Tourism for Locals: Visiting Diego Rivera's First U.S. Mural: “The Allegory of California”

San Francisco is home to many of the finest artists of the 20th century and the new millennium, and it played host to one of the greatest modernist painters of the 20th century: Diego Rivera.

For those who don't know who he is, aside from his portrayal by the actor Alfred Molina in the 2002 Academy Award winning film Frida starring Salma Hayek, Rivera was an enigmatic painter who fostered the muralist style of painting in Mexico at the turn of the last century.

[jump] Along with artists Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfredo Siqueiros, Rivera created allegorical and fantastical depictions of traditional indigenous cultures alongside uplifting and humane characterizations of working class people that were welded with visions of a utopian future under socialism. The purpose of the muralist movement was to create public art that would educate those who were from low-income backgrounds, but also appeal to the aesthetic tastes of those from the higher rungs of the social ladder.

Between 1930 and 1940, he painted murals in San Francisco, Detroit and New York that focused on social and cultural progress through industry and technology.  In San Francisco, he painted his first mural in the United States, it aided him in getting global recognition for his technique and use of color; the work is titled “The Allegory of California.

Completed in 1931, this fresco is painted above a stairwell spanning two floors in the former Pacific Stock Exchange building, now home of The City Club of San Francisco. The mural depicts classic themes and motifs found in Rivera compositions — harmony between nature and machine,  glorifying the past and looking toward the future, and a panorama of historical figures.

According to Diego Rivera's autobiography, the large, looming female figure represents Calafia, for whom the state is named. Her right hand mines the earth for its hidden treasure while the left hand holds the treasures that grow on its surface. The goddess-like figure is modeled after famous tennis champion Helen Wills Moody.

In the background, the artist shows industries of the  Bay Area: the oil refineries of Richmond, the shipping yards facing the Pacific Ocean, and dredging equipment then used in search of gold. In the forefront are specific historical figures important to the development of Califoria as a state: James Marshall, who discovered gold at Sutter's Creek in 1848; Luther Burbank, famous horticulturist; sculptor Peter Stackpole, the sculptor's son holding a model airplane as a vision of future transportation; and Victor Arnautoff, a fellow muralist.

This is one of three Rivera murals in the city. The other two: “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City” and “The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on this Continent, commonly called Pan American Unity”, are located in The San Francisco Art Institute and City College of San Francisco, respectively.  While  “Allegory” is Rivera's first U.S. fresco, “Pan American Unity” (1940) is his largest work in the United States, measuring at approximately 1,800 square feet, it was also his last work completed in the U.S. Talk about coming full circle through San Francisco.

The Pacific Stock Exchange building is located at 155 Sansome (at Bush); to visit the City Club, take the elevator to the 10th floor. It is open for public viewing 3-5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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