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Secret Rivera 

Four decades after it was rescued from a storage shed, Diego Rivera's magnificent City College mural remains a hidden treasure

Wednesday, Dec 17 2003
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In the spring of 1940, thugs stormed the suburban Mexico City home of Leon Trotsky, in a failed attempt to assassinate the exiled Russian revolutionary. Trotsky escaped by hiding under his bed. (He was killed during a second attempt on his life that August.) But the intruders kidnapped his young American aide, Sheldon Harte, whose mutilated body was found beneath a farmhouse a few days later. The attempt on Trotsky's life unnerved famed muralist and artist-on-the-left Diego Rivera, a neighbor and one-time friend of Trotsky. Although they had had a well-publicized falling out, Rivera was convinced that the long arm of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was at work in the murder attempt, and that as a Stalin critic he -- Rivera -- would be the next assassination target.

But leaving Mexico immediately wasn't practical. Actress Paulette Goddard, the wife of Charlie Chaplin and a woman billed as having "the most beautiful body in the world," had just arrived at the Rivera home in Mexico City's Coyoacán neighborhood to sit for an oil painting. A friend of both Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo, Goddard later reported only one disagreement with Rivera. He wanted to paint her nude. She resisted. As a compromise, they settled on a classic boudoir scene with the vivacious Goddard sporting a white blouse and short skirt and attended by a naked Indian girl.

Early in June, as the actress and Rivera worked late to finish the portrait, they were interrupted by the sound of screeching brakes. Goddard walked out to the street to find several cars filled with suspicious-looking men. The actress reported that at least one of them had a gun. Walking past them, she rounded a corner, jumped in a taxi, sped to a phone booth, and called to warn Rivera.

Hiding on the floor of his station wagon, Rivera was spirited away by an aide a few minutes later, avoiding plainclothes police who wanted to question him about Harte and -- at the very least, the artist feared -- frame him for the attempt on Trotsky's life. Rivera wired prominent San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger, at whose behest he had agreed to execute a monumental art project at the 1940 world's fair being held on Treasure Island, to have him contact the American consul in Mexico City to facilitate Rivera's leaving the country right away. "In your communication to the American Consul here please say to him that I should leave here for California at once in order to be able to comply with my work at the Exposition," Rivera wrote. "I want to make clear to you that the difficulties that have been created for me within the last few days are the result of the work of Mexican agents of the Stalin-Nazis, who want to avoid my going to the States, to injure me here in every way, and assassinate me if possible."

Rivera's arrival in San Francisco was instant news. Pflueger was at the airport to whisk him away to a house on Telegraph Hill (42 Calhoun Terrace) that would be Rivera's home-away-from-home for the next five months. With the artist's encouragement, newspapers reported how Goddard had saved his life. In plain view of enthralled fairgoers, Rivera got to work immediately on a massive mural for the Golden Gate International Exposition. Life magazine dispatched a photographer to chronicle the great artist at work. From a public relations standpoint, the mural project could have scarcely begun with more fanfare. There was certainly nothing to suggest that upon completion the piece would fall quickly into oblivion.

Universally regarded as among the most important pieces of art created in San Francisco, Rivera's fresco Pan American Unity, painted in a hangar on Treasure Island, celebrates the fusion of artistic impulses from north and south of the border with Mexico. The last of his several major works in the United States -- including two others in San Francisco, at the Art Institute and the former Stock Exchange -- it is the largest of the legendary artist's free-standing murals, encompassing nearly 1,800 square feet.

Although museums have coveted it over the years, since 1961 the mural has resided in obscurity in a small performing arts theater on the campus of City College of San Francisco, which owns it. Incredibly, for nearly 20 previous years it was kept in crates in a campus storage shed. Intended as the centerpiece of a college library envisioned by Pflueger after the close of the fair, the mural was all but forgotten when the outbreak of World War II and Pflueger's subsequent death caused the library plans to be shelved.

"The mural is a San Francisco treasure and is without doubt one of the best-kept secrets in art," says Julia Bergman, a City College librarian among a cadre of admirers long intent on seeing the painting receive the attention it deserves. Until two years ago, it was impossible to get into the building to view the mural except during theater events. Even instructors complained about the doors being locked when they tried to take students there. San Francisco muralist Raymond Patlán calls the piece's disappearance and subsequent low profile at the college "a really sad situation. From an artistic standpoint, what happened to that mural is almost a crime."

Indeed, the college has always had a kind of love-hate relationship with its unlikely treasure. Despite years of promotional neglect, and the college's inability even to insure an acclaimed artwork that experts say would be valued in the many millions of dollars were it to go on the market, the school has steadfastly refused to part with it. In recent years both the de Young Museum and San Francisco's Mexican Museum have made plays for the mural, each wanting to include it in new facilities now under construction.

Although the museums sought to get the college to donate the mural as opposed to buying it, CCSF Chancellor Philip Day insists that money was never the issue. "Whether one makes the argument that the mural has been neglected in the past, and that certainly can be said, it's an integral part of the identity of this college, and to let it leave here is not something that's up for discussion," he says. These days when Day mentions a new home for the mural, he's talking about ambitious plans to house it on campus in a state-of-the-art Center for Pan American Unity and Study, while acknowledging that it could take years for that to happen.

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Ron Russell

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