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Art and Images in Psychiatry
Apr 2012

Diego Rivera's Man at the Crossroads

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012;69(4):337-338. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2012.102

We acted very busy, aware detectives were all over the place . . . I lifted my Leica [camera] to my eyes, centering on the Lenin head. I was satisfied that at least a photo would be good. . . . [Diego] calls out . . . “Stop work! I’ve been ordered to stop because of Lenin.” I began to cry.—Lucienne Bloch, 19861

Propaganda has no place in art. Art should rise above politics and the realities of one little epoch. Art is an escape from reality. I do not agree with Mr Rivera that every art must have a political viewpoint.—Henri Matisse, New York Herald Tribune, May 24, 19342(p257)

On Wednesday, May 10, 1933, Diego Rivera made front-page news in the New York Times: “ROCKEFELLERS BAN LENIN IN RCA MURAL AND DISMISS RIVERA.” The night before, Rivera (1886-1957) was ordered to stop painting his commissioned mural, Man at the Crossroads (epigraph), in the main entrance lobby of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) building in Rockefeller Center. He was paid the $14 000 remainder of his $21 000 fee and dismissed. Within an hour, the mural was covered over by new canvas panels. Earlier that week, Rivera sought permission for a professional photograph to be taken of his work in progress. Permission was denied. Sensing trouble, Rivera's wife, Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), alerted Rivera's assistant, Lucienne Bloch (1909-1999). A diversion was created to allow time for Bloch, the daughter of noted conductor Ernest Bloch and a talented photographer, to quickly take photos of the large mural and close-ups of the area showing Lenin (epigraph) using her handheld Leica (cover, thumbnail).

Cover: Lucienne Bloch (1909-1999), Swiss American. Photograph close-up of Lenin, Rockefeller Center mural fresco Man at the Crossroads, by Diego Rivera. New York City, NY. 1933. Courtesy Old Stage Studios.

Lucienne Bloch's photographs are the only record of the Rivera RCA building mural. Her close-up photograph appeared in the New York papers showing Lenin, the leader of the proletariat, symbolically clasping the hands of a triad representing the soldier, the worker, and the farmer (depicted as African American). These were the allies of international socialism. Rivera wrote:

Man, represented by these three figures, looks with uncertainty but with hope towards a future, more complete balance between the Technical and Ethical development of Mankind necessary to a New, more Humane and Logical Order.3(p354-376)

Lenin wears a mustache and chin beard, his expression is serious, and his brow furrowed as he joins his right hand in solidarity with the three. He is wearing a workman's shirt with large buttons and no necktie. A mother and child face him on the left and a man and boy on the right.

When he was informed about the Lenin portrait, Nelson Rockefeller sent a diplomatic letter to Rivera:

Viewing the progress of your thrilling mural, I noticed that in the most recent portion of the painting you had included a portrait of Lenin. This piece is beautifully painted, but it seems to me that his portrait appearing in this mural might very easily offend a great many people. . . . As much as I dislike to do so, I am afraid we must ask you to substitute the face of some unknown man where Lenin's head now appears.4

Rivera waffled about changing the mural, but his assistants, including Bloch, said they would quit if he backed down. Rivera offered to compromise by replacing the card-playing women with a set of American heroes and heroines: Abraham Lincoln, Nat Turner, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the end, the architect and the board of the Todd Engineering Corporation, managers of the Rockefeller Center development,5 supported by John D. Rockefeller Jr, made the decision that Lenin must go; Rivera had not understood they had the final say.5,6 The Rockefeller Center was essentially a private/public works project in the midst of Depression-era New York. Its financiers and tenants could not be offended or the project would collapse.

Despite worldwide attention to Rivera's plight, 9 months later in February 1934, after Nelson Rockefeller's negotiations to move the mural to the Museum of Modern Art failed, a demolition crew came in after midnight and pulverized the mural. The next morning, Lucienne Bloch and others found nothing but plaster fragments and dust. Rivera, encouraged by his assistant Ben Shahn, had written, “rather than mutilate the conception, I should prefer the physical destruction of the conception in its entirety.”6 But he never expected the mural would be destroyed.

The destruction of the RCA building mural did not end Rivera's dream. On his return to Mexico, he found a new site for the mural in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. In December 1934, the mural Man at the Crossroads was recreated, but the name was changed to Man, Controller of the Universe4,7; the basic content was the same (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Mexican. Man, Controller of the Universe, 1934. Fresco, 485 × 1145 cm. Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, D.F. Mexico. Photo credit: Schalkwijk/Art Resource, New York, NY. © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

