Updated: Jul 1, 2020
Man Controller of the Universe
4.85 x 11.45 m
Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico
Man at the Crossroads
4.80 m × 11.45 m
Rockerfeller Center, New York City, United States
A Tale of Two Murals
This is a tale of two closely paired Diego Rivera murals which illustrate the powerful political and industrial forces playing out in the 1930s. Their messages will resonate with many observers today.
The first mural, Man at the Crossroads was begun on the Rockerfeller Center in New York, under the patronage of Nelson Rockerfeller. It was never finished on its original site, and was later reproduced and completed in Mexico with a few minor adaptations, renamed Man Controller of the Universe.
It is perhaps surprising that the Diego Rivera, a Communist activist, was commissioned to paint a grand artwork by one of the world’s wealthiest families to welcome and impress visitors to their corporate flagship office. But such are the contradictions of Diego Rivera and the times he lived through.
Diego Rivera (1886 – 1957)
Born in Guanajuato, Mexico in 1886, Rivera’s talents emerged early and at just ten years old he was enrolled at the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts in Mexico City. From the age of 21 Rivera embarked on an artistic odyssey across Europe. Italy presented the magnificence of Renaissance fresco paintings, inspiring his subsequent turn toward murals.
During his lifetime, Rivera experienced the upheavals of revolution in his native Mexico (1914-15), as well as reading about the seismic changes wrought by the Russian Revolution in 1917. He helped found a union for technical workers, painters, and sculptors in 1922, and later joined the Communist Party. Famously, Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo offered refuge to Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalya Sedova between 1937 and 1939 after they fled Stalinist Russia.
Although Rivera achieved early success as a painter in the Cubist tradition, the strength of his political convictions made it inevitable that Rivera’s art would eventually form part of his contribution to the political struggles of the period. He asserted:
“I want to use my art as a weapon”
For this, he turned to a more representational style painted large-scale directly onto external or publicly accessible interior walls. For Rivera, this was the most proletarian art, in keeping with his belief that life, art and politics were inseparable:
“An artist is above all a human being, profoundly human to the core. If the artist can’t feel everything that humanity feels, if the artist isn’t capable of loving until he forgets himself and sacrifices himself if necessary, if he won’t put down his magic brush and head the fight against the oppressor, then he isn’t a great artist.”
The Doomed Project
Rivera had been in the US for almost three years when he was commissioned by Rockerfeller on the theme of “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future.” Rivera accepted the commission. In a capitalist economy, a working artist needs the patronage of the wealthy, and Rivera and Kahlo developed close personal friendships with many powerful families during their stay. Indeed, Rivera was expelled from the US section of the Communist Party for doing so.
The piece that Rivera designed however remained true to his principles. Man at the Crossroads / Controller of the Universe offers its viewers a choice: Capitalism or Communism? The use of science and technology for the enslavement of the people or their liberation? It is a choice to be made.
The murals are amongst the busiest of Rivera’s designs, especially in contrast to some of his serene and simple reflections on Mexican rural peasant lives.
A working man placed at the centre of the mural is flanked by four ellipses as if standing in front of a propeller. The wings divide the planes and delineate its themes. The work is executed in satisfyingly rounded forms and repeating motifs, its earthy palette of muted browns, yellows and reds is typical of Rivera’s work.
To the left of the viewer is Capitalism, the growth of Fordist-style methods of production, the deployment of machines for warfare, the wantonness of the upper classes. The figures in this section surround a classical sculpture wearing a cross but holding the lightning bolt of Zeus.
To the viewer’s right is Socialism, headed by Lenin holding the hands of black and white workers. Prominent in this section is another classical sculpture, headless and holding a swastika. Workers sit on the fallen head. A May Day parade marches across the top, mirroring the men marching to war in the opposite plane.
In the upper quadrant of the mural, the rise of the machine is depicted. In the lower quadrant (not completed at the New York site) flourishing nature is fed by artificial irrigation. The surface of the wings depict new scientific discoveries, from the swirling cosmos to shimmering microscopic organisms, both made visible by new and powerful precision instruments.
A World of Change
The early 20th Century witnessed profound scientific advances. Einstein was attempting to publicise his General Theory of Relativity, and Hubble’s discoveries were illuminating the nature of galaxies. Heisenberg and Schrödinger grappled with the sub-atomic world of quantum mechanics, and the first electron microscope was launched.
