bending humanity into an industrial enterprise that astonished and changed the world.   Rivera is great because he shows it as it is, and never stoops to moralizing or propagandizing.  Marxist though he was, he speaks to every viewer – here it is, how are we going to handle it?  The struggle continues. 

“Diego Rivera  Murals for The Museum of Modern Art” is on view at MOMA through May 14.  

Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips
Images courtesy of MOMA