There are 3 panels. The left panel represented Rivera's negative views of capitalism, and the panel on the right his views about a glorious socialism. The center panel shows a controller of the universe. A steel worker manipulates a time machine. His right hand manipulates a lever, and the fingers of his left hand are placed on a panel with buttons. The worker has power over the forces of nature. His gaze reflects both uncertainty and hope. An arm is shown rising from the ground before him, holding in its hand a transparent globe depicting the dynamic forces of chemistry and biology. Atoms are shown recombining, and a cell in mitosis divides. An ellipse stretches out from the center to the right into the socialist side of the mural. It shows the advances of the telescope: bodies in space, constellations, and nebulae. It is balanced by an ellipse that stretches to the left showing what a microscope can reveal. Infectious microbes that cause plague and social diseases are shown—gonococci (in a leukocyte) and syphilitic spirochetes. Beneath this ellipse, debauched women play cards adjacent to a caricature of capitalist John D. Rockefeller Jr, a Baptist teetotaler drinking wine and toasting a woman. Blamed by Rivera for the destruction of the New York mural, Junior replaces his father, who was shown in the original mural. (Prohibition of beer and wine ended April 7, 1933.)

The lower left ellipse shows the moon, a dead planet, and an eclipse of the sun. The opposite ellipse on the right illustrates positive aspects of life with uterine fimbria, a breast, and progressive stages of embryogenesis ending with a fetus growing in the uterus. Just above, the cycle is completed with a newborn baby breastfeeding. Lenin (Figure 2), now wearing a coat, tie, and vest, enjoins the soldier (now clearly white), the worker, and the African American man. The nursing baby and a young child, held up by his teacher, illustrate a new generation born under socialism. The child reaches out to Lenin. To the right, female gymnasts represent the purity of the new generation. At the top right above them, Rivera depicts a May Day parade in Red Square. Workers are marching and singing “The International.” They enjoy their rights in a socialist society and march with the Kremlin and Lenin's tomb in the background. This is in contrast to the capitalist side that shows the weapons of war: fixed bayonets and warplanes. Soldiers wear gas masks, a grim reminder of the mustard gas attacks in the First World War.

Figure 2.Man, Controller of the Universe. 1934. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin uniting men detail from fresco, 485 × 1145 cm. Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, D.F. Mexico. Photo credit: The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York. © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The side panels amplify these differences between capitalism and socialism.4 A decapitated Caesar looms large in the far right socialist panel. The statue may symbolize the end of Western tyranny. Caesar wears a swastika carved in marble around his waist, representing the Nazi fascists. (Adolf Hitler came to power as chancellor of Germany in January 1933.) The right panel reflects the joy of the socialist workers. Wearing uniforms that represent their diverse backgrounds, they sit patiently, listening and watching as the intellectual leaders of communism, Leon Trotsky and Karl Marx, teach them. Trotsky, with whom Rivera sided against Stalin and not shown in the original RCA building mural, holds a red banner proclaiming: “WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE IN THE IVTH INTERNATIONALE!” The words are repeated in English, Spanish, and Russian. Nearby beneath them, workers in a factory at lunchtime listen to these proletarian leaders.

The left panel represents capitalism. A larger-than-life Jupiter hovers over the scene. A bolt of lightning (uncontrollable nature) strikes off Jupiter's hands and is transformed into scientifically controlled electricity to cure illness, provide light, and unite men through radio and television. Science has overcome false gods. Will religion become ineffective and lose meaning with the advent of science? The lower part of the panel represents the science of evolution that may help end superstition. A quietly attentive audience, apparently of middle-class academics, is gathered for a presentation by Charles Darwin, whose various animal specimens interact on the floor with a naked human baby. Above them, mounted police who use batons to beat working-class protesters break the quiet. Perhaps this is an allusion to the Social Darwinist philosophy used to rationalize poverty that leaves the worker behind. Darwin's evolutionary theory is contrasted in this panel with the socialist evolution of humanity in the communist world.

When interviewed in New York about Rivera in 1934, Henri Matisse (epigraph) insisted that art was not propaganda. Rivera disagreed, and following the dictates of socialist realism,8 he depicted the noble leader (Lenin), the happy and productive people, and the new philosophy and contrasted it with his views of capitalism with the aim of showing communism's superiority. He succeeded in producing art that is imaginative and technically well done, but its message is propaganda. Its bias presents a false choice for man at the crossroads. Still, Matisse's statement that art is an escape from reality is too narrow a definition. Art can be far more than propaganda or an escape from reality. Instead, when most inspiring, art may vivify the deepest undercurrents of reality and allow the viewer to feel more grounded and alive.

Thanks to Howard Markel for drawing my attention to the epic of the Rockefeller Center.

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Wolfe BD. Diego Rivera: His Life and Times. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf; 1939:354-376
Lozano L, Rivera JFC. Diego Rivera: The Complete Murals. Koln, Germany: Taschen; 2008
Marnham P. Dreaming With His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf; 1999
Okrent D. Great Fortune: The Epic of the Rockefeller Center. New York, NY: Penguin Books; 2003
Rivera D. My Art, My Life: An Autobiography. New York, NY: Dover; 1991:125
Harris JC. Andrei Rublev's Old Testament Trinity.  Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(12):1193Google ScholarCrossref