Diego Rivera at MoMA Makes Us Ask, What Happened to the Radical Left in Art?

Should Rivera be considered a patron saint of the Occupation movements, as some have alluded? Not quite.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art is on view at MoMA from November 13, 2011 to May 14, 2012. The exhibition unites key works made for Rivera's 1931 MoMA exhibition, which set new attendance records in its five-week run from December 22, 1931, to January 27, 1932. On view are Rivera's portable murals of frescoed plaster, slaked lime, and wood depicting scenes of the Mexican Revolution, the history of class inequity, and The Great Depression in New York City. The exhibition also includes full-scale drawings, smaller working drawings, archival materials related to the commission and production of these works, and designs for Rivera's ill-fated Rockefeller Center mural. MoMA is located at 11 West 53rd Street, New York 10019, (212) 708-9400. Visit the MoMA website.

Commentators in the media and the blogosphere have remarked on how timely it is for the MoMA exhibition Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art to coincide with the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements springing up around the globe. Some have suggested that Rivera would surely have joined in the occupations reacting to the fiscal malfeasance of Wall Street and the myriad corporations whose CEOs and trustees make up the 1% of humanity owning most of the world's wealth.

But should Rivera be considered a patron saint of the Occupation movements, as some have alluded? Not Quite.

At the beginning of the 1930s, when Rivera produced the MoMA murals, he was an ardent and renown Marxist. He was also to become aligned with Leon Trotsky--the man who, during the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent Russian Civil War, founded and lead the Soviet Republic's Red Army, which seized and collectivized all private property. Diego Rivera's embrace of Trotskyism suggests he would hold searing contempt for an American population so fearful of Red Politics that many among them consider a moderate like Barak Obama to be a socialist urging on class warfare simply because the man once said, "When you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."

We can safely assume this because, in 1932, the same year that Diego Rivera worked on the MoMA and the Rockefeller Center murals, he wrote "The Revolutionary Spirit in Modern Art," a tract that clearly allies him with Marxist Communism. "The proletariat produces art of struggle," Rivera wrote, "but no class can produce a class art until it has reached the highest point of its development ... When the proletariat in its turn really begins to produce its art, it will be after the proletarian dictatorship has fulfilled its mission, has liquidated all class differences and produced a classless society. The art of the future, therefore, will not be proletarian but Communist."

Yes, Diego Rivera would likely have waded into the crowds gathering in Zuccotti Park. But he also would have likely denounced the Occupiers' capitulation with the police, the mayor, and the legal restraints backing them, while urging them on to violent conflict, and ultimately to the seizure of private property.

The truly valuable question we should ask as a result of the comparison between our generation of timid dissent and the often violent confrontations between labor and management that marked the dissent from 1900 up until the start of the Second World War is this: Why isn't the Left the fierce crucible of anger and resistance it was in the 1920s, 1930s, even the 1960s?

In seeking to compose a larger picture of social and political art, I've elaborated a time line of some key political events in the development of significant art over the past century, plus the first decade of our present century. Besides that the artworld expands from an European, to an Euro-American, and at present to a global market place and cultural exchange, the most noticeable difference is that the "Old Left," that extant from 1900-1945, was driven by visions of Utopia. The politics of the "New Left," which roughly evolved from 1945-2001, in the face of nuclear capability, overpopulation, ecological breakdown, and the spread of AIDS, could only hope to forestall Dystopia. It's the decade that has crystalized since 9/11 and the new globalized economy that is difficult to characterize. If the phrase weren't so tied to George W. Bush, we might settle on calling it a decade of "political shock and awe."

Better that we settle on something approaching "A Decade of Awakening." For at least in the developed nations of the Western World--those which still dominate the defining canons of international art and artists--the middle classes had grown so accustomed to a level of stability, progress and contentment, the sudden incursion of terror, prolonged foreign wars, and lasting economic recession of the last decade shocked us into reflecting back on those decades in which the stability and contentment of the middle classes weren't so assured. It's at such times as when the Left isn't assimilated into the mainstream as a liberal population--times when labor unions are weak, workers haven't yet attained middle class amenities, and great populations are engaged in waging world-encompassing wars--that the Left is most starkly visible.

