Secret Rivera

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

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.

Meanwhile, there has been a resurgence of interest in the mural, thanks in part to a wealth of archival material Bergman has spent much of the last decade assembling for the college library. Among the prized documents contained in the archive are letters, memos, contracts, and diaries belonging to Rivera and his artist wife, Frida Kahlo (who were famously remarried in San Francisco in December 1940 after divorcing a year earlier).

The mural on the day before its unveiling.
Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley
The mural on the day before its unveiling.
Diver Helen Crlenkovich; Donald Kairns, 5; 
Timothy Pflueger (holding library plans); 
Frida Kahlo, with Rivera and actress 
Paulette Goddard.
Paolo Vescia
Diver Helen Crlenkovich; Donald Kairns, 5; Timothy Pflueger (holding library plans); Frida Kahlo, with Rivera and actress Paulette Goddard.

Perhaps most intriguing are dozens of hours of oral histories donated by the estate of artist Emmy Lou Packard, Rivera's chief assistant on the mural. With unanticipated encouragement from persons connected with Rivera, including the artist's daughter, Guadalupe Rivera Marin, what began as a quest to fill in the blanks about the mural's quirky history at the college has turned into perhaps the definitive resource on Rivera's San Francisco experience. "There's enough here for a book or two," says Bergman. "The question is whether I'll have time to write it."

Painted on a grand scale in the manner of the Italian Renaissance masters, Pan American Unity depicts a melding of pre-Columbian Mexican artistic themes with North American motifs of modern engineering marvels, merging a panorama of the Bay Area with scenes from the Valley of Mexico. Rivera painted the mural from June to November of 1940 as part of a program called "Arts in Action," which allowed fairgoers to observe him and other artists as they worked.

It was his third stint in San Francisco. In 1930, sculptor and painter Ralph Stackpole, who had been commissioned to create sculptures at the Stock Exchange and who had been a fellow artist with Rivera in Paris during World War I, had suggested to Pflueger, the Exchange's architect, that Rivera paint a fresco at the building. The following year Rivera returned to paint the Art Institute fresco, titled The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City.

The most celebrated Mexican artist of the 20th century, Rivera imbued his works, which are viewed as icons in his native country, with leftist and revolutionary themes. But unlike some of his earlier murals, the one he produced for the fair is of a decidedly milder tone. Having arrived in San Francisco with little more than a concept of "Pan American Unity" as the subject, Rivera spontaneously included topical events and people he met here in the piece.

"There's an almost zany quality about the mural, compared to some of his earlier work," says art historian Anthony W. Lee of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and a former instructor at UC Berkeley. As Rivera painted the mural, Germany had already conquered most of Europe, Stalin was still allied with Hitler and Mussolini, and Rivera was intent on doing his part to nudge the United States into the war against Germany and in defense of the Americas.

Using scenes from Hollywood movies, including three involving Goddard from Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, Rivera attacked the tyranny of the Axis powers. A figure of Stalin holds a bloody ax in an obvious reference to Trotsky's assassination. There's a man sitting at a table wearing a "Wendell Willkie for President" button in honor of the Republican nominee who opposed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940, a nod to Willkie's "One World" theory of international cooperation. But there is little of the satiric edge found in some of Rivera's Mexican murals featuring U.S. subjects. Instead, the mural pays homage to American icons such as Henry Ford, standing above his V-8 engine, and Thomas Edison, shown with his phonograph and light bulb.

At the urging of his patron, Pflueger, Rivera arrived intending to finish the mural by the fair's end in September. But as Pflueger's plans for the library expanded, so did the mural. Rivera and his assistants worked two months beyond the Exposition's close to complete the work. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving -- two days after an "invitation only" unveiling for the city's social elite -- more than 30,000 people streamed to the island to see the mural before it was packed away.

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