2012/01/09

Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art

Diego Rivera was the subject of MoMA’s second monographic exhibition (the first was Henri Matisse), which set new attendance records in its five-week run from December 22, 1931, to January 27, 1932.

MoMA brought Rivera to New York six weeks before the exhibition’s opening and gave him studio space within the Museum, a strategy intended to solve the problem of how to present the work of this famous muralist when murals were by definition made and fixed on site. Working around the clock with two assistants, Rivera produced five “portable murals” -large blocks of frescoed plaster, slaked lime, and wood that feature bold images drawn from Mexican subject matter and address themes of revolution and class inequity.

 

The Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painting the "portable mural" at the MOMA in 1931

The Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painting the "portable mural" at the MOMA in 1931

 

After the opening, to great publicity, Rivera made three more murals, taking on contemporary New York subjects through monumental images of the city during the Great Depression. The story of this extraordinary commission elucidates Rivera’s pivotal role in shaping debates about the social and political value of public art during a period of economic crisis.

This exhibition (MOMA, The Museum of Modern Art November 13, 2011–May 14, 2012) will bring together key works made for Rivera’s 1931 exhibition, presenting them at MoMA for the first time in nearly 80 years. 

 

Indian Warrior

Indian Warrior

 

Of all the panels Rivera made for The Museum of Modern Art, Indian Warriorreaches back farthest into Mexican history, to the Spanish Conquest of the early 16th century. An Aztec warrior wearing the costume of a jaguar stabs an armored conquistador in the throat with a stone knife. The Spaniard’s steel blade -an emblem of European claims to superiority – lies broken nearby. Jaguar knights, members of an elite Aztec military order, were known for their fighting prowess; according to legend, their terrifying costumes enabled them to possess the power of the animal in battle. 

 

Diego Rivera. Agrarian Leader Zapata. 1931

Diego Rivera. Agrarian Leader Zapata. 1931. Drawing

 

Diego Rivera. Agrarian Leader Zapata. 1931. Fresco, 7' 9 3/4" x 6' 2" (238.1 x 188 cm). The Museum of Modern Art. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund

Diego Rivera. Agrarian Leader Zapata. 1931. Fresco, 7' 9 3/4" x 6' 2" (238.1 x 188 cm). The Museum of Modern Art. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund

 

 

Emiliano Zapata, a champion of agrarian reform and a key protagonist in the Mexican Revolution, here leads a band of peasant rebels armed with makeshift weapons, including farming tools. With the bridle of a majestic white horse in his hand, Zapata stands triumphantly beside the dead body of a hacienda owner. 

Though Mexican and U.S. newspapers regularly vilified the revolutionary leader as a treacherous bandit, Rivera immortalized Zapata as a hero and glorified the victory of the Revolution in an image of violent but just vengeance.

 

Sugar cane.

 

Set on a sugar plantation, this portable mural introduces the tensions over labor, race, and economic inequity that simmered in Mexico after the Revolution. In the foreground, an Indian woman, with the traditional braids and white clothes of a peasant, cuts papayas from a tree while her children collect the fruit in reed baskets. Behind them, dark-skinned men with bowed heads gather bunches of sugar cane. 

Images: MoMA

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