A look at the timeline of Leftist social and political art made over the last 111 years confirms that as the lives of artists are less imposed upon by state politics or constrained by economic austerity, the art of the Left becomes more readily assimilated into the dominant culture, as that culture catches up with the art. We saw this in the 1990s, when the liberal Clinton administration and flourishing economy in the US and abroad coincided with an art of the Left that had become more widely generated by artists, yet also more embraced by museums, the media, and the viewing public, than the Leftist art of any previous generation. To adequately show this, the timeline is to be presented in three parts: Part 1: 1900-1945; Part 2: 1945-1990; and Part 3: 1990-2011. Here is Part 1.



1900: In the first year of the century, Picasso depicts openly lesbian couples at Le Moulin de la Gallete. It's not scandalous to the Parisians because well before the 20th century, Paris and its environs welcomed lesbian love as a delectable preoccupation as far back as the art of Boucher, Fragonard, Le Brun, and Courbet. Toulse-Lautrec's painted lesbian couples of the 1890s further popularizes the theme in art. By the 1920s, Romaine Brooks counts among the most talented painters of note, though only one of the many lesbian artists and intellectuals having an influence on cultural developments in the city.


1907-1917: The proclaimed births of Cubism, Futurism, the Fauves, Die Brucke, Suprematism, Abstraction, Synchromism, The Blue Rider, Inobjective Art, Metaphysical Painting, and Neo-Plasticism are accompanied by various articulated utopian social visions that take on leftist political aspirations. All eventually become assimilated under the over-arching utopian vision of Modernism, though many will become labeled derogatorily as "idealist" by more extreme Leftist ideologies.

1914-18: Modernity experiences its first great war in Europe. New military technology by air, land and sea, trench warfare and the spread of disease, bring horrendous suffering and casualties on the continent to an unprecedented level.


1914-1918. At the age of 20, André Kertész, the young man who would become one of the most distinguished of Surrealist photographers, is assigned to the Hungarian front line where he photographs life in the trenches. In 1915, he is wounded by a bullet that leaves his right arm temporarily paralyzed. Although prevented from fighting for the remainder of the war, Kertész continues to photograph both the war and the Hungarian Revolution of 1919. Although he resists visually exploiting the casualties and horrors of war, the aftermath of his wartime experience permeates his lifelong depiction of amputees that he encounters on the streets of Europe.

1914-1923: Soon after the start of the First World War, Peter Kollwitz, the son of the renown German artist Käthe Kollwitz, is killed at Diksmuide on the Western Front. In the succeeding years Kollwitz, who has for decades been a visual commentator on war and poverty, produces a series of drawings and prints illustrating the impact that war has on women and their families.


1916: Dada is born at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Although it will for decades be considered another of the Modernist movements, its birth during the Great War marks it with a satirical, often nihilistic reflection of the barbarism that voids European claims to ushering in the great utopian society of Modernism. For that matter, the Dada artists mock the very notion of civilization, and for their audience, the barbarism of the ongoing war confirms the basis of their contempt. At the first public Dada soiree on July 14, 1916, Dada founder Hugo Ball read from the Dada Manifesto: "How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada. How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness. How can one get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanized, enervated? By saying dada. Dada is the world soul, dada is the pawnshop. Dada is the world's best lily-milk soap."


1916: German artist and designer Helmut Herzfede changes his name to John Heartield in protest against German Nationalism. After the war, Heartfield joins the newly formed German Communist Party (KPD) for which he produces designs and posters. During this period the German Dada artists Otto Dix, George Grosz, Kurt Schwitters and Max Ernst are influenced by Heartfield's unique and politically satirical photomontage. In later years, Heartfield uses photomontage to attack Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists so vividly in the socialist magazine, A.I.Z. (Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung; in English, The Workers Pictorial), he is forced to move to England in 1938.

1917: The fall of the Czar in Russia and the rise of the Bolsheviks bring the world's first proletariat revolution. The Left in the West follow the events largely from the first-hand account of John Reed's Bolshevik Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World.

1918: In India, Gandhi introduces the principles of non-cooperation and non-violent peaceful resistance in the struggle against the British Raj.