Yet man’s progress was set against a backdrop political and industrial turmoil. In the 1930s, the first World War (1914-18) was still a living memory. Fordist means of production were ascendant, with factory workers consigned to increasingly atomised, endlessly repeated tasks. The US was in the grip of a severe depression. In Europe, Hitler was already rising to power. In Russia, Stalin was consolidating his regressive grip on the achievements of the Russian Revolution. Humanity did indeed stand at an historical crossroads.
The murals reflect these epic subjects and make no concessions to the sensibilities of patrons or location. When the Rockerfeller family inevitably objected to the mural’s political message, Rivera defiantly and provocatively amplified it. The images of Lenin and the May Day parade, absent from approved designs, were inserted after the New York World-Telegram labelled the emerging mural as anti-Capitalist propaganda. Rivera responded:
"I am painting for my class - the working class”
The whole project had been mired in tensions even before the first brushstroke and the insertion of Lenin proved to be the final straw. Despite intense negotiations, Rivera refused to remove it saying:
"Rather than mutilate the conception [of the mural], I shall prefer the physical destruction of the conception in its entirety, but preserving, at least, its integrity."
The New York version was never finished by Rivera and was soon removed. Undeterred, Rivera took his design to Mexico. With government agreement, it was repainted at Palacio de Bellas Artes (the Palace of Fine Arts). Rivera used the opportunity to enhance the political messages, adding Marx, Engels, Trotsky, and the banner of the fourth International. For Rivera, the mural’s themes transcended location, and Mexico was anyway no stranger to revolutionary politics.
The Mexican Revolution
Academics still debate the character of revolution in Mexico, and there remains no consensus as to its orientation, although there is general agreement that it was never fully concluded. For many years, Mexico had been an outpost of the Spanish Empire until 1821, after which it became an independent, self-governed state. By the time Mexico slipped into the 20th Century, it had experienced most of the 35-year rule of General Porfirio Diaz who drew his authority from the military, aided in the regions by provincial land-owning oligarchs.
As Mexico increasingly took advantage of global trade to grow its wealth, a middle-class and largely liberal intelligentsia emerged. Its members chafed against the lack of democratic control and political freedom. A movement for change coalesced around the leadership of wealthy landowner, Francisco Madero.
Initially, opposition remained the province of an educated elite, but later expanded to include the mass, working class poor. The guerrilla units which launched Mexico’s armed risings were largely populated from this impoverished and often destitute peasantry. Its rebel leaders included Emiliano Zapata and Francisco (Pancho) Villa. For a sustained period, chaotic uprisings were countered by brutal oppression.
While the middle class and the peasantry shared a desire to depose their overlords, they did not hold a common vision of the society that should replace it. The working class sought a return to the era of rural smallholdings, and forged an uneasy partnership with the liberals who aimed for a more progressive, egalitarian society. The fighting gradually declined and the country found a constitutional settlement for a period.
When Rivera recreated the mural in Mexico in 1934, the country was once again in a state of flux. The depression-hit US deported around one million Mexican-Americans to Mexico (estimates vary) between 1929 and 1936. With a rapidly swelling population, president, Lázaro Cárdenas initiated agrarian reforms which redistributed significant tracts of land to the peasants. Most significantly for Rivera, in Mexico the union and labour movements were in fierce debate over their orientation toward or against Stalin. Rivera’s addition of Marx, Engels and Trotsky to the mural and the absence of Stalin clearly signalled the painter’s own allegience.
Rivera secured a unique place in the art historical record when he used the monumental scale of murals to comment on politics, society, history and culture. Man at the Crossroads / Controller of the Universe remains one of the most controversial of all his pieces.
Murals rarely gain the attention of art historians, and are less tradeable commodities than paintings or sculptures. Rather, they belong to a tradition which encompasses often anonymous graffiti artists such as Banksy. For a muralist to gain notoriety is testament to the power of the themes Rivera explores, as well as his accessible and beautiful execution of complex subjects.
Almost a century on from the original commission, humanity still stands at the crossroads of many profound questions. The murals ask us now to consider whether mankind is master or servant to the economy, controller or slave of technology, friend or foe to the environment, and able to achieve peace through warfare.
8 June 2020
(c) Suzanne Muna