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The nationalistic imagery of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros displayed on the public walls of Mexico, a nation forging a new cultural identity in the wake of a long civil war (1910-20), captured the imagination of the art-viewing public in the United States in the late 1920s and 1930s. (1) The muralists, while initially rejecting the easel picture as "bourgeois," engaged the economy of small-scale media as a strategy for acquiring mural commissions in the United States. (2) Thus, the exportation of Mexican muralism to the United States triggered several seemingly paradoxical, and interrelated, phenomena: the potential of small-scale works to stand in for the monumental murals, the ability of the Mexican muralists to project nationalist imagery in a transcultural dialogue, and the capacity of viewers in the United States to reconcile these issues within the sociopolitical context of hemispheric relations. While some scholars have referred to the "enormous vogue for things Mexican" in this era, the specific strategies, processes, and networks by which the muralists both engaged and resisted "south of the border" culture remains to be theorized properly. (3) At stake is how perceptions of Mexican cultural identity in the United States inflected the creative processes of the muralists, their politics, and the aesthetic and social histories of their murals.
In Mexico during the 1920s, artists painted monumental mural cycles in high-profile government buildings in the nation's capital at a time when political and cultural leaders attempted to consolidate the social ideals of the Revolution, including educating the populace and establishing a nationalist consciousness. To this end, Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros--the so-called tres grandes of muralism--and other artists exploited the mural as an instrument of social and cultural transformation.
Like their political counterparts, artists and intellectuals represented a factionalized community rather than a coherent "movement" and often proposed competing definitions of national identity. Not only did the socially committed art of the muralists compete with other practices as well as more internationally oriented, cosmopolitan vanguards such as estridentismo (a movement that joined artists and poets in an attempt to renovate Mexican culture through the iconography of modern technology), but the tres grandes argued bitterly among themselves and fought publicly to assert their individual and distinct visions of Mexico. Although early responses in Mexico to the murals were negative and critics condemned the murals and the depictions of native peoples as ugly, the international acclaim won by muralism helped to consolidate the movement and the claims of Revolutionary and cultural nationalism. This led to an institutionalization of muralism, which smoothed over the early public outcry to transform the movement into a monumental, national art form.
By the mid- to late 1920s, when the more conservative regime of Plutarco Elias Calles was in power, artists, searching for other patrons, exported their production in both mural and small-scale form to the United States. At various junctures throughout the late 1920s and the 1930s, all of los tres grandes established long-term residence in the United States. During their stays, they painted a variety of murals in new, nongovernmental contexts, such as the luncheon club of the Pacific Stock Exchange, San Francisco (Rivera, 1930-31); the cafeteria of Pomona College, Claremont, California (Orozco, 1930); and the private home of the filmmaker Dudley Murphy, Los Angeles (Siqueiros, 1932). Unlike the monumental cycles painted on several floors of such grand buildings as the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (National Preparatory School) or the Secretaria de Educacion Publica (Ministry of Education) in Mexico City, the murals in the United States were primarily single-paneled, in private or relatively inaccessible settings, and not part of a larger decorative scheme or a specific governmental platform. Whereas in the United States these artists sometimes made use of the Mexican themes or imagery of social revolution codified in their early murals in Mexico, most of the murals in the United States featured iconography adapted to the specific circumstances and environments of the commissions: the power of modern industry that inspired Rivera, for instance, or the mysticism and classicism of the Delphic Circle that Orozco embraced.
The comparatively smaller and fewer murals in the United States by Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros displayed mostly atypical imagery lacking the cultural nationalism that had come to be expected of these painters. For that reason, these works did not play a significant role in the reception of muralism in the United States. (4) Apart from the uncharacteristic murals produced by the muralists there, mediating formats such as portable frescoes, as well as photographic reproductions and lithographs, became the primary means by which audiences in the United States engaged with Mexican muralism. Indeed, the "portable" fresco was a unique medium invented expressly for exporting Mexican muralism to the United States during the 1930s. Rivera, museum officials, and later Orozco manipulated the medium in order to demonstrate both the technique of fresco and, ostensibly, the iconography of public mural painting in Mexico.