1919-1923: Censorship of modern and abstract art in the Soviet Union begins when the avant-garde is proclaimed by Lenin and Trotsky to be idealist, anti-utopian and anti-revolutionary. Lenin closes The Art of the Commune, the chief Russian journal promoting abstraction, then dissolves the Proletkult ("proletarian culture"), despite its being the leading art movement claiming to deliver a proletarian art devoid of bourgeois influence. Artists are encouraged to join the People's Commissariat for Enlightenment, the new revolutionary agency to administer museums to oversee art education in the new Soviet Republic. As part of his program of reeducating intellectuals, Lenin issues a program for the newly instituted Association of Revolutionary Painters, in which art is to consist of "A Realism geared toward the people, refreshed with new themes. Labor, the economy of the country, and the Revolution are glorified." Upon receiving the news in the capitals of Europe, alarm spreads throughout the avant-garde, and for the next seventy years, the West's view on Soviet art is that of a culture void of artistic creation. By 1926, the Petrograd State Institute of Artistic Culture, then directed by Kazimir Malevich, was forced to close. In Europe, Malevich was lauded for his avant-garde Black Square, the first monochrome and minimalist painting. But among the Soviets, the painting would become regarded as degenerate. Soviet artists known for advocating principles of abstraction either emigrated to the West, or like Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin, renounced their art of abstract plasticity to make the state-approved Social Realism for the remainder of their lives.

1919-1924: Vladimir Lenin betrays the Russian people by institutionalizing a nascent dictatorship governing by force of terror. Private property is seized and agriculture and industry are collectivized. All resistance is met with the imprisonment and death of millions.


1920-1929: American artists are late to join the Europeans in romantically heralding the arrival of the modern utopia, but when they do, they take a characteristically American approach that emphasizes scale and skyward perspectives as their measure of progress. Lines converging to pierce the clouds define the perspective of painters such as Georgia O'Keefe and Charles Demuth. Through their eyes, the Modernist utopian vision is ideologically melded to industry and economical thinking in art. If the Left and the Right are to be found conjoined in any cultural production, it's typically the architecture and engineering of industry and urban planning that both Left and Right deem the equivalent of the cathedrals and pyramids of pre-Modern civilizations--full of grandeur yet holding out promise to the working classes as much as to the entrepreneurs.

1923-1925: After the anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman are deported from the U.S. to Russia, both denounce the repression and violence they witness imposed by the Bolsheviks on the people--Goldman with her 1923 book, My Disillusionment in Russia and Berkman in 1925 with The Bolshevik Myth.

1924-1928: With Lenin's death in 1924, Joseph Stalin, a Georgian who was appointed Comisar of Nationalities, spreads the terror not only in Russia but throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In the West, largely ignorant of the worst crimes of the Bolsheviks, the American and European Left splinter over whether they should support Stalin or Leon Trotsky, the founder of the Red Army who oversaw the Russian Civil War in which all private property was seized and collectivized. The matter is largely decided in favor of Trotsky after Stalin's extreme fear of intellectual dissent compels him to persecute scores of artists and intellectuals.

1927: The political trial and execution in Massachusetts of the Italian immigrant anarchists Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for the murder of two men becomes one of the most important radicalizing events of the early 20th Century, while having a profound effect on the artists who perceive the men to be innocent.


1927: Diego Rivera visits the Soviet Union to participate in the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution.

1927-33: The Surrealists reluctantly join the French Communist Party. Political action is one of many dividing points for the rival Surrealist writers Georges Bataille and Andre Breton. Whereas the materialist Bataille wishes to call for a "descent of the masses into the streets," the idealist Breton wishes to temper the call as "a resolution of social crisis" in the street. But the alliance of Surrealists and Communists ultimately proves irreconcilable, as the Communists won't tolerate the Surrealist program of challenging social mores by artistically provoking erotic, unresolved emotions to stimulate a perpetual revolution of the European collective unconscious. In 1933, Breton is expelled from the increasingly Stalinized French Party for his criticisms of Stalinism and the Moscow show trials of Old Bolsheviks.


1928-30: Sergei Eisenstein releases the propaganda film, October: Ten Days That Shook the World. Despite having been proponents of the modernism Stalin outlawed, film director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein and symphonic composer Sergei Prokofiev are two of the rare artist-intellectuals who not only survive but artistically flourish under the state sponsorship of Stalin's iron regime by contributing to the dictator's program of artistic propaganda. They are the few who are also embraced internationally for introducing what remain giant achievements in modern film and music. In 1930, Alexander Gerasimov's official portrait of the late Premier Lenin is unveiled. Although flirting with the impressionism of Manet, the artist is not to enjoy the same celebrity in the West as Eisenstein and Prokofiev.

1929: With the beginning of the Great Depression and Fascism on the rise in Europe, the more vanguard and international art of social commentary and dissent, especially that of painting, takes an expressionist turn, as embodied most exemplarily by Max Beckman in Germany, David Alfaro Siquerios and Jose Clemente Orozco in Mexico, and Ben Shahn in the United States.


