DIEGO RIVERA -- MY ART, MY LIFE: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY (WITH GLADYS MARCH)
A BID TO PAINT IN THE SAN FRANCISCO STOCK EXCHANGE
In 1926, through the American sculptor Ralph Stackpole, whom I had known in Paris and Mexico City, I received an invitation from William Gerstle, President of the San Francisco Art Commission, to paint a wall in the California School of Fine Arts. At that time I was so immersed in my work in the Education building and in the chapel of the Agricultural College at Chapingo, that I could not so much as think of painting anywhere else.
Now, however, Stackpole secured for me a second commission (the first had never been revoked) to do a mural in the new San Francisco Stock Exchange, which he and other artists were decorating under the supervision of its architect, Timothy Pflueger. Pflueger offered me $2,500 which, together with $1,500 that Gerstle had promised for my work in the Fine Arts School, came to $4,000 -- the most munificent sum I had ever been offered to paint walls.
I was enormously excited. This would be a crucial test of my mural techniques. Unlike Mexico, the United States was a truly industrial country such as I had originally envisioned as the ideal place for modern mural art.
When I applied for admission into the United States, I ran into considerable difficulty because of my political affiliations. However, mainly through the unflagging efforts of Albert Bender, a prominent San Francisco art patron and collector, I finally obtained a visa, and in November, 1930, Frida and I embarked for the United States.
Some time before our journey, in fact, even before we were married, Frida told me she had dreamed for years about going to San Francisco. On the night before Pflueger's invitation arrived, Frida dreamed that she was waving good-bye to her family, on her way to this "City of the World," as she called San Francisco.
Frida and I, already engaged, were strolling in the twilight as she told me about this dream. We paused momentarily on a street corner just as the electric street lights of Coyoacan began to pop on. On a sudden impulse, I stooped to kiss her. As our lips touched the light nearest us went off and came on again when our lips parted. I was amused but said nothing to Frida. We walked on. A few minutes later I stooped under another light and a second kiss put out the second light. This time Frida noticed what had happened, remarked about it, and became a little uneasy. Then, self-consciously, we repeated the experiment three times more with the same mysterious result.
Many months later, after we had returned from the United States and we were no longer thought of as newlyweds, we recalled the phenomenon. We happened to be in the very room where Frida had been born. Half joking, half in earnest, we started to close all the windows and doors. Feeling experimentally gay, we turned on one electric light. Then, standing directly below the blazing bulb, we enjoyed a long kiss. Uncannily, the bulb blinked on and off five times. We looked at each other, simultaneously bursting into hilarious laughter.
Enroute to San Francisco, Frida surprised me with a gift of a portrait of herself which she had recently completed. Its background was an unfamiliar city skyline. Frida made no attempt to explain the painting. When we arrived in San Francisco, I was almost frightened to realize that her imagined city was the very one we were now seeing for the first time.
We were welcomed magnificently by the people of San Francisco and were feted at parties, dinners, and receptions. I received assignments to lecture at handsome fees. Stackpole put his studio at my disposal, and from the beginning, I worked on my plans with vigor and spontaneity.
Pflueger's Stock Exchange Building was in the tradition of all such establishments in the United States -- that embodied in the Federal Reserve Building. Yet, within this limitation, he had done his job in a clean, modern manner. What was most original in his concept, however, was the use of associated arts. He had pressed for and been granted permission to call in the foremost contemporary artists and sculptors to collaborate with him. The group he gathered about him achieved a remarkable success in expressing their individual vision of American society, in a harmony which included the architectonics of the building.
The wall I was to cover flanked an interior staircase connecting the two stories of the Exchange's Luncheon Club. It was thirty feet high. In the central portion of the mural, I painted a colossal figure of a woman representing California. The almost classically beautiful tennis champion Helen Wills Moody served as my model. In portraying her, I made no attempt to formalize her features but left them recognizably hers. Soon a cry was heard: California was an abstraction and should not be an identifiable likeness of anybody. To this I replied that California was known abroad mainly because of Helen Wills Moody; that she seemed to represent California better than anyone I knew -- she was intelligent, young, energetic, and beautiful; and that, finally, if I thought her the best model, I had the right to use her. While the protest spent itself, I painted around her figure the rich and varied resources of the state: on her left, the lush agriculture, its workers and heroes; on her right, industry, its buildings and machines, and representative working men and women. As a symbol of the future I showed a young California boy facing the sky with a model airplane in his hands.
On the ceiling above the wall, I painted a female nude in billowing clouds, symbolizing the fertility of the earth as well as the natural interconnection of agriculture and industry.
I worked on this mural with such complete absorption that when I was finished I was literally exhausted. I accepted an invitation from Mrs. Sigmund Stern, an art patron who lived in Atherton, to rest in her home, and there Frida and I stayed for a time. To keep in practice, I painted a pastoral mural on our hostess' living-room wall.
Back in San Francisco, I found letters from the President of Mexico, Ortiz Rubio, demanding that I return at once to continue work in the National Palace as required by my government contract. Rubio, a former engineer and general, who had recently replaced the Provisional President, Emilio Portes Gil, had a passion for precision and order. William Gerstle, however, who had waited so long for me to execute my mural in the California School of Fine Arts, was equally anxious not to have me suddenly plucked out of his hands. There were visits to officials, exchanges of cables, and in the end, Gerstle received permission for me to stay for as long as was required to carry out the commission.
The wall offered me at the School of Fine Arts was a small one of only 120 square feet, not at all suitable to my purpose, which was to present a dynamic concerto of construction -- technicians, planners, and artists working together to create a modern building. Taking advantage of the vague stipulation as to the length of time I might remain in San Francisco, I chose another wall, ten times as big. It was here that I showed how a mural is actually painted: the tiered scaffold, the assistants plastering, sketching, and painting; myself resting at midpoint; and the actual mural subject, a worker whose hand is turning a valve so placed as to seem part of a mechanism of the building.
Since I was facing and leaning toward my work, the portrait of myself was a rear view with my buttocks protruding over the edge of the scaffold. Some persons took this as a deliberate expression of contempt for my American hosts and raised a clamor. However, I insisted that the painting meant nothing else than what it pictured. I would never think of insulting the people of a city I had come to love and in which I had been continuously happy. Moreover, I asked for not a cent more for painting this wall, measuring ten times the space, than for the wall specified in the original contract.*
While working in California, I met William Valentiner and Edgar Richardson of the Detroit Institute of Arts. I mentioned a desire which I had to paint a series of murals about the industries of the United States, a series that would constitute a new kind of plastic poem, depicting in color and form the story of each industry and its division of labor. Dr. Valentiner was keenly interested, considering my idea a potential base for a new school of modern art in America, as related to the social structure of American life as the art of the Middle Ages had been related to medieval society.
The longer Valentiner and I talked, the more our mutual enthusiasm grew. But Valentiner was not in a position to make any offers on his own. And it was on a note of suspended exhilaration that we parted when he returned to Detroit.
Before my stay in San Francisco was over, however. I received a happy letter from him telling me that my artistic dream was to become a reality in Detroit. The city's Art Commission, of which Edsel Ford was chairman, had agreed to let me paint subjects of my own choosing on the walls of the inner garden courtyard of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
* This mural was subsequently covered over by a false wall, which was removed, and the mural rededicated, after Rivera's death. -- G.M.