While a mural by definition is any image in paint set to a wall or ceiling, a fresco--a specific medium revived by modern Mexican artists--is an ancient (Mexican and European) form of mural painting that involves the application of pigment to wet or fresh plaster on walls. Portable frescoes, however, are not conceived within a specific architectural setting. Instead, these are large-scale panels constructed with a latticework substrate covered by concrete and several coats of plaster, held together by a heavy steel frame. As such, they break with the traditional (academic) concept of the mural as a form of wall decoration and necessarily reject the Mexican elaboration of the mural as a form of social expression dependent on government buildings for mass public communication.
The Museum of Modern Art's Gambit
In December 1931, a large retrospective of the work of Diego Rivera opened at the new Museum of Modern Art, offering New York's museum-going public an unprecedented glimpse of one muralist's production to date. Murals, in short supply at large exhibitions of Mexican art, such as the one held a year earlier at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, claimed center stage at the Museum of Modern Art, as Rivera created eight portable fresco panels expressly for the exhibition. (5)
Between 1930, when Rivera arrived in the United States, and the opening of his exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, he had completed three murals in the San Francisco area: Allegory of California (1930) at the Pacific Stock Exchange, Still Life and Blossoming Almond Trees (1931) for the Sigmund and Rosalie Meyer Stern residence, and Making a Fresco, Showing the Building of a City (1931) for the California School of Fine Arts. Whereas Making a Fresco prompted fervent public scrutiny in the local papers, the other two frescoes remained thoroughly private commissions in secluded spaces, limited in their potential to attract wider audiences. (6)
Less than six months after returning to Mexico from San Francisco in 1931, Rivera came back to the United States as the first artist after Henri Matisse to have an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art devoted solely to his work. His exhibition at the preeminent museum represents one of the most important events of the 1930s through which to examine not only his appeal to audiences in the United States but also the way Mexican muralism came to be understood, exhibited, and promoted in this country. Because Rivera's murals in Mexico had attracted considerable attention in the United States, patrons and critics labored to understand the artist's significance. (7) Portable frescoes intervened as conduits through which the public grappled with the artist's legacy, therein establishing a critical dialogue between the murals produced in Mexico and the artist's production in the United States.
Preparing the Wall
In the year leading up to the retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, several events set the stage for Rivera's debut in New York. In November 1930, before he even began the murals at the Pacific Stock Exchange and the California School of Fine Arts, an exhibition at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor welcomed him to San Francisco. This first large-scale exhibition in the United States devoted to him included more than 180 works--oil paintings, drawings, watercolors, sketches for frescoes--and filled three floors of the Legion of Honor building. (8) Rivera's commission for the Pacific Stock Exchange had engendered a local controversy because of the artist's Communist ideology; in addition, some Bay area artists had argued that, given the depressed economic times, the commission should have been awarded to a local artist. Lloyd LaPage Rollins, the Legion of Honor's new director, decided to exploit "the free advertising occasioned by this dispute." (9) Seeking to make his first exhibition as director especially interesting, Rollins decided to "take advantage" of the Rivera controversy "to arouse local interest." (10) From the very outset, then, controversy defined Rivera's transnational appeal.
At this early stage, the artist's international prestige, formed by the legacy of his Mexican murals, also compelled new strategies of display and circulation. As soon as Rivera began exhibiting widely in the United States, the absence of murals posed a problem. In looking behind the scenes of his first retrospective exhibition, and many exhibitions that followed, it becomes clear that curators and museum directors called on photographic substitutes to fill the gap left by immovable murals. At the Legion of Honor exhibit, seventeen photographs stood in for the Secretaria de Educacion Publica murals, fourteen photographs by Manuel Alvarez Bravo served as proxies for Rivera's recently completed Palacio de Cortes cycle in Cuernavaca, and another three photographs allowed his Chapingo murals to be viewed, augmenting the already large body of work on display. (11) Although Rivera had originally suggested that Rollins exhibit his drawings for the grisaille frieze painted below the frescoes in the Palacio de Cortes, it remains uncertain whether they were included. (12) It seems likely that Rollins would not have considered the drawings appropriate stand-ins for the mural cycle, since they documented less prominent portions of the overall narrative scheme. Photographic reproductions of the central panels served as more definitive surrogates for the Mexican murals.