1929-42: For her participation in the Mexican Revolution, silent-film actress and photographer Tina Modotti is framed for the murder of her Cuban lover, who is gunned down at her side. After enduring a torturous trial, she is expelled from Mexico for being a Communist. Besides having become a respected photographer with the help of Edward Weston, she had become known for her documentation of the blossoming Mexican mural movement of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaros Siqueiros. As an artist who sought to synthesize the aesthetics of modernist photography with the dialectical materialism of Marxist history, she moved to Moscow. Disillusioned by the Russian state, she discontinued her pursuit of photography at a time when Stalin was persecuting artists. After joining the International Worker's Relief, she moved to Spain to help the injured of the Spanish Civil War. After the war's end, Modotti disregards the danger to her life that returning to Mexico poses. When she is officially recorded as having died prematurely of a heart attack, her friends suspect she was in fact poisoned by a Stalinist, if not an agent of Stalin.

1929-54: Even in the few instances when Frida Kahlo takes the more historical and cultural approach to painting, she keeps her central focus on the genre of the self-portrait to convey her own unique auto-didactic feminism. Kahlo's paintings transcend the narcissism of most self-portraiture in embodying world relations. Ironically, she achieves such scope by remaining cognizant that by focusing all her artistic attention on herself she is able to identify and reflect the forces and events that have shaped her. Artists have for centuries created self-portraits, but Kahlo sees to it that her countenace inhabits almost every composition she paints, thereby leaving the world a body of painted documentations and diaristic impressions of an entire adult life unfolding as the world has never before seen. That it is a life that so richly reflects the social, sexual, and political dynamics of world events make her work a premier model powerfully anticipating the 1970s' feminist rallying call, "The Personal is Political."

1930: Attacked for over a decade for persisting in writing Constructivist poetry and plays that Soviet officials and critics denounce as anti-revolutionary and anti-proletariat; distraught that Soviet fiction had been reduced to reportage and social control over political and moral behavior and thought; exhausted by the personal dramas that he had to endure with artists and colleagues pressuring him to take up the official Social Realism of the state: acclaimed poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky commits suicide on April 14 by shooting a bullet through his heart.

1931-32: From December 22 to January 27, the Diego Rivera exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art sets a new attendance record. MoMA co-founder Abby Aldrich Rockefeller convinces her husband, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to commission a Rivera mural for the lobby of the soon to be completed Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Rivera drafts plans for a 63-foot-long portrait of laborers gathered at a symbolic crossroads of industry, science, socialism, and capitalism. But when he inserts an unapproved portrait of Lenin at a Soviet May Day parade, Rivera is ordered to remove the likeness. Rivera refuses but offers to balance the Lenin portrait with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln opposite it. With the press and the public outraged, Rivera is promptly barred by the management from the site, and on February 10th, 1934, the mural is destroyed. In later years Rivera recreates the fresco seen above in the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, adding a portrait of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in a nightclub.

1933-40: Rivera completes two more murals in the US. In 1933, Detroit Industry or Man and Machine, a massive double mural for the Detroit Institute of the Arts, depicts the engine and transmission production at the Ford River Rouge factory in Detroit. In it we see the ore-to-assembly complex that employs 100,000 people, Here Rivera paints a magnificently scenic ballet comprised of a blast furnace, ladles of molten steel, and a formidable multiracial workforce at work.


In 1940, Diego Rivera anticipates the multicultural and global future when he paints The Pan American Unity Mural, his last mural in the United States for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. As Rivera's largest standing mural, measuring almost 1,800 square feet, it is comprised of ten distinct but continuous panels on two walls. About its rich cultural and symbolic imagery invoking the people of Canada, the United States, Mexico, and Central America, Rivera wrote: "My mural ... is about the marriage of the artistic expression of the North and of the South on this continent ... I believe in order to make an American art, a real American art, this will be necessary, this blending of the art of the Indian, the Mexican, the Eskimo, with the kind of urge which makes the machine, the invention in the material side of life, which is also an artistic urge, the same urge primarily but in a different form of expression."


1934-35: There has likely been no more serious lapse of judgment on the part of the European cultural intelligentsia and artistic avant-garde, including among the political Left, than the reception paid Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. Easily the most renown and lauded of propaganda films in history, it is also one so influential in terms of cinematic technique and formal organization, that its innovations can still be seen in film, video, even commercial advertising today. For such aesthetic excellence, the cultural establishment accorded Triumph of the Will lavish praise and the top honors of the day--including the 1935 Venice Biennale gold medal and the 1937 Grand Prix at the Paris World Exhibition. It has been said that the aura of aesthetic grandeur which Riefenstahl projected onto the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, and of Hitler's personal charisma as a leader, was so influential, she was in great degree responsible not only for the selling of the Third Reich to the German people, but in winning for it allies and admirers around the world.