Photographs of the murals were essential in other contexts as viewers in the United States learned more about muralism. While art periodicals such as Art Digest and Creative Art often ran lengthy articles on Rivera and Orozco in the early 1930s, even nonart magazines such as Fortune introduced readers to the work of the muralists. (13) In all of these publications, the Mexican murals stood out as the artistic products with which the public needed to contend in order to understand the artists and the movement properly. Then, too, promoters of Mexican art in the United States, such as Frances Flynn Paine--purchasing agent for the Rockefellers--actively pursued mural commissions for Rivera by exploiting large-scale photographic reproductions. For the international division of the Fourth Biennial Architectural and Allied Arts Exposition, held at the Architectural League in New York from April 18 to 25, 1931, for example, Paine made use of photographs of Rivera's Cuernavaca frescoes. (14) Through photographic reproductions, promoters attempted to generate interest in the artist and, at the same time, unwittingly provided a space by which viewers in the United States were able to engage in a dialogue about the artist's leftist politics.
While praising the "passion, eloquence and beauty" of the mural panels in his review of the Architectural League exhibition, conservative critic Henry McBride considered Rivera's association with radical politics "dangerous." (15) He cautioned young painters in the United States about the risk of using Rivera as a model, claiming that "the most dangerous tribute that can be paid to such [an artist] is that of imitation." (16) McBride's warning reinforces Rivera's position in the United States in the 1930s as an artist of substantial yet--as a result of his radical politics--questionable appeal. Before Rivera arrived in New York, his presence in San Francisco "marked the beginnings of a debate about the complex relationship between murals, the left, and the public." (17) With the rise of art on the left in the United States, Rivera's reception in this country became part of a broader dialogue about the social role of the artist, the opposition between Marxist politics and modernist aesthetics, and the fate of public art.
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It is at this moment, when photographic substitutes perhaps highlighted Rivera's problematic status as a gifted but radical painter, that the Museum of Modern Art decided to mount a major retrospective exhibition. Given his reputation, it is important to examine how, when organizing its retrospective, the Museum of Modern Art attempted to disengage the muralist from the clutch of radical politics by championing his aesthetic innovations and downplaying the politicized, revolutionary nature of his subject matter. In this effort, the portable fresco intervened--unsuccessfully--as both an artistic and a political strategy.
From the initial planning stages, murals created especially for the exhibition were to be the central feature of Rivera's retrospective. A year before the exhibition opened, Vogue had reported in an article about the artist's murals in Mexico that he would paint "a series of fourteen-foot canvases" for the Museum of Modern Art retrospective. (18) By November 1930, when this announcement appeared, Rivera had recently completed the first portable fresco panel in the history of Mexican muralism. Market Scene (Fig. 1) is a movable fragment that Elizabeth Morrow commissioned for her husband, Dwight Morrow, the United States' ambassador to Mexico, who had been the patron of Rivera's murals in Cuernavaca. The execution of this portable panel certainly provided the artist and exhibition organizers at the Museum of Modern Art with the idea of creating more for his New York retrospective.
Market Scene is a stand-alone 4-by-3 1/2-foot slab of concrete covered with plaster that offers an exact copy in fresco of a small detail from Rivera's monumental mural cycle at the Palacio de Cortes in Cuernavaca (Fig. 2). The Cuernavaca cycle, painted in 1930, is more than 104 feet wide and presents a sweeping view, a continuous, linear narrative of the history of Cuernavaca and the state of Morelos from the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521 up to the agrarian revolt led by Emiliano Zapata in 1911 (Fig. 3). Critical of colonial power and of the subjugation of Mexico's native populations by Spanish rule, the cycle is also informed by complex questions of patronage and the singular setting in a colonial building once the home of the conquistador.
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Market Scene, the portable fresco copy derived from the mural cycle, also illustrates unique questions of patronage. When Elizabeth Morrow commissioned the work in …