1935-38: The political situation in Germany under the Nazis deteriorates throughout the 1930s. Sought for 'interviews' with the Gestapo, those artists who can, seek asylum in other European nations or the United States.


1935-1939: With the onset of the Great Depression, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans see to it that the most timeless and poignantly photographed icons of the era would be the Americans struck hardest by the crashing economy. Lange and Evans join the Resettlement Administration, later called the Farm Security Administration, a federal program under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Set up to relocate struggling urban and rural American families to more productive communities, the programs employ photographers to mount campaigns publicizing the work being done by the administration to help poor sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers. Between them, Lange and Evans photograph a great swathe of territory, from Pennsylvania to California, with a good part of the southern states in between, comprised of the poorest rural populations in the nation.


1936-37: The Spanish Civil War breaks out in July, 1936. On April 26, 1937, German warplanes bomb Guernica for two hours as a show of support for the Spanish Nationalists, the fascist party of Spain. On May Day, Picasso begins to paint his most famous painting, Guernica. He exhibits the painting in July at the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition.

1936: Leon Trotsky, the founder and former leader of the Russian Red Army, while already exiled from the Soviet Union, publishes The Revolution Betrayed, a scathing critique on Stalinism that predicts the toppling of Communism by a combination of it's own over-zealous bureaucracy and the restoration of capitalism. Both predictions come true under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin a half-century later.


1937: In January 1937, under the threat of Stalin's assassins, Trotsky finds asylum in Mexico, where he takes up with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. In April, poet Andre Breton visits Mexico, where Rivera, Breton, and Trotsky publish "Toward an Independent Revolutionary Art" in the Partisan Review. Trotsky later that years breaks with Rivera when he finds the artist to be too lax in his commitment as a Marxist.


1937: Modern art is officially proclaimed degenerate in Nazi Germany when Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda, orders 20,000 works of modern art confiscated from German museums. Goebbels then propagandistically designs a Nazi exhibition of degenerate art that is held in Munich in 1937 and is advertised as "culture documents of the decadent work of Bolsheviks and Jews." The list of degenerate artists include Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emile Nolde, and other major artists of the 20th century. Their work is installed alongside paintings by psychotic patients and are subjected to ridicule by the press and the German public. Ultimately the exhibit is designed to contrast with a simultaneous exhibition of art approved by the Reich and made up of art executed in an academic style exemplifying typical Nazi themes of heroism and duty.

1937: Japan invades China, launching massive air raids on civilian targets and leaving millions dead, injured and homeless.

1939-40: Germany invades Poland. Jews are rounded up and eventually taken first to the Warsaw Ghetto and ultimately to concentration camps. The European allies fall one by one to the axis nations.

1940: Leon Trotsky is fatally wounded in Mexico by an undercover member of the Soviet NKVD, or secret police.


1942: On assignment for the federal War Relocation Authority, Dorothea Lange documents the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans to relocation camps.

1942-45: The havoc unleashed in the Second World War overshadows all intellectual and artistic production. The Surrealists who sought asylum in New York have a major impact on Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Robert Mothewell and Robert Matta. The bombing of Europe and the Pacific nations, the Holocaust, the nuclear destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima--in short the virtual devastation of the centers of the civilized world--set off an angst that permeates the global intelligentsia and informs the rise of philosophical Existentialism. Writers and artists in all media question human existence while seeking to purge humanity of the notions of essence that spur great nations and civilizations to adopt the conceit of their superiority over less powerful societies. In visual art, this philosophy informs Abstract Expressionism in its rejection of the aesthetics of the great masterpieces of art for having failed to tame the barbarism of civilization. By taking art back to its origins of making primordial and direct marks on a surface--the kind of art which the most primitive of humans made to record their existence--artists now sought to purge civilization of its warrior impulse.

CORRECTION: On 11/22/11, the author deleted an error in reporting. After the Rockefeller Center mural was destroyed, Diego Rivera refused to ever work again in New York City, not the United States as was originally reported.

ADDITION: On 11/22/11, the author added the image and description of The Pan American Unity Mural.

Read other posts by G. Roger Denson on Huffington Post in the archive.

Follow G. Roger Denson on Facebook and Twitter .

Popular in the Community


What